With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild. In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds. There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money. And he’s Japanese.
Being Japanese matters. In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor. Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there. And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible. All of those things matter. His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US. That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable. His previous environment only heightens that risk. It’s the extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.
None of this is to say that he will bust. There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt. I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.
Injury risk has to be part of the equation. Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though. I am sure he remembers. And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him. His age helps. Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.
EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have. Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments. That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training. Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion. Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury. There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some risk to signing him. Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known. The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.
What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers. The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him. That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.” That is also true. Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored. It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?
There is no denying that it’s been tough to watch at times in the early going. The errors, the lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, the lack of patience at the plate, the base running blunders…it’s all been quite frustrating. There is a bright side, though. It can’t get any worse.
In my Central Division Preview, I called the Cubs an 80 win team. I made my predictions, intentionally early, based on the on-paper roster. It actually looks pretty good right now. *Hold on, meatball…before you call me a moron and tell me to watch the games, you’re right.* But hear me out. The Cubs are losing games, which is to say they are not being beaten by the other teams, but by themselves. We can agree they played well enough to win one against the Braves, two more than they did against the Giants, and probably the first two of this series against the Brewers without the mistakes which have cost them early. There are five wins in there the Cubs don’t have, that they could have. And really, if they win two or three of those five games, nobody’s saying anything about the errors or struggles with runners in scoring position because an 8-8 or a 7-9 record would be acceptable based on what we were expecting this season.
More silver lining: the mistakes are inexcusable. They are not, however, uncorrectable. Change can happen with the defense, especially when the vast majority are effort mistakes. Anthony Rizzo is a very good defensive first baseman, and has made two uncharacteristic plays in the last two nights. Both of them were because he was trying to rush. Friday, on a play against a speedy Nori Aoki, and last night trying to get an out and throw home on a play he wasn’t going to make. Ultimately, the play last night didn’t matter. Sure, he bobbled the ball, but they still got the out at first base, and he wasn’t going to hold Logan Schafer at third anyway. That’s a “no harm, no foul” play. The misplay was not relevant to the outcome of the play. Starlin Castro is our favorite whipping boy, and it probably has a lot to do with his off the charts talent. His issues have not been concentration related, either as much as they’re publicized as. Say what you will about an error with the pitcher running, but that was a physical mistake, not taking his time and making the play. Stop with the garbage “you have to be aware of who’s running” stuff. Last night was no different. Actually, it was the same play. Two outs, and making the play ends the innings and ends the scoring threat.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be disappointed or frustrated or cover our eyes while we watch yet another defeat being snatched out of the jaws of victory. At the end of the day, though, who cares? The front office, and Theo Epstein, in particular make no qualms about “playoffs or protected pick.” He said that they’re going to take the “cold assessment” in the middle of the season. There is no valor in winning 78 vs 73. He’s absolutely right, too. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. When you watch the game today, look across the field at the other dugout. They won 83 last season. Our guys got 61. Everybody finished on the same day. Their fans get to talk about the magical “winning season” and we get mocked for “101 losses.” But in June, the Cubs get a prize. They get Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray. They get a chance at a college arm who can be teamed with Jeff Samardzija for years to come. The Brewers coughed up a first round pick for three years of Kyle Lohse, and with it, stay stuck in mediocrity. They can have their 75-84 wins each year. If the Cubs go down with another 100+ losses this season, that’s alright. *Cue Meatball fan throwing closing the browser window…NOW* It’s not like tthe Cubs have had a difficult time attracting free agents. Edwin Jackson was one of the prizes of last winter’s class, and he came.
The Cubs are in the midst of culture change. A welcome one. Look across the field at the Brewers, again. Now think back to 2011 and what the Cubs were. In 2011, the Cubs didn’t have anybody but Starlin Castro who would actually be improving over the course of the next 4-5 years. Everyone on the roster was either in or past their prime. They won 71 games. It was miserable. It was worse than we have now because it was hopeless. We wanted to think adding Carlos Pena and trading the farm for Matt Garza would be enough to have another magical winning season. We hoped Carlos Zambrano wouldn’t be a complete headcase, and with him, Garza, and Ryan Dempster, there would be a rotation worth running out each day. We had Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall setting up for Carlos Marmol, which turned out to be a decent pen when the Cubs actually led. Aramis Ramirez was still at third and it didn’t look like an endless abyss of suck. The reality of that team, though, is that the only player who played any considerable amount of time with any potential to grow was Starlin Castro. *Meatball, if you’re still with me, I’m talking to you again…yes, Starlin is getting better. No, we shouldn’t trade him unless we get a lot in return, and yes, his defense is above league average.* Now, look at the Brewers. Lucroy is pretty good, but at 26 is probably not going to get much better, if at all. Ryan Braun is in the twilight of his 20s, and is in his prime. Jean Segura is a young and talented player who will improve. But apart from that, who else is there? Their minor league organization is bare, and Aramis Ramirez is two years older than the past his prime Rami we saw a couple of years ago. Corey Hart can’t stay healthy, and is starting to get to the point of decline. Rickie Weeks is a laughable shell of his former self. It all looks very familiar to our situation a couple of years ago.
The point of all of this is that, like Wrigley Field, the product on the field was a real mess a couple of years ago. That’s why Jim Hendry was fired, that’s why Theo Epstein was given the reigns, and that’s why we are where we are. It needed to be done. Like any massive renovation, some things are going to be broken down, some things are going to be ugly and tough to handle, but in the end, the foundation will be stronger and the finished product will look better. If you take anything from this series, take it as progress. Two short years ago, the Cubs may have won some games because a less talented team made some silly mistakes against a team of aging veterans who weren’t going to be better than 71 wins, but wouldn’t beat themselves as often. Honestly, I would rather the Cubs throw the ball around the diamond and beat themselves than get run day after day. That’s not happening. What is happening is a young team learning to play together, and learning to win together. It’s hard to watch. It may result in being swept out of Milwaukee.
We knew what 2013 was coming in. It still is. A bridge to next year.
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.
Last night, Matt Cain threw a gem. An absolute beauty. A “perfect game.” Today, the debate has arisen about it being the greatest pitching performance of all-time. According to Bill James’ game score stat, it is tied for second with Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax with an overall score of 101 (which isn’t bad company). The only game ahead of those three…Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game, with a score of 105.
The perfect game is, in my eyes, a team accomplishment. No pitcher is ever going to throw a perfect game without the help of the seven guys behind him. Ever. No pitcher in the major leagues will ever strike out 27 in a row. It won’t happen. Mark my words. Write it down. Therefore, the defense behind the pitcher is every bit as important in the perfect game as a pitcher, because without good defense, the perfect game goes by the wayside. To their credit, pitchers that throw one typically acknowledge that after the game. I have not looked at Cain’s comments from post-game last night, but I am sure somewhere he mentioned the spectacular catch in right by Gregor Blanco. Or the very nice catch in left by Miguel Cabrera. Or his infield. No perfect game comes without perfect defense. It just doesn’t. And it also requires some luck. It just can’t happen as a solo effort. It hasn’t in any of the 22 (not counting Armando Galarraga’s “one hitter”) in history.
20 strikeouts is a totally different animal than a perfect game. From my perspective, it is a greater pitching accomplishment than a perfect game. It has happened only five times, compared to 22 perfect games. The defense doesn’t factor into the 20 strikeouts for roughly seven innings of a nine inning game. It doesn’t factor into the strikeout at all. 20 strikeouts don’t happen by accident. That is having superb command of, quite literally, unhittable stuff. That is the purest of pitching performances, where the batter and the pitcher square off, and there is just nothing a hitter can do about it.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying here. Matt Cain was electric last night. He pitched the game of his life, and the game of the franchise for
the Giants, their first perfect game, too. When comparing it to Kerry Wood’s game, a one-hitter, which was a Craig Biggio hit by pitch and a Ricky Gutierrez weak infield single from the same perfect game against a much better Astros’ team than Cain went perfect against last night, the comparison just isn’t fair. Wood did a lot of the work himself, which is an enormous feat, and deserving of the game score it got. He faced a line-up that included Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derrick Bell, and Moises Alou, none of whom had a hit. And the Astros were in first place when it happened. Matt Cain was masterful last night. So was Kerry Wood 14 years ago. But Kerry did more of the job without his defense, against a much better team. For those reasons, Kerry Wood threw the better game, in my estimation. Cain’s was a better team performance, but I still have not come across a game better than what Kerry Wood did in his fifth career start.
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.
Today is a sad day for me. Kerry Wood was one of my favorites. He hasn’t been a Cub for as long as I have been a fan, but he was for a huge portion of it.
The things I recall about Kerry Wood are vivid…
Of course, the first is the 20 strikeout game. I caught the very end of the game, and I was amazed at what I was seeing. First, because I was 12 years old and I had never seen a pitcher strike out basically everyone (I saw the last three innings, where he struck out 8 of his last 9). Looking back, that Astros team was good, too. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell, Moises Alou…all part of that team. That line up was full of All-Stars and Hall of Famers in Biggio and Bagwell. That game is one I will never forget as a Cubs’ fan. It may still be the single greatest thing I have seen as a Cubs’ fan…or as a sports fan in general.
I also remember him getting the Astros again, in 2000. His first game back after Tommy John surgery, he took Jose Lima deep. At that time, home runs had not really excited me too much because Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were hitting them on a daily basis, but that one did. I was excited for Kerry Wood to be back, and that moment really felt like he was back.
Obviously, his home run in 2003’s NLCS Game 7 was a beauty. It came on a big stage, in a big game. It wasn’t enough, but that season, and Kerry Wood teaming with Mark Prior to form a pretty damn good 1-2 punch with Matt Clement, Carlos Zambrano, and Shawn Estes amongst others. That turned out to be a one good pitching staff, and it was led by Kerry Wood. The offense was strong, too. 2003 was an incredible year with a disappointing ending for all of us. After Wood pitched and won Game 5 of the NLDS, I thought it was smooth sailing to the World Series, and thought I was right when the Cubs built a 3-1 series lead against Florida. That was a bittersweet season that won’t escape me, even when the Cubs do win the World Series.
In his presser where he announced his retirement, he couldn’t do a good job of explaining why we, as fans, loved Kerry Wood so much. My reasons are simple. Kerry Wood was dealt a horrible hand. He was given the ace of
spades in talent, and had it paired with the four of clubs in health. When he was on the mound, he was almost always electric. He joins Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez as the only players to average more than 10K/ 9 IP for pitchers with over 1000 innings pitched. He sits with Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to strike out 20 in a 9 inning start (Randy Johnson went 9, struck out 20 in a game that went to extra innings). I always felt like he was coming back. I felt like that this season. There were some signs that we would come out of his early season funk, probably induced by lack of work because of his shoulder. It always felt like the batter had no chance against him, especially if he was on. None of that speaks to his charitable donations and the time he took to help in the community. He was a great player and a better man. I stand by my assertion that athletes are not role models, but I wouldn’t hesitate to make an exception for Kerry Wood because it seemed like he was a husband, father, and member of the community first, and a baseball player second.
I am going to miss Kerry Wood for a great many reasons. None of which is bigger than the way he made it so that I didn’t want to miss a single pitch he threw…even when he was on temporary loan to the Indians and Yankees.
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
Some random information heading into the regular season…
- Cubs.com’s Carrie Muskat tweeted that Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler will throw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers’ opening game on Friday. The reason this makes it into a blog dedicated to the Cubs? She is a lifelong Cubs’ fan. I can only hope she wears a Cubs’ jersey out to the mound.
- ESPN Chicago’s Doug Padilla wrote an article about Carlos Marmol heading into the regular season. Dale Sveum talked about Carlos Marmol’s pitch selection and grip improvements made over the course of Spring Training. He spoke about Marmol gripping the seams of the baseball more on his fastball and using that pitch to get ahead in counts or get back into counts. After ditching the awful cutter from last season, look for Marmol to be the fastball/ slider pitcher we’ve seen in the past. Carlos has not allowed a run in his last six outings before today.
- One of the most talked about names in trade rumors as the regular season approaches is Cubs’ CF Marlon Byrd. The potential exists that the Cubs would be willing to absorb some of the salary remaining on the last year of Byrd’s contract. Should Marlon actually be traded, at any point this year, that would all but guarantee Brett Jackson would be called up at some point this season. It probably would not be initially, because the Cubs did send him back to Iowa for a reason. At this point, I would guess Byrd remains with the team until closer to the July non-waiver deadline.
- Like most teams in baseball, the Cubs are looking for help in the bullpen. The only assured slots are going to closer Carlos Marmol, set-up man Kerry Wood, and lefty James Russell. Behind those three are unproven commodities, although it would be a shock if Rodrigo Lopez was not the long reliever going into the season after the spring he’s put together.
- The Cubs are 15-16 this spring. Even though the games do not count, they did not get off to a great start. Hopefully, some of the late spring momentum carries into the regular season, and the Cubs can get out of the gates better than they did last season. If they have any shot at contending, a lot needs to go right, and a fast start is one of them.
Opening Day is less than three days away. Let the real games begin!
Dale Sveum seems to think that the Cubs can compete for a World Series Championship. I would tend to agree with him. As I predicted earlier in the season preview, I did not anticipate that it would be this season. Then again, who knows? The 2010 San Diego Padres made it really interesting down the stretch of the regular season, only to be beaten out by the eventual champion, San Francisco Giants. Both of those teams did it with pitching, and substandard offensive outputs. The Cubs are in a similar situation with a core of young offensive players and pitchers that are preparing for the season. One thing is certain, however; if the Cubs are going to play when the leaves are falling, here is the projected pitching staff that is going to do it:
1. RHP Matt Garza – Matt was the victim of some terrible luck last season, losing seven leads (one more than I earlier stated in the 2012 preview, but realized was an error with the aid of cubs.com). This season, he will most likely take the ball on Opening Day, and try to pick up where he left off after an excellent second half of the season.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster – Dempster goes into a contract year looking to rebound from a tough 2011, where he posted a 4.80 ERA, which was an improving statistic throughout the season after a disastrous April, where his ERA was north of 9.00. If the Cubs have any shot, he’s going to be a key reason why.
3. LHP Paul Maholm – The Pittsburgh castoff is the newest Cub starting pitcher, coming off a season where wins and losses did not tell the story of how well he pitched. He had an ugly 6-14 record with a strong 3.66 ERA. He is good at keeping the ball down, and doesn’t walk many, giving free passes to 50 in 162.1 innings last season. If he can keep the ball down at Wrigley, he may not replicate his complete game shut out from May 28 last season, but he will have success in his new home.
4. RHP Randy Wells – Randy needs to stay healthy. Then, Randy needs to get out of the first inning. Last season was the health. 2010 was the first inning. If he figures out his 2009 form this season, it could be a resurgent year for Wells, who figures to fall into the fourth slot in the rotation by near default.
5. RHP Chris Volstad – Chris is another new acquisition, coming from Miami for Carlos Zambrano. He is a classic innings eater, and but is more of a fly ball pitcher. This slot is very much up for grabs, with LHP Travis Wood seeking a spot in the rotation as well. My nod goes to Volstad because of his experience and durability.
Closer: RHP Carlos Marmol – Ditch the cutter. Bring the blown saves down. Relocate the release point on the slider. Problem solved.
Set Up: RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Jeff Samardzija – Samardzija is going to compete for a rotation slot, but he figures to wind up in the role where he excelled last season, especially in the second half. Kerry Wood is a veteran stabilizer in the ‘pen that could find himself closing if Marmol needs a day or falters.
Middle Relief: LHP James Russell, LHP Scott Maine, RHP Lendy Castillo – Castillo was selected in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft and will likely be on the 25 man roster all season, unless of course he is “injured” at some point. Russell and Maine both figure to make the team as lefty specialists, with Russell having the ability to set up from the left side. One thing is for sure, James Russell is not a starting pitcher, even though he was admirable in stepping in and eating innings when called on. He didn’t fair well, but he did the rest of the bullpen a needed service.
Long Relief: LHP Andy Sonnanstine – Andy’s got the ability to go long relief and spot start. It is a stretch to think the Cubs will carry three left handed relievers out of camp, but without much viable alternative for a long reliever, Sonny is probably going to be the guy by default. Look for Marcos Mateo to make the team in middle relief if Dale Sveum wants another righty in middle relief, and Maine to start in Iowa.
Other Expected Contributors
LHP Travis Wood – Spot starts/ long relief
LHP John Gaub – Could be in the bullpen out of Spring Training, but will pitch with the major league team regardless. He is a strong arm that can supplement a tired bullpen
RHP Rafael Dolis – Rafael is a young pitcher that is competing for a roster spot, but is a long shot. He should be in Chicago at some point this season, but it figures to come if there is an injury to a starting pitcher
RHP Casey Coleman – Casey could pick up some spot starts and long relief duty. He figures to be another player that will pitch in injury situations. If he can keep his composure as he showed at times last season, he may make a case to stay around a while.
RHP Justin Berg, RHP Marcos Mateo – Both Berg and Mateo seem to be at the same point in their development. Berg offers a change of pace out of the bullpen that the Cubs do not have, so I expect him to be with the 25 man roster consistently over the course of the season, and Mateo is another arm that can provide relief during long trips, when injuries require an arm, or if another of the youngsters is ineffective.
When the Cubs were competitive in the last decade, their pitching was the catalyst with timely hitting. The Cubs failed to produce either of those things last season. If there is any shot that they are competitive this season, it is going to take the gentlemen on this projection, along with others making the trip from Des Moines to supplement the staff. New Pitching Coach Chris Bosio has his work cut out for him, repairing the unmitigated disaster that was Cubs’ pitching last season. The good news is, there is more depth than there was when the team broke camp for 2011. The bad news is that regardless of who the Cubs break with, the majority of the pitchers are going to be talented, but unproven or under-performing major league pitchers.
Unfortunately, there are too many ifs in this group to expect the great things that will be needed for the Cubs to make a deep run. The pitching needs to catch lightning in a bottle to be better than middle of the road this season. The bright side is, there is not a lot of age in the group, with Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, and Ryan Dempster being the most veteran of the entire staff. Here’s to hoping that I’m way off…