In what may have been the most pathetic display of baseball I have ever seen, and trust me there has been a lot over the years following the Chicago Cubs, the game they played Tuesday night against the Houston Astros may just take the cake. Nothing but lazy and sloppy defense came out of this game, and buried the Cubs in a 5-0 hole before the second inning was over. There is not one single player who is at fault, as a matter of fact there are several who helped doom the Cubs before you most people could find their seats.
Firstly, I never want to see James Russell ever pitch in a game for the Cubs again, much less start a game for them. Being placed on a 50 pitch count, the youngster making his first career start could not even get out of the second inning before reaching his limit, and allowed five runs to cross the plate. To think, we yell at Carlos Zambrano for being at 80 pitches in the fifth inning, that is nothing compared to the crapfest that Russell delivered to us. Perhaps he should be sent back down to the minors so that he can work on not only learning how to manage his pitch counts and work on not throwing more than 25 pitches per inning, but also working on throwing balls that are not hit as though they are on a batting tee.
To make things worse, our substitute pitcher on the night failed to cover first base on consecutive bunts to lead off the bottom of the first. I do not care who the base runner is, that is unacceptable, and should not be tolerated. If he is to stay with the major league roster, he better make sure to take bunting drills every day until he is able to get to first in time to field a throw.
The rest of the pitching was just as bad, however Jeff Samardzija was not great, but not bad at all coming out of the bullpen. He gave up two runs over three innings of work, and I will take that effort every time out of him. As much grief as I, and all Cub fans, give him, he deserves credit for a decent outing. Jeff Stevens and Marcus Mateao put up scoreless innings to help the Cubs as much as they could, but that is where all good things ended for the Cubs pitching staff. John Grabow came into the game and decided to take whatever doubt there was in the minds of the Astro fans that this game was still in jeopardy; as he usually does when he comes into a ball game.
Russell’s less than pathetic pitching was not helped by any of his outfielders, all three of them decided to take the night off from defense. We are used to seeing Alfonso Soriano drop the occasional fly ball or bobble a ball when he goes to make a play, so that is nothing new. However, not to be out done, both Marlin Byrd and Tyler Colvin got in on the act by misplaying the same ball that was bouncing to the wall. Colvin also allowed a ball to drop right in front of him later in the inning, when he could have likely made a sliding or a diving catch. If that were Soriano, he would have been barbequed for that lack of hustle, but hey fans love Colvin and Byrd so those two plays likely will not get a mention elsewhere. Add in Reed Johnson dropping the ball that was scorched to deep center and you have every single outfielder coming up short on fly balls. Johnson though, did have a very impressive effort on a fly ball to the following hitter, reminiscent to the remarkable catch he made against the Cincinnati Reds a few years back, which he just missed catching.
The outfield defense, or lack thereof, was not the end of the ugly defensive play in the first two innings. Everyone’s favorite new player, Darwin Barney, also had a brain cramp which allowed another runner to cross the plate. After Soriano bobbled the ball, he threw a strike to second base which helped get Bill Hall in a rundown between first and second. Granted, the base runner was out of the baseline (which the umpire completely missed) but the tag should have been applied before the runner from third was allowed to cross the plate. Or, if you are smart, you ignore the runner between first and second and throw to third or home to keep the other guy from scoring. I know he is young, but that is something that you should learn early on. Let’s not forget the two blunders in the eighth inning by Blake Dewitt. After Johnson dropped a deep fly ball, he threw a strike to Dewitt, who likewise dropped the ball. He also committed an error on a ball hit right to him. Another ugly defensive error to add to the mix.
The hitting has not been horrible, they did get a few good hits to land. The problem comes into play when you take into account that they had very little, if any, timely hitting. Even in the sixth inning when there were men on second and third with only one out, the Cubs could not even score a run as Hall caught a blooper hit off the bat of Soriano into “no mans land” which would have scored a run. Granted, Colvin actually got a hit, which was actually turned into a home run, but for the most part the hitting was perfectly pathetic. Another example would be Reed Johnson leading off the eighth inning with a double, only to be stranded with the next three men making outs. They showed some signs of life in the ninth getting the first two men on base, second and third with no outs, but could only muster a single run, not that I really expected them to actually score the 10 runs needed to tie the game.
To steal a line from one of my favorite baseball movies, “Bull Durham”, “this is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Sadly, the Cubs went 0-3 with this obvious concept of baseball. The pitching, the hitting and the defense all completely dropped the ball early on in today’s game, leaving the Cubs sitting behind the figurative eight ball.
With the Cubs having one more game against these Astros tomorrow, all we can do is hope and pray that Zambrano is on his game and can give this team some serious innings while twirling a gem. If we lose tomorrow, we are going to have a very ugly road trip as we head to Denver to face the Colorado Rockies for a series starting Friday. Even if we win tomorrow, we face the likelihood of ending a road trip with a record of 3-6 or 4-5. Not a good way to come home if you have any hopes of contending in your division.
With the 2009 Chicago Cubs season all but over, the attention of the fans, and hopefully General Manager Jim Hendry, will be how to fix the mess that they currently find themselves in. As a whole, I honestly do not believe that much needs to be done; only a little bit of tinkering. Sure Hendry needs to pull off a miracle trade in order to get rid of Milton Bradley, but other then that, I believe that our team does not need too much work. With most of our team already in place, and with the key pieces already locked in, all that remains is to find one or two key elements which will bring us back to the championship form the Cubs found themselves in the previous two years.
The first, and in my eyes the most important, piece to the championship puzzle that Hendry must bring into the fold, is a true leadoff hitter. The Cubs need an explosive bat at the top of the order that will be able to put the team in the best position possible to score early and often. They need a player who not only has the ability to hit and get on base at a high level, but also has the ability to steal second or third when they get on base. Presently, the Cubs have two options for leading off, neither of which fits all three areas of need.
With Kosuke Fukudome, they have a player who is able to fill the need for a great on base percentage. The downfall for having Fukudome lead off is because he has not proven that he can hit at a high level. His batting average, while slightly improved over last year, still sits at a mediocre .256. Even if he were able to show that he can hit closer to .300, he lacks the true potential to be a stolen base threat. Fukudome, while he can be a decent number two hitter, should not be looked upon to be the leadoff hitter for the Cubs next year. His qualifications do not meet the standard of what the ball club needs.
As far as Ryan Theriot, much like with Fukudome, he does not fit the ideal description of a leadoff hitter either. While he is able to hit at a respectable level and get on base close to a .350 average, he does not have the true speed to make him a stolen base threat either. While he does lead the team with 21 steals, only being caught seven times, he does not run enough to put the fear into the opposing team’s pitchers or catchers. His ideal position in the batting order would be either second or eighth in my eyes. While you want to take advantage of his ability to get on base for your sluggers, we saw in 2008 what his presence at the bottom of the order could do for our offense. With Fukudome batting second in a line up I would write out, Theriot would be a nice fit in the eight hole.
The Cubs could also look at using some of their minor leaguers to fill the void at leadoff. This option is very intriguing, as he has shown to be a great defensive player, making several amazing plays in the outfield. While his batting average is still a bit lower then you would like to see your leadoff hitter have, his on base percentage is amazing, hovering around .380. The one draw back, is he apparently does not have enough speed to be the stolen base threat the team requires. However, we do not know fully what he can do, as he has only been allowed to steal base three times, of which he was caught once. I would not be opposed to his leading off, if they were unable to find a suitable replacement.
If none of these three option fit Manager Lou Piniella’s desire, that leaves us with a need to be found outside the organization, and a limited availability for positions to play. The Cubs need to find a leadoff hitter who can play one of three or four possible positions. Fukudome can play either Right or Center field, and while Theriot has mostly been used at Short Stop, he is also capable of playing second base. While there are many options that will be available for the Cubs to sign once the free agency period starts in November, most of them are already in the 30s, and will all come with a hefty price tag. The list is long, and I will not list them at the moment, but rest assured, I do have my favorites already picked out, and I will let you know that sooner rather than later.
In today’s Chicago Sun Times, Piniella mentioned that the Cubs top priority should be to add another power bat to the middle of the order. As I mentioned, I believe that finding a true leadoff hitter should be on the top of the Cubs wish list. However, do we really need another power hitter on the team? With Alfonso Soriano being moved permanently out of the leadoff role, he would be a nice addition to the heart of the order. That is, of course, if he is able to give the team the power numbers he gave them during his time here. If he is able to do so, then the need for another power hitter becomes lower on the wish list.
Another reason the team may not need another power bat added to the lineup is Geovany Soto. While he has raised red flags with his performance this year, I for one am not willing to give up on him. He has shown exactly what he is capable of when he fully prepared for the season. He has admitted that he slacked off in the off season, and did not prepare himself the way that he should have. I am willing to write off 2009 as a rookie mistake, even though he is no longer a rookie. Lesson learned, and he has earned the chance to redeem himself with the level of play he displayed at the end of 2007 and all of 2008. All he needs to do is revert to doing whatever he did in those two years, and I believe that he will be back to everything the team expected of him. If both Soriano and Soto return to form, then there is no need whatsoever to go out and spend a lot of money on another power bat for the middle of the order. If they both fail to accomplish what the team needs from them, there are two options that could fill the bill, though I would advise against them.
In the outfield, you can play either Micah Hoffpauir or Jake Fox in Right Field. If I had to choose between the two of them, I would choose Fox over Hoffpauir, because Fox has more upside. With that being the case, I would severely advise against either one of them playing in the outfield, especially with Soriano playing in the opposite corner. The team can not, and should not, depend on an outfield which would have less than average defenders in both Left and Right Fields. While I would greatly welcome both of them to the bench, I do not want to see either as the everyday Right Fielder. Fukudome would collapse with all the ground he would have to cover in Center Field.
While you can never have enough power in the lineup, the money would be better served elsewhere. However, much like with the speedster that the Cubs should be looking for, the team would need to find a player who can hit for power, who also is able to play one of the previously mentioned four positions. Again, there are many options that may be available, but all would come with a hefty price tag, and are all in their early to mid 30s.
With the slight improvements in mind to help the everyday lineup, the focus should then move to the bench and the backups for each of the replacements. The bench portion of our team is a mess, but in a good way. The Cubs have more pieces then they know what to do with. In the outfield, assuming the Cubs sign a free agent, they have the options of re-signing Reed Johnson, Fuld, Fox and Hoffpauir. Some would question why I left out Tyler Colvin, but that is simply because of his lack of experience, and the Cubs lack of space. He would benefit well from having a little more time in the minors, mainly because he could have an everyday job playing in Triple A. If the Cubs were to sign a free agent for the outfield, chances are only one or two of these players would be on the Cubs bench, that is assuming they decide to re-sign Johnson. If the Cubs decide to have one of them be a starting outfielder, they can keep three of the players. While the Cubs said they wanted to resign Johnson, his time with the Cubs would likely come at the expense of Fuld.
If you thought that the outfield situation was a tricky one to work out, take a look at the log jam the Cubs will be facing with the infield backups. In my opinion, the Cubs need to sign a player to play second base. While Jeff Baker has played very well since coming to the team, I am not completely sold on him being the everyday player at second base. We fell into this trap last year with Mike Fontenot, thinking he would be able to produce the entire season the way we saw him perform in limited time in 2008. If we carry two backup outfielders, that limits us to only being able to carry two back up infielders. There are a few people I would love to see make the team as role players, but only one of them will get the nod, mainly because the Cubs are stuck with Aaron Miles for another year. That means that two of the following three men will not make the team, if the Cubs sign a second baseman. The Cubs can keep Baker, Fontenot or Andres Blanco. Personally, I would let Fontenot go, either by a trade or sent back to the minors. That would leave Piniella and Hendry with the tough decision between Baker and Blanco. This, of course, could all be solved if Baker becomes the starting second baseman. While I don’t know if he can be dependable as an everyday second baseman, he has got to do better then Fontenot. That would also allow us to keep Blanco on the team.
The way the starting rotation for the Cubs will likely only carry over four of the five starters from this year. Love him or hate him, Carlos Zambrano will likely return to the team next year, along with Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Randy Wells. While Rich Harden would be a welcome commodity, there are far too many rumors floating around that he will not be brought back. If he is willing to give the Cubs a discount, and not demand a long term deal, he may be brought back, but according to some baseball analysts he will get a contract worth at least $10 million a year. With his injury history, that would not be a quality investment. That would leave the Cubs one starting pitcher shy, but they have a few names who could step into the role as the fifth starter for 2010.
The in house options that the Cubs can consider for the vacant starters job are Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija and Tom Gorzelanny. From the way the end of the season is winding down, with Samardzija and Gorzelanny getting a few starts, you would be led to believe that the competition is currently limited to these two men. While Samardzija has looked very shaky in his outings this year, out of the bullpen and with his first start, he looked impressive in his second major league start. Gorzelanny on the other hand has been more then impressive in most of his starts with the Cubs. Whether or not they will be able to fill in and give us what we need will be determined once Spring Training commences. However, if neither of them impress, they can always look to free agency, and there are a few starters out there that could be
The bullpen is another mess that needs to be fixed, however this may be fix may not be all that difficult. We have our closer in Carlos Marmol, but after him everything else is a crapshoot. While Angel Guzman has looked amazing this year, he once again ended the year with an injury. If he could stay healthy, he would be an amazing set up man for the eighth inning. John Grabow is a free agent at the end of the year, but from all things I have heard, the Cubs want to resign him. That leaves four pitchers left to fill in the remaining bullpen spots. The Cubs have a slew of young arms that could fill those roles, like Jeff Stevens and Justin Berg. They could also use Marshall as the second lefty in the bullpen. If those three all make the team, that leaves one spot open for any number of guys. However, like everywhere else, there are plenty of options to sign in free agency.
While the Cubs have needs, they don’t necessarily need to go out and sign anyone. All of their holes can be solved in house. However, over the next few days and weeks, I will break down my thoughts on the possible targets who I think the Cubs should go after for all the open spots that need to be filled before the 2010 season beings. Just to recap, those positions are: Center Field or Right Field, Second Base or Short Stop, Starting Pitchers and Relief Pitchers. All the Cubs need is a little bit of tinkering, and they will be more then fine for he following season.