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.
It is not often that a single victory by a pitcher deserves an entire post dedicated to it. When a win is the first in 24 starts and 413 days, then there is some cause to talk about it. Alas, that is the case, as Volstad got his first win since last July, when he was with the Marlins.
Chris Volstad has been bad in a lot of games this season. He had gotten hit, and hit hard, in a lot of outings. His 10.38 ERA in May and 12.46 ERA in July, with a stint in Iowa speak volumes to his effectiveness early in the season. He wasn’t. Even today, on the Twitter feed, I (as well as many others) had a “meltdown tracker.” Those, however, became “win trackers” in a hurry, after 6.2 innings of shutout ball, reducing his ERA for the season by nearly a half of a run.
It seems like the Cubs have given Big V the Carlos Marmol treatment. He’s not shaking off the catchers, anymore. The biggest improvement he’s made, en route to a 3.82 ERA in August, is keeping the ball down. He made three quality starts this month, which is incredible when you look at the previous nine starts he’d made this season, and his 1-2 record is more symptomatic of pitching for a team that has scored the second fewest runs in baseball this season than getting hit hard and scored on at will. A WHIP of 1.21 and an opponent batting average of .254 have been the biggest improvements he’s made since returning to the rotation. Volstad’s location has improved dramatically since he has gotten back from Iowa, which is making for a lot fewer hard hit balls, and a lot more relatively easy outs. Only one runner got to second base today, and the Tyler Colvin double had more to do with the ball just stopping in a wet outfield than it did with Volstad getting hit hard. That didn’t happen at all today.
Dale Sveum gave Chris Volstad a vote of confidence, and said he was staying in the rotation the rest of the way. Obviously, that is more based on who’s left than how well Volstad has been pitching this season. Nonetheless, he’s probably going to get another 6-7 starts this year, and could pitch his way into the 2013 plan. It stands to reason that starting pitching is going to be on the minds of Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein, as they guide the Cubs through their second winter with the organization. If Chris Volstad can finish the season on a strong note, he will likely be given every opportunity to finally establish himself as a solid back end starting pitcher in 2013.
May today’s win be the first of many more as the season comes to a close!
Some tidbits for the day…
- Yesterday, Dale Sveum called Starlin Castro a 6th or 7th spot hitter in a good offense. He has a point…for now. The 22 year old Castro doesn’t take a lot of walks, does not stretch out many at bats, and is very aggressive at the plate. That being said, Starlin has all of the makings of a very good number 2 hitter, as he can make good contact, runs well, and has shown he can drive the ball a little bit more. Remember, Starlin is still developing. As he does, he will hit for more power, and if he gains the patience to be more selective and drive his pitch, he could be the answer in a number of spots in the line-up. Sveum’s comments probably
were not meant to be as critical as they may have been taken, as much as they were meant to be a reflection on where Starlin Castro is in his development.
- I saw an interesting stat yesterday, which basically explains the subjectivity of some advanced metrics. The WAR ( Wins Above Replacement) of 2B Darwin Barney is a very strong 4.6. That of Brewers’ LF Ryan Braun: 4.5. This is not to suggest that Darwin is a better player than the reigning NL MVP. That is a silly statement in nearly every respect. The only area where Darwin Barney is a clear upgrade over Braun is in his infield defense, where Braun was a disaster in his rookie year. It does, however, go to show that when comparing players, some metrics are better left to compare players at the same position. If Theo Epstein called Milwaukee and said, “Straight up, Darwin Barney for Ryan Braun,” the answer would be a clear “click” of the phone being put down followed by the dial tone. All of this was spurred by ESPN’s Keith Law’s belief that Darwin Barney is not an everyday second baseman. While I very much respect Keith Law and his opinion, I disagree with him on the prospect that Darwin Barney is not an everyday second baseman. Among National League 2B, he is comparable to other everyday players in offensive categories, and is outstanding on defense. He leads MLB in fielding percentage among 2B, is 4th in range factor and tied for 3rd in double plays turned. His errorless streak of 100 games is a franchise record, and is within reach of the 113 game National League record. Darwin is in his second full season as a second baseman and in the majors. He is also only 26. He has shown a tremendous amount of growth in this season. It seems far too soon to write off Barney as, not only an everyday, but All-Star caliber 2B in the coming years.
- Chris Volstad starts for the Cubs tonight against the Astros. He comes into the game with an 0-8 win-loss record and a 6.94 ERA. He has not won in over a year. But, tonight could be the night. First, the Astros are horrible, especially on the road. Second, the 6’8″ right hander has been much better since coming back from Iowa after the flurry of trade activity at the deadline. He is 0-1 with a 3.46 ERA this month, with his loss to the Dodgers being a 7 inning, 2 earned performance in which the Cubs failed to bring their bats. If Chris Volstad has a night similar to his last two outings, and the Cubs have any sort of offensive showing tonight, Chris Volstad has a good chance of ending a painfully long winless streak.
- The Cubs face Lucas Harrell tonight. Collectively, the starting line-up is 1-1…an Alfonso Soriano single. Of all of the position players, the Cubs are 1-2, adding a Luis Valbuena strike out. This proves to be one of the oddities of two teams in a complete rebuild…a large number of young players who have no experience against each other at the major league level.
- Today, Dale Sveum said on Cubs Corner that he “would be surprised of Garza pitched again this season.” The cramp turned discomfort turned stress reaction seems like it is worse than anyone led on, or the team is being overly cautious about Matt Garza’s right arm. Considering the team is completely out of it, the caution is warranted. There is no sense in exposing his arm to significant injury.
- First round pick Albert Almora was promoted to short season Boise, of the Northwest League. He had started his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League, hitting .347 with 1 HR and 13 RBI in 18 games for Mesa.
So…that was an eventful few days. To sum it up, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, and Reed Johnson are out. Arodys Vizcaino, Jaye Chapman, Jacob Brigham, Christian Villanueva, and Kyle Hendricks are in the system to replace them. The major league roster picked up Casey Coleman, Adrien Cardenas, and Wellington Castillo for last night’s one hitter from AJ Burnett. Today’s game brings back Chris Volstad and Alberto Cabrera from Iowa, and sees Coleman headed back to Iowa. Got all that? No? Don’t blame you…here it is more simply stated:
OUT BEFORE 7/31 vs. Pirates: RHP Ryan Dempster, LHP Paul Maholm, C Geovany Soto, OF Reed Johnson
IN FOR 7/31 vs. Pirates: RHP Casey Coleman, C Wellington Castillo, IF Adrien Cardenas (Roster stands at 24)
OUT BEFORE 8/1 vs. Pirates: RHP Casey Coleman
IN FOR 8/1 vs. Pirates: RHP Chris Volstad, RHP Alberto Cabrera (Roster at full 25 man limit)
Now that we sorted out all of the roster formalities, onto the fun part of talking about who the Cubs added at the deadline! Baseball America rated the Cubs’ farm system 14th this past May. That was quite a bit better than I expected to it to be because of how many pieces have been shipped out for parts the last few years. That system became weaker by default when 1B Anthony Rizzo was called up to play every day. At this point, he is no longer a “prospect” so much as he is a “rookie.” Considering what is going on with the Riz-kid at the big league level, it is difficult to believe that he is going to be sent back to Iowa any time soon. This week, though, the system got an infusion of talent. Two Top 100 prospects from Baseball America were added to the system; RHP Arodys Vizcaino and 3B Christian Villanueva. In addition, Kyle Hendricks and Jaye Chapman have some upside, and both project to be major league pitchers. Jacob Brigham has major league potential depending on what source you ask. He can range from a system arm who is perpetually stuck in the minors to a guy who can contribute as a middle reliever. Regardless, he is more than what anyone should have expected for Geovany Soto. ESPN’s Keith Law says Arodys Vizcaino is the best prospect dealt at the deadline. Others say Jacob Turner in the Marlins/ Tigers deal and others still say Jean Segura in the trade sending Zack Greinke from Milwaukee to the Angels. Scouting is a very subjective topic, and Law clearly values the pure stuff and command that Vizcaino can bring to the mound. Others may disagree with Vizcaino being the best, but it is unanimous that all three are very good.
The new prospects rank within the system (Place in Top 100), according to MLB.com
#3 Arodys Vizcaino (40)
#6 Christian Villanueva (100)
#17 Kyle Hendricks
The other two fall outside of the top 20 in the organization. Jaye Chapman may find his way to Chicago this season, while Brigham may take until next year before he gets to Iowa and subsequently, to Chicago.
For a team with less than stellar expectations, it is awfully difficult to grade the Cubs’ first half performance. If I were to judge by record alone, it would almost certainly be a D, or lower. However, since the Cubs weren’t expected to be very good this season as they rebuild and since the team hasn’t been as consistently bad as it appears, this grade is going to be issued on a curve. The criteria are offensive output, defensive output, improvement, consistency, and overall performance. Whether those criteria are fair or not is for you to decide…
Starting Pitching: B-
The starting pitching has actually been better than expected, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having strong seasons. Both pitchers have lived up to their billing as the top two starters in the rotation, and that has made them both viable candidates to be traded before the trade deadline three weeks from today. Jeff Samardzija has been up and down, having both very good and very bad outings in his first seasons as a starter. Paul Maholm has been in the same boat, being both good and bad in the first half of the season. Chris Volstad and Randy Wells have been atrocious and have earned their demotions to Iowa. Travis Wood, however, has been strong since his arrival, earning the fifth starting role. This grade would be much higher if not for Wells and Volstad’s inability to throw good strikes, and the overall team record would be likely to have followed suit.
This was going to be an F, until the recent surge of Carlos Marmol, with Shawn Camp and James Russell falling into more comfortable roles. The absolute incompetence of the bullpen to throw quality strikes and the number of walks has led to a huge number of blown saves, missed opportunities to win games, and crumbling in late situations has made this season one of the most dismal in the history of the organization. While all of the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the bullpen, and the retirement of Kerry Wood was certainly unexpected, the bullpen has been a major contributor to the 33-52 record.
Position Play: C-
Ultimately, this grade is based much on injuries to all three of the top three catchers in the organization. It could have been far worse without the reacquisition of Koyie Hill, but the lack of offense out of the position is disappointing, since all three of the expected contributors at catcher for the major league team were injured and on the disabled list at one time. Throwing out base-stealers has also not been a strength, which makes it much more difficult on the pitchers, although those same pitchers have been partly to blame. Defensively, there have been some positives to keep an eye on as passed balls have been few and far between. Overall, however, the catchers have to give more at the plate, and must continue to improve on their first half performance.
First Base: B
We learned something about Bryan LaHair this spring. He can hit in the majors. And he was better than serviceable at first base. He went through a long drought, though, which prompted a long losing streak. It It is not fair to place all of the blame of Bryan’s shoulders, and that is why the position garners a B, overall. He was very good in his time there. Anthony Rizzo has been excellent in his 12 games at first base, and he could be a catalyst to see the end of season mark improve. He just has not been around long enough to cause great change in the grade. Jeff Baker has started more games at first than Rizzo, which is another reason this is only a B. Between LaHair and Baker, there has been absolutely no production against left handed pitching at this position, which doesn’t help the sorry record against left handed pitching, and that hurts the overall mark.
Second Base: B-
My man crush on Darwin Barney is based almost solely on his defense, which has been nothing short of outstanding. He is having a Gold Glove worthy season at second, with only two errors on the season thus far. Offensively, he has been Darwin Barney. He is a slap hitter that can find a gap, get a solid single, and he will do the right things on the bases. You know what to expect everyday from Darwin Barney, which is a good smart game that will not cost the team with mental errors and a full out physical effort.
Third Base: C
The hot corner has lost its pop with the departure of Aramis Ramirez. The addition of Ian Stewart was supposed to protect from a total collapse of that production, but a wrist injury which was operated on today ended his season without the production to ease the loss of Ramirez. Luis Valbuena gives very good at bats and hits the ball hard, but is not the defender that Stewart is. Both played very hard, but only Stewart excelled in any one area, and that was defensively. There has been too much inconsistency offensively to mark this position any higher than a C. At this point, there is uncertainty in that position because neither Stewart or Valbuena instill confidence at this point. Maybe Stewart will be able to regain his hitting stroke when he returns, likely next season, if at all. However, for the time being, the hot corner has been nothing more than luke warm.
Short Stop: B+
It probably isn’t fair to not give the only player to play in every game, starting all but one, less than an A when he was expected to carry this 2012 team and has done his best to do so. However, a slow start on defense, and a slump at the plate to end the first half bring Starlin Castro into the B+ range of the spectrum. 2012 has shown us nothing but more positive in the still only 22 year old Castro, who, while making mental errors common from only young players, has shown an ability to work hard and improve each day, both at the dish and in the field. His defense is much better under the guidance of Dale Sveum and since Rudy Jaramillo was replaced as the hitting coach, the walks have started to come a little less infrequently. Castro stands to get a 4.o GPA as a baseball player as he matures and reaches his prime. Now, however, he is “only” a B+…with a lot more improvement that can be made in his game.
Even though Alfonso Soriano has been on a tear since May 15, the rest of the outfield has been pretty quiet. It is very difficult to grade this group with the additions and subtractions of players all season. Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Marlon Byrd, Reed Johnson, Bryan LaHair, and Jeff Baker have all been in and out of the line up with Soriano and David DeJesus, which has hurt the consistent play of the group, and brought the grade down. The defense has been much less of an adventure out there, with Soriano showing major improvement at the behest of Dave McKay. The defense has been nothing better than average, though, and the offense has not been anything to perk up over. Soriano brings this group to above average with his offensive numbers over the last two months, but just barely.
Reed Johnson has been an excellent pinch hitter, leading the league in pinch hits over the first half of the season. It is not, however, a cure all for what has been a hit and miss bench. Tony Campana, Joe Mather, and Jeff Baker have all been up and down. This group does not provide any punch off the bench, which makes it very difficult to come back or extend leads late in games. What this group does bring, though, is defense. They are all average, or above average, defenders at multiple positions.
Managing/ Coaching: B
It has been a rough season, and much of the coaching is done behind the scenes. For a team that has been around 20 games under .500 since the end of May, though, to compete and hustle everyday is a sign of strong coaching and leadership from the guys that aren’t playing everyday. Dale Sveum has assembled a good staff of teachers that are not resting on the laurels of a lost season. That makes them a good staff. There have been growing pains that come with any new manager and coaching staff, though, and that keeps them from being excellent. The potential of this group is very high because they all appear to be good, knowledgeable baseball men. If they stay together, there could be some grade A work in their future.
Team Grade: D+
You can’t go on a 9-4 run to end the first half of the season to get to only 19 games under .500 and expect to be better than a D+. It just cannot happen. If there were any expectations for this team at all, the first half would have been a clear failure, but in their absence, this team gets the benefit of the doubt. There have been bright spots, without question, with two All-Stars, each elected by the players, for the first time since 2008. As players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija continue to grow, there is some reason for optimism, but at the moment, this is a team that is tough to watch day in and day out. The Cubs get a D+ so far in 2012, and if they finish with a mark that has fewer than three figures in the loss column, that grade probably rises to a C at season’s end.
Here is the reality of the 2012 Chicago Cubs…we’re going to be sellers at the trade deadline. That leaves us in an interesting place. With the new regime looking for “long term assets,” the decision is going to have to be made in the not too distant future as to who should stay and be a long term asset, and who should be turned into additional long term assets.
Who Should Stay:
- SS Starlin Castro: I’ve read some comments over the last few days where people have been saying that since Starlin has been in the majors for two years and his defense is still not great at the short stop position, maybe the Cubs should turn Starlin into additional prospects. Stop it. Trading Castro at 22 would be a colossal mistake. Castro is the definition of a long term asset, being 22 with terrific range and, oh yeah, the 6th fastest player in MLB history to 400 hits. His defense is improving and his bat will only get better as he continues to develop into a better hitter. He’ll take more walks and hit more home runs as he gets better, bigger, and older. Starlin is still 3-4 years away from being in his prime. Give him time.
- 1B/ OF Bryan LaHair: This is a tough one. With LaHair being one of the best hitters in baseball in the early going, his stock is at its highest point. With that said, power hitting left handed bats that can team up with another power hitting left handed bat (Anthony Rizzo) are hard to find. Defense does not need to be a strength for LaHair, as he will displace a corner outfield position (likely left field) when Rizzo arrives. He’s proving to be a middle of the order hitter at the major league level. That value can bring in some good mid to upper level prospects, but that is because it is hard to find. 5-6 more years of LaHair hitting around 30 HRs and driving in 90 or so runs would be worth hanging on to as a compliment to Rizzo and Castro as middle of the order type hitters.
- SP Matt Garza: Matt has proven his value as a starter on the Cubs’ roster, and is probably the ace of the staff. In 28.1 innings at Wrigley this season, Garza has a 1.91 ERA, and has given up a single home run this season. In 17 career starts at Wrigley, he has a 2.46 ERA and a .225 batting average allowed. He is very effective at Wrigley, and has proven to be an excellent pitcher in the National League since coming over from the Rays. This season against the 3-4-5 spots in the line up, he is sporting a .156 BAA. He gets hitters out, especially the big bats in the line up. And he is dominant at the place where he will make roughly half his starts. At 28, there is still a lot left in Garza’s arm and he wants to be even better than he is. Getting much better could make him a Cy Young candidate, and that’s something to have around. For their part, the Cubs’ brass has seen him for what he is, and they are working on an extension for Garza. For good reason.
Who Should Go:
- SP Ryan Dempster (Retains 10-5 Rights, and can veto a trade): This is difficult to swallow because Dempster has been so consistent for the team for so long. However, with a shortage of starting pitching around baseball and Dempster having a career year, his value for a team in the hunt at the deadline is going to be high. The Cubs will have to eat some of his remaining salary, but could get some decent prospects in return for a 35 year old pitcher in the final year of his contract, and does not figure to be back next season. Dempster would like to be back, but it is unclear whether he would take a discount to return to the Cubs next season. If the Cubs can trade him for some value, they should do it and get what they can.
- OF Alfonso Soriano (Retains 10-5 Rights, and can veto a trade): Duh. That may be a little harsh because Soriano is a veteran and is a leader in the clubhouse. However, he is not the player he used to be. And at 36, father time has caught up with Soriano. He can have some value for teams in the AL needing a DH, and if there should be an injury for one of the contenders, Soriano could be had for a half empty can of Old Style and some stale peanuts. Trading Soriano would require the Cubs to eat much of his contract…all but about $1.25 of it, most likely. However, it will open a slot for LaHair to move when Rizzo arrives. And the team does have some outfield depth in the minors with Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt, and Matt Szczur. Jackson is going to be in the majors in the about the next year. Sappelt is a likely call up candidate if there are injuries. Szczur has some time left at the minor league level, but is a speedy outfielder that has a Ron Gant type projection. Two more years of Soriano after this year just do not work…trading him now is definitely the best option.
- C Geovany Soto: Hitting catchers come at a premium. The Cubs have 3 at the moment, in Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo. Clevenger and Castillo appear to be a capable platoon of backstops that are young enough to grow and get better. Geo, on the other hand, is in his 5th season, and has been very up and down. He could bring back some prospects from say…Tampa Bay…who is always in contention and never has had a catcher that can hit in the middle or bottom half of the line up. Soto is a good player. He is solid defensively and is good with a pitching staff. He is going to hit between 15 and 25 home runs and drive in between 70 and 85 runs each year and will take a walk. There are not many like him that can be had, so he would probably fetch a decent haul of prospects before his salary gets too high.
The Cubs have some pieces that they can build around. They need relief pitching more than anything else. Names not on the “Who Should Go” list include Carlos Marmol and Chris Volstad because they have limited value at the moment. Marmol has had issues with the strike zone for a couple of years, so would not fetch anything near what he could still be. Marmol is also still 29, and I won’t give up on him finding the strike zone again. When he’s on, he’s very good. Volstad has good stuff and his only significant issue is keeping the ball down. That might be tough for someone that stands 6’8″ and has to push the ball down from the top of a pitcher’s mound. Volstad has been prone to the big inning this season, and is still only 25. He, too, has some upside, as he is not yet in his prime. I think it is too early to give up on either Marmol or Volstad. Finding a new closer could be what the doctor ordered for Marmol, allowing him to slide into a set up role he thrived in. Volstad can be a good 4th or 5th starter down the road.
With all of that said, the next 2+ months are going to be interesting…and eventful…around the front office for the Cubs.
Today’s game marked the first quarter of what has been a very down and up and down again 2012 season. Therefore, I find now to be a perfect time for the obligatory blog entry with premature grades and analysis of 41/162 games.
- Bryan LaHair has proven to be a worthy and able first baseman during the first quarter of the season. He’s hit for power, average, taken his walks, and done a respectable job manning first base in the field. While he is not the gold glove that Derek Lee or Carlos Pena had proven to be in their tenures with the Cubs, he is making the plays he is supposed to make. His bat is the important thing, though, and with talk of an Anthony Rizzo call
up potentially coming in the next few weeks, his bat could force a shuffle of the outfield. He could force the energetic Tony Campana to the bench to make room for David DeJesus in center, while he moves to right field. The takeaway is that he is swinging a strong enough bat to force another player out of the line up if and when Rizzo arrives, and that is a major positive for the Cubs’ offense.
- Tony Campana has been a spark since joining the roster and getting regular playing time. I know I took a cheap shot at Nyjer Morgan in an earlier post, but after watching Campana a little more, I don’t think he is a Morgan type as much as he is a Juan Pierre type of player. His range and versatility in the outfield is excellent, and he has found his swing this season, keeping the ball on the ground and slapping hits all over the park more than he did last season. With his speed, those are the things he needs to do to be a successful player in the majors. In the games in which he’s played, he has been mightily successful.
- The starting pitching has been fantastic, for the most part. With Chris Volstad being sent to Iowa, the one real weakness has been removed. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Paul Maholm have all been very good with only a few rough outings among them. Samardzija, Dempster, and Maholm were all asked to pitch in the Wrigley bam box this weekend, and all did a respectable job. There were no cheap home runs off of Maholm today, but he limited the damage to solo home runs and kept the team in the game. Ryan Dempster gave up back to back home runs that were completely wind aided. Both of those are harmless fly balls on a normal day. I can’t fault a guy for giving up a fly ball that the wind carries just into the basket. Especially one that has been as dominant as Dempster this season. Unfortunately, none of the three were rewarded with wins. Actually, the starters only have 10 wins to this point. They deserve more. They have been excellent.
- The defense gets an honorable mention in the good because it has been. Starlin Castro’s eight errors are kind of misleading. Overall, his defense, notably his throwing, have been much better. The work in spring has very much benefited Starlin in the early going, and it seems as though he is moving in the right direction. The same can be said about Darwin Barney, who is a converted short stop. Alfonso Soriano, for as much as we ride him has also been much, much better. He makes all of the plays he is supposed to make and has been better in his paths to the ball how he plays the ball of the wall. Lately, he has been hampered with a leg injury that has made his defense suffer a little bit, but he is probably an average defender in left thus far, and that is a vast improvement over the last few seasons. Ian Stewart and David DeJesus have been as advertised with their gloves. They have been excellent at their respective positions.
- Joe Mather. The man is another Reed Johnson type that is always ready and can play anywhere he’s needed. That’s a valuable commodity in baseball, and he has provided steady and consistent play whenever Dale Sveum has called on him. He is turning into a very nice addition to the bench and is earning himself more playing time.
- Only the Toronto Blue Jays have walked more batters than the Chicago Cubs. So, while the .239 batting average against Cubs’ pitching is good for 8th in baseball, the walks have been a huge problem and need to come down. Many of those walks have come late in games by the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is tied for the team lead with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija with 16. It is to be expected that the starters would walk more batters because they throw a significant number more innings, and for the most part, the starters have been solid in the BB category. The problems are with the pen. Marmol has 16 in 11.1 innings pitched. Rafael Dolis has 11 in 24 innings, Kerry Wood had 11 in his 8.1 innings before retirement this weekend, and James Russell has 10 in 17.1 innings. That’s 48 walks out of the late inning relief pitching, in 61.1 innings. Way too many…and a very big reason why the Cubs have 6 saves and 8 blown saves through 41 games.
- The rash of injuries to the catchers has been devastating and mind blowing. At current, Geovany Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo are all banged up. That leaves the Cubs with the newly reacquired Koyie Hill and rookie Blake Lalli to serve is the back stops for a young bullpen. Hill is a veteran that has experience with the Cubs and is a reliable defensive catcher. He was an excellent addition with the onslaught of injuries to the catchers. Before the injuries, the catchers were fine. Geo got off to a slow start, but his bat was coming around as he was hitting some balls hard. Clevenger was said to have a “slump proof swing” by Manager and former Hitting Coach Dale Sveum. The catchers were not winning the team any games, but not costing them too many, either. Soto had two of his four errors in one inning, neither of which were his fault because Rodrigo Lopez should have fielded both balls, and Clevenger and Castillo each have a passed ball. Other than that, 2 errors for Soto in his other 27 games and doing a good job with the new and young pitchers. The catching has been about average, and lands in the bad category because all of that average catching is injured and has given way to reacquired veterans and rookie call ups.
- More about the walks, this time for the hitters. 105 in 41 games is good for 26th in baseball. The lack of patience at the plate has led to some quick innings, which don’t allow the team to see the weakest part of the bullpen…the middle relief. Any pitcher that is in middle relief is not the cream of the bullpen because if they were, they’d be starting, setting up, or closing. Unfortunately, the Cubs have only see starters, set up guys, and closers because there is almost no need to pull the starter for pitch count. Dale’s edict to take the first pitch, unless you can hit it a country mile has not brought about the patient approach the team needs. There have been some ugly swings and misses at pitches there is no chance at hitting. Bryan LaHair, David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, and Geovany Soto are the only guys in double figures. Guys like Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Darwin Barney (who has 9 BB this season) should be in double figures. They get enough at bats that they should be seeing more free passes. They’re there for the taking…and the offense would benefit from a few gift base runners.
- I’ve spoken on the schedule before, so this will be brief. The games against good and surging teams have been a constant in the early going. Fortunately, the Houstons, Pittsburghs, and San Diegos are all right in front of the Cubs right now. This is a golden opportunity to win some games against some teams that the Cubs are better than. There is room for a better mark than 15-26 at the quarter pole, but many of those teams are, frankly, better than we are. I am not stunned that the record is 11 under right now because I would have looked at the schedule and thought it about right for this team against that schedule. The surge that we saw before the current 6 game skid is promising. I expect that to happen again this season, and to happen with a little more consistency as the season continues. That’s it for the ugly, though…tough schedule that led to some very up and down results.
The Cubs’ two most overwhelming weaknesses last season were starting pitching and defense. It’s not a state secret that those two areas need to improve this season if the Cubs are going to be competitive.
To this point, including today’s game, the starting pitching has been pretty good. Chris Volstad threw another quality start for the Cubs today, with the 4th run he gave up being unearned. That makes six quality starts in the first nine contests, which is all the team can ask for. Yesterday, Jeff Samardzija seemingly ran out of gas after 5 innings, but the bullpen picked him up. His running out of gas was minimized by the 9 run lead he held before the inning, giving up the only 5 the Cardinals would scratch out all day. He did not have his best stuff, but did manage to get out from under some base runners in the first four innings before getting some of the same medicine the Cubs gave Zack Greinke on Thursday afternoon. The innings being eaten by the starting pitching cannot be understated, either. Last season, the strength of the team was the bullpen, and Mike Quade went to it early and often nearly everyday. This season, we’ve seen the starter pitch into the 7th inning more often already than we did until August last season. At least to this point, the pitching is better, and is the reason the Cubs have been in most of the games they’ve played, even with a lackluster offensive effort so far (the last two days notwithstanding).
The defense is another story. Entirely. There have been 7 errors, 4 of which came by Starlin Castro, 2 of which were high throws to first base today that probably would not have been errors throwing to Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee the last two seasons. The first of those two errors would have led to a 2 out with nobody on situation in the Cardinal fourth. It led to a four run rally. The four runs that the Cardinals lead by today (in the top of the ninth). There have been too many plays that should have been made, like a foul pop-up down the right field line that fell in front of Bryan LaHair this afternoon, that have not been made. The ground ball that Jeff Baker allowed past him on Opening Day that went into right field was the eventual tying run. The early .722 Defensive Efficiency Rating is good for 10th in MLB, but that number is sure to drop after another two errors today. That number is an improvement over last season’s .680, but is still not high enough. The .982 fielding percentage is 16th in MLB at this point. They quite simply need to be better.
I am not exactly breaking news when I say that the Cubs’ roster isn’t going to stack up with elite rosters around MLB. It just isn’t. There are some nice pieces. Matt Garza and Starlin Castro are building blocks for a foundation of a team that can compete for championships down the road. Jeff Samardzija is looking to add his name to that group. At this point, though, the defense is not at the standard it needs to be. The starting pitching is improved. The bullpen has been up and down, to this point. The offense has been the same way. That makes giving extra outs, especially in the tough early part of the season, a costly proposition.
Some notes/ observations from the first week of the season…
The Cubs are much, much more aggressive than they have been in years past. We saw that with pinch runner Joe Mather running on contact with one out in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day, and we have seen that in the stolen base attempts (6 through four games, 4 successful, all by Starlin Castro) and base running especially after the first four games. The aggressiveness is taking hold at the plate, too, with a lot of shallow counts to hitters. I understand seeing your pitch and swinging away, but at some point, the team is going to have to be more selective to increase the run production.
The starting pitching has been very good thus far, which, after a minutely small sample size is the reason the team has had a lead in each of the first four games. Last night’s five innings from Chris Volstad have to improve, but
to this point, there isn’t much to complain about with the starters. The only starter that didn’t get a fate he didn’t deserve was Sunday’s winning pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, who is continuing to tear through hitters as he did during Spring Training.
The bullpen is another story. Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have each struggled…mightily. Shawn Camp had some problems last night, as well. Lendy Castillo is a Rule 5 pick, and is just getting his feet wet, but he’ll need to improve on a 2/3 IP outing to be an effective contributor to the ‘pen.
Aramis Ramirez heard some unnecessary boos last night when he took his first at bat. While I understand that he is a rival player now, it was a little much to hear any booing at all. I cannot be sure how he was received before the game when line-ups were announced, but I can only hope it was similar to the very warm reception that Mark DeRosa got when he was announced on Opening Day with the Washington Nationals.
More importantly than anything else, this team fights. They did not quit last night, down four, against a strong Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, and put together some good at bats before falling short. Ian Stewart’s triple with one out put the tying run at third base on Opening Day, which was wiped out by aggressive base running, but happened moments after falling behind in the ninth inning. The 2012 Chicago Cubs are going to struggle. They’re going to lose some games. Probably more than they manage to win. It will be a tribute to Dale Sveum if he is able to do what Mike Quade failed to do last season, and that is keep the team interested as the losses pile up. If he does that, the team will continue to improve. I am going to predict that Sveum has a better chance than his predecessor, as this is a young team with players trying to establish themselves in the majors, or trying to stay in the majors. There is, predictably, going to be more urgency with this year’s team than with a team full of established veterans with expiring contracts. Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Kosuke Fukudome (before he was traded to Cleveland) were among the players that knew they would almost certainly not be back after 2011. This year, the roster has incentive to work hard all season, regardless of the team’s record…and that is to stay at the big league level, and hold off guys from Iowa.
4/10 Numbers:1-3, 6th in NL Central
BA Leader: Alfonso Soriano, .308
ERA Leader: Jeff Samardzija, 1.04
HR Leader: Darwin Barney (this will not last long); Bryan LaHair, 1
RBI Leader: Reed Johnson; Marlon Byrd; Alfonso Soriano, 2
At this point of the spring, all of the forecasting, predicting, prognosticating, and analyzing has been done. Repeatedly. This is just some of the fodder that has come out of Cubs camp in the last week or so, since the last post.
- Today, Andy Sonnanstine elected to become a free agent after refusing to take an outright assignment to Iowa. He had an uphill climb to make a crowded rotation picture, and the emergence of Jeff Samardzija made it even less likely that he would make the team. Today, he officially did not.
- Joe Mather has made the team. No. I do not have any insider information that tells me that he will be on the 25 man Opening Day roster when the Cubs head north. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to leave him off of the roster at this point. He’s hitting .432, including two sharp doubles in today’s win over the Indians. Ten of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases. In addition, he made an amazing over the shoulder catch that would
have made Jim Edmonds tip his cap. A man that can play all three outfield slots, and both corner infield slots is something every team needs. Mather does that. There is no way he doesn’t make the team at this point.
- It appears the Opening Day rotation will be Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Paul Maholm, and Chris Volstad when the team heads north. With Travis Wood having some struggles this spring and Jeff Samardzija grabbing the bull by the horns and taking a spot in the rotation, it seems all but a lock at this point.
- Alfonso Soriano has six home runs this spring, and is in the Major League lead this spring. His damage has not been spread out, either. As streaky as Soriano is, he has been mightily consistent this spring. His opposite field blast today was a terrific sign for Cubs’ fans knowing that he is going to be a vital part of any success the team has this season. There are going to be times where he is going to have to carry the team with all of the youth on the roster. At least at this point, with the shorter leg kick and literally huge bat, he looks up to the task.
- The biggest departure between this spring and the last number of years is the aggressiveness on the base paths. Today, Geovany Soto tagged from first on a deep fly ball to center. That never happens. Ever. The traditional teaching of going half way in the event of a drop is not in Cubs’ camp this spring. They have stolen 26 bases, good for fourth in MLB this spring, and have been caught 12 times. Clearly, the Sveum Administration is in full effect. Putting pressure on the defense is going to be important this season because the offensive talent lacks. Edgar Gonzalez today, scored from first on a stolen base, throwing error by Indians’ Catcher, Matt Pagnozzi, and a misplay by CF, and former Cub top prospect,
Felix Pie. It was all about putting pressure on the defense. It won’t work out that way all the time. It will lead to unnecessary outs on the bases on occasion. But it is aggressiveness that the team is going to need. They have to outplay opponents this season because there is a development gap. The Cubs are talented…and severely underdeveloped. Winning this season is going to take baptism by fire. It appears at this point, Dale Sveum has a full book of matches.
The Countdown to Opening Day 2012 is in full effect. We are a mere 11 days from the new season, where Ryan Dempster will take the ball for the second straight season opener, against the vastly improved Nationals and their young star in the making, RHP Stephan Strasburg. Until then…we are stuck in the Dog Days of Spring.