Staring out the window, waiting for spring

Despite the new Ice Age that has settled over most of the country, apparently we really are going to have a spring this year, at least in Arizona and Florida.  Today begins the grand spectacle of Spring Training and many greater writers than I have pontificated upon this marvel of American sporting life.  It’s a time when Alfonso Soriano can still run and hit, when Zack Greinke can single-handedly drag the Royals to the playoffs, and when Stephen Strasburg is all potential and promise.

For the next six weeks we’ll be able to drool over veterans who’ve recommitted and rebuilt their bodies (or decommitted and rebuilt their bodies, a la Jose Guillen) and nameless studs with jersey numbers in the mid-nineties.  Every team has added the pieces that will transform them into a winner or has invited to camp the kid who will blossom into a star.  Even Ben Sheets has a locker with his name on it.  Now we can officially begin scouring the newspapers (er, websites) for box scores and rotation battles and begin chalking up victories in our heads.  Everyone’s magic number is the same and every lineup looks dangerous.

The excitement will build gradually: a successful ‘pen session for the rehabbing starter, a long blast by the newly signed free agent, a scoreless inning by the young flamethrower.  Eventually we’ll get to pink slips and narrowed rosters and our teams will take focus.  Good springs will surely transfer to great regular seasons and bad springs are nothing but slow starts and all will be well when the games really count. 

Hitters will blast the ball out of parks in the desert air of Arizona, and pitchers will blast the ball off the tee of golf courses across Florida.  Players will regain their leathery tans along with their fastball timing.  Everything will begin to unfold slowly and gain steam throughout the summer.  By the time the leaves turn and fall most of what we know now will be proven wrong and we’ll be left again to wonder how we didn’t see it coming.

For now though, we’re confident in what we see and feel.  Everything is going to turn out right this year.  This is going to be the greatest season ever and the summer of our lives.  So let’s get out the bats and balls and get this thing going.  Turn off the hot stove and forget about the transactions page and hypothetical lineups; it’s time for some real baseball and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Hendry’s Solutions Create Problems

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During the offseason coming into 2009 the Chicago Cubs and
GM Jim Hendry made a concerted effort to improve their lineup and shake up the
team which was coming off a second consecutive three-game sweep in the Division
Series.  In 2007 the Arizona Diamondbacks
unceremoniously knocked the Cubs out, while the Dodgers were the culprits in
2008.  That 2008 series, and the utter
disaster that was the team’s offense, cemented in many people’s minds the idea
that the Cubs needed to revamp their roster in order to go deep into the
postseason.

 

Keep in mind, that the Cubs had the best record in the
National League, featuring a potent lineup that was the only NL club to score
more than 800 runs.  Also, the
Northsiders’ pitching staff was one of the most consistent and dominant in the
league, leading all NL clubs in strikeouts and tied for second in ERA.  This collection of obviously talented hitters
and pitchers proved, over 162 games, that they were the class of the National
League.  They battled off the Milwaukee
Brewers, who charged hard by riding the coattails of rental star CC Sabathia
and headed into the playoffs as prohibitive favorites. 

 

Everyone liked their dangerous lineup featuring Derrek Lee,
Aramis Ramirez, and led off by the potent Alfonso Soriano, and the only problem
on their staff was who to start in game 1 between Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano,
and the surprising Ryan Dempster.  Within
a week, however, opinions had completely changed.  Suddenly Big Z wasn’t a true ace, Soriano was
too old, and the entire team was too right-handed.  The fact that the Dodgers never once used (or
warmed up) a southpaw was constantly harped on and served as the catalyst for
many of the decisions made during the winter.

 

No one seemed to notice that the Cubs sudden lack of
production coincidentally aligned exactly with their facing the top ERA team in
the NL and 2nd in MLB.  They
also faced an extremely hot team which was flying high and loving life in “Mannywood”
ever since they claimed the superstar from Boston
near the trade deadline.  The Cubs simply
ran into a buzz saw at the wrong time which, coupled with an all too familiar
tightening of the team’s collective sphincter, quickly and painfully erased the
“Cubbie Magic” of the previous six months.

 

Heading into the winter meetings and an offseason of
discontent there was one mission.  Many believed the
team could only truly succeed if it found left-handed hitting consistency.  Kosuke Fukudome had been a disappointment in
his first season in America and despite the myriad of All-Stars throughout the
lineup, including the Rookie of the Year, management decided that six games (2007
and 2008 NLDS) of futility should outweigh 323 games (2007 and 2008 regular
season, only 161 in 2008) of overwhelming evidence that the team was just fine,
and in fact much better than its NL competition.  Hendry and manager Lou Piniella wanted to
freshen things up with some new blood, not a bad decision by any means, but the
way in which they did it has proven to be a total failure.

 

It seems every major move they made has backfired.  The team elected to let go of veteran utility
man Mark DeRosa, a fan and clubhouse favorite who played several infield and
outfield positions at average to above average and provided an additional spark
in the lineup.  DeRosa could always be
counted on to show up and play well, regardless of his spot on the field or in
the lineup and was a calming presence whenever injuries or situations required
some maneuvering.  He was particularly
key in replacing Soriano when he was injured and Fukudome when he was simply ineffective.  Imagine what he could have done in place of
the injured Ramirez this year when instead the team relied  on Mike Fontenot and even Jake Fox, a Triple-A
star with no real position and no discernable defensive aptitude.

 

To take DeRosa’s place came Aaron Miles from the Cardinals.  In addition to coming off a career year in
which he hit .317, Miles fit the necessary left-handed requirement as a switch
hitter and could play both position in the middle infield or even third base if
need be.  So far this year Miles is
hitting a robust .177 and rarely sees the field as a starter due to his lack of
production.  DeRosa, meanwhile, has hit a
combined .260 with 21 HR, 17 2B, and 67 RBIs with the Indians and now the NL
Central-leading Cardinals.  He’s battled
injuries, but will almost certainly come up with at least one key defensive
play and one key hit for St. Louis
in the postseason.

 

Elsewhere on the field, the productive duo of Reed Johnson and
Jim Edmonds was split up when the Cubs let Edmonds
go.  The two had combined to be a
formidable platoon in center field, and Edmonds
provided far more pop than expected at his age. 
Kosuke Fukudome moved to center field (and has had a much more consistent
year in his second campaign, not surprising for a foreign player adapting to a
new culture) while high-priced Milton Bradley took over in right field.  Bradley was to bring not only the necessary
left-handed swing as a switch hitter, but also more power and perhaps more
important a spark and fire that would help carry the team in the postseason and
keep them from the jitters that plagued them the previous two Octobers. 

 

Bradley enjoyed an impressive 2008 with the Texas Rangers,
batting .321, but many of those hits came as a DH and as soon as he signed
questions about his durability as a regular player arose.  Those issues have not arisen as of yet, but
Bradley has had a terrible season from the get-go.  He’s struggled mightily (a second half surge
has him hitting almost .260) and has
battled boos and a perceived lack of support and respect from the home crowd.  Milton’s
personality and the baggage it carries will be gladly accepted when ‘s hitting
.300 with power, but in a season of malaise at Wrigley he’s been the focal
point of much of the frustration.

 

On the other side of the ball, Hendry also made several
questionable moves.  He chose to let go
of steady starter Jason Marquis, who has enjoyed a stellar 2009 with the
Colorado Rockies.  While the breakout of
Marquis is quite surprising, it’s just another example of how Hendry chose to
let all the wrong pieces go, increasing rather than eliminating the team’s
weaknesses.  Additionally, the team let
veteran closer and lifelong Cub Kerry Wood go. 
His trials and tribulations over the past decade are well documented,
but Wood had proven to be a reliable closer in his first full year out of the
pen.  With the spot vacated, the team
picked up Kevin Gregg of Florida
and allowed him to compete with star reliever Carlos Marmol for the big spot.

Falling in line with the rest of the offseason acquisitions,
Gregg has been inconsistent at best, a disaster at worst.  He leads major league relievers in HR allowed
and blew several games before finally losing his job to Marmol.  Since then the club has had little need for a
closer as they’ve spiraled out of both the division and wild card races during
an August tailspin that has them reeling. 
While Kerry Wood has blown five saves to Gregg’s six and actually has a
higher ERA, the fact is Hendry made the decision on who should replace him,
Piniella selected Gregg over Marmol (who’s been bad himself despite keeping the
same role he previously dominated in) and the results on the field have been lackluster.

 

Now, anyone who’s paid attention to the team this year knows
that there’s much more to the poor performance than the utter failure of the
new guys to contribute.  Geovany Soto has
redefined the term sophomore slump with his horrendous play, he was also
injured and missed significant time. 
Additional injuries include Carlos Zambrano, Reed Johnson, Ted Lilly,
Ryan Dempster, and the huge loss of Aramis Ramirez for two months.  Soriano has performed well below expectations
and leaves some wondering if his given birth date is as inaccurate as those of
his countrymen.  Fontenot has performed
as poorly at second base as Miles has, and many of the most significant
contributions have come from players who started the year at Triple-A Iowa,
including Randy Wells, Jake Fox, Bobby Scales, and Jeff Baker.

 

The pitching staff held together for long periods without
run support, but injuries to nearly all the starters and a bullpen with one
reliable pitcher, Angel Guzman, has faltered too many times to remain close in
playoff contention.  There is still
plenty of time for the team to rebound and make a late season run at either the
division or wild card spots.  However,
the Cardinals show no signs of slowing down and there are just too many teams
to jump over in the wild card chase. 
This team shows all the signs of an epic letdown season following one
filled with excitement.  The 2008 team
featured surprising or overachieving seasons by many players.  Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot both played
over their heads, and Geovany Soto figured out Major League pitching much
quicker than anyone expected.  Ryan
Dempster blossomed into a stopper and the injury bug stayed mostly at bay. 

 

This team couldn’t expect such great seasons from so many
players again, but the total collapse of the team all at once has been a
shock.  One has to wonder if the loss of
Wood and DeRosa’s clubhouse presence has been missed as much or more than even
their on field contributions.  Zambrano is
too fiery, Derrek Lee simply a quiet leader, and Aramis Ramirez lets his bat do
the talking.  Perhaps those steady,
reliable vets could have calmed the waters and stopped the bleeding in time to
save the season.  As it is, the team that
was built to win in October can’t get it done from April to September and won’t
get a shot at the postseason.  The taster
of a three-game sweep was bitter, but a six-month train wreck has proven to be
worse.  This winter Jim Hendry doesn’t
have to worry about fixing nonexistent problems.  Now he’s got real issues and must find better
answers than he did a year ago.  If he
can’t, perhaps the real problem isn’t the people in the lineup, but rather the
ones putting that lineup together. 

 

Hendry was able to put together the best team in the
National League, but his shortsightedness and reactionism to a one-week failure
showed a lack of patience and perspective. 
The silver lining has been the play of all the youngsters who’ve had to
fill in this year.  September will
provide a more extended look, and perhaps that is the new blood necessary for a
return to the top of the Central.

Hamilton Apologizes, Ortiz Acts

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So the two big stories of the weekend off the field involved
huge stars dealing with problems and facing the media.  Josh Hamilton is dealing with the much more
personal and potentially devastating problem of substance abuse that has
already nearly cost him his career, his family, and his life.  David Ortiz, on the other hand, is dealing
with a blow to his reputation and attempting salvage only his good name and the
respect of fans and fellow players, but it’s an interesting comparison to note
the contrasting approaches the two men took in dealing with their issues.

 

I know none of the intimate details of either situation, but
that doesn’t preclude me from assessing each and evaluating how they were
handled.  Ortiz finally faced the media
in what was a controlled, sterile, prearranged environment, allowing him to
stick to his and his representatives’ game plan.  Much like an NFL coaching staff, he and his
people took  a bye week to put together a
seamless plan and prepare for anything he might face  It was the same game plan we’ve seen run time
and again by accused steroid or performance enhancement users.  He “admitted” to taking supplements,
purchased over-the-counter of course, and then “admitted” that he was careless
and unaware of what exactly was in these various potions.  He denied ever using steroids or anything
illegal to his knowledge.  It was simple,
unapologetic, rehearsed, and now he’d like to move on since he’s no longer
taking questionable supplements, which we cannot doubt by his “courage” and willingness
to “take blame” for his “poor judgment.”

 

Hamilton, in
contrast, faced the media in a completely uncontrolled and fluid
environment.  He stood up to them
immediately, before his game that night and not in an “acquit me” suit, but in his stick-on
eye black and BP uniform.  He admitted his mistake,
detailed how he’d lost control and allowed himself to relapse.  He showed genuine remorse and regret,
explaining how he’d jeopardized himself and put his family and his team in a
horrible position.  He explained that he
called upon his support system of friends and family to face the mistake and
take steps to once again begin the path of recovery. 

 

He had no representatives to coach or practice his responses
with and he had no statement to read from. 
His lines were not rehearsed and the questions he faced weren’t
pre-screened.  Though this incident, as
well as his handling of it, occurred months ago, he wasn’t sure when the
information would reach the public.  He
even expressed surprise at how long it took to come to light.  When it did, though, he stood up like a man,
even allowed us to look into his eyes, unlike Ortiz’s initial Oakley shrouded
meeting with the media.  He informed us
how he’d apologized and sought to make things right with his wife and kids,
management, and his teammates, and he’s likely begun the process again over the
last few days. 

 

Last year, Hamilton’s
story of survival, recovery, and success was a nation-wide hit.  People flocked to stadiums to see him and to
stores to buy his book.  He captivated
baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. 
Everyone likes the story of the guy who comes back from failure, from
the depths of despair, which is most certainly where Hamilton
was in his battle with not only alcohol, but extremely hard drugs and a
lifestyle of destruction.  In the movie
version of this life, the credits would have rolled after his dropjaw
performance in the Home Run Derby, in Yankee Stadium no less, and everyone
would be walking on air out of the theatre as “We Can Be Heroes” blared.  In real life, though, his battle will never
end, and it’s as much horror film as it is feel-good family entertainment.  He could hit in 57 straight games and his
most important and impressive streak will always be the number of days since
his last relapse.  That’s now back to
single digits, and it’s unfortunate that he’s had to begin again, but he’s
resolved to do it and he has the system in place to help him when he fails.

 

Perhaps that’s why he was able to show us all how a
difficult situation should be handled. 
Maybe we need a 12-step program for recovering PED users.  Hamilton
was on Step 10 Saturday night: Continue to take personal inventory, and
promptly admit when you’re wrong.  We’ve
yet to see an accused PED user get past step 1. 
They’ll admit negligence, carelessness, the folly of youth, or even go
so far as to say they might have taken something “unknowingly,” but never will
they say they knew the rules, the consequences, and the benefits of what they
did.  Hamilton
surely didn’t want to talk about his past any more than Mark McGwire or David
Ortiz, but he knows that if he doesn’t acknowledge that past, he’ll never be
able to rectify his mistakes in the future.

 

In the end, Hamilton
is still facing a tougher battle and a more serious issue.  Ortiz, assuming he’s clean, likely doesn’t
face daily demons to take steroids again (well, maybe when he had 0 HR nearing
the end of May) and he may avoid any of the serious potential side
effects.  Steroid abuse isn’t like drug
or alcohol abuse in that it doesn’t ruin lives and tear apart families in our
country on a grand scale.  Steroids are
illegal, and now are outlawed by baseball, but that’s another discussion.  The fact is, Ortiz was caught in a mistake
and had the opportunity to make amends and offer a genuine response and he
didn’t.  Despite all of his coaching and
prep he could not fake remorse or regret any more than Hamilton
could hide them.  Ortiz continues to
attempt to hide and ignore his weakness as a false show of strength. Hamilton
embraces his weakness in an attempt to build true strength and Saturday night
we got to see head-to-head which way works.

 

 

Wainwright the Most Important Cardinal

As a Cubs fan, it pains me to write about the excellence of a St. Louis
pitcher, but Adam Wainwright is a huge key to the Cardinals success of
this season and has been a great number two behind Chris Carpenter. 
He’s leading the team in wins, innings, and strikeouts, while posting a
solid 2.79 ERA.  More importantly, he’s been a consistent go-to guy,
particularly during the extended absence of Carpenter, both last year
and earlier this season.

The Cardinals will always be Albert
Pujols’ team, and now that Matt Holliday is there, Big Al has the
sidekick he’s been looking for for several years.  Pujols’ dominance
hasn’t been enough to overtake the Cubs the last two years, though, and
the reason the Cardinals have been leading the pack much of the year
has been the consistent pitching which starts with Wainwright.

Wainwright
has shown that consistency in the last two seasons with a 14-win
campaign in his first as a starter, 2007, and then a breakthrough year in
2008 going 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA, in only 20 starts.  With at least five
more starts in August and all of September, he has a real shot at 18 wins or more, and along
with Jason Marquis, could be a surprise entry in the Cy Young race.

It’s
not that no one could foresee this level of success for Wainwright, but
with Carpenter’s return this year and King Albert’s reign, he kind of gets lost
in the fold in St. Louis.  The tremendous fans of the ‘Lou’ definitely
know who he is, and if their team can hang on to play into October, it will feature a tremendous second gun that is invaluable in
the shortened format of the Division Series.

The Cubs have
made a strong second half push and narrowed the gap, even jumpnig into
first for a few days, but St. Louis has shown far greater consistency
offensively and defensively for a full four months, and with July
acquisitions that strengthened their lineup they’ll be very difficult to
outlast.  That additional firepower will only make it tougher for teams
looking to outscore or outpitch such a well-rounded, fundamentally
sound team.

With Wainwright showing no signs of slowing, this
team could be a sleeper in the National League race against the more
ballyhooed teams in Philly and L.A.  If they can manage to get into the
eight-team fray, there’s plenty to like on this team, which has the
pieces to win the pitchers’ duels and the fireworks shows.  Typically, October baseball is more about pitching, defense, and situational hitting than it is about blowouts.  This team is built to succeed either way, and Wainwright’s arm will be especially welcome when the temperature starts to drop and the bats cool off.

Marquis Living Up to His Name

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Jason Marquis won his first start after the All-Star break
to take sole possession of the Major League lead in wins with twelve.  Marquis continues to have a surprising career
year in his first season with the Colorado Rockies.  Typically pitchers enjoy such success after
they leave the rarified air of Coors
Field, not upon arrival there.  However,
here’s Marquis, 19 starts in and enjoying his best season ever.

 

Marquis has gained the reputation as a reliable workhorse
over his previous nine seasons.  In the
last five he’s averaged over 31 starts and 192 innings per year.  He’s also been mildly successful with five
straight seasons of at least 11 wins.  However,
the high-water mark of his career was a 15-7 year in 2004 with the Cardinals in
which he sported a fine 3.71 ERA.  With probably
more than a dozen more starts to go this year, he’s on pace to obliterate his
career bests and his 3.49 ERA thus far would be his best since his first full
year in 2001.

 

Much like any successful Colorado hitter, home and away splits can be
telling when studying success.  Marquis
has shown that he’s not afraid of his home park.  He has five of his wins there, and has actually
surrendered only three of his nine homeruns there.  Often times pitchers will lose the battle
with Coors Field before they even throw a pitch.  The list of good pitchers to lose their mojo
there is long, but Marquis has had no qualms about it.

 

To me the most impressive stat Marquis has posted this year
is his strikeout total, or lack thereof. 
Far from being a Zack Greinke or Tim Lincecum, Marquis strikes out less
than five men per nine innings.  This
leaves a large majority of the outs each game in the hands of his defense, and
in the fickle air currents of the Rocky Mountains,
yet he has thrived.  It helps that he
gets more than twice as many outs via the groundball as he does the fly ball.  Marquis has the smarts and the moxie to
attack hitters and get them to hit his pitches, pounding one after another into
the ground unsuccessfully.  He’s allowed
fewer hits than innings pitched, and his walk rate is less than three per nine
innings.

 

Marquis has a serious shot at posting a 20 win season this year,
which would be more than just a personal milestone, it would a be a Colorado
franchise record.  Thrice in the team’s
history pitchers have won 17 (Kevin Ritz, 1996, Pedro Astacio, 1999, Jeff
Francis, 2007), but never any more.  The
team ERA record for a season is also in jeopardy (Joe Kennedy, 3.66, 2004).  Add to that the fact that the Rockies just leaped over the San Francisco Giants into
second in the NL West and first in the Wild Card and Marquis may be throwing
pills deep into the fall for his team. 

 

After being a part of the disastrous Cubs postseasons the
last two years, Marquis may be the anchor of his new team looking to repeat their
playoff success of just a few seasons ago. 
Even at thirty, in his tenth season, it’s never too late for a proper
coming out party and Marquis is looking to keep it going right through October
and maybe turn it into a Cy Young celebration as well.

 

Cain is Able

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            Coming into
this season there was a lot of talk about the San Francisco Giants and their
pitching staff.  There was Tim Lincecum,
the young phenom and 2008 NL Cy Young winner who wanted to back up his
spectacular season.  There was Barry Zito,
who was still searching for the top-of-the-rotation form that won him an AL Cy
Young in 2002 and a $126 Million deal with the Giants.  There was even Randy Johnson, who at 45 years
old came into 2009 needing five wins to reach the monumental 300 Club. 

 

Matt Cain entered the year as a
fourth banana on a star-studded pitching staff that was seeking to give the
Giants a shot at contention in the NL West after a horrible 2008.  He’s still only 24, but after two consecutive
disappointing seasons in which he totaled a 15-30 record, many were wondering
if he’d ever deliver on his promise and potential.  Cain has very quietly put together an
impressive first half that most baseball fans may not be aware of.  With his team in second place behind the
headline-grabbing Dodgers and Mannywood and with budding superstar Lincecum
garnering most of the attention, Cain has delivered every time out yet still
been able to stay mostly out of the spotlight.

 

Cain leads the Giants in wins with
nine (Lincecum and Johnson each have seven) and has racked up three complete
games, both numbers lead the NL and put him among Zack Greinke and Roy Halladay
in all of Major League Baseball.  His
ERA, 2.57, not only matches Lincecum’s, but it ranks 2nd in the NL
behind only Dan Haren of Arizona.  His WHIP compares favorably to Lincecum (1.23
to 1.14) and his opponents’ batting average is slightly lower (.231 to
.235). 

 

The main reason Cain receives far
less attention than his teammate, other than the obvious hardware, is that Cain
relies far less on strikeouts.  He
strikes out only a modest 7.52 hitters per nine innings, but is successful by
limiting runners and letting his defense work behind him.  Lincecum’s funky delivery, electric stuff,
and ability to embarrass hitters is more eye-catching, but no one can argue with
Cain’s results so far this year.

 

Lincecum’s notoriety, strikeout
total, and miniscule ERA have many clamoring for him to start the All-Star Game
for the Senior Circuit, but Matt Cain has made quite a case for himself, albeit
in a less visually impressive way.  I doubt
he will get the necessary buzz to garner the start on July 14, though he’ll
certainly be there and hopefully he’ll get some of the pub that he deserves. 

 

If he keeps up this pace, it will
be interesting to see if Cain can become the fourth member of the current San
Francisco staff to win a Cy Young, an unheard of collection of pitching talent,
even if some of it is in its twilight (Johnson), or simply lost in the dark
(Zito).  If Cain can maintain and develop
the ability he’s shown through the first three months of this season, the
Giants could be looking at twin aces for many years to come.

 

The question is whether Cain can
maintain such excellence over the long term. 
His first full year, 2006, he managed a respectable 13-12 record with a
4.15 ERA, impressive for a rookie. 
However, the last two years he appeared to backslide with campaigns of 7-16
and 8-14.  Those numbers are a little
deceiving though for the same reason that Lincecum’s win total suffered last
year.  In 2007 Cain posted a 3.65 ERA
followed by 3.76 last year, but he was punished in the win column by pitching
for a bad, offensively challenged team.

 

In both seasons, as in 2006, he
struck out more than twice as many as he walked and was able to pitch more than
200 innings and make more than 30 starts. 
His big frame (6’3″, 245 lbs) has allowed him to be very durable and
reliable and with 101.2 innings logged thus far in 15 starts, almost seven
innings per start, he’s well on the way to another workhorse season.  That ability to go deep into games and even finish
some on his own will help his win total down the line as he leaves fewer outs
in the hands of the bullpen.

 

Cain may not get as much attention
as any of his staff mates, but he is more than worthy of attention and an
All-Star appearance in two weeks.  The
Giants may not have the bats to catch the Dodgers this year, but Pablo Sandoval
gives them hope and if Cain can continue to produce alongside Lincecum, San
Francisco may be looking at one of the best one-two
punches in baseball for the foreseeable future.

Chicago Cubs: Rally Assassins

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            The Chicago
Cubs have thus far been one of the bigger disappointments of this Major League
season.  They were expected to dominate
the NL Central this year on their way to a third consecutive division crown.  However, little has gone the Cubs way this
year and they’ve stumbled to a 31-31 record as of June 18 that has them in 4th
place in the Central, 4 games back. 

 

            Part of the
problem has been the team’s inability to field a complete and healthy squad
almost the entire year.  Aramis Ramirez
is still out with a dislocated shoulder, suffered way back on May 8.  He isn’t expected back until early July at
the soonest.  He’s been the team’s best
and most clutch hitter for the past several years and is a major catalyst that
they’ve sorely missed.  Derrek Lee has
missed time with various sicknesses and ailments, and Milton Bradley has been
either injured or incredibly unproductive. 
Even Carlos Zambrano missed a week when he was suspended for losing his
mind during a start a couple weeks ago. 
This team has barely seen its projected regular lineup all together this
season.

 

            Despite the
lengthy injury report, though, the Cubs real problem has been a complete lack
of timely hitting and the ability to create productive at bats in key
situations.  Anecdotally I can tell you
that this team seems to produce fewer runs from situations with less than two
outs and the bases loaded or runners in scoring position than any other in the
league.  Time and again they either
completely fail to put the ball in play or rap into tailor-made double plays to
end innings.  The Cubs aren’t rally
killers, they’re rally assassins.  They
can eliminate scoring opportunities with deadly precision and uncanny
consistency. 

 

            They are
hitting .227 with runners in scoring position, good enough for dead last in
MLB.  With the bases loaded they’re
hitting .250, but they’ve struck out 21 times in only 76 bases loaded at
bats.  They’ve hit into double plays with
the bases loaded more times (6) than they’ve hit sacrifice flies (5).  They’ve either struck out or grounded into
double plays in 35% of their bases loaded at bats.  That shows a complete team-wide inability or
refusal to take a good approach and simply produce productive at bats which
stems from their lack of discipline and inability to adjust.

 

Soriano refuses to take outside
pitches the other way and instead insists on striking out on breaking pitches
several inches outside on a regular basis. 
Soto has shown no ability to make adjustments as the league has caught
up to him in his second full year.  Lee has
not regained his ability to drive pitches that suddenly disappeared two years
ago.  Bradley has been his usual surly
self, but hasn’t produced anything to offset that attitude.  Only Fukudome has improved from last year,
when he performed well below expectations.

 

As a team, the Cubs are hitting a
putrid .244, 14th in the NL and 27th overall.  They have 64 HR, 9th in the NL and
19th in MLB.  Their SLG
(.394), OBP (.321), XBH (175), and Runs (254) rank 11th, 12th,
14th, and 15th in the NL respectively and 22nd,
23rd, 25th, and 28th in MLB.  This is a team that scored 855 runs in 2008,
2nd in MLB and the only NL team to score more than 800.  They’re featuring essentially the exact same
lineup.  Lee, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano,
Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot were all regulars
last year, only Bradley, expected to be an upgrade in right field, is new to
the lineup on an everyday basis. 

 

            The lineup
has provided equal opportunity futility from top (Soriano: .225 AVG, .291 OBP
in the leadoff spot) to bottom (last year’s Rookie of the Year Soto: .217 AVG,
3 HR, 16 RBI).  Even occasional bright
spots, like Lee’s recent hitting streak that has his average all the way up to
(yes, up to) .277 has been offset by the continued ineptitude of the other
hitters in the lineup. 

 

The Cubs are 6-7 in June and have
averaged just over three runs per game this month.  They should consider themselves lucky that
the pitching staff has performed well enough to allow them to win 6 of those
games.  They’ve allowed just over three
runs per game in June, too.  Three of
those wins were veritable onslaughts in which they scored 6 twice and 7 once.  In the other three wins they managed three
runs twice and two runs once with their pitchers providing outstanding
performances to carry the offense. 

 

Look even closer and you’ll see
that the staff did more than just pitch. 
In the 2-1 victory on June 5, Carlos Zambrano hit the eventual
game-winning homer for himself.  On June
7 and June 9, both wins, each Cubs starter (Randy Wells and Ted Lilly) had a
hit and a run scored.  Perhaps the big
changes that Lou Piniella has hinted at include implementing a lineup with his
starting pitchers batting in the 5-9 spots.

 

Throughout any year a pitching
staff must carry its lineup for a period and vice versa, but this year has been
a season-long failure for the Cubs offense and it’s forced the pitchers to work
with a razor-thin margin of error.  Randy
Wells, for example, has started seven times, averaged six innings per start and
has an excellent 2.55 ERA as a fill in for Rich Harden, yet he’s 0-3 and has
yet to record his first Major League win, though in nearly every start he’s
made a quality start and put his team in position to win.

 

Without an offense to support their
solid pitching, this Cubs team is going nowhere and with the talent and big names
throughout their lineup they can only be viewed thus far as a tremendous
failure.  A second-half turnaround could
put them back in contention in the mediocre NL Central, but nothing about this
team’s play suggests it will improve on the well-documented failures of the
previous two seasons.  It looks like next
year is still over the horizon for the faithful in Wrigleyville.

 

Petco Graveyard Can’t Hold Adrian Gonzalez

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            It’s no
secret that Adrian Gonzalez is blossoming into one of the brightest stars in
the game, though his 4th place position in the NL All-Star first
base balloting suggests that a few more should turn a watchful eye to San
Diego.  I’m not
going into the issue of whether he deserves to start in the All-Star Game,
though clearly he’s one of the National League’s most dominant players at any
position right now.  With Albert Pujols
on the host team and Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and even Joey Votto playing at
first base, there’s essentially no bad vote at the position, and that’s without
mentioning the struggling Derrek Lee, a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold
Glove winner. 

 

I don’t see a more stacked position anywhere in baseball
than first base in the National League, and most of them still have their best
seasons ahead of them.  I want to talk
more about the games that do matter, and even though many may argue Padres
games don’t mean all that much due to the team’s dismal prospects, that simply highlights
how incredible it is that Gonzalez has been able to achieve such success this
year.  Not that it’s a total surprise to
those who’ve been paying attention.  For
three years running Gonzalez has improved both his RBI (82, 100, 119) and HR
(24, 30, 36) totals and this year he’s on pace to top his career bests again.  He’s become a dynamic talent and he just
turned 27 last month, so he may have another decade in the league ahead of him.

           

            The most
remarkable thing about his numbers is not that he can smash so many home runs
while playing half his games at the graveyard that is Petco
Park, though I do submit that that
is impressive.  The more noteworthy thing
to me is that he’s able to maintain such a torrid offensive pace with
essentially zero supporting characters around him.  San Diego is currently hitting a Major League
worst .236 as a team and the hitters that typically surround Gonzalez in the
lineup include Scott Hairston, David Eckstein, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Brian
Giles.  While they’re all serviceable and
effective Major League players, they’re not exactly a latter day Murderer’s
Row.  The team has a total of 59 HR, with
22 of them by Gonzalez himself.  That’s
38% of the team’s home runs by one guy, far and away the best in the league.

 

Hairston is currently hitting .327
(though with too few at bats to qualify among league leaders), but Eckstein is
at .258, Kouzmanoff .224, and Giles is languishing behind Mr. Mendoza at
.194.  Clearly opposing pitchers have
more than enough reason to avoid Gonzalez and his .279/.422/.632 (AVG/OBP/SLG)
and they’ve employed a Bondsian strategy, walking Gonzalez a Major League
leading 49 times, five more than the oft-intentionally passed Albert Pujols
with whom Gonzalez’s numbers are beginning to be compared.

 

It would be premature to say that
Gonzalez has equaled Albert as the best hitter in the National League, and
given Pujols’ tremendous talent Gonzalez may never reach those heights, but
their numbers make for good comparisons this season.  Both are clearly the focal points of their
respective lineups.  Pujols is often
given credit for succeeding without tremendous support, but even with a rash of
injuries to his teammates Pujols has been able to rely on the likes of Ryan
Ludwick and Rick Ankiel who offer more protection than Gonzalez’s motley crew.  The Cardinals are hitting .253 as a team, 21st
best in the Majors.  Pujols also plays in
a slightly more hitter-friendly park and on a more competitive team overall.  This season, though, Gonzalez has more than
held his own in a number of categories.

 

 

AB

AVG

SLG

OPS

BB

HR

XBH

RBI

RUNS

Gonzalez

201

.279

.632

1.054

49

22

27

43

42

Pujols

200

.320

.655

1.095

44

18

31

51

44

 

While Albert still holds an edge in
nearly every category, just the fact that we can respectably compare Gonzalez’s
numbers to Pujols shows how great he’s been. 
We’ll see if he continues to capitalize on the small number of good
pitches he sees each week or if pitchers take an even more submissive approach
and decide to try their luck with his subpar supporting cast.

 

Adrian Gonzalez has been among the
very few things to cheer about in San Diego
this season and it would be good for him and the league if he gets a shot to
showcase his skills at the All-Star Game and perhaps even go toe-to-toe with
Pujols in the Home Run Derby.  He’s a
lock as the best player on a bad team that must send a representative, but he’s
no undeserving roster filler.  Adrian
Gonzalez has quietly excelled for three seasons in San
Diego, but with a phenomenal year like he’s putting together,
he won’t be able to avoid the spotlight any longer.  As San Diego
looks to rebuild their team and get back to the playoffs they’ve certainly got
a solid cornerstone for their foundation and one that should be around for many
years to come.

Matt Wieters Gets the Call

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So Friday is officially the day the Next Big Thing arrives
in Baltimore.  Matt Wieters, Baseball America’s
top prospect officially arrives in the Show against Detroit
on Friday.  We’ll see whether that’s the
day he actually makes his debut, but I wouldn’t bet against it with Andy
MacPhail saying the team is not bringing Wieters up to sit and watch.  He’ll likely quickly be inserted as the
regular starting catcher and the team is going to let him see what he can do at
the top level.  He’s been great at each
stop along the Minor League ladder and now the Orioles are ready to introduce him
to the world.  Through May 27 he’s
hitting .305 with 5 HR and 30 RBI at Triple-A Norfolk.  Clearly this kid looks like everything he’s
cracked up to be. 

 

He dominated two levels of Minor League baseball last year
and with a 4-for-4, 4 RBI Tuesday night he showed that the imminent call up
hasn’t fazed him yet.  He’ll spend the
next few days staying healthy while the clubbies with the Big Club get
everything ready for what everyone hopes will be a permanent stop at Camden.

 

As someone who personally picked Wieters as the AL Rookie of
the Year, I’m expecting big things from him. 
However, I think Wieters is similar to Stephen Strasburg in that even a successful
rookie campaign may not live up to the gargantuan expectations.  A scout was quoted earlier this spring saying
that Wieters is “Joe Mauer with power.” 
(This was before Joe Mauer returned to lay claim to the title of “Joe
Mauer With Power”) 

 

Never mind that Joe Mauer has already won two batting
titles, two Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and is a two-time All-Star.  Mauer is currently hitting .429 with 11 HR, 31
RBI, .881 SLG, and 1.400 OPS.  He could
be on his way to a first MVP and his best season ever.  Wieters is being compared to, perhaps, the
best catcher in the last 25 years, a guy who is both an offensive and defensive
prodigy.  Even if Wieters plays
reasonably well and is a contributor some will think he’s a bust if he doesn’t
start earning hardware immediately.

 

Think of the enormous task in front of this kid who,
remember, just turned 23 six days ago. 
Not only is he going to be dealing with the pressure and nerves of his
first Major League action, but he’s expected to step in as a regular starter at
the most demanding position in baseball. 
He’ll be trying to learn the pitches, tendencies, and demeanor of an
entire staff, many of whom he’s never caught, while simultaneously learning the
scouting reports of every hitter on every team he faces and figuring out how to
get them out.  While that’s happening he’s
expected to continue hitting at the torrid pace he’s set in the Minor Leagues,
even though he’ll be facing better pitchers who he’s never seen before and
trying to learn the scouting reports on them as well.  Oh, and also he’s expected to be the savior
of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since he was playing Little
League.

 

Wieters has enjoyed almost immediate success his entire
life, but even if he gets off to a quick start, he’ll still have to prove
himself everyday.  A young catcher in the
National League is struggling mightily this year and he’s already been in the
league for a full season.  Last year’s NL
Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto of the Cubs, is currently hitting just .214
with 1 HR thus far after last year’s incredible season in which he hit .285
with 86 RBI and 23 HR.  Soto has failed
to make adjustments early on and has been put into a semi-platoon with Koyie
Hill after starting the season with a terrible April.  Soto’s success came as a big surprise last
year, but now the league is on to him and he’ll have to show that he can stay
one step ahead and find the stroke that made him so valuable last year.  Wieters notoriety as a top prospect and the
media buzz that will surround him won’t give him the chance to surprise anyone.
 Opposing pitchers will know about him
and will have detailed scouting reports immediately available.

 

Being a Major League catcher is a demanding enough position
physically, what with crouching a couple hundred times each day, taking foul
tips off the mask, shins, and chest, blocking pitches, throwing out runners, and
toss in an occasional collision at home plate. 
When you add the mental strain that Wieters will be under as he tries to
acclimate himself to his teammates, coaching staff, the media, fans, and
opposition, it’s almost impossible to imagine him being able to maintain
anything close to what he’s done so far. 
The fact that the Orioles are bringing him up shows their tremendous
belief in his abilities both on the field and between his ears.  Wieters will have several things in his favor
that may ease the transition.

 

First, he’s clearly a unique talent.  Not just anyone can be compared favorably to
Joe Mauer and obviously Wieters has shown that he can dominate at any level he’s
seen.  Also, the Orioles are still bad enough
that his performance won’t affect their season either way, so there’s no
additional pressure of playoff contention. 
It will be at least next year before Baltimore
can look at moving into the top three in their own division, let alone contend
for bigger things.  Another big help will
be all the young stars surrounding Wieters in the Baltimore
clubhouse that I wrote about last week. 
He should find it easy to fit in with guys who’ve come up not much more
recently than himself and their ability to immediately contribute may rub off
on him.  Comfort can play a big role in a
young player’s ability to adapt.  Wieters
should find a welcoming atmosphere as his teammates are as eager to see him
(with the possible exceptions of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller) as the fans
are. 

 

Once Wieters gets settled and finds some normalcy in his new
routine people around baseball will expect big things from him.  I hope we’ve got another bright young talent
to watch, but I expect it will be some time before we see just what this kid
can do on the big stage.  If the reports
are true, the other teams in the AL East might want to savor whatever length of
time it takes him to get comfortable.

 

Keeping up with the Joneses, and the Markakises

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The Baltimore Orioles are languishing in last place in the
AL East, a position that’s become far too familiar for this franchise that has
such a proud history and tradition.  They’re
already eight games back of the surprising Blue Jays and they look like they’re
well on the way to another long, losing summer in beautiful Camden Yards.  However, the light may be starting to appear
at the end of the tunnel for this team. 
They have promising talent just over the horizon in the minor leagues,
including Baseball America’s
(and most everyone else’s) top overall prospect, catcher Matt Wieters. 

 

Orioles fans don’t just have to look at box scores from AAA
Norfolk to find hope, though.  They can
see the future of their franchise blossoming before their eyes at the Major
League level every night.  They have two
talented young outfielders that are turning in stellar seasons thus far and
appear to be turning the corner toward true stardom.  Adam Jones doesn’t even turn 24 until the
first day of August and Nick Markakis will be 25 for the entire season, but these
two have been putting up very impressive offensive numbers and because of their
team’s lack of success, they’ve been able to do so in relative obscurity.

 

Adam Jones not only shares a name with one of America’s most
notorious felons, errr football stars, he’s also in the Top 10 in the AL in eight
of nine major categories and he’s in the Top 5 in six.  Markakis isn’t just a second fiddle
either.  He’s rapping out hits and
scoring runs at an All-Star pace as well. 
Take a look at what they’ve posted so far this season, with AL
rankings in parenthesis. 

 

 

 

Jones

Markakis

AVG

.363 (4)

.349 (8)

OBP

.420 (7)

.429 (5)

SLG

.669 (3)

.579 (12)

OPS

1.090 (4)

1.008 (t-6)

Hits

45 (5)

44 (t-7)

2B

12 (t-5)

11 (t-10)

HR

8 (t-10)

6 (t-22)

RBI

25 (t-11)

30 (t-6)

Runs

35 (1)

33 (2)

 

 

  Jones and Markakis
lead all of MLB in runs scored even though the Orioles as a team have only
scored the ninth most runs overall. 
Their 68 runs account for 40% of the team’s runs and they also have a
third of the team’s hits and doubles.  It
remains to be seen whether either will get a sniff of an All-Star invitation,
but certainly there’s no more dynamic pair in one outfield this season. 

 

This doesn’t look like an early season fluke either.  Markakis is in his fourth full season and is
a career .303 hitter.  He averaged 20 HR,
38 doubles, and 87 RBI his first three years. 
He’s on pace to obliterate those numbers this year and he can only stay
under the radar for so long.  Jones meanwhile
played parts of two year with Seattle
before getting his first full season last year with Baltimore.  In 132 games he hit .270 with 21 doubles, seven
triples, and nine HR.  His speed is a
huge weapon both offensively and defensively, though he hasn’t yet developed
into much of a threat to steal on the bases. 
Adding that aspect will only make him more dangerous.  Regular at bats have given him a new comfort
level and allowed him to unleash his raw talent and physical tools.  We’ll see if he can maintain his torrid pace,
but it appears this is his breakout season. 
Both players are likely to see their slugging and power numbers slide a
little, but neither is a true power hitter, so as long as they’re getting hits
and scoring runs the Orioles will be more than happy with their production.

 

Jones and Markakis are two solid young pieces that could
become mainstays in the Baltimore outfield
for the next decade.  If Felix Pie can
ever deliver on the promise that made him a top prospect in the Cubs’ system,
the Orioles could put together one of the fastest and most dangerous young outfields
in a long time.  Brian Roberts should be
able to maintain his status as team leader for several more years and if
Wieters and other prospects develop as expected, this team could become a
contender quickly and quietly in the star-packed AL East. 

 

The Rays made a complete turnaround and magical run last
season based on only a couple key young players having tremendous seasons.  The Orioles need some pitching (currently 12th
in the AL and 27th in MLB with a 5.37 ERA) to go with their lineup,
but if they can develop or acquire 2 or 3 solid starters within a few years,
this young lineup will make enough noise to drastically improve both the win
total and the morale in Baltimore.