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.
First, 3B Ian Stewart was placed on the 15 Day Disabled list today with his wrist injury. I have not seen for sure, but I assume that is retroactive to the 12th, which is the last day Stewart played. Surgery is an option for Stewart, as several of the Cubs’ beat writers have discussed the possibility of nerve damage. Hopefully, Stewart can recover and realize his potential, and not make trading DJ LeMaheiu and Tyler Colvin look like a tremendous mistake. In his place, the Cubs recalled IF Luis Valbuena from Iowa, and he started at third this afternoon in the loss to the Tigers.
Additionally, the Cubs activated C Wellington Castillo from the 15 Day Disabled List and Designated C Koyie Hill for Assignment. The Hill DFA removes him from the 25 man roster to make room for Castillo and from the 40 man roster to make room for Valbuena.
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.