That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake. It was meant to be. Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.
Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs. And while
maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.
From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball. He got to the spot in plenty of time. He did not appear to be fighting the sun. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. It just didn’t look that way. And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.
If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake. Yesterday is a prime comparison. Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score. Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so. That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield. There is no excuse for that. Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder. To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.
Effort mistakes are inexcusable. Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club. David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth). The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time. When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win. Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time. Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions. What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.
Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing. Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players. That might be where they’re missed the most.
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.
Some news and notes of the day…
- Anthony Rizzo is expected to debut with the major league Cubs tomorrow, which is the start of the future. Without the pressure of guiding a winning team, or even a team with a modestly poor record, Rizzo is going to be the everyday first baseman against lefties and right-handers, according to Dale Sveum. With 89 games remaining after tonight, if Rizzo can hit between 10 and 15 HRs and drive in between 40 and 50, it would be a successful transition for a player that is meant to be a foundation piece for future seasons. This also could signal the beginning of a number of call-ups from Iowa and Tennessee, as more and more players are likely to get looks at the big league level as veterans like Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Geovany Soto, and others are subject to trade speculation.
- Marlon Byrd’s positive test for tamoxifen is a bitter pill to swallow for me, personally, because of the respect I have for him While tamoxifen is not a performance enhancing drug, it is banned because it is used to mitigate the side effects of PEDs. For his part, Byrd says that he was prescribed the drug for a condition not related to baseball. Tamoxifen is used to treat a variety of conditions, and without testing positive for steroids or testosterone, it is unlikely that Marlon had any performance enhancing effect from it. Unfortunately, its off label use as a mask for PED use puts it on the banned substance list, and triggered his positive test. As has been my feeling since he was traded, I hope Byrd catches on somewhere and can have a positive impact on a contending team.
- Many in the 2012 draft class are getting their careers underway, either with the Boise Hawks or in the AZL. Supplementary Picks Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn, the highest of the picks to sign to this point, are in Arizona. First round (6th overall) pick, Albert Almora is yet to sign.
- As the trade deadline gets closer, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are being talked about more and more. That talk will not quiet down until a move is made or the deadline passes. Garza is the biggest chip in the Cubs’ pile, which would net them the most in return. It appears, however, at the moment, Dempster is still the only player likely to be traded. Ryan is still on the Disabled List, though, and he will probably make at least a few starts with the Cubs to prove that he is alright before a team ponies up prospects for him.
By now, baseball followers are aware of the trade sending Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox for Michael Bowden and a player to be named later.
It is not secret that Marlon Byrd was one of my favorites. His hustle, his energy, his selflessness, and his adoration for the Bleacher Bums was something that made me believe in him. For the most part, on the field, he produced quite well. While his numbers dipped after being hit in the face by a pitch in Boston, he did not let it change his style of play. He still stood close to the plate. He still hustled. And I am sure those things will continue in Boston.
The thing that made Marlon Byrd so compelling to me was his leadership. As a veteran, he understood his role in helping to develop some of his younger teammates. Last season, it was Darwin Barney who was taken under his wing and developed into a professional. I would guess that was, in part, due to Barney’s similarities to Marlon. They both hustle. They are both very smart players. And they both work extremely hard at their craft. Byrd is probably, at least partially, responsible for Darwin’s physical transformation. From my perspective, it is not a coincidence that Darwin Barney AND Marlon Byrd came into Spring Training this year after making significant body transformations. The other player that Byrd understood his responsibility to is Brett Jackson. In his own blog, Marlon looked back to 2002 and remembered Doug Glanville helping him come up in the Phillies’ organization. Marlon talked about paying it forward. He knew his time in Chicago was limited to the time it took Brett Jackson to get to the major leagues (it appears that time was a little shorter, with there being no plans to call up Jackson at this moment), and by all accounts, did everything he could to help him become a better professional baseball player.
Marlon Byrd is a pro’s pro. He works hard. He doesn’t get down on himself. Even though he slumped at the plate, he played a very good center field this season. And he should be missed. His contributions to the team far exceed the productivity he had on the field. When the Red Sox visit later this summer, I would expect that he gets a standing ovation. I would expect that the fans show him the same appreciation that he showed them in the brief time that he has been a Cub.
5:45 Update: Marlon Byrd has confirmed he’s been sent to the Red Sox. The Cubs will pay much of his $6.5M salary this season, while getting back Michael Bowden and the dreaded “player to be named later” from the Red Sox. Apparently, the left-handed reliever reports were wrong, although it would have been nice since James Russell is the only reliable lefty the Cubs have in the bullpen. As it is, the Cubs get another young player with upside, as Bowden is a 25 year old pitcher, drafted in the first round in 2005. So the trade breaks down like this:
Red Sox Get: CF Marlon Byrd, Cash
Cubs Get: RHP Michael Bowden, Player to be Named Later
12:53 UPDATE: Marlon Byrd is not in the line up, and Bruce Levine, of ESPN Chicago reported from the press box at this afternoon’s game that the Cubs would get back a left handed reliever and and a minor league prospect in the trade for Byrd. That would rule out the Cubs acquiring reliever, Michael Bowden, whom the Sox designated for assignment last week, as he is right handed.
Fox Sport’s Ken Rosenthal reports that the Red Sox have looked at other outfield options with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford both being injured.
It is not a done deal that Marlon heads to Boston, where he was struck in the face with a pitch by Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves last season. At the time, he was hitting .308. He has hit .230 since he returned from the DL after being hit, including hitting .070 over the first couple of weeks this season.
As it stands, all signs point the the Cubs and Red Sox finishing a deal, sending the popular outfielder to Boston, today.
11:46 AM: The Boston Globe is reporting that the Cubs and Red Sox are close to a deal that would send CF Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox. I would assume, for low level prospects.
One can safely say that Theo Epstein giving a pragmatic interview about not reading too much into a 3-9 (which became 3-10 a few short hours later) is not exactly what anyone had in mind two weeks into the 2012 season. Then again, neither was a 46 run output, 17 of which came in two days.
It is not hard to figure out that the offense is what has consistently let the Cubs down over the course of the first two weeks of the season. If not for the mighty offensive struggles, some of the late inning bullpen problems might not be so significant in this early stage of the season. The opposition is not blameless in all of the struggles, either. The Cubs have faced some pretty damn good pitching at the outset of the season. That would account for part of the problem…but not all of it. Consider the following:
Batting Avg: .233
Of all of the significant offense numbers, the only one in which the Cubs rank near the top of the league is strikeouts. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the offense at this point. The third and fourth slot have yielded almost nothing to this point. Starlin Castro is having a very Starlin-esque season to this point, but the third slot in the line up is a run producing spot. Line drive singles and doubles with nobody on base is not run producing. It is table setting. Starlin has driven in seven runs, and the clean up hitting Alfonso Soriano has not yet had an extra base hit to go with his seven RBI. 14 RBI and no home runs out of the third and fourth place hitters is a symptom of offensive anemia. The most authoritative hitters this season have been Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, and Bryan LaHair. Two players that the Cubs were counting on, Geovany Soto and Marlon Byrd, have yet to bring their bats north for the summer, collectively hitting .118 with 1 HR and 3 RBI.
The fixes are not actually clear at this point. First, I would move Bryan LaHair to the clean up spot. He has pounded on some baseballs, and would have at least two more home runs if not for weather conditions and a wasteland where fly balls go to die in center field in Miami. Giving LaHair a chance to drive Castro, Barney, and David DeJesus, who all are hitting somewhat well this early season, might jump start the offense into scoring more than a pathetic 2.64 runs per game, when the 8-0 and 9-5 wins are taken out of the equation. Those two games are serving to be blips that are not indicative of the trend early in the season. Also, move Marlon Byrd to the second slot in the line up. While that move may seem insane for a man hitting .075, he would be protected in by Starlin Castro. At this point, the pitcher is Marlon’s protection, and has been getting a steady diet of crap that Marlon has been more than willing to feed on early in the season. The chances of pitchers trying to allow Marlon to continue to get himself out with a few more fastballs and a few less breaking balls off the outside corner of the plate may go up, and his batting average may go with it.
A new line up, from my perspective, may look something like this:
1. David DeJesus, RF
2. Marlon Byrd, CF,
3. Starlin Castro, SS
4. Bryan LaHair, 1B
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Alfonso Soriano, LF
7. Darwin Barney, 2B
8. Geovany Soto, C
The only things I can say with certainty at this point are:
A. The offense is going to need to turn around
B. I do not envy Dale Sveum’s position of trying to formulate a plan to catalyze that turn around
May a weekend against equally offensively challenged Cincinnati bring some wins…
…and I’ll bet you thought the title of this post was going to yield very different content.
With the big league club taking its second off day of the season, I thought I would drop down and talk about some AAA baseball this evening. Namely, the top two prospects in the system, Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson.
First Baseman Anthony Rizzo:
2012 I-Cubs Numbers
SLG %: .739
Anthony Rizzo is a pretty easy player to talk about. He is a 22 year old, 6’3″, 220 lb power hitting first baseman…and the best part is, he’s left handed. He is very, very close to being a fixture at Wrigley Field with the Chicago Cubs, as opposed to the AAA confines of Principle Park in Iowa. He is a “can’t miss” offensive prospect, with some refining to do as a first baseman at the MLB level. He had a brief stint with the Padres last season, hitting .141, which prompted new GM Jed Hoyer to take blame and make sure that Rizzo is not being rushed to the majors before he is ready, which may slow his debut with the Cubs. He is, however, a possible call- up candidate if a trade is made. Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano are both candidates to be dealt this season, and with Bryan LaHair working in the corner outfield, a Soriano trade could open the door for Rizzo, with LaHair taking over in left field. That all depends, of course, on his continued development in Iowa. If the first week of the season is any indication, he figures to be around sooner, rather than later.
Center Fielder Brett Jackson
2012 I-Cubs Numbers
SLG %: .523
Brett Jackson is probably a bit further away from the majors than Anthony Rizzo. Theo Epstein believes in players have a full year, meaning calendar year, at AAA before being called up. That would likely mean the chances of seeing Brett Jackson roaming center field in front of the ivy is unlikely this season, even if Marlon Byrd is traded. It is more likely that Reed Johnson would be the everyday man in center, with Rizzo being a potential call up. Better money to replace Byrd on the roster would be the speedy Tony Campana. Dale Sveum loved what he saw out of Brett this spring. From afar, I cannot disagree. After hitting .293 with 10 HR after being promoted to Iowa last season, Jackson is rapidly ascending in the Cubs’ system. He will be a Chicago Cub. It could be this season.
There is one unknown about these two fine prospects…and that is the effect of falling out of contention at the major league level. With the Cubs off to a slow start, and the season not projected to be overcome with success, it remains to be seen how the new front office and Dale Sveum will handle calling up prospects, even in September. They may want to give good prospects a long look at the end of the season. Or they could take the other approach and decide not to “start the clock” on major league service time for Jackson, and other prospects yet to make a major league debut.
Two of the most important positions on the field are center field and first base. The Cubs have two very good prospects at those positions to team with star SS Starlin Castro to form a young nucleus of good players at key positions. With Castro intrenched at the big league level and the two top prospects following, either this season or next, the future looks good. And the future could be sooner, rather than later.