Michael Bowden, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, Kameron Loe, Carlos Marmol, Blake Parker, Zach Putnam, Brooks Raley, Henry Rodriguez, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Eduardo Sanchez, Pedro Strop, Hisanori Takahashi, and Carlos Villanueva.
That is the list of everybody who’s appeared in a game for the Cubs out of the bullpen thus far. And that pen has been much maligned. For a lot of reasons. The 24 blown saves advance that perception, even though many of those “saves” were blown in the 7th and 8th innings, and not the 9th. In all actuality, the 9th inning hasn’t gone all that bad for the Cubs. When the Cubs get to the 9th inning with a lead, they are 45-4. For comparison sake, they are 1-58 when they enter the 9th trailing. And overall, the bullpen has been much better of late. Since the additions of Strop, Guerrier, and Parker, the pen has been solid, and it has not regressed since Guerrier was lost. With Russell, Parker, and Strop, the Cubs finally have a bridge to Kevin Gregg in the 9th, who has gotten the job done in spite of how interesting it may be.
Looking forward, the Cubs figure to have James Russell, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, and Carlos Villanueva back in the bullpen next season. Villanueva may be in the rotation for periods, but it seems like he is best suited to be in the pen, and fill in as a spot starter. That leaves three openings for next season’s bullpen. Matt Guerrier may be invited back after rehabbing from forearm surgery. The Cubs also have some players who can fit nicely into relief roles in the system already. Brian Schlitter has been dominant at AAA Iowa this season, racking up 17 saves without blowing one. And Arodys Vizcaino should be back from his elbow issues the last couple of years. The plan is, tentatively, to send him to play in fall and/ or winter leagues, to get him back on the mound, which would serve him well in rehabbing this off-season. And he may end up as a starter at some point, but a cautious approach with him, and letting him get innings in a bullpen role would be a way to bring him back at the major league level without running up 150-175 innings in his first year back. Filling the last slot with Hector Rondon, who has a good arm and a year of experience could make the Cubs pen much better, assuming everyone stays healthy and pitches similarly to how they are now.
Projected 2014 Opening Day Bullpen (assuming no outside moves are made):
While this exercise is highly speculative, the point is simple: the Cubs have the arms to improve the bullpen within the organization. And every one of the players in my projection has been in the major leagues, including Schlitter, who appeared in seven games all the way back in 2010. They have some depth, too. If the Cubs can figure out what is wrong with Henry Rodriguez and get him to throw strikes, he’s a viable option. Matt Guerrier has already expressed interest in returning on a minor league deal, and at this point, there is no harm in that. Eduardo Sanchez was a once promising reliever with the Cardinals, and is young enough to recapture his form. Kyuji Fujikawa will return at some point next season from Tommy John Surgery. And most importantly, maybe, Carlos Marmol, who couldn’t finish games at the end of his Cubs’ career, and Shawn Camp, who got beat up a lot this season will not be returning.
The pen is already better right now than it was for most of the summer. And there is talent in the organization to improve it further next season. With any offense at all, the Cubs might actually flirt with a winning season, which would be a positive step in the rebuilding effort.
On a day after a ninth inning to forget, we all probably need some good news…so here we go.
- Darwin Barney enters tonight’s game vs. the Brewers one game short of the single season National League record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman. I think it bears repeating that this is only Darwin’s second full season as a second baseman, and his defense is nothing short of outstanding. At the plate, Dale Sveum said he can be a .290-.310 hitter, which would make him an All-Star worthy player, should he put together his fielding and hitting. While others may not have the hopes for Darwin that I have, I do see him as an everyday player that is still getting better. Additionally, there are very few that work as hard, hustle as much, or play with the toughness that Darwin brings to the yard every day. He’s a valuable piece, and hopefully the front office can see that.
- Starlin Castro’s extension was announced today. It is the 7 year/ $60 million that was reported, with escalators and options that could raise the value to 8 years/ $79 million when all is said and done. Reminders about Castro are important, too. He is 22. He already has 1761 career plate appearances, which have only been exceeded by Robin Yount, Edgar Rentaria, Alex Rodriguez, Elvis Andrus, Arky Vaughan, and Travis Jackson for a short stop of that age. Those are some pretty good players to be in company with, and if Castro turns into anything similar to any of those other players, this is going to be a great deal for the Cubs. During his presser, Castro said he wants “to be here” and doesn’t want “to go nowhere.” He was also asked about being a leader, which he seemed to embrace. From a body language standpoint, he seemed to be a little surprised that it was happening for him. He looked humble. He also admitted that the extension talks were a distraction, which might be an explanation for some of the dip in production. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Castro, and whether or not his batting average climbs back up to around .300.
- Brett Jackson seems to be settling in at the plate for the Cubs, going 1-2 with his 3rd HR in 4 games and 2 walks last night. He seems locked in at Wrigley, and defensively, he’s been as advertised, running down balls and making plays in the outfield. It was quite the slow start for both Jackson and Josh Vitters, with only Jackson breaking out of that. Vitters is 5-53 with 19 strikeouts since being called up. I do wonder if Vitters has been struggling at the plate because of the focus on his defense. That may be a simple explanation, but without asking Josh himself, and getting an honest answer, we’ll never really know.
- Jed Hoyer said during the Starlin Castro presser that the hardest things to find were starting pitchers and short stops, and that he is excited to have short stop taken care of. As for pitching, the current rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Brooks Raley, and Justin Germano is proving his point. Since Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, and Matt Garza have left the rotation, the Cubs have only won only six games. And the starting pitching has been a big reason why. That said, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija seem to be pitching themselves into rotation spots next season.
- Yesterday, the Cubs made a minor move with the Oakland A’s, acquiring Catcher Anthony Recker for Blake Lalli, and optioned him to Iowa. To make room on the 40 man, Scott Maine was designated for assignment.
- And finally, in the “no surprise here” move of the day, the Cubs have activated Blake Parker from the 60 day DL, and have designated Alex Hinshaw for assignment. If you recall your nightmare from last night, Hinshaw is the guy that threw beach balls to the Brewers, retiring nobody, and allowing three massive home runs to ensure the Cubs had no shot against oft-gotten John Axford, en route to a nine run ninth for the Brewers.
After Dale Sveum talked about how the team is not taking “winning at-bats,” which was evident with the 37 strikeouts this week at Milwaukee and David DeJesus basically defended Brett Jackson from making a catch on the first play of the game yesterday, the thought arose in my mind whether it matters if the Cubs win games this season or if the development of youth is the most important thing that can come out of the last month and change of the season.
Growing up near Green Bay has given me a unique opportunity to hear the same quote over and over again…
“Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi
That leaves Cubs’ fans in an interesting situation this season. Especially me. I am all about winning and am definitely the most competitive person I know. It’s not close. However, with the remainder of this season for the 2012 Cubs, winning isn’t going to be frequent. At this point, player development is what is important for winning down the line. With the additions of Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley, and others, the time to learn is upon us. The Cubs have had 16 players make major league debuts this season. That’s a lot. And they need time to learn.
Going to Miller Park the last two nights has shown me two distinct traits about the Cubs:
1. They are painfully young.
2. The coaching staff and front office know it.
I got to the park Tuesday in time to catch the tail end of batting practice and yesterday to catch all of Cubs batting practice. Tuesday showed me nothing other than Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair can hit the ball really far. Yesterday showed me a ton. Every single player practiced their bunting when they got up for their first go around of swings in BP. All of them. Not just the ones that are most likely to bunt. All of them. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Bryan LaHair all put down bunts when they stepped in. As players were taking their swings, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, and Josh Vitters were taking ground balls from Chris Bosio. When the infielders were taking their swings, Brett Jackson was catching fly balls from Jamie Quirk. Not just catching them, but getting under them while moving forward and throwing them in quickly. It looked like a spring training environment.
Before people start the “every team does that” mess in their heads, I know. I know every team practices those things. What made me look differently at the Cubs is that every coach was on the field working with someone or a group of someones. And young players, like Vitters, who was not in the line up Wednesday, were out there working on improving their defense and fundamentals. For all of the grief Starlin Castro gets for his defense, he was taking ground balls, focusing on his footwork, and throwing to first base. As was Darwin Barney, and his defense has been impeccable all season long. The work on fundamentals and on improving is what is being emphasized.
For those of us that like to watch quality, polished baseball, the Cubs are going to be hard to watch for the rest of the season. They’re learning. And while I believe my assertion that the team would improve throughout the season was accurate, I did not believe that there would be so many players from the original roster removed (including all of the top three pitchers) that they would regress to this point. I believe that they will improve over the course of the next 39 games. The at bats will get better. The communication and defense is still pretty good, even though there have been a lot of “rookie mistakes.” The true measure of how productive these last two months of the season are going to be will come next spring, on Opening Day. A lot of these players will likely be on the field when 2013 starts, and if the Cubs start out…say, 10-31…then it may be time to be concerned. Even next season is going to be a struggle, and will probably be one mired in mediocrity. Typically, the last thing to develop with a young team is a good win/ loss record.
That’s why nobody expects the Cubs to be a truly competitive team until 2014, at the earliest.
First and foremost, again, there has been some growing popularity with the number of page views. That’s awesome. Thank you to everyone who takes some time to check out some of the nonsense that I spew out here. It’s always great to know that people are actually looking at this!
Now, on to business. It appears that Starlin Castro and the team have worked out an extension for 7 years/ $60M dollars, which includes a $1M buyout for the 2020 season, if a $16M option is not exercised. Starlin is one of the key pieces of the rebuilding project and there is no doubt at all that the team wants him around now. I see this as a great move by the team, to lock up Castro before he goes to arbitration and avoid it altogether. With the leaps and bounds Starlin has made over the course of the last 2+ seasons in the majors, this deal could turn out to be an absolute bargain.
With the Castro deal getting done, the whispers of a Jeff Samardzija extension have begun. I think it is premature to extend him at this point. Jeff was very good in the second half of last season in a setup role, and he has been up and down as a starter this season. He appears to have figured it out a little bit more as the season has worn on, putting together some very good starts, but extending him right now carries a ton of risk. Personally, I would wait, and if at this time next season, Samardzija is putting up good outing after good outing, then I would go ahead and talk long term extension. Anything before that, in my mind, is premature. Whether Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer see it the same way remains to be seen. The starting pitcher I would be focusing on this off-season would be Matt Garza. There is no indication that his elbow has undergone significant damage, and it would be nice to have a starter with Garza’s stuff anchoring the staff for years (4-5) to come.
The Cubs have claimed LHP Alex Hinshaw off waivers from the Padres. To make room on the 40 man roster, Arodys Vizcaino was moved to the 60 day DL. The team has not announced a move to make room on the 25 man roster, but that will be done before tonight’s game at Milwaukee. I would anticipate that it is Jeff Beliveau, because he is a left handed reliever with options remaining. He would seem to be the most likely candidate at this point. Brooks Raley, who notched his first ML win on Saturday evening was sent back to Iowa, but he was the 26th man on the roster for the doubleheader, so he was not the corresponding move to make room on the roster. Hinshaw is 29 years old and has spent time with the Padres and Giants. This season, he is 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 31 outings, making his first MLB appearance since 2009 on May 9.