Friday, August 2, 2013

Back From Oblivion

I'm back...kind of.

I'd like to issue a well too-little, too-late thanks for all of my readers of this blog while it was active (December 2009-April 2012).  The blog was abandoned abruptly due to a lack of time to write posts.  But there's good news.  For this summer I've been writing on the Gold Coast Tickets blog, writing about events including Cubs, Sox, concerts, and theatre productions, with Eric Montanez; some posts are credited to him but much of the writing was done by me, and vice versa.  Much of the content is similar to posts I was creating here (except now I actually have to cite photos).

A few of my 'greatest hits' are below, with Cubs posts bolded, and I'll be continuing to write for them through much of August.  Learn about who the Cubs got back in any of their many July trades, or who you're going to see in Lolla this weekend.  There could be a future still for this blog as well.

Gold Coast Tickets is the largest ticket broker in the Midwest.  Of course, I think you should buy from us.  We actually do have a huge Cubs selection.  Check it out!

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Rough Start

Gold-numbered jerseys?  Check.  Gold-logo emblazoned hats?
Check.  Mandatory around-the-neck gold bling?  None (yet).
Inconsistent offense, shoddy bullpen work highlight first 10 games

It wasn't surprising that many assumed that the 2012 Cubs would struggle on the field.  It probably was surprising, however, that they got off to such an early start at that.  The first homestand, which saw the Cubs host the Nationals for three games and the Brewers for four, started 1-5 for the Cubs as they struggled to find a winning formula.

The Monday night game was not without its highlights, such as Bryan LaHair's monster home run onto Sheffield Avenue early on, but Chris Volstad's shaky start and Shawn Camp's atrocious relief appearance (three earned runs in one inning) spelled doom in a 7-5 loss.  It was a competitive ballgame, however, as Starlin Castro batted in the bottom of the ninth with the tying and winning runs on base.  A John Axford slider then ended all hopes of a comeback.

Tuesday night was a different story.  Paul Maholm, who has now been torched in both of his starts, had allowed six runs by the third inning.  Even the platoon catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, hit a home run. This game left little chance for the Cubs.

Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Dempster had a surprisingly intense pitcher's duel in the Wednesday game.  Gallardo allowed only a first-inning sacrifice fly to Castro, while Dempster held the 1-0 lead until a two-run homer by the other platoon catcher, George Kottaras, gave the Brewers the lead for good in the seventh.

And just like that, the Cubs had lost the first three games of a four-game series and started the season 1-5.  Pretty depressing stuff.  But this, my friends, is the wonder of rebuilding.  The team will be bad, but there are sure to be signs of life.  One such sign came Thursday as the Cubs shut out the Brewers 8-0, a real team effort as six different Cubs knocked in runs.  Matt Garza was even one pitch away from a shutout.  In fact, he got his pitch - an easily-fielded comebacker to the mound - and he promptly fired it into the stands instead of making the easy, 45-foot throw to first base.  Manager Dale Sveum yanked him unnecessarily, and Garza was robbed of the Cubs' first complete game of the season.

Bryan LaHair gets a round of high-fives after hitting the first
Cubs grand slam since October 2010.
The Cubs even broke out the bats for the second straight day in a row, and at a great time.  Those St. Louis Cardinals, decked out in gold-logo'd hats and gold-lettered jerseys just in case anybody forgot that they won the championship last season, were looking for an easy win over this weak Cubs team on their Opening Day.  They didn't get it.  First, rain rained on their parade.  Then, the Cubs rained on their parade.  After a lengthy rain delay of nearly two hours, any Cards fans that stayed looked foolish after a three-run homer by Ian Stewart and a grand slam by LaHair helped give the Cubs a 9-0 lead by the third inning.

Who gave up all these runs?  Why, it was Adam Wainwright.  That's the same Wainwright who, after nearly being the team's ace the last half-decade, missed the entire 2011 season due to injury.  This means he did nothing to contribute to their World Series run even though he is on the team.  So how ironic it was that he was the man to start the game in which they got their World Series rings, wore the glittery gear, and flaunted around pregame in celebratory fashion in front of the second-largest Busch Stadium II crowd ever.  But I digress.

Anyway, the point is that the Cubs did show the ability to score runs.  I like LaHair's power potential; he has two homers so far, one of which went opposite field and the other which left the stadium entirely.  I don't think strength will be an issue with this guy.

The Saturday and Sunday games were a mess.  Volstad imploded in the fourth inning of an otherwise sharp-looking start on Saturday, but the Cubs could never come back from the four allowed in the fourth.  The Cardinals did salvage one win in those odd-looking gold-numbered jerseys.  They had the wit to wear those things for a second game.  Who do they think they are, the New Orleans Saints?  While we're on the topic, is new manager Mike Matheny paying his pitchers to throw at opposing batters (in "kill the head" fashion)?  Probably not, but a concussion did end Matheny's playing career....  Also, in other weird-coincidence news, the Giants wore a similar gold-lettered jersey at their home opener last season as well to celebrate their 2010 World Series championship.  Which team did they host in their home opener?  The Cardinals.

Back to the Sunday game.  That second torching at the hands of Maholm took place on Sunday as Matt Carpenter, some kid who has made a lot of headlines so far, ended up five RBIs for the Cardinals.  The Cubs never really got to Cards starter Jake Westbrook, and the series ended with Friday being the lone Cubs win.  The series started off promisingly, but the end looked like the Cubs team we were expecting to see.

Through these first three series, the Cubs never really showed what their strengths are.  The last guy to make the rotation, Jeff Samardzija, is the only one with more than one win.  The offense scored 18 runs in the first six games then put up 17 runs in the next two.  Kerry Wood's bullpen failures from the first weekend were forgotten in place of a hodgepodge of dismal 'pen work from Camp, Lendy Castillo, and Carlos Marmol namely.  Not to mention Maholm's efforts, which have taken the Cubs out of games practically before they've started.  So far, not so good.  3-7 isn't the end of the world, however, and Sveum has the team playing hard.  The errors are down and the stolen bases are up.  The team certainly has a good swagger, too.

The Cubbies are down in Miami to check out the Marlins' new digs tomorrow night.  Ozzie Guillen will return from his five-game suspension to manage the game.  Just in case the game turns into a Marlins blowout, go online and count as many articles as you can find that mention both Guillen and Fidel Castro written within the last seven days.  Hopefully, though, we can just watch some winning baseball.        

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Two Chances, Two Chokes

The game-tying runs allowed in the 8th inning
of the first two games of the season
were allowed by a frustrated Kerry Wood.
Is this the new "Cubs Way" of playing baseball?!  Let's hope not.

You've heard about it all winter.  'Sustained success', 'the right way', 'development', and 'building from within' are just a few phrases that have highlighted a winter of change for the Chicago Cubs.  It may all just be empty talk, but the new Cubs brass even put it in writing with their fundamentals manual, The Cubs Way, which is being distributed throughout the Cubs minor league system.  The effort looks to standardize the way in which prospects are being taught the game throughout all levels of the Cubs system to maximize potential of all prospects and maintaining disciplinary consistency.  However, if the young prospects want to see for their own eyes how the game is played correctly, they ought to stay away from Wrigley Field.  If the first two days are any indication, the major league Cubs will struggle to avoid lines of hypocrisy in 2012.  

Hopefully this will not be the case.  Clearly Dale Sveum was more equipped with the leadership and motivation tools to start his full-time managerial career than Mike Quade was a year ago, and these qualities showed in Spring Training.  So far he has gotten the team much more involved in working on simple yet overlooked fundamentals, including baserunning drills which declared exactly which part of the base the Cubs are supposed to hit when rounding them.  He also got some competition going on to get players more involved. 

Casey Coleman and David DeJesus may not win an award of any type during the rest of either of their careers, but the two gained immediate team respect as they faced off in the final round of the 64-participant bunting tournament in camp.  Coleman swept his way through the pitchers' bracket, while DeJesus did the same in the position players' bracket.  DeJesus ended up winning, but the major reward from this exercise was a sense of accomplishment coming from a fundamental the Cubs needed work on.  

"You're already making me look bad out here.
Vamonos ahora."
After all, these are athletes; they appreciate any added competition to spice things up.  Before it all got started, Tony Campana proclaimed himself as a favorite to win the entire tournament.  He was eliminated in the first round.

The added concentration paid off, as the Cubs brought a winning Spring Training record home with them.  However, the results did not show at all in the first two games of the regular season.  

In the home opener Thursday against the Washington Nationals, Ryan Dempster was finishing up a gem of a performance when he was abruptly yanked with one out to get in the 8th and Ian Desmond on first base.  Enter fan favorite Kerry Wood to hold the 1-0 lead.  A host of problems followed.  Desmond stole second.  Wood walked the next batter, Ryan Zimmerman.  A wild pitch moved Desmond to third and Zimmerman to second.  Wood walks another batter, Adam LaRoche.  After a mound visit, Wood loses another batter in Jayson Werth, whose base on balls forced in the tying run.  

Three consecutive walks spelled doom in the form of lost momentum in this ball game.  Dempster had been living dangerously all day by using the homer-unfriendly winds in his favor, but at least he had controlled the base on balls.  Wood lost it.  Not surprisingly, Carlos Marmol didn't make things any better.  After getting two quick outs in a now-tied ball game in 9th, Marmol allowed a double to Chad Tracy and a go-ahead single to Desmond, scoring Tracy's pinch-runner.  The Nationals took the lead for good.

Don't let the hollering fool you.  The Cubs beat
themselves more than the Nationals beat the Cubs.
A day off on Friday gave the team an entire day to stew about blowing the Opening Day not only of 2012, but of the Theo era.  Apparently it got in their heads, because Saturday's game was hardly any better.  The Cubs again held the Nationals down for most of the game until the 8th in a 4-2 game, when Mr. Wood got the first two outs before allowing a solo homer to Danny Espinosa, bringing the deficit down to one.  Then Zimmerman singled, then LaRoche singled, and then Wood was yanked to avoid further damage.  Who was brought in to replace him?  Marmol.  Remember, this is still all with two outs.  Marmol walks Werth, loading the bases.  Finally, Tracy puts the Cubs out of their misery and sucks the life out of the stadium with a two-run go-ahead single.  

These three rallies - two of them when the Nationals were batting with two outs - are pretty much the trademark of the last year's team.  The bullpen was a strength last year, but the hovering frustration of a lack of focus was the most bothersome aspect of last year's team.  Wood immediately took the blame for blowing Opening Day and cited zero excuses, but then it happened again.  We love ya, Kerry, but that's not gonna get 'er done.  Whether it was keeping their eyes on the ball or throwing to the right base, the Cubs lacked in baseball mental fitness last year.  The new management regime made this their primary goal in the offseason, but the early results have disappointed.  Let's hope this doesn't become a trend.


End of An Era?

No, Ron Gardenhire can't pitch.  If you ask
me, he shouldn't be managing anymore either.
Where is the blame on Ron Gardenhire for the Twins recent failures?

The media has recently cooled off on the Minnesota Twins.  Thank goodness.  For a while there, the feel-good Twin Cities franchise was driving me insane.  With constant postseason appearances despite a changing supporting core, the Twins represented MLB's equivalent of the Dallas Mavericks.  The knock on the Mavericks for all those years, however, was that they were always just there - a high-seeded playoff team but never actually great enough to win a championship.  Of course they shocked everyone in 2011 by actually the job done, but the Twins are definitely not about to do that.

For the latter part portion of the 2000s and into this new decade, the Twins gained a disproportionate amount of attention as a favorite small-market team of East Coasters.  Why?  Well perhaps the fact that the Yankees played the Twins in the ALDS four times between 2004 and 2010 helped New Yorkers notice that this team had talent.  The Yankees won all four series, but they had seen enough to respect the Twins.

No catcher in the game today is worth
$184 million over eight years.  Besides,
Joe Mauer's Head and Shoulders
endorsements are more than enough
to cover the utility bills.
And instantly, they became overrated.  Joe Mauer's fluke MVP season in 2009 earned him back-to-back covers on the MLB: The Show video game series and a monster, badly-overpaying contract extension.  Mauer, the catcher, became the hero on a team lacking one.  The Twins won most of their games because they were a team that played fundamental baseball during the regular season, only to watch themselves get destroyed in the playoffs as more talented teams came barreling through.  The 2008 Twins, for example, didn't have any starting pitchers earn more than 12 wins, and yet five of them earned at least 10.  And yet, they got to watch the White Sox come down the stretch in September and beat them in a one-game tiebreaker for the division title.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was given much of the credit as to how a team with relatively little star power could play with such a strong collective baseball intelligence on the field.  However, there is the fact that they never won anything in the playoffs.  Ron Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002 and produced immediate results as the Twins made it to the ALCS.  However, they haven't gotten there since and never really made a big push for the World Series.  The Twins of 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010 all lost in the divisional round. Meanwhile Gardenhire got all this credit for successfully operating a small-market team and maximizing value out of his players.  However, these strategies never held up as stronger teams that simply had more talent strutted past them each fall.

Target Field is more of a challenge to left-handed hitters than
taking a walk is for Alfonso Soriano.
The Twins haven't been nearly as good of a team since they opened Target Field in 2010.  They did win the Central in 2010, but were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS (surprise) despite having home-field advantage.  The team imploded in 2011, however, as the new ballpark's dimensions caught up to them and the their lefty sluggers - namely Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel - suffered horribly.  The four hit only 31 homers combined on the season despite having all hit at least 25 in 2009 (Thome did it with the White Sox).

The power outage and/or foolish dimensions of Target Field are not Gardenhire's problems, but his problem is that he did not make necessary adjustments to get the offense going.  The team's RBIs leader, third baseman Danny Valencia, had 72.  He also just watched as his formerly-good pitching staff, which clearly resembles a 'groundball' staff, struck out less batters than any other team while allowing the second-most runs.  In 2010 the Twins allowed the fifth-fewest errors in MLB.  In 2011, they allowed the third-most.

In all facets of the game, the team completely reversed trends negatively while sliding 31 games in the standings between the two years.  This is not the type of season a manager should be able to keep his job from.  When your team goes from a 94-win team to a 63-win team, any defining managerial characteristics you used to pride yourself on have diminished and then look preposterous as your team gets crushed harder than Milton Bradley's stress ball.

The Twins enter 2012 with Gardenhire still at the helm, yet very low expectations to live up to.  This core of Twins players - focused around an overpaid catcher, oft-injured first baseman, and a hodgepodge of mediocre starting pitchers - has made its last playoff run.  Therefore, an era in Minnesota Twins baseball has ended.  It's time for the captain to abandon ship while there's still hope for another to redirect it, and redirect it into rebuilding mode.    

Monday, March 12, 2012

2012 Cubs Preview: Management/Intangibles

The days of the celebrity manager are gone on the North
Side, but Dale Sveum is a respectable guy who will
get things done.
New staff onboard for rebuilding process

Changes are all around the Cubs management heading into this season.  In the dugout, most of the team coaching staff has changed.  Bullpen coach Lester Strode is the only member of the staff who has been there since before 2010.  The rest of the staff consists of manager Dale Sveum, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, pitching coach Chris Bosio, first base coach Dave McKay, third base coach Pat Listach, bench coach Jamie Quirk, bullpen catcher Andrew Lane, and another bullpen catcher who is apparently yet-to-be-named.  

In the grand scheme of things, these coaches may seem irrelevant, seeing as it's the players who determine how many games the team actually wins.  Keep in mind, however, that these major league ball players aren't just superstars in their own world; they are on a sports team, and subject to orders of their coaches.  Unless you're name is Aramis Ramirez, you're going to listen to many of the pieces of advice your coaches give you.  Either that or you can take it up with the AAA coaches.

Plus, these coaches could also be on their way to higher positions in baseball.  Not all of them turn out to be great successes, however, as waving a runner home is definitely different than motivating a rebuilding team into the playoffs.  Not even two years ago, though, a certain Mike Quade was still to be found standing at third base whispering in the ears of Cubs players.  Like I said, not all of them turn out to be great successes.

It was time for some change down there.  I do believe that the manager has far, far more influence on the team than any other single coach.  A manager makes the calls on playing time so players want to impress the manager, while still staying as far away as possible.  It's nearly impossible to tell if success or failure of a team takes responsibility on the coaches.  For example, Jaramillo came to the Cubs widely regarded as the best hitting coach in the league, fresh off leading famous Texas Rangers teams to leading the league in category after category year after year offensively.  In Jaramillo's two years as Cubs hitting coach, it's been hard to tell the difference as the offense has stayed mediocre.  

Pitching coach Chris Bosio works with Matt Garza.
Off the field, the Cubs are in good shape.  I've talked a lot about president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer; they know what they're doing in this rebuilding process and will do what it takes to get us there.  I just hope fans keep faith as this process will take time.  Meanwhile, however, they'll set us up with some interesting pieces to look at.  Third baseman Ian Stewart is intriguing.  If he has a 30-homer season in Chicago, which he is certainly capable of, people will know his name.  Because right now, the new Cubs are unknowns.  It used to be easy; Ramirez and Lee were the starting infield corners for seven years.  But Stewart and LaHair?  It doesn't have the same ring.  It will, though, and if it won't, then Hoyer and Epstein will find someone whose name will resonate with the fan base.  That's how you know the Cubs are in good hands.

A problem for this team is speed.  The 2012 Cubs will not steal many bases.  They will definitely be the bottom 10 teams in the league in steals.  If Joe Mather beats Tony Campana for the last spot on the roster, then the Cubs will be in the bottom three.  

In fact, offense overall will be a struggle on this team.  54 home runs from a year ago walked out the door when the Cubs let Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez walk.  Stewart, LaHair, and Anthony Rizzo are capable of reaching that number, but they are certainly not known commodities like the previous two.  Give Hoyer and Epstein credit for taking a risk on a couple of relatively unknown players.

Pitching-wise, this season will be an interesting one.  The starting pitching will not be particularly good, but at least the players in it play a role in the team's long-term plan.  This is why I would suggest to never start veteran Rodrigo Lopez or setup man Jeff Samardzija.  Last season, a lack of depth saw the Cubs need to scramble Ramon Ortiz, Doug Davis, and Lopez as stopgaps in an emergency injury stretch.  Hopefully that will never, ever happen again.  The newer starters for the back end of the rotation in Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Paul Maholm, and more, all have a future with the Cubs.  This way all of their experience earned now can impact the future Cubs teams, and not the retirement home or another team.

Many are saying that "it'll get worse before it gets better" for the Cubs.  I have to disagree.  Record-wise, I would expect a similar finish to last year.  In the vibe of the team, however, there will be a knowledge of a bright future ahead.  The festive Wrigley atmosphere knows that better days are coming.  Last year, the desperation deals for Matt Garza and Pena caused confusion and didn't really leave the Cubs an identity.  They weren't ready to contend, but just made two aggressive moves as if so.  This year, the idea is rebuilding.  Whether or not Sveum wants to accept it (which he doesn't), that is the plan, and there will be no more desperation moves that cleans out our farm system - at least, not for a while.          

Monday, February 27, 2012

2012 Cubs Preview: Bullpen

Kerry Wood
Young unit loses prime setup man but remains strong with hard-throwing core

The 2011 Cubs were simply not a good team at 71 wins, 91 losses.  The bullpen, however, was undoubtedly a team strength.  I believe that if the closer had been as good as he had for his entire career, this bullpen would have rivaled those of top contending teams.

That closer, of course, is the nasty Carlos Marmol, 29.  The side-arming right-hander pitched to a 2.86 ERA 61 saves, a 12.9 K/9 ratio, a ridiculous 4.8 H/9 ratio, but a 5.6 BB/9 ratio between 2008-10.  In 2011, however, he worsened to a 4.01 ERA with 10 blown saves, most in the National League.  In six of those blown saves, he also let up at least another run to lose the game.  He has the wildest delivery this side of Francisco Rodriguez but doesn't control it well as K-Rod does.

Carlos Marmol
Marmol throws far too many balls, especially to begin an at-bat.  It seems he always falls behind 2-0 before coming back with a slider over the middle of the plate for strike one.  The issues got so bad last season that he began throwing a cutter (or 'soft' slider) - without telling any coaches.  It didn't work, and manager Dale Sveum has already told him to knock it off.  No, Carlos, you're not Mariano Rivera.  Sorry, but the cutter just isn't that easy.  Marmol was given the ball with a lead to save 44 times last season, and he saved 34 of them.  Hypothetically, if given the same amount of chances this year, saving 40 should be a good goal for him.  It's certainly a challenge, but within his talent level.

Most of those leads handed over to Marmol had something to do with former setup man Sean Marshall.  Marshall, who, like Marmol, began his major league career as an unsuccessful starter, confirmed his status as one of the elite setup men in the game last year with a 2.26 ERA and 4.65 K/BB ratio.  Marshall was flipped to Cincinnati when his stock price was highest, meaning the primary setup man duties fall to Jeff Samardzija.

Jeff Samardzija
I talked briefly about Samardzija in the last post for the rotation, where he is being considered as the longest of longshots.  Truth be told, however, his loss would be a big blow to this 'pen.  His 2.97 ERA showed that he could be a good primary middle reliever, and now with Marshall's departure, he's ready for the next step.  He works lefties tough on the inside part of the plate.  Despite having the matchup advantage, they hit only .208 against the tall former Notre Dame wide receiver.  Righties didn't do any better, hitting .195 off him.  Too many batters got on base via the base on balls (50 of them, to be exact) but he still held hitters to a .220 average with men on base, which is hard to do considering the pressure on the pitcher at that point.  Some want to call his season a fluke, but I hope those factors of domination show that he's a changed pitcher and not just a lucky son-of-a-gun.

I haven't heard anyone call Kerry Wood's 2011 a fluke.  The 34-year-old pitched to a very respectable 3.35 ERA last season with 57 strikeouts in 51 innings.  As always, Wood brought the heat on a daily basis with that nasty curveball.  Wood is guaranteed a job with the Cubs for as long he likes, whether that means in the 'pen or front office.  For this season, however, he's a great option as a middle relief/setup man.

James Russell
Other primary names that will be in the mix include 26-year-old James Russell, 27-year-old Marcos Mateo, 26-year-old John Gaub, 24-year-old Rafael Dolis, 23-year-old Lendy Castillo and 27-year-old Scott Maine.  Clearly it's a very young group, but some have more potential than others.  Russell was tried in the rotation last year during the grand scramble for starting pitching, and he imploded.  Put back into middle relief though, he performed well.  I really like this kid's over-the-top delivery, it's very smooth and fundamentally correct; I hope to see him do well in this role this season.

Mateo is an less developed strikeout pitcher with a good fastball and slider.  He needs to work on his command to prove he can stay in the majors, but I like his raw stuff as it is right now.

John Gaub
Gaub throws some serious, serious heat.  In about 212 career minor league innings, he has struck out 298.  He made his major league debut last season and I believe will play a big role this year.  He's a lefty with a power slider, which already gives him value.  He walks about as many hitters as Marmol, however, so we'll see if his command has improved.

Maine was acquired before 2010 in the trade that sent former Cubs reliever Aaron Heilman to Arizona.  He has gotten tidbits of major league playing time over the past two years, but not enough to be judged upon.  In the minors he has a lifetime 3.34 ERA and recorded 12.6 K/9 last season at AAA Iowa.  He's ready for the major leagues, and I was hoping we'd see more of him last season.  I see him as a setup man as early as 2014 if not next year.

If nothing else, Dolis has a tremendous ability to keep the ball in the ballpark.  In 353.2 minor league innings, he's only allowed 14 homers.  This is good, but he's still going to allow runs if he continues to walk as many as he does in the minors.  If he makes the major league roster out of Spring Training, I'd call that a risky move.

Trever Miller
Speaking of risky moves, Castillo qualifies; he was a Rule 5 pick from the Phillies - meaning he must be on the major league roster all season or else he'll have to be returned the Phillies.  The Cubs' last Rule 5 pick was reliever David Patton in 2009, and that didn't turn out so well.  Patton hasn't pitched in the majors since.  Castillo has a 2.43 career ERA in the minors and exactly one strikeout for every inning pitched on average to go with an impressive 1.15 WHIP.  These are all nice, but they might mean more if Castillo had ever pitched above A ball.  Look for him to be used in blowout games only to begin with (which was also Patton's role).

The Cubs bullpen is a very young group now.  The only free agent acquisition, left-hander Trever Miller, is also the only man over 30 heading into the season.  Out of the pool of middle relief candidates, I believe Gaub, Maine, and Russell will become the primary three by midseason especially because of their strong command.  Dolis, Castillo, and Mateo are slightly risky for different reasons and won't all be on the major league roster all year.  Wood, Samardzija, and Marmol are strong pieces at the back.  Despite losing the big prize in Marshall, the bullpen remains a strength for the Cubs despite the uncertainty of the younger pieces.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Cubs Preview: Starting Rotation

Ace Matt Garza
The name of the game is depth as revamped rotation is stockpiled with veterans, and determination of final two starters is a toss-up

The top of the rotation remains the same from 2011, as Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster will lead the group.  They appear to have switched places on the depth chart, however, as manager Dale Sveum says Garza will start on Opening Day in just his second year with the Cubs.  Dempster started Opening Day last year and enters his seventh season with the team. 

Sveum is correct in tabbing Garza as the team's ace.  His 10-10 record from last season doesn't show it, but he was definitely the best starter on this team as evidenced by his near 200-inning, 200-strikeout performance with a 3.32 ERA.  He received some of the worst run support on the entire league which explains his mediocre record. 

If Garza performs well in the ace role, it will only increase his trade value stock as the season goes on, which is exactly what the Cubs want.  He will be put in prime position to suceed on this season and, hopefully, flipped for high-level prospects at the trade deadline in July.  Garza, 28, is an emotional and vocal team leader in the prime of his career.  It shouldn't be a surprise if GM Jed Hoyer's phone bill balloons due to other GMs inquiring on his availability.  Oh right, most cell providers don't charge for incoming calls anymore.  So much for that, but you get my point.

Ryan Dempster
Then again, a great guy like Garza could be a valuable character to have around on this rebuilding team.  He is definitely the type of veteran around which a team is built.  In 2008, he took his young Rays team on his shoulders to the World Series, winning the ALCS MVP along the way.  When I chatted with Hoyer earlier this month, he told me that, ideally, he'd like to give Garza an extension if the time is right and he's not more valuable as trade bait, which remains to be seen.  I think both plans are viable options, although if he's traded I'll be sad to see him go.

Dempster, 34, is not the standout talent he once was.  After a shocking 200-inning, 200-strikeout season in 2010, he really came crashing back to Earth with a 4.80 ERA in 2011, again eating over 200 innings but also allowing over 200 hits and holding a 1.49 WHIP.  Dempster appeared to lose confidence in his soft changeup and cement-mixer slider.  Perhaps it would help if he didn't throw these pitches to break right down the middle of the plate.  Seriously, though, he struggled to keep these breaking pitches out of the dirt when he took them out of the strike zone and walked 82 batters on the season.

Paul Maholm
The #3 spot right now could be Paul Maholm's to lose.  Maholm has pitched in the Pittsburgh rotation his entire seven-year major league career, posting a respectable 4.36 ERA during that time amid a group that was anything but.  The 30-year-old is coming off the best season of his career with a 3.66 ERA in about 162 innings.  The southpaw is not a strikeout pitcher but he'll force plenty of groundballs with his frequently-used changeup.  Cubs fans have gotten a good look at Maholm since he has always been in the same division.  Alfonso Soriano has four career homers off him, which is more to any single batter besides Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips.  Maholm has only given up 13 career homers to lefty batters, however.

Two other pitchers who will surely get at least some starts this season are new arrivals, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood.  Volstad, who came from Florida in the Carlos Zambrano trade, is a very tall righty who still hasn't found success in the major leagues.  He uses all of his pitches low and inside on righties and lefties; hopefully he'll learn to use the entire plate with skill and confidence.  Hitters hit .310 off his fastball last year; that'll need to improve.  Perhaps he could switch it up with his changeup more often, as he threw his changeup only 5% of the time to righties.  If nothing else, Volstad, 25, adds young depth.

Travis Wood
Wood, also 25, probably has more potential.  In over 100 innings in 2010, he pitched to a 3.51 and but probably deserved even better, posting an impressive K/BB ratio with 86 strikeouts and only 26 walks.  In about the same amount of playing time in 2011, Wood regressed with a 4.84 ERA and a WHIP that ballooned from 1.08 the year before to 1.49.  This lefty should bring more of the strikeout stuff to the majors soon judging from his 8.4 K/9 career ratio in the minors.  He throws his fastball too much (76% of the time last year) but apparently he commands it well, meaning he's very advanced in his development process.  I would take Wood over Volstad any day.

The last legit option, in my opinion, is righty Randy Wells, 29.  Since his impressive rookie debut in 2009, Wells has scuffled through two disappointing seasons.  This is probably his last chance to prove himself.  With the wide range of candidates this year, a 4.99 ERA won't cut it this time.  Something in his mechanics has been lost along the way, as his career 6.0 K/9 ratio is a far cry from the high strikeout totals he used to rack up in the minor leagues.  So far his fastball has been too hittable.

Randy Wells
Casey Coleman, 24, had a strong debut in 2010 as he showed how he can win with minimal strikeouts but a lot of groundballs.  In 2011 he was really, really bad with a 6.40 ERA although his strikeouts were up.  If he wants to win, he'll have to do it the way he did in 2010, using Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann as a model.  Coleman is definitely a longshot.

Speaking of longshots, there's another one in 27-year-old Jeff Samardzija.  He isn't a longshot because he's not up to the task; rather, he's such a dominant setup man that he's probably better served in the bullpen.  After an unbelievable rookie season in 2008, he was looking like a bust after horrible seasons in 2009 and 2010 switching between the rotation and bullpen.  I was sick of him and wanted him gone.  Instead, he came back in 2011 firmly staying in the bullpen and became one of the strongest setup men in the league, forming the best setup duo in baseball between him and Sean Marshall.  The Cubs will stretch him out in Spring Training to see what he's got as a starter just in case, but it's highly unlikely that he'll move.

The starting rotation in 2011 was the worst in baseball in terms of ERA.  This was definitely because of early injuries to #4 and #5 starters Wells and Andrew Cashner in the first week of the season, which exposed the team's lack of depth and sent then-GM Jim Hendry scrambling to fill a rotation.  Soon enough, Coleman, Doug Davis, Ramon Ortiz, and Rodrigo Lopez were getting far more time than they had earned in the major leagues.  The injuries blew up in the team's face, and it hampered the team's efforts to put together any kind of win streak.  This season, with new additions in Wood, Volstad, Maholm, Andy Sonnanstine, and Ryan Rowland-Smith, there will always be major league worthy arms available.