In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go. The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline. That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.
As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more. He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.
Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault. He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players. To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013. The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.
Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent. He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.
On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together. While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful. Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder. After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season. It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him. Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011. The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum. And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too. Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up. In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25). While the sample is small, the results matter. Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively. The steps in the right direction are adding up.
The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive. As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al. He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury. He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready. He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that. And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp. It was the front office’s. Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message. That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team. The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit. When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home. And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse. Think about it. Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure? For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something. Especially in a media market like Chicago. But it’s been remarkably quiet. Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.
Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning. The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.” But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel. That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.
Besides. He got shot in the face and laughed it off. How cool is it to have a manager like that?
In today’s loss to Pittsburgh, Starlin Castro had two hits and Anthony Rizzo wore the collar again. That’s not really too different from the last week or so, where neither has been setting the world on fire. In Starlin’s case, he’s been less productive all season than he has in his first three. Anthony Rizzo has been as streaky as it gets. He ended a 40 PA streak without a strike out with a flurry of them coming in the last four ballgames. Ultimately, both have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Starlin Castro is not as protected as he was when he was called up three years ago. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are not in the line up to protect him anymore, and it has shown since the beginning of 2012. Anthony Rizzo never got the luxury of being in the line up with Ramirez or Lee, and has been the man since last June when he was called up. At least Alfonso Soriano was swinging the bat when he got the call. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all, and Rizzo has also done some uncharacteristic swinging and missing, in an obvious effort to carry the offense.
Dale Sveum has shown up as the scapegoat for this season. It isn’t a surprise that Dale is the one being chased with torches and pitchforks. After all, he is the one who is hanging sliders late in games. And it is Sveum who is swinging at pitches a foot off the plate with runners in scoring position. It would be unimaginable to forget all of the errors in the field he’s committed, as well. Actually, I’m being told that he hasn’t done any of those things thus far. While he (and every other manager/ head coach in professional sports) has done some things that may not seem to be the right move, or clearly haven’t been the right move, it is absurd to blame him for the failures of the bullpen this season. He could not have known, before the season, that Carlos Marmol was going to be as bad as he was out of the gates after as good as he was in the second half of last season. He could not have known Kyuji Fujikawa would have a forearm injury and not tell anyone about it. The same applies to the Shawn Camp fiasco that happened earlier this week. While it is fair to question some of the moves Dale has made in some situations, to pick him apart and blame him for the failures of the team would be a disservice, especially since he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the development that he has overseen. The Cubs were the worst defensive team in baseball in 2011. They are much better now (spare me the errors, crap. Those are 100% subjective. Peripherals say the Cubs are much better than they were in 2011). They are much better base runners. They make some silly plays on the bases now, but they are errors or aggression, and not errors of not knowing what’s going on. All of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija have grown in the time Sveum has been around. Darwin Barney won a Gold Freaking Glove. Matt Garza stayed with a 61 win team after being shut down in July because of the atmosphere of the clubhouse when a lot of players go home to rehab. That speaks volumes to Dale Sveum’s ability to manage a clubhouse and a ball club. He should get the credit he deserves if he is going to get the unfair criticisms of being the reason a team with a talent deficiency is 10 under .500.
All of that leads me to this…when do the fans start looking in the mirror and blaming themselves? The obvious answer is never. Because nobody wants to think they’re the reason for anything. We as a fan base, collectively, have a lot more effect on things than we might think. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are two very rich players who fans are always talking about being the future of the team and the cornerstones of a team that lead the Cubs fans to the promised land. That’s a heavy burden on two kids. Because they are kids. 23 years old is young if they were starting in Iowa. They are both starting every day at Wrigley Field. While I am not tremendously older than either of those two, I do know that I have undergone a major transformation in the years since I was 23. That’s just out of college for most people. These two are being counted on to win a World Series where one hasn’t been won in 105 years! Are they feeling the pressure of expectations levied on them by media and fans? I can’t answer for sure, but I would venture to guess the obvious answer is yes. It shows in their performance. They are both trying to make things happen when nothing is there to be made…and it is hurting them and the team. Matt Garza has already addressed the negativity around the team this season from the fans. Since he’s still new to the whole Cubs atmosphere, he must not realize the negativity has been going on for a long time. Dale Sveum isn’t the first “moron,” “idiot,” “over-thinker,” or “washed up player” to come through here and be run out of town by the fans. It happened to Mike Quade, Dusty Baker, and Don Baylor…all in the last 12 years. It probably would have happened to Lou Piniella, too, but he got the hell out of town before he could be chased down Sheffield Avenue by an angry mob. All of the things that I love about being a Cubs fan…the passion, the loyalty, the undying desire to see the Cubs win it all…have to make being on a team that doesn’t win it all an unmitigated hell. We’re the people who booed Carlos Marmol before the home opener this season. We’re the people who booed Alfonso Soriano unmercifully for not running out a line drive that was caught at third base on national television. We’re the people who, inexplicable, found some cause to boo Aramis Ramirez when he made his first visit to Wrigley last season as a member of the Brewers.
And for what? Because every year has to be THE YEAR? I’ve said it before, other bloggers have said it before, and the front office and manager have said it before if you listened closely to what they’ve said…this is not the year. This is another completely developmental year. Theo, and I paraphrase, said it’s either playoffs or protected pick. And if you hooked him up to a polygraph, he’d probably tell you playoffs were never really an option. He’s smart. He knows who is on the line up card Dale fills out everyday. It’s not a playoff team.
I’m not saying to applaud mediocrity. I’m not saying to ignore mistakes and to not boo a lack of effort. I’m saying that we aren’t helping. The players that are running out there everyday feel the weight of a fan base pushing down on their shoulders. And there are only a few who are out there everyday. Castro. Rizzo. Barney. Those are the ones who will have the best chance of being a part of the team that does win it all. Crushing them now is just counterproductive.
Some of the news surrounding our beloved Cubs…
- Theo Epstein made it clear that he wants an actual piece in a trade for Alfonso Soriano. He cited Sori’s 2012 season and his willingness to help young players, making him a valuable clubhouse presence, as the reasons for why he wants an actual player, especially since the Cubs are going to eat a large chunk of the $36M remaining on Soriano’s deal. I don’t mind this approach, because the money for Soriano is already spent, so holding out to get something of value is not a terrible move. Soriano can help young players, his work with helping Starlin Castro become a better professional is of special note in this regard, and a young team can use a good veteran clubhouse player. If Soriano can replicate his season last year with a duplicate this year, he’d actually be worth the $18M he’s getting paid with his leadership and his production. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve defended Soriano for a few years, although I have been in favor of trading him. The guy has struggled with injuries since he got to Chicago, and could have missed far more games than he actually did. And, for what it’s worth, if last year really is the first time he had gotten any outfield instruction, it is partially the fault of the Piniella and Quade regimes for his defensive incompetence. To boil it down, I wouldn’t mind him getting traded, but the Cubs should get more than a bag of balls for him.
- Luis Valbuena agreed to a deal with the Cubs, allowing them to avoid going to a hearing with him. He’s going to get $930K this season, where he figures to be on the bench, but will likely serve as a back-up at 2B, SS, and 3B, all of which he can play competently. As a left handed bat, who took 36 walks in 303 plate appearances, he is the type of versatile player that has some value on a bench, even on a good team. It’s good to see him back, and hopefully be in a role he’s better suited to, after seeing him start a number of games at 3B when Ian Stewart was shut down with a wrist injury. With Valbuena being taken care of, that leaves Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and James Russell as the remaining arbitration players this off-season.
- The Cubs signed Brett Lillibridge and Darnell McDonald last week to minor league deals. I have not seen whether or not they’ve gotten invitations to Spring Training, but I would assume, with the team looking for competition and depth among potential players on the roster, that they have. As Spring Training draws closer, I’ll post a complete list of Bunting Tournament participants.
- Cubs Convention is this weekend. I will be there. It is my first opportunity to actually attend, so I am very excited about the chance to be a big kid this weekend. The information put out on the team’s website is here. It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend for fans, and with proceeds going to charity, it benefits a good cause. Classic win-win, so if you haven’t bought tickets and can attend, I would urge any of my few loyal readers and any passing readers to take the opportunity to head out this weekend.
For fans, it would be easy to say things could not get any worse than watching a team at or near the bottom of the majors, record wise. The easy assertion, however, is typically wrong.
There is one thing I love about the 2012 Cubs. There is one thing that stands out above everything else with this team, and it is a direct reflection on the character of the team and Manager, Dale Sveum. They compete. They compete for nine innings, until the final out is recorded every single day.
Some plays stick out in my mind to back my claim, like Ian Stewart running and sliding hard into second base and Reed Johnson hustling down the line to break up a potential game ending double play against the Twins on June 9, which was a game that had long been decided. There are other anecdotes similar to that one sprinkled all over the disappointing 69 games so far.
Beyond the team, I give the credit to Dale Sveum. He is showing that he is, without question, the right man for the job. I take the time to listen to his post game comments nearly every day when they are posted on cubs.com, and he sounds the same whether the team wins or loses. He doesn’t point the finger at players for losses. He doesn’t sit in front of the media and give the “woe is me” speech. He answers the questions and moves on.
Undoubtedly, this is a tough season for Sveum. His only other managerial experience came as the Brewers’ skipper at the end of their 2008 run to the Wild Card and their first round series vs. Philadelphia. His experience came with a winning team, and last season he was on their bench as they went to the NLCS. Indeed, he has needed to change gears quickly from refining the hitting of an established team that could rake with the best of them, to teaching the fundamentals of baseball to one with holes and “a talent deficit” that his new bosses in the Cubs’ front office handed him.
Handling that deficit is the first way in which he is passing the test. First, he surrounded himself with experience, youth, energy, and great teachers of the game. His coaching staff includes the very experienced Dave McKay (who should get a medal for his work in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano), Chris Bosio, Jamie Quirk, James Rowson, and holdovers Pat Listach and Lester Strode. All of them are somewhat young as far as coaches go, with the exception of McKay, who still seems to be young at heart. All of them are former players. All of them seem to have their players’ ears. He surrounded a team that wasn’t as talented or experienced with some talented and experienced coaches, and the product on the field, while tough to watch at times, has not been as sloppy or lethargic as it has been in years past under Mike Quade and Lou Piniella.
To this point, Dale Sveum has done nothing to cause me to lose my confidence in him. From afar, he seems to be the right kind of manager to help develop a team with some short-comings, but talent coming up through the system. In spite of the pace they’ve set and the potential for a fire sale as the summer continues, I still do not expect to see the team lose 100 games, because I expect them to keep getting better. They’ve done that all season. Their 21 games under .500 record will likely not change too much, because even though they had a long stretch of losses, they are a team with some good players that are capable of getting hot and going on a six or seven game surge. And the law of averages says that some of these close losses will turn into some close wins late in the season.
It may be tough to look long term at this team. It would also be foolish, since there will be inevitable changes. The leadership of the on field product is very good, though. There is a dynamic with this team that could make them fun to watch as a spoiler down the stretch. Take them day to day. And enjoy the product’s improvement looking back, as Dale Sveum has more and more time to put his stamp on the team and mold it for future, less difficult seasons.
Last season, the Cubs’ defense was one of the things that let them down the most in a disappointing 71-91 season, which led to the Ricketts family getting rid of everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor. That, by now, is common knowledge. The most significant problem was the development of SS Starlin Castro and 2B Darwin Barney, who were both in their first full season in the majors, and Barney was learning how to play second, after coming up as a short stop.
This season, things are quite a bit better up the middle for the Cubs. The eye test is the first indicator, showing us the range of both Castro and Barney, getting to balls that many players in their positions would not. Darwin Barney, last night, made a dazzling defensive play in the ninth, turning a sure base hit into a fielder’s choice that retired Corey Hart at second base. The numbers back up the defensive improvement. He has one error in 254 total chances, which is good for a strong .996 fielding percentage. His “range factor” rating is also at the highest it’s been in his major league career. His range factors and fielding percentage are both above the league average
this season, and both improved over his 2011 numbers, which is a testament to two things: Barney’s hard work to improve his defense, and an accumulation of time at a new position, making him more comfortable. It is simple to throw metrics out there as a quantification for improvement, and those support my assertion that he is much better, but the big things are the jump from 29th in 2011 to 6th thus far in 2012 in defensive efficiency, and the slight improvement in fielding percentage as a team. Much of that is due to the improvement up the middle.
Starlin Castro’s defense is a different, but not dramatically worse, story. There are lingering questions about his defense, which aren’t all fair. His .966 fielding percentage is accompanied by his nine errors so far in 2012. Six of those errors, however, came in two games. And with the league average for short stops being .969, Starlin isn’t all that far off the pace of his peers. The numbers that are a little more promising are his runs above average, which is on the positive side of the coin for the first time in his career. His range factor numbers are significantly higher than the league average, which is one of the things that can explain some of his errors. Starlin Castro has the range to get to a great number of balls that nearly all of the other short stops in the league would have get through for hits. Castro gets to the ball, and has such confidence in his arm that he has thrown it away when he should hang on to it, thus causing the dreaded E-6. What I can’t quantify are the mental lapses, which are mind boggling, frustrating, and any other adjective-ting word you can throw in there to describe them for a guy in his third season with the Cubs. What gets lost is that the kid is 22. The fact that lapses have been more often lately leads me to believe that Castro is at least a little bit tired, since he has started every game to this point, and has been expected to carry a huge load offensively. Last season, Mike Quade gave him days off on occasion. Dale Sveum might be wise to follow those footsteps. For a kid trying to develop, he is being expected to carry a large burden for this 2012 team. To be fair, the eye test has been kind to Starlin, too. He doesn’t wait back on balls as much as he did in years past, his feet are much better, and he has repeated his throwing motion much more consistently this season, leading to a lot fewer errors at short…a not so slight indication that his work with Dale Sveum has paid off.
The new coaching staff has spent countless hours in spring and during the season working on improving the defense. Infield Instructor, Pat Listach, has worked tirelessly with Castro and Barney both to improve their defense. By all accounts, the two have been enthusiastic about improving their defense, as well. It goes without saying that it is vital for the middle of the field to be covered defensively. Last season, that let the Cubs down mightily. This season, the team has been much improved defensively, and that is an effort that is led by the improvement up the middle.
The Cubs’ two most overwhelming weaknesses last season were starting pitching and defense. It’s not a state secret that those two areas need to improve this season if the Cubs are going to be competitive.
To this point, including today’s game, the starting pitching has been pretty good. Chris Volstad threw another quality start for the Cubs today, with the 4th run he gave up being unearned. That makes six quality starts in the first nine contests, which is all the team can ask for. Yesterday, Jeff Samardzija seemingly ran out of gas after 5 innings, but the bullpen picked him up. His running out of gas was minimized by the 9 run lead he held before the inning, giving up the only 5 the Cardinals would scratch out all day. He did not have his best stuff, but did manage to get out from under some base runners in the first four innings before getting some of the same medicine the Cubs gave Zack Greinke on Thursday afternoon. The innings being eaten by the starting pitching cannot be understated, either. Last season, the strength of the team was the bullpen, and Mike Quade went to it early and often nearly everyday. This season, we’ve seen the starter pitch into the 7th inning more often already than we did until August last season. At least to this point, the pitching is better, and is the reason the Cubs have been in most of the games they’ve played, even with a lackluster offensive effort so far (the last two days notwithstanding).
The defense is another story. Entirely. There have been 7 errors, 4 of which came by Starlin Castro, 2 of which were high throws to first base today that probably would not have been errors throwing to Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee the last two seasons. The first of those two errors would have led to a 2 out with nobody on situation in the Cardinal fourth. It led to a four run rally. The four runs that the Cardinals lead by today (in the top of the ninth). There have been too many plays that should have been made, like a foul pop-up down the right field line that fell in front of Bryan LaHair this afternoon, that have not been made. The ground ball that Jeff Baker allowed past him on Opening Day that went into right field was the eventual tying run. The early .722 Defensive Efficiency Rating is good for 10th in MLB, but that number is sure to drop after another two errors today. That number is an improvement over last season’s .680, but is still not high enough. The .982 fielding percentage is 16th in MLB at this point. They quite simply need to be better.
I am not exactly breaking news when I say that the Cubs’ roster isn’t going to stack up with elite rosters around MLB. It just isn’t. There are some nice pieces. Matt Garza and Starlin Castro are building blocks for a foundation of a team that can compete for championships down the road. Jeff Samardzija is looking to add his name to that group. At this point, though, the defense is not at the standard it needs to be. The starting pitching is improved. The bullpen has been up and down, to this point. The offense has been the same way. That makes giving extra outs, especially in the tough early part of the season, a costly proposition.
Some notes/ observations from the first week of the season…
The Cubs are much, much more aggressive than they have been in years past. We saw that with pinch runner Joe Mather running on contact with one out in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day, and we have seen that in the stolen base attempts (6 through four games, 4 successful, all by Starlin Castro) and base running especially after the first four games. The aggressiveness is taking hold at the plate, too, with a lot of shallow counts to hitters. I understand seeing your pitch and swinging away, but at some point, the team is going to have to be more selective to increase the run production.
The starting pitching has been very good thus far, which, after a minutely small sample size is the reason the team has had a lead in each of the first four games. Last night’s five innings from Chris Volstad have to improve, but
to this point, there isn’t much to complain about with the starters. The only starter that didn’t get a fate he didn’t deserve was Sunday’s winning pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, who is continuing to tear through hitters as he did during Spring Training.
The bullpen is another story. Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have each struggled…mightily. Shawn Camp had some problems last night, as well. Lendy Castillo is a Rule 5 pick, and is just getting his feet wet, but he’ll need to improve on a 2/3 IP outing to be an effective contributor to the ‘pen.
Aramis Ramirez heard some unnecessary boos last night when he took his first at bat. While I understand that he is a rival player now, it was a little much to hear any booing at all. I cannot be sure how he was received before the game when line-ups were announced, but I can only hope it was similar to the very warm reception that Mark DeRosa got when he was announced on Opening Day with the Washington Nationals.
More importantly than anything else, this team fights. They did not quit last night, down four, against a strong Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, and put together some good at bats before falling short. Ian Stewart’s triple with one out put the tying run at third base on Opening Day, which was wiped out by aggressive base running, but happened moments after falling behind in the ninth inning. The 2012 Chicago Cubs are going to struggle. They’re going to lose some games. Probably more than they manage to win. It will be a tribute to Dale Sveum if he is able to do what Mike Quade failed to do last season, and that is keep the team interested as the losses pile up. If he does that, the team will continue to improve. I am going to predict that Sveum has a better chance than his predecessor, as this is a young team with players trying to establish themselves in the majors, or trying to stay in the majors. There is, predictably, going to be more urgency with this year’s team than with a team full of established veterans with expiring contracts. Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Kosuke Fukudome (before he was traded to Cleveland) were among the players that knew they would almost certainly not be back after 2011. This year, the roster has incentive to work hard all season, regardless of the team’s record…and that is to stay at the big league level, and hold off guys from Iowa.
4/10 Numbers:1-3, 6th in NL Central
BA Leader: Alfonso Soriano, .308
ERA Leader: Jeff Samardzija, 1.04
HR Leader: Darwin Barney (this will not last long); Bryan LaHair, 1
RBI Leader: Reed Johnson; Marlon Byrd; Alfonso Soriano, 2