In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go. The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline. That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.
As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more. He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.
Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault. He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players. To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013. The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.
Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent. He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.
On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together. While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful. Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder. After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season. It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him. Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011. The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum. And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too. Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up. In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25). While the sample is small, the results matter. Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively. The steps in the right direction are adding up.
The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive. As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al. He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury. He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready. He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that. And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp. It was the front office’s. Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message. That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team. The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit. When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home. And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse. Think about it. Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure? For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something. Especially in a media market like Chicago. But it’s been remarkably quiet. Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.
Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning. The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.” But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel. That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.
Besides. He got shot in the face and laughed it off. How cool is it to have a manager like that?
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.
The final player installment of the positional previews is the group who will see the most change throughout this season. In reality, that’s the case for just about every team, every season.
This season figures to be extra interesting for the Cubs in the bullpen. The addition of Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan as a potential (and likely) closer when Carlos Marmol departs the organization, either via trade or the expiration of his contract after the season lends some stability to the the back end, and the addition of Carlos Villanueva gives the Cubs the long reliever they’ve been without since Tom Gorzelanny packed his bags. Indeed, this will be the group with the most turnover of any on the team.
Closer: Carlos Marmol
For now. In spite of being only 30 and coming off of an impressive rebound in the second half of last season, Marmol is the most talked about trade piece this side of Alfonso Soriano. The fact that he did have a strong second half, is 30, and is in the last year of a deal with Cubs would be willing to pay almost all of make him a valuable piece for any contending team (*cough cough* Tigers) that needs a proven back end. I am of the opinion that Brian Wilson makes more sense for the Tigers than Marmol because he will be inexpensive and won’t cost prospects, but it seems as though Detroit is looking at all available options, including Marmol. That said, however long he’s around, he should be fine. Sure, he’s an adventure. He’ll put some on and he’ll make it interesting. But he slammed the door quite a bit last year. Another year of Chris Bosio would probably do him some good, but I don’t see Marmol being back under any circumstances next season if he finishes this season in Chicago. I see him becoming “controllable assets” before too long. This spot is definitely one that is not set…
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
This is the guy who will likely be the closer if/ when Marmol is sent out. The 32 year old “rookie” from Japan is coming over on a two year deal and was an excellent closer before coming over the states. The thing that worries me about “KJ” is that Japanese closers haven’t exactly been common…or good. In Japan, though, Fujikawa was uncommonly good. His ERA broke 2.00 only one time, a 2.01 ERA in 2010, and his 202 career saves lend him some credibility to finish games. He’s entering a new level of competition, and he very well could struggle like many of the Japanese pitchers before him. If he can be the exception to what has been the norm, however, everything should be fine for the short term.
Middle Relief: Shawn Camp, James Russell, Hector Rondon , Jaye Chapman, Michael Bowden (and a host of others throughout the season)
The two major pieces to this puzzle are Camp and Russell. Both of those guys were fixtures just about every day last season. And they were each pretty good. Russell appeared in 77 games with a strong 3.25 ERA. After being used in a variety of situations in 2011 and struggling before settling into the bullpen, 2012 was spent entirely in the bullpen, and Russell showed that he is an effective lefty, and can pitch effectively to both left and right handed hitters. He’s shown his value and as everyday asset much like Shawn Camp, who might be the oldest guy in the organization. At 37, Camp was another everyday fixture in the bullpen and led the league with 80 appearances. He was surprisingly effective in a set-up role with Russell, but struggled when he became the closer in Marmol’s absence. For a guy who signed a minor league deal during camp last season, Shawn Camp turned into one of the most valuable players on the roster. This season, he will probably not get the same use, and may improve the effectiveness of his aging arm. The last player of note is Rule 5 selection, Hector Rondon, who needs to be on the active roster for 90 days. The difference between Lendy Castillo from last season and Rondon is that Rondon has pitched at AAA, which is something Castillo had never done. Rondon has had arm issues, and if he’s past them, he could turn into a pleasant surprise, and may not spend months and months on the DL with Rule-5itis.
Long Relief: Carlos Villanueva
Even though, Villanueva will start the season in the rotation, this is going to be his role going forward. He’s well suited for it, too. Coming over from Toronto, he was looking for a chance to start, but it will probably not come
to fruition for him without some injury and trade subtractions from the rotation. And that’s alright. His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but he can make a start in a pinch and go 5-6 innings, or come in early in a game and save the bullpen from being spent. This is an often overlooked role and an unglamorous position for just about any pitcher to be in. He doesn’t get his name on the scroll on ESPN as the probable starter, nor does he get his name on it for the save. But this is a vital role because it allows the other players in the ‘pen to stay in their roles. As far as long relief pitching goes, there aren’t many who are better than Villanueva, even if he does look himself in the mirror and call himself a starting pitcher.
Other Names to Watch: Arodys Vizcaino, Trey McNutt, Robert Whitenack, Barret Loux, Hisanori Takahashi, Nick Struck
Vizcaino is probably the most well-known of these players, coming over from the Braves at the deadline last season. He could find his way into the bullpen to pick up some major league innings this season to get experience, especially if the Cubs fall out of it. McNutt seems to be throwing as well as he has in a few years, but now seems destined to have a bullpen role, and may make his way to Chicago this season. Loux is who ultimately came for Geovany Soto after Jacob Brigham was found to have had arm issues, and is in camp as a non-roster player. He seems to be a better prospect than Brigham, and is closer to the majors, so it seems like the Cubs won in the end on that deal. Takahashi and Struck are both in camp as non-roster players, as well, and could wind up in the bullpen at some point this season as well. As I mentioned at the outset, this is where there is the most flux during a season. This season should be no different.
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.
After 81 games, the Cubs stood at 31-50. As bad as that looks, things are not as bad as they seem. Pulling a 12 game losing streak out as an outlier in the season, it’s 31-38, which is a .449 winning percentage. Before the longest two weeks of the season, the Cubs were 15-20, which is a .428 winning percentage. Without those 12 games, the Cubs are significantly younger, paid significantly less, and basically the same record wise as 2011. Unfortunately, every game counts, and as it stands the Cubs are on pace for the dreaded 100 loss season.
I stand by my assertion that this team will not lose 100 games. Confidently. Even if guys like Garza, Dempster, Soriano, LaHair, and Darwin Barney get traded as this month winds down. I say that because things have started to change.
The defense is still improving everyday…it’s actually gotten downright good. Darwin Barney is forging himself into the running for a Gold Glove. Anthony Rizzo looks very comfortable at first. Starlin Castro is becoming the consistent reliable defender that he has the ability to be. And Alfonso Soriano has been strong in the outfield. Weaknesses are disappearing defensively. The Cubs are getting the outs they’re supposed to get, and that is not something that could have been said last season at all, and early this season it was still a work in progress. By no means is the defense a done deal, but it is to the point where there are very few fundamental letdowns. That is a win for Dale Sveum’s staff.
At the beginning of the season, the bullpen was a disaster. It was expected that they would blow a lead, and once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. For the last few weeks, defined roles have allowed the pen to settle in. Since relievers are notorious creatures of habit, that has probably helped a lot. The reason…Carlos Marmol reclaiming his closer slot with a firm grip. He has been electric since pitching coach Chris Bosio banned him from shaking off the catcher. Convincing him that he has a fastball, and a good one, didn’t hurt either. After blowing two of his first four chances, Marmol has picked up his last six save chances, and has only given up one run in his last ten outings, working his ERA down from 6.48 to 4.74.
It has been tough to watch at times this season. Sometimes, downright miserable. However, headed into the All-Star break, there is some light at the end of a tunnel for a mini-run during the second half. A 71-91 finish would equal last season’s mark, but would mean a .500 finish to what has been a hard season to watch to this point. All things considered, that would be a strong result for what has been a rough opening half, and would at least shed a glimmer of light on next spring.
For fans, it would be easy to say things could not get any worse than watching a team at or near the bottom of the majors, record wise. The easy assertion, however, is typically wrong.
There is one thing I love about the 2012 Cubs. There is one thing that stands out above everything else with this team, and it is a direct reflection on the character of the team and Manager, Dale Sveum. They compete. They compete for nine innings, until the final out is recorded every single day.
Some plays stick out in my mind to back my claim, like Ian Stewart running and sliding hard into second base and Reed Johnson hustling down the line to break up a potential game ending double play against the Twins on June 9, which was a game that had long been decided. There are other anecdotes similar to that one sprinkled all over the disappointing 69 games so far.
Beyond the team, I give the credit to Dale Sveum. He is showing that he is, without question, the right man for the job. I take the time to listen to his post game comments nearly every day when they are posted on cubs.com, and he sounds the same whether the team wins or loses. He doesn’t point the finger at players for losses. He doesn’t sit in front of the media and give the “woe is me” speech. He answers the questions and moves on.
Undoubtedly, this is a tough season for Sveum. His only other managerial experience came as the Brewers’ skipper at the end of their 2008 run to the Wild Card and their first round series vs. Philadelphia. His experience came with a winning team, and last season he was on their bench as they went to the NLCS. Indeed, he has needed to change gears quickly from refining the hitting of an established team that could rake with the best of them, to teaching the fundamentals of baseball to one with holes and “a talent deficit” that his new bosses in the Cubs’ front office handed him.
Handling that deficit is the first way in which he is passing the test. First, he surrounded himself with experience, youth, energy, and great teachers of the game. His coaching staff includes the very experienced Dave McKay (who should get a medal for his work in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano), Chris Bosio, Jamie Quirk, James Rowson, and holdovers Pat Listach and Lester Strode. All of them are somewhat young as far as coaches go, with the exception of McKay, who still seems to be young at heart. All of them are former players. All of them seem to have their players’ ears. He surrounded a team that wasn’t as talented or experienced with some talented and experienced coaches, and the product on the field, while tough to watch at times, has not been as sloppy or lethargic as it has been in years past under Mike Quade and Lou Piniella.
To this point, Dale Sveum has done nothing to cause me to lose my confidence in him. From afar, he seems to be the right kind of manager to help develop a team with some short-comings, but talent coming up through the system. In spite of the pace they’ve set and the potential for a fire sale as the summer continues, I still do not expect to see the team lose 100 games, because I expect them to keep getting better. They’ve done that all season. Their 21 games under .500 record will likely not change too much, because even though they had a long stretch of losses, they are a team with some good players that are capable of getting hot and going on a six or seven game surge. And the law of averages says that some of these close losses will turn into some close wins late in the season.
It may be tough to look long term at this team. It would also be foolish, since there will be inevitable changes. The leadership of the on field product is very good, though. There is a dynamic with this team that could make them fun to watch as a spoiler down the stretch. Take them day to day. And enjoy the product’s improvement looking back, as Dale Sveum has more and more time to put his stamp on the team and mold it for future, less difficult seasons.
Of all of the interesting facts that I could find about the additions to the Cubs’ Coaching Staff under new Manager Dale Sveum, the one I found most interesting is that all of them have worked on staffs of division rivals in their past.
Their past is not the relevant part of the discussion. The relevant discussion points regarding new coaches, Chris Bosio (Pitching), Dave McKay (First Base), and Jamie Quirk (Bench) is what they can teach the plethora of youth on the roster. All of the coaches, including the holdovers, have a great deal of experience as coaches at the major league level. Clearly, Dale Sveum wanted to surround himself with knowledge to make his transition to managing happen more smoothly…and it was the first of hopefully many good decision.
New Coaches for 2012
Pitching Coach: Chris Bosio – Bosio’s Wisconsin roots run deep, having pitched for the Brewers, coached and scouted for the Brewers, and been a coach at UW-Oshkosh and Lawrence University in Appleton. He moves south to take over pitchers for the Cubs, replacing Mark Riggins after one season. He is in his third stint overall as a MLB Pitching Coach. Bosio subscribes to the new regime’s methods of statistical analysis, and had charted each pitchers tendencies before Spring Training and left a copy in each pitcher’s locker before the first workout. He is left with the unenviable task of turning around a group that ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every category last season and will need a much stronger showing to improve on the teams 71 win showing last season.
First Base Coach: Dave McKay– Cubs’ fans should know this name well. He has been one of Tony LaRussa’s right hands in St. Louis for years. McKay is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best First Base Coaches in baseball. The base running was awful last season, and it will be on McKay and new Third Base Coach Pat Listach (moved from Bench
Coach after last season) to help the base runners make better decisions and exercise the aggressiveness that Sveum wants to see out of his runners. In addition to base coaching, McKay serves as the primary Outfield Instructor, and according to Manager Dale Sveum, he has taken a keen interest in LF Alfonso Soriano. With so many young players, however, he will have a vital role in his capacities on the bases and in helping the outfield defense.
Bench Coach: Jamie Quirk – Every new Manager needs an experienced Bench Coach, and Quirk is nothing if not experienced. He has been in professional baseball for 37 seasons before 2012, and has been a Bench Coach for 12 years, in two different stints. He was the Royals’ Bench Coach from 1996-2001 and the Rockies’ Bench Coach from 2003-2008 under Clint Hurdle. Quirk spent time as a major league player with St. Louis and Milwaukee, amongst others, and he will bring experience to the bench to assist Dale Sveum in growing into his role as a Manager, and help the crop of young catchers learn to handle a young pitching staff.
Hitting Coach: Rudy Jaramillo
Third Base Coach: Pat Listach (2011 Bench Coach under Mike Quade)
Bullpen Coach: Lester Strode