Tagged: Cardinals

Lake Half-Asses One, Costs Cubs The Winning Runs

That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake.  It was meant to be.  Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.

Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs.  And while

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.

From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball.  He got to the spot in plenty of time.  He did not appear to be fighting the sun.  I could be wrong.  I really hope I am.  It just didn’t look that way.  And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.

If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake.  Yesterday is a prime comparison.  Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score.  Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so.  That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield.  There is no excuse for that.  Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder.  To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Effort mistakes are inexcusable.  Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club.  David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth).  The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time.  When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win.  Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time.  Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions.  What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.

Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing.  Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players.  That might be where they’re missed the most.

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Cubs Struggles Not All That Surprising

On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip.  Things looked good.  They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano.  But some warning signs were there…

First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco.  They scored six runs in the series.  It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire.  They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend.  And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway.  The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said.  The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.

Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers.  Who are in the division.  Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games.  Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion.  Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game.  They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.

After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four.  As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48.  In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good.  They’ve been killing everybody lately.  It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all.  The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point.  Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.

The road is a little more kind to the Cubs.  Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result.  In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day.  Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.

Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs.  And Latos was nasty on Monday night.  So they got shut out again by another good pitcher.  They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.

I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams.  The Cubs just aren’t.  Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.

Let’s go back to spring, with a refresher of what Theo said…

“What I want to avoid is the middle ground.  It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?

We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’

And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition.  And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs?  WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO!  If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional.  I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500.  (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will)  I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt.  And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.

The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it.  It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen.  None of this is a surprise.  If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.

I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.

The Cubs Can’t (And Shouldn’t) Try to Win Now

In 2011, the Cubs and Cardinals shared something in common.  Both dreamed of 2012 with Albert Pujols in the line-up.  Jerseys,

shirsies, and Cubs’ gear with the signature 5 on the back started appearing.  And then Jim Hendry gave him a hug.  And we all leaned forward.  And then Hendry got fired and Theo Epstein got the job to lead the front office after spending mega-dollars in Boston.  We all thought it was a sure thing that the Cubs would sign Pujols or former Brewer, Prince Fielder.  And then the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo.  And the dreaming was over.

The start of a rebuild was upon us.  None of us thought it was 101 losses bad.  We didn’t think we would be waiting until 2015 to be realistic contenders.  That is, however, where we are.  And it is exactly where we should be.

My favorite conversations are with the people who talk about “winning now.”  We should buy free agents to win now while prospects develop so that we have a good major league product while we develop a minor league product.  The reality, though, is that logic is flawed.  Because the evidence suggests that it fails just about 100% of the time.

The New York Yankees are the poster-children for throwing money at flaws.  In fact, the Yankees have spent, since 2001, roughly $2.375 BILLION on payroll.  They have appeared in the World Series only three times (2001, 2003, and 2009), and have only won once (2009).  They spent about $792 million per World Series appearance.  Meanwhile, the Cubs have spent about $1.294 billion on payroll for three PLAYOFF appearances, and no World Series berths in the same time frame.  Every year, the Cubs are in the top half (even now) in total payroll and have had among the highest in the National League over the last 13 years.

The teams who are winning are those who draft their players, develop them, bring them up, and learn to win at the MLB level.  There is a reason the Rays are one of the most stable franchises in baseball now, in spite of having to let players like Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and likely soon will let David Price walk out the door.  They do their work on the draft and turn their talent into contending quality major league teams.  The Giants have done the same thing with home grown Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey, et al winning two of the last three championships.  The Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols more than he was worth.  They set a number and a length for him, and refused to budge.  He went to the Angels, and his legs stayed in St. Louis.  Meanwhile, he has eight years left on his contract.  He’ll be a player who can’t run, can’t be traded, and has to be paid until 2021.  Sound familiar?  A certain left fielder has drawn the ire of Cubs fans for failing to live up to his deal, and Pujols has an even worse contract.

Like it did with the Rays, the Phillies when they won with a core of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins (all home grown), and the Giants, it will take time for the Cubs to roll the snowball of building talent into a top down organizational juggernaut like the current Cardinals (who have the best record in baseball and one of  the best farm systems to pair with it), but it is the right direction.

In the coming free agent class, there are no game changers to make the Cubs instant contenders.  That is just another flaw in a completely unsustainable plan.  Robinson Cano is the only potential free agent who could make an impact on a line up, and it is highly unlikely that he leaves New York.  Shin Soo Choo is a nice piece, but he isn’t pushing the Cubs into the category of making a deep October run.  Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player who may finally be healthy, but he is nearing the wrong side of 30, and has an injury history that makes him a salary liability.  And if/ when the Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson, Kris Bryant group gets to Chicago, they have an old player with a big contract blocking them.  The pitching isn’t much better in the coming off-season.  The most accomplished free agent pitcher to be is already on the Cubs’ roster in Matt Garza.

Losing games isn’t any fun.  It’s easy to understand the frustration of watching the team lose games they could win, sink to the bottom of the division in May, and sell off veteran pieces for players who may turn into nothing.  But throwing money at free agents and trading every nice piece in the farm for a chance at one year is how the Cubs got to this point in the first place.  They are much better served developing their players, bringing them to the big league level, and trading prospects only when the return is a player who can be useful for sustained success.  Money is best spent in the manner the front office has shown that it is going to spend it…on its own core pieces.  Keeping young talent in-house for mutually beneficial deals is a very good way to spend money, and the Cubs’ position as a big market team should be able to allow them to hang on to their players, and not have to purge them when they have out-performed their contracts.

An unfortunate side effect to doing it the right way is that it takes time.  And it will.  Anything worth doing, though, is worth doing right.  Doing it right takes time, and good things come to those who wait, and all those other things we were told when we were kids.  They’re all true.

The Cubs Will Be The Best Team in Baseball…in 2017

Last night during the broadcast of the Cubs’ 5-2 loss to the Cardinals, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian made what I thought was an interesting, but relatively benign comment about the Cubs’ rebuilding process…

To which I said…

Basically, my intention was to say something positive about the process that the Cubs are locked into the middle of.  Last season wasn’t easy to watch, even though I stand by what I have said before, which is that I had more fun watching the Cubs last year than I did in any year since 2008.  That has been surpassed this season, even though, admittedly, it is frustrating to watch these young players lose games they very well could (should) win.  This season, in addition to last season, are steps.  They are building to a product that will compete with the best of the best.  To see the foundation being laid last year and some of the framing of the future team being added and constructed is exciting for those who understand what is going on.

From my perspective, it’s tough to relate to the fans who are clamoring for Dale Sveum’s job because the Cubs aren’t winning enough.  Or for the front office to be scrapped and started from scratch less than two years after they got started.  It is plainly obvious those fans don’t pay attention to much more than the final score.  Last week, after the Pirates got done smacking the Cubs around in two of three at Wrigley, their manager, Clint Hurdle had good things to say about the rebuilding process.  A rival manager does not have to say good things, unsolicited, about the opposition.  The fact that he said that while watching his team slap around the young Cubs is even more telling.  ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Cubs’ farm system fifth best in baseball before the season, which is a dramatic improvement over just one year earlier.  And there have been anecdotes like the one last night about an opposing GM, front office personnel, or scout saying good things about the process the Cubs have embarked on.

https://twitter.com/TheACastle/statuses/320193290878197761

Actually, just about all of the negativity is coming from media and fans who thought that bringing in Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod were going to make the Cubs a World Series champion over night.  That’s an unrealistic standard for any front office, especially considering the condition they found the Cubs in…which was a complete, unmitigated disaster.  It takes time to fix years and years and years of neglecting the total organization.  What the Epstein- Hoyer regime has done is nothing short of remarkable, and the organization, as a whole, is in the best shape it’s been in since the ’90s.  Even when the Cubs were winning five years ago, their farm system was a mess.  They mortgaged the future (which is now) for immediate success.  Blaming Tom Ricketts is silly (stupid) for the decline because it was inevitable, regardless of who the owner was.  The team was aging veteran players with big contracts.  And there was no young talent to replace it.  That was the plan.  Be as good as possible to raise the value of the team while it was up for sale.  Future be damned.

What the Cubs have, finally, is stability.  The team is not for sale.  The front office has been given the freedom to make the moves necessary to build a team that can compete, year in and year out, from the owner, who from the looks of things, is not inserting himself in the baseball operation.  It may take some time for the Cubs to get there.  And there are no guarantees about what the future holds.  Nobody is stupid enough to guarantee the Cubs are going to win it all in a set time frame.  There is too much uncertainty in this game to do it.  The reality, though, is that when (yes, when) the Cubs are winning 90+ games each year, they have a better chance to get into the playoffs, and a better chance to get to the World Series and win the World Series on an annual basis.

And THAT IS EXCITING to think about.  Even if it’s just a light at the end of the tunnel.

Divisional Failure Skewing an Otherwise Decent Season

There have been times where this season’s Cubs have looked respectable.  There have been times, especially against the White Sox, where this team looked downright good.  None of those times have come against the division.  In a season where there was some optimism from the team about being a sleeper to compete, and the fans expected a step forward, the early results against the division have been anything but promising.

Against all teams not in the NL Central, the Cubs have been interesting.  Their 18-17 record against non-divisional opponents reeks of respectability.  The offense and pitching come together and play solid baseball.  The 7-21 mark against the division is where the disconnect lies.  They have only won one series in the division, the first series of the year at Pittsburgh.  They have not won a single series against the division at home.  And the only team they don’t have a losing record against in the division is St. Louis, who they’ve split two games with.  The Cubs haven’t won a home game against the Reds all season, and today stretched that mark to 12 straight losses, which is the most an opponent has won at Wrigley consecutively since the 1956-57 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Why the terrible performances against the division?  The bullpen is a culprit, because they have blown some leads against division teams in the same ways they’ve blown some against non-division teams.  The biggest contributor to the problems has been the offense, though.  The Cubs cannot find any way at all to push runs across the plate against the division.  Only three times have they managed five or more runs in a single game, where their record is 2-1.  The Cubs have been shutout four times this season, all coming against the division.  They have scored two of fewer runs against the division 12 times, with a record of  1-11, including the four shutout losses.

One of the most common ailments that gets talked about with the Cubs is the inability to beat left handed starters.  The Cubs have had 22 such games this season.  They are, again, respectable against lefties outside of the division, with a solid 7-7 mark for this team.  The 2-6 mark against the division is where the struggles have been concentrated.  And it is not a situation where they’re losing to pitchers they’ve never seen.  The Cubs have seen a lot of Wandy Rodriguez over the years with the Astros, and now the Pirates.  Francisco Liriano has looked like Sandy Koufax in his starts against the Cubs this year…and he’s a guy with a career ERA of over four.

To me, the answer is simple.  There is no organizational urgency to perform against the division.  When you see four teams 19 times each, those games matter more because those games comprise just about half of the schedule.  At the current rate, the Cubs are staring a 19-57 divisional record in the face.  A .250 winning percentage against the division is pathetic by any standard.  While the pace of this season is not quite at 100 losses, it’s damn close, and the division is the reason why. 

Many fans unfairly criticize the manager, Dale Sveum.  If there is one place where he deserves some criticism, it is in this case.  Yes, it is up to the players to perform, but the manager must prepare the team, and this team is obviously in way over their heads against division foes.  And it isn’t like Dale isn’t familiar with the other teams in the division.  He was with the Brewers before coming to Chicago.  And coaches Jamie Quirk, Chris Bosio, and Dave McKay have all been in the division, too.  There is familiarity with the opponents.  So even though the team may have a lot of young and new pieces without that experience against the common opponents, the coaches should all have full books on each and every one of the four division rivals.

I can’t believe, in spite of everything I’ve seen, that the Cubs will finish 19-57 against the division.  It can’t be that bad.  Even though all of the pronounced losing streaks through have been at the hands of the division, including a current 1-5 home stand against the Pirates and Reds, there has to be some positive regression.  There are 48 divisional match-ups remaining.  The hope should be a clean split, which would be consistent with the way they’ve played everyone else.  Unfortunately, with the loss of the Astros to the AL West and the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates all playing well, that could be just a touch optimistic. 

And in no way should hoping for a 31-45 record for any 76 game block be what we have to hope for.

2013 NL Central Preview

Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping.  Spring Training is upon us.  While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona.  It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins.  Many will do that, anyway.  It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already.  It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.

Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either.  Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season.  I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85.  My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline.  While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966.  This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.

A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!”  This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…

Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both  final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.

1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

With the top of the division, it’s the status quo.  The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball.  I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm.  For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season.  A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division.  That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries.  Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.

Projected Line-Up
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C

Projected Rotation:
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton

2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)

As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now.  Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization.  They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball.  That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck.  Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good.  Which blows.  Hard.

Projected Line-Up
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte

3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)

Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs.  The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level.  Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason.  He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet.  David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter.  He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up.  Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado.  He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to.  If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season.  Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time.  There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher.  Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level.  While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson.  Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season.  With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino,  the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation.  The bullpen looks better, too.  Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season.  If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season.  Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed.  Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.

Projected Line-Up
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol

4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)

Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs.  A lot of runs.  I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season.  When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park.  If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window.  There is a lot of if with this team, though.  Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them.  The pitching is suspect.  Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff.  I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2.  The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin.  Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.

Projected Line-Up
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss.  I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well.  I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order.  Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff.  A.J. Burnett is getting older.  Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations.  He’s a good middle of the rotation guy.  James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again.  The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best.  With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head.  Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player.  If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team.  Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right.  Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s.  For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.

Projected Line-Up
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli

The NL Central Arms Race

For those of us who treat this as more than a hobby, the coverage of the off-season has been significantly more extensive.  Since this is only a hobby for me (because of my other actual obligations…all to varying degrees less interesting and fun than following baseball), there have been few and far between since the end of the season.  With some time, though, now is a perfect time to talk about the thing that has dominated the Cubs’ off-season…PITCHING!

Photo: Charles Rex, Arbogast

Photo: Charles Rex, Arbogast

Today, Edwin Jackson was introduced at Wrigley Field.  With the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, resigning Shawn Camp, and having Arodys Vizcaino coming off of surgery and being ready for 2013, it seems as though the Cubs will have a surplus of pitching talent to get them through this season.  That is something they did not have last season, especially after losing Matt Garza, who is progressing nicely though his rehab from a stress injury last July, and trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the deadline.  At the end of the season, LHP Travis Wood was the ace, after the team sat Jeff Samardzija in early September.  That wasn’t an ideal situation, and it was a key reason why the Cubs lost 101 games.

The flip side to the off-season is the stunning lack of movement in the rest of the division.  The Brewers have not done much with their staff, adding journeyman lefty and former Cub, Tom Gorzelanny, who I like as a solid reliever and spot starter, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he is anything more than pitching depth for a team who had all kinds of trouble in the bullpen last season, and ended up losing Francisco Rodriguez this off-season.  They also added Burke Badenhop, who has had an up and down (as in between the majors and the minors) career with the Marlins and Rays.  No world beaters.  They seem to be enamored with Mike Fiers, who was very good after debuting with the club last season.  My own analysis of him is that he reminds me a lot of Randy Wells.

I wish I could say something bad about the Cardinals and their pitching.  I really do.  They haven’t done much (anything?..I haven’t seen any moves at all from them in the pitching department this off-season), but they seem to grow pitchers as well as anyone in the game.  With Chris Carpenter coming back, I’m sure they’ll be fine.  It makes me physically ill.  Seriously.

The Reds still have a lot of arms.  They still, in my estimation, have the best bullpen in the majors, even though they’re moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation.  They, too, have a nice strong staff that, in my opinion, keeps them the favorite to repeat as the division champions in 2013.  Again, it makes me sick…but not as sick as the Cardinals make me.  Nothing makes me that sick.

The Pirates confuse me.  I genuinely thought they were trying to compete…and then they went and traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  They also resigned Jason Grilli, who the Cubs were in on.  Without being too familiar with who the Pirates have coming up, they’re current rotation and bullpen screams average, and their back end looks shaky with the loss of Hanrahan.  I can only muse that this season they don’t want to disappoint their fans by playing well for the first four months before imploding with the uncanny appearance of controlled demolition for a third year in a row.

The Astros are gone…for those that forgot.  They’re off the the AL West to play for 110 losses at the hands of the Angels, Rangers, and A’s.  Good Luck, ‘Stros…you’re going to need it.  Desperately.

What it all means…

I can’t for the life of me see how the Cubs win this division next season.  I just can’t.  They do figure to be considerably better than their 101 losses last season.  They could make a strong push at third with the Pirates and Brewers regressing.  All of this is interesting in early January, but the off-season is by no means over, so something could cook up between now and the time pitchers and catchers report next month.  The Cubs have a much improved corps of pitchers.  That group would have been made much more potent had they actually signed Anibal Sanchez.  Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts went to visit him personally, and the deal was reported, but like others for the Cubs, was prematurely reported and ended up not to be.  GM Jed Hoyer, today, revealed that he went to visit Edwin Jackson, who actually did sign.  At 29, he is on the side of 30 that the Cubs are looking for in players to add and build with,  and having pitched in the division with the Cardinals in 2011, there is familiarity with the NL Central, and he pitched well while with St. Louis.  Teaming him up with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, there is a solid top three, and there is a good group of Baker, Feldman, Wood, and Villanueva competing for two spots at the back end of the rotation.

The Cubs have to know they can’t lose like they did last season and expect fans to turn out.  The fans stopped coming last season because it was nearly pointless to go watch them give up runs in bunches.  This season figures to be different.  Even if they trade some of their pitching  (GARZA!), they’ll have some fall back pieces to lean on so they don’t fall off the side of the Earth.  The off-season has gone to plan to this point.  It remains to be seen if the offense will be potent enough to push this team to .500.  The Cubs are not a finished product by any stretch, but this off-season is the next step to contention.