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
In my last post, on what I project to be the pitching staff this season, I referred to the Cubs’ pitching last season as “an unmitigated disaster.” I have no qualms about that statement because, in short, it was. It was not over- stated. It was not even putting a microscope on a weak spot from a team that struggled for a good portion of the season. It just was what it was. With all of that said, the guys behind the pitching last season contributed to it mightily. Last season, the Cubs were 29th in defensive efficiency with a .680 rating. That narrowly edged out the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .679 DER. To contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays were first in MLB with a .724 DER. Nobody in the majors topped the 134 errors by the Cubs last season, which led to an expected last place finish in fielding percentage. The pitching was bad. The fielding was worse. If the Cubs have a snowball’s chance in Mesa, AZ of making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve dramatically.
The offense was very middle of the road, and the numbers bear that out. They finished between 10th and 20th in the majors in just about all offensive categories, except for stolen bases, where they were down toward the bottom of the league. Don’t expect that to get much better this season. With the losses of 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B Carlos Pena, and OF Kosuke Fukudome, a significant portion of the output from last season is gone. The biggest bats left in the line up are C Geovany Soto, LF Alfonso Soriano, and SS Starlin Castro. The only one of those guys that is consistent is Castro, so the offense figures to be a work in progress all season long.
The position players are going to be a fluid group for all 162 games, in spite of what Dale Sveum said about sticking to one line up earlier this week. As such, take this projection with the smallest of grains of salt…
Line- Up and Batting Order
1. RF David DeJesus – The free agent from Oakland figures to be the first of the lead off hitters this season, although that may change as the season wears on. He’s never played more than 144 games in a season, and hit .240 last season with the A’s. That figures to be an aberration, though, because his career average of .284 is significantly better. If he can be who he was before 2011, hitting in the neighborhood of .300 and getting on base around .350, he figures to hang on to the job for a while.
2. 2B Darwin Barney – Darwin wore down as the season wore on last season after a red hot start. He added some muscle this off-season, which may help him. Aside from the offensive struggles late, Darwin was a nice surprise for a bad team last season. His defense was average and he figures to continue to be an opportunistic base stealer, having nine and being caught twice last year. As he grows at the major league level, his numbers could rise. Or, he could be in for the dreaded sophomore slump. With the way his teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, I would bet on the former before the latter.
3. SS Starlin Castro– Starlin figures to settle into the third slot in the line-up this season, although Dale Sveum has said he will consult Starlin about where he wants to hit. The free swinging short stop doesn’t walk too much, but still managed to hit over .300 again last season, and led the NL in hits with 207 at age 21. He did have 29 errors in 158 games, which was actually an improvement in his defense from the 210 campaign, where he had 27 in
123 games. Those numbers are a bit misleading, though, because Starlin makes errors on plays that would be hits with others short stops because he has such great range. He also makes throws that a number of other short stops would not dream of making because of his sensational arm. Expect former major league short stop and new Cubs’ Skipper to work with Castro. And expect the errors to come down.
4. 1B Bryan LaHair – The reigning PCL MVP gets the opportunity to start, and will probably hit fourth in the line- up on the heels of his 38 HRs in AAA last season. He is not going to replace the production from Aramis Ramirez, but he did have a good showing after he was called up last season. He hit .288 with 2 HRs and 10 RBI in 59 at bats last season. If he can contribute at that pace, with about 500 at bats this season, he will be just fine. There will be a drop off in production in the clean up slot, but it will be manageable.
5. CF Marlon Byrd – Marlon had a tough year last season. His veteran presence in CF and in the middle of the line- up are important to a young team. He comes in slimmed down and expecting to improve on his .276 average and 9 HRs from last season. Considering he lost six weeks with the facial fracture suffered in Boston, it wasn’t nearly as bad, statistically, as it looks. If he can rebound and hit around .290 and give the team the 12-15 HRs and 60 or so RBIs that he typically gives, it will be a nice rebound for Marlon this year.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano – ‘Fonsi is the guy that epitomizes why Cubs’ fans hated Jim Hendry. Even though there is wide spread information available that says he was a product of the Tribune Co. ownership group, Hendry takes the fall for a guy that has hit no fewer than 20 HRs in this five seasons in Chicago. He is the last known threat in the line- up, too. His 26 HRs and 88 RBIs last season were a strong number for an aging outfielder. He is not the guy that everybody thought the Cubs were getting before the 2007 season, but he is still a legit power threat, and the streaky hitter can carry the team for weeks at a time when he gets hot. He will likely continue to be a defensive liability that is replaced by either Reed Johnson or Tony Campana late in games when the team is leading, but I would expect, barring injury, another 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Soriano in a status quo season for the veteran.
7. C Geovany Soto – The bad news about Geo is that he goes up and down in his production from year to year. The good news is that last year was a down year, so he is due a good year. After slimming down again, Soto thinks that he can keep the weight off this time. He will likely give the Cubs the 20 HRs and 60 RBIs that he has been in the ballpark of giving, but if he brings his average back to around .280 and starts taking the walks he took in 2010, it should be a resurgent year for Soto. He called last season a “confidence problem.” If he can manage to focus on each at- bat, many of his issues might correct themselves, and we could see a much better Soto in 2012.
8. 3B Ian Stewart – Remember 2010…when Tyler Colvin had a good bat, and made Cubs’ fans think about him being the first real fixture in RF since Sammy Sosa? I introduce the you the Colorado Rockies’ version of Colvin. In 2009 and 2010, Stewart was a legit hitter with the Rockies with 25 and 18 HRs, respectively. His average has never blown anybody away, but when he was able to put the ball in play, it was generally going to be with some authority. Now, he’s a Cub after being traded for the aforementioned Colvin, along with infielder, DJ LeMahieu in the ultimate “change of scenery” swap. If he can recapture any of the offense he had in 2009 and 2010 under Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo, he might be able to fend off slowly progressing Josh Vitters this season.
IF Jeff Baker – Super utility player, Baker, can play First, Second, Third, and the corner outfield with some effectiveness, and hits well against left handed pitching. He will play a lot this season, in pinch hitting and platoon roles in multiple positions.
OF Reed Johnson – “Web Gem” is going to back up all three outfield spots this season, and will be the “go to” defensive replacement for Soriano late in games this year. Reed is a strong veteran that seems to deliver in the biggest moments with either a defensive play that saves runs or with a huge hit. I wouldn’t expect anything different than what Reed did last season in the 2012 campaign.
OF Tony Campana – Tony’s game changing speed is the reason he will likely break camp with the big league team, being the Cubs’ lone serious stolen base threat. He is going to be a pinch runner and defensive replacement when he gets into the game, with the occasional start in any of the three outfield slots. This is the first person that will head back to Iowa if and when any of Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, or Dave Sappelt join the big league team.
IF Adrian Cardenas – The 24 year old middle infielder stole the roster spot held by Blake DeWitt, and figures to make the team as a back up at both middle infield positions after being claimed off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. He’s a left handed hitter, who had strong numbers in AAA last season, hitting .314, and runs better than Dewitt.
C Wellington Castillo – With the departure of Koyie Hill, the opportunity to make the major league team on a permanent basis opens up for Castillo, after seeing some time last year with Soto injured. Castillo is a good hitter and a strong defensive catcher. If he proves that he can handle the young pitching staff, he is the favorite over Steve Clevenger and Jason Jaramillo to win the back up role out of camp.
Other Expected Contributors
CF Brett Jackson – Brett Watch 2012 is on in full force, as this could be the year where the Cubs’ top prospect makes his debut in front of the ivy at Wrigley. I would anticipate that to be the case at some point. That means Marlon Byrd either moves over to one of the corners (left field if someone can be found to take Soriano) or Byrd himself gets traded.
IF Blake DeWitt – Blake probably will not make the roster out of camp, but he will most likely be with the team at some point over the course of the season. He is the first guy up if there is an injury to any infielder because he can play second, third, short, and the corner outfield. He may be released out of camp or a trade could be sought if he fails to make the 25 man roster out of camp.
1B Anthony Rizzo– The 1B of the future, Rizzo will start the season in Iowa, but I would be stunned if he isn’t with the major league team before July. If Ian Stewart or Bryan LaHair struggle or get hurt, this is the guy that will
probably get called up. While he probably will not start over veteran Jeff Baker, he would likely be with the major league team to get some spot starts as a left handed hitter.
OF Dave Sappelt – Dave was acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade and has plus speed and plays good defense. He got some light duty with the Reds last season, and figures to be with the Cubs at some point of the season, as the first man up if there is an injury.
OF Matt Szczur – Matt is the “other” outfield prospect that figures to make is MLB debut. He also figures to be the RF of the future, playing next to Brett Jackson when he gets to Chicago. Matt is a Five Tool prospect and could find his way to Chicago this season if there are injuries or if the team falls back early.
3B Josh Vitters – Josh will probably be an injury or September call up this season. His slow development has been hidden by the fact that Aramis Ramirez has been at third for the last eight years. He seemingly figured it out last season in the minors. If Ian Stewart struggles this season, he is going to get his opportunity. At 22, he is young enough, but after four years of minor league baseball behind him, his leash to figure it out is shortening.
The youth of this team is the first thing that should be noticed. There will be some offensive and defensive growing pains with the core youth with this team. Like I declared in my preview post, I do not expect the Cubs to be a viable playoff threat this season, and will struggle to get to .500 if they manage to. What cannot be understated is the talent of the collection of players being led by Dale Sveum. His devotion to fundamentals and playing hard should suit this roster perfectly. If the can grow, this core group will be a viable threat in 2013 and beyond. This season, though, is for “building.” And it is going to start with this foundation of players gaining invaluable experience at the major league level this season.