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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
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.
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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
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
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.
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.
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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
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
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.