With the Chicago Cubs seemingly in full rebuild mode after a horrific year, the team continues to improve in areas that needed to be upgraded. While they are not improving in the ways many fans would have liked them to, the Cubs are still doing what is needed to put together a team they can only hope contends. They added Carlos Pena to fill the vacancy at first base, and then Kerry Wood to complete the back end of the bullpen. With little money, and room left, the Cubs may only have one move left, which could be to add an unneeded starting pitcher; which is presumably a still rehabbing Brandon Webb, who could be had at a very low price. However, I already gave my thoughts on him, as well as how I would only take him at a low price, so there is no need to bring this up again.
With Wood now being back in the mix for the bullpen, that is where we turn our attention to today. The bullpen has been a trouble spot for years, and now appears as though could be a possible strength of the team. With Sean Marshall teaming up with Wood setting up the save in the late innings for effectively wild, but dominating closer Carlos Marmol, the Cubs may have turned every ballgame into a six or seven inning game. Whether or not that helps matters much, depends solely on the strength of the pitching staff as well as the offense. But the late innings is not the only place in the bullpen which needed a massive improvement, just the most important.
Other areas which are in serious need of a tune up for the pen, is the middle relief. At the moment we are looking squarely at John Grabow as the primary arm to come out of the pen in the middle innings, which does little to settle the fears or stomach pains of Cub fans. However, there is still hope on the horizon, as well as a slight silver lining. Angel Guzman, the one time promising but often injured pitcher, has a chance to make the bullpen. If he is ready to come back (but don’t hold your breath) he could only add to the dominance to the beaten and broken situation in the later innings. Another injured bullpen pitcher who has a chance to earn a job again is Esmailin Caridad, who has never been able to fully give Cub fans any reason to have hope in him. Other than a very impressive half season in 2009, Caridad has not done anything to impress anyone. However, and this is a huge reach (but as Cub fans when are we not reaching on most things), if he is healthy and can pitch the way he did in 2009, the Cubs have something going for them.
Outside of the big three which will be closing out games for the Cubs, there will be between three and four bullpen spots up for grabs in a Spring Training competition. In all likelihood, baring a trade of a player, those voids will be filled with a player who was on the team last year; mainly because they are under contract, and comfortably (at least for them) paid. Sadly, that does include Grabow as well as both Carlos Silva and Jeff Samardzija, both of whom may have to settle for a bullpen roles if they fail to grab a spot in the rotation. Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner are also names which will be considered for the rotation, with the bullpen as a backup plan. That leaves little room, about one or two spots left for the young Cubs to grow and blossom at the major league level.
One of the wildcards in the arms race is Tom Gorzelanny, as he would either be a starter or come in as relief. Personally, I would prefer to see him fill out one of the five spots in the starting rotation, as there are no current left handed pitchers other than him on the roster who can fill that void on the roster, nor in trade or free agent rumors. The reason I am calling him a wild card, is he is heavily rumored to be traded at some point this off season. With him on the team, there will only be one spot left to be filled, though depending on what the Cubs get in return for him, if he is indeed traded, will undoubtedly open another slot that could be filled by a younger up and coming talent. With as much as I like Gorzelanny, and consider him to be immensely under rated, I would hope that he remains a Cub for the 2011 season.
Unfortunately, with the pitchers who are currently on the projected 25 man roster, the pitching staff will likely not have one of the Cubs young studs filling out a void, unless there is an injury or the aforementioned trade of already established talent. With the heavily rumored signing of Webb, if he passes all the medical requirements of the team, that would seal the deal; meaning no young pitchers will be making the team.
A mistake which could come back and haunt the Cubs as time goes by,
With the start of Spring Training only days away, the fans of the Chicago Cubs can finally look forward to the 2010 season. After everything that went wrong with the previous years ball club, Cub fans were left with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths, and need a reason to believe that this year will be different. That is what Spring Training is all about, a fresh start and a new beginning. After last season, Cub fans everywhere are looking for just that. While most of the positions are already set, and locked in, there will still be some good competition that all fans should want to keep an eye on.
Lets start with the only competition that will be taking place for a starting job. That competition is for the starting second baseman’s job. There are two men who have their eye’s on the prize for this job, Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker. Many fans would see Baker as the odds on favorite to win the job after he performed so well after the Cubs acquired him in a trade from the Colorado Rockies. He finished the year with a .288 batting average, but hit over .300 for the Cubs with a .362 on base percentage. Those are some pretty good statistics for a second baseman and, I for one, would not be too upset if he was the one to leave camp as the starter. The only problem I have with this, is I am unsure how much trust to put in Baker to continue to play the way he played last year. We fans, and management, have been fooled more times than we would like to admit when looking at a player who put up half of a good season. Need an example? Just look at Baker’s competition in Fontenot.
One reason why Fontenot might get the nod as the every day starter at second base, is because he is a left handed bat. If he isn’t starting the game, the Cubs have only one left handed hitter in the lineup. However, if we learned anything last year, we learned that Fontenot might not be starter material. In 2008, Fontenot put up some amazing stats considering he was only being used in part time play. What he was able to do in limited time, made Cub fans crave to see him getting more starts. That desire to see him get more time, also helped the Cubs decide to trade fan favorite Mark DeRosa. Last year though, Fontenot got his chance at starting, and we watched him fail to provide what we needed him to give us. In 16 more games, and getting 134 more at bats, Fontenot saw his batting average fall from .305 to .236. Management had also thought we would see him deliver more power with more time, that too failed to meet expectations. He only hit nine homeruns, the same amount he hit the previous year, while driving in only three more runs. Fontenot is a prime example of why you should not want to see a half year stud, taking over an every day job.
One of the other competitions that will be taking place, is for the fifth outfielder’s job. The starting outfield is already set with Alfonso Soriano in left field, Kosuke Fukudome in right field and Marlon Byrd patrolling center field. Newly signed Xavier Nady will be the fourth outfielder and will be backing up both Fukudome and Soriano. That leaves three outfielders competing for the fifth outfielder. Those players are Micah Hoffpauir, Sam Fuld and Tyler Colvin. While I like the versatility of both Colvin and Fuld, who can play all three outfield positions, I would give the nod to Hoffpauir myself, as he would be a welcomed left handed power bat off the bench. While Hoffpauir’s statistics are nothing to get excited about, he would provide more of a threat off the bench than either Colvin or Fuld.
In all honesty, I would say that this job would come down to Hoffpauir and Fuld, with Colvin being sent back down to the minors. While he is still in development, I would rather see Colvin get at bats everyday, something he wont be able to do in the major leagues. You don’t want a young player wasting away on the bench in the major leagues, let him continue to grow and play ball in the minors. While I said I would give the nod to Hoffpauir, don’t count out Fuld making the team. One of the competitions that will be taking place for the infield spots may actually work in Fuld’s favor, and give him a better chance of breaking camp with the team.
The battle for the infield bench jobs will also have the most competition. There are only two jobs open on the bench for backup infielders, with four players vying for them. The four men are Kevin Millar, Chad Tracy, Andres Blanco and whoever does not win the starting second base job between Baker and Fontenot. This competition will likely be watched the closest, as there are many things to factor in when filling the voids. Blanco is the only man in the group that can backup the Short Stop position. Yes, there is Sterlin Castro, but I am not considering him. I will get to him at a later date. Because of him being the only viable backup to Ryan Theriot at short, I feel he would have to be a lock to make the team. He is aso able to play second base.
If Blanco is a lock to make the team, as I think he should, that leaves Fontenot or Baker competing with Tracy and Millar for the final spot. With these three men in competition you need to factor in the Ramirez effect. The Cubs current third baseman rarely plays the whole season, and usually missed a chunk of games every year. The team needs someone who can back up Ramirez. While all four men can play third base, Tracy would be the best at the position. He can also back up Derrek Lee at first base, which would make Hoffpauir less of a necessity, meaning he could be sent down to the minors and Fuld could make the squad.
Management has come out and said that Millar and Tracy will be competing with one another for a bench job , which could mean that there could be a trade towards the end of Spring Training involving the odd man out in this competition. If Blanco makes the team, which I believe he should, who ever doesn’t win the second base job could likely be traded.
The problem with Tracy, is he doesn’t exactly have a great bat. His offensive production has fallen off dramatically since his first couple of years in the majors. So with Tracy you need to figure out what you need more. Do you need a good bat of the bench, or do you need a dependable replacement for Ramirez if he is forced to miss some time?
Millar is another issue, because like Tracy his offense is nowhere near what you would want in a bench player. However, he can play both corner infield spots, and if you are a believe in clubhouse chemistry there wouldn’t be a better man to add to the mix. I am not sure if I would pick him to beat out the other three candidates, but maybe he surprises everyone and pulls an ace out of his pocket.
With Ted Lilly possibly missing the first month of the season, there will be an extra spot in the pitching rotation. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells will lead the rotation, with the Cubs needing at least one more pitcher to fill out the rotation. With the month of April spreading out games and usually having a good number of off days, you wont really need a fifth starter until April 18 against the Houston Astros. Lilly said that he was targeting the middle of April for his return, so there may not be a need for a fifth start, which would be the best thing for the Cubs.
However, there will still be a need for a fourth starter until then, and that pitcher will become the fifth starter once Lilly returns. The likely candidates are Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva. If I were to put my money on one of them, I would nominate Gorzelanny to fill out the rotation. For one, he is a lefty, something the rotation will lose with Lilly being out. But why him over Marshall? That is an easy one. While Marshall has never gotten an extended look in the starters role, he hasn’t been able to show that he belongs as a starter, over the role we are used to seeing him in, and that is as an excellent arm coming out of the bullpen.
Silva was brought in, but his recent track record does nothing to inspire you that he would be anything better than what he has been the past four years. While he is likely to make the team, he might be demoted to the bullpen and mop up duty if he is unable to show any signs of improvement.
The one pitcher who might surprise people is Samardzija, though I am not ready to put my faith in him. Various reports from the Cubs player development staff have stated that he has shown a lot of good progress. If he has grown into the starters role, than he could give Gorzelanny some good competition, though I think I would rather see him sent to the minors to continue to work on his mechanics and developing a new pitch or two.
The bullpen is the final spot where we will see a lot of competition. Though, much like with the starting pitcher competition, there are the likely favorites. We already know that Carlos Marmol will be the closer, and Angel Guzman and Jeff Grabow will be the likely setup men. Others who are likely to make the squad are Jeff Gray, and if he doesn’t make the rotation Marshall. That leaves two spots in the bullpen for four other candidates. The most likely candidates are, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, John Gaub, and Jeff Stevens. However, both Samardzija and Silva might also be in competition for the bullpen spots. This will be the most important competition in camp. The better your bullpen is, the better your team will be. For the final two spots, I have no idea who I see making the team. Whoever wins those last two spots will have earned them with this crowd that is in competing.
Well, hope springs eternal Cub fans, and this Spring Training is bound to give you all a lot of hope. Everything begins on February 17 when pitchers and catchers report.
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.
Coming out of the All Star break, the Chicago Cubs have put together a very impressive two weeks of baseball, compiling a very impressive record of 11-3. I know what you are saying about this stretch of game though. They played half of those games against some of the worst talent the National League has to offer. The Washington Nationals are the worst team in all of baseball, and the Cincinnati Reds aren’t all that much better. That being the case, the Cubs did exactly what they are supposed to do. Play the teams that are on your schedule, and beat the teams that you are supposed to beat. The Cubs did just that, winning all seven games against the two lowly teams.
With the Philadelphia Phillies was the series to look at. They are one of the best teams in the National League, and we knew they would give us a fight going into that series. How many people honestly thought we would sweep the Phillies, let alone win the series? Going into things, I thought that we would be lucky to win one game. This was a very interesting series when you look back at what happened. The Cubs got blown out in the opener, lost an extra inning battle for the second, and blew them out in the final. If you want a comparison, the St. Louis Cardinals blew out the Phillies in the first game of their recent series, but got blown out themselves in the final two.
Finally, that brings me to the Houston Astros, who while they are a better team then the other two, they are a far cry from a great team. However, by winning the series against the Astros, they added some much needed separation between them and a team that was, until recently, tied with the Cubs for second place. They won three of the four games, and now are a healthy four games ahead of the closest team behind them. A four game series is hard to sweep, so I figured we would lose at least one game. I thought that Roy Oswalt was going to be the one pitcher who would beat us. When he went down in the second inning, my hopes were raised that the Cubs would be able to sweep the series. However, our pitching staff had a one game implosion. We lost the game I figured we would lose, so no harm done. The Cubs still won three of the four games. What else could you expect?
Despite the teams the Cubs played, the offensive output has been very impressive. The most impressive would have to be the red hot Alfonso Soriano who is on fire in his new role as the Cubs six hole hitter. He has really adapted well, and has even stated that he feels he can be of more use to the team in his current spot when he admitted a three run bomb in a game, is a lot better then a leadoff homerun. Truer words have never been spoken. The offensive explosion might also have to do with the return of Aramis Ramirez. While he started off slowly when he finally came back, since the break ended he has looked like he has returned to for. He has once again looked like the RBI machine that we have all come to know and love since he came to Chicago.
One thing that may stand in the way of the Cubs going deep into October are the injuries. The Cubs just can not stay healthy this year. Every time the Cubs are about to reactivate a player from the disabled list, someone else gets injured and has to be put on. This has been the case all season long, as the Cubs have had their whole team healthy for a total of two games this season. Currently, the Cubs have five players on the disabled list. They are, Aaron Miles, David Patton, Ted Lilly, Geovany Soto and now Reed Johnson. In all honesty though, only three of them are important to the Cubs long term success.
Thankfully, Soto is close to returning from his oblique injury, and could be back over the weekend, or by early next week at the latest. No offense to Koyie Hill, but Soto is a much better offensive player. I give him all the props in the world though, he has caught almost every inning of every game since Soto went down, but we need Soto back in a bad way. With Lilly, who knows when he will be back. He is having arthroscopic surgery on his knee, and that recovery takes around three weeks to heal. Hopefully, that time off will allow the inflammation in his shoulder to die down. With his status being unknown, the Cubs made a trade which brings them back a pair of lefty pitchers. More on this in a moment. The final Cub on the disabled list, which we need is Johnson. He broke his foot when he fouled off a ball in the first inning of Wednesday’s game. He will be out for around a month at least.
The only good thing I can say about the team having all these injuries, is that for the most part, the entire team will be relatively well rested come September and October. Just about every member of the team has spent time on the shelf, whether they were on the disabled list or just missing a week due to a nagging injury. I think that the Cubs being where they are considering all the injuries they have had, is a miracle. Take this as a statement of how bad our division is, that or how good of a job Cubs Jim Hendry did in building this team to be as deep as they are. He has been ripped without remorse for some of the moves he has made, but considering how banged up we have been, they have been able to do a pretty decent job at filling the holes we have been left with.
As I mentioned, today the Cubs made a trade with their usual favorite trading partners, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the trade, the Cubs acquired a pair of left handed pitchers, John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny. In return, the Cubs sent out today’s winning pitcher Kevin Hart along with minor leaguers Jose Ascanio and Single-A Daytona infielder Josh Harrison. In my honest opinion, this is a good trade for our beloved Cubs. They were able to get another left handed pitcher to add into the bullpen to go along with Sean Marshall in Grabow. With Gorzelanny, he could very well slide into the starting rotation in Lilly’s slot until he is able to return, if he is able to do so at all this year. Marshall, I feel, will stay in the bullpen as he has had a tremendous amount of success since being moved into that role, 1.25 ERA in 25 games. Apparently he is much more comfortable pitching in relief then as a starter, where many Cub fans wanted him to stay when Carlos Zambrano returned from his injury. However, after Randy Wells has been outstanding in his stint with the Cubs, Marshall as sent back to his common role in the bullpen. Time will tell if these trades will have the desired effect, so I will not judge them fully until they have had some time to get work in. By give them some time, I mean more then just a game or two.
Well, the Cubs have 62 games left this season, and are currently in a first place tie with the Cardinals, though that tie will be broken by the end of the night one way or another. Tomorrow, the Cubs hit the road, and start the trip in Florida to face the Marlins. They get to face another one of the softer teams in the National League, and should be able to continue padding their stats, and hope that they are able to get some separation with the Cardinals to not only get into first place on their own, but get a comfortable lead with the season dwindling down. They will be on the road until August 10, and will face the Marlins, Reds and the Colorado Rockies. While the old saying goes, you need to play .500 on the road, on this 10 game trip, anything less then six or seven wins would be a disappointment. The Pennant race is getting exciting as the final two months are about to begin.
Going into tonight’s game in Houston against the Astros, the Chicago Cubs are only two games about the .500 mark thanks to a 3-2 road trip. While the Cubs are still looking as though they are struggling to put together anything close to the season that was expected of them, there is still room for optimism on the horizon. Not only are the Cubs starting to get healthy with players coming back this week, but the schedule is going into what could be considered to be a easy stretch of games. With the upcoming schedule, the Cubs could get very healthy and bring their record well above the .500 mark.
At some point during this week, the Cubs could welcome back up to three of their five injured players. Right handed pitcher Rich Harden is tentatively scheduled to start Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers, and Aaron Miles and Ryan Freel are also eligible to rejoin the Cubs 25 man roster at some point this week. These three returning players will be playing key roles in improving the overall quality of the ball club. With Harden returning to his role in the starting rotation, Sean Marshall will resume his role in the bullpen as the second lefty and long relief pitcher. This instantly improves the bullpen, as we will rid ourselves of the Rule 5 Draft Pick David Patton, who according to the rules must be offered back to the Colorado Rockies. Randy Wells has pitched well enough to win the fifth starter job away from Marshall, who hasn’t been bad at all in his chances. When Miles and Freel return to the ball club, adding to the overall depth of the bench, we will have more options to play at third base over Mike Fontenot. In his time at third base, Fontenot has butchered several balls, and cost us at least one game. In his defense, Fontenot is not a third baseman and was thrust into a position that he has had just about no experience playing in a big league game. While neither Miles or Freel is likely to give us much in terms of offense, at least they can do a better job holding down the fort at third.
With their returns, however, two position players will need to be sent out. The likely candidates are Bobby Scales, Andres Blanco and Jake Fox. All three have done a decent job in their time with the club, but none of them have done enough to warrant staying on the big league club in place of Miles or Freel. Filling in at second base, with Fontenot at third, Blanco has made some great defensive plays, but has yet to show us the offensive numbers we saw in Triple A. While his story is a great one, Bobby Scales is also a target to be sent back to the minors because of his lack of offense. He can play a few positions, which may be his wild card to stay with the team until Ramirez returns. That leaves Fox, who I feel will be one of the two men sent back to Iowa. Unfortunately, when you are a defensive liability, you will get over looked more often then not when tough roster decisions need to be made. While we could use his bat off the bench, we already have a power bat on the bench in Micah Hoffpauir, who like Fox, is a man without a position. He may be kept on the roster though, because he is a right handed bat off the bench with some power. The question becomes would you rather have two pinch hitters, or another position player which would allow Cubs Manager Lou Piniella more options. Personally, I think we need to send Fox down along with either Scales or Blanco.
Another reason Cub fans can be optimistic, is the schedule is starting to ease up; at least for the time being. Counting tonight, the next 12 games for the Cubs are against teams with a record below the .500 mark. The Astros start off the stretch, and are followed by the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. After a game against the Atlanta Braves, who sit at the .500 mark, the Cubs play three games against the American League Central leading Tigers. After those four games, the Cubs get back to their stretch of sub .500 with six more against the Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. While we have the chance to fatten up our record against these mediocre teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds face similar competition during this stretch. There wont be much ground made up in the division, but at least the Cubs have the chance bring their record back to respectability.
Between now and the All Star break, the Cubs play 33 games in 34 days. The long stretch of games include a making a stop in Atlanta in between our series in Cleveland and Detroit, as well as a double header against the visiting Cardinals right before the break begins. With two off days, this stretch of games will really test the ball club. Thankfully, those Cubs who do not play in the All Star game, will have a three day rest before the season picks up again. If the Cubs are able to survive until then, they should be in pretty good shape.
This weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, overall has been a great series for the Chicago Cubs and their fans. Tonight’s game, gives the Cubs a chance to win a series against the very same Dodger team that eliminated them from the playoffs in a three game sweep. While winning the series will be great, the series win comes about seven months too late for the liking of many Cub fans. But why dwell on the past, when you cant change things? You have to live in the here and now, and right now the Cubs have a chance to win a series against the best team in baseball. That is something to stand up and take notice of, especially when your own team has been struggling as of late.
For the first time this series, a team scored more then two runs. In what I am sure comes as a surprise, that team was not the Dodgers. Yesterday, the Cubs offense broke out scoring seven runs, with just about everyone contributing. While there are a few people who could get the nod as the offensive MVP for the game, Reed Johnson would get my vote. Going 3-3 at the plate, which included a homerun and two RBI, Johnson helped to light the fire under the offense. With the way Johnson has been playing, many fans would love to see him in the outfield on an everyday basis, but that will not be the case for two reasons. First, there is no room for him in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley all being mainstays in the everyday lineup. Another reason for his being held out, is that he is a right handed hitter. He will get his fair share of starts when there is a lefty on the mound, but other then that, he will be regulated to bench duty. I don’t mean to diminish what he can and has done for this team, he is just a victim of circumstance.
While Johnson’s efforts were great, he was not alone in having a breakout game, Bradley also had a game that fans have been waiting for him to have since his arrival in Chicago. Bradley matched Johnson by recording three this, but was unable to drive in any runs. While you want to see one of your main run producers drive in the men on base, there isn’t much you can do if there are none on base when you come up to bat. As a matter of fact, he only left one runner stranded the entire game. Bradley is starting to heat up as the weather does, and he has brought his average up to .223, which considering how slow he started the season is great to see. With Bradley starting to hit as we all knew he would, the offense should start scoring runs in bunches.
Mike Fontenot is another player who deserves to be singled out for his play yesterday. The man that Ron Santo likes to call “Little Babe Ruth” had a great game recording two hits. Both of Fontenot’s hits just missed being homeruns, so he had to settle for a double and a triple. This could only be considered a good thing when you look at Fontenot, as he has been in a very bad slump for the longest time. Fontenot was one of the men who was looked at to be a key contributor for this ball club, as he was sliding in to take Mark DeRosa’s place in the lineup. Sadly, so far in the season, he has been unable to make the transition from bench player to everyday player as well as everyone had hoped. He still has about four months to turn his season around, he has a long way to go before he even matches his stats from last year. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come.
Despite the offensive breakout in yesterday’s game, the pitching of the Cubs gets all the credit in the world for the two wins the Cubs have gotten so far. They have limited the Dodgers to just three runs in the three games, highlighted by Ryan Dempster’s seven shutout innings in yesterday’s game. After a very ugly outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he allowed six runs in four innings of work, Dempster pitched his best game of the year against the best hitting team in baseball. In fact, yesterday’s game was the first time all season the Dodgers have been shut out. That is a statement both teams can be proud of, in all honesty. The Dodgers going almost two months without being shutout, and the Cubs being the first team to leave them without a run. While Dempster did most of the damage to the Dodgers yesterday, the bullpen deserves some credit as well. My only complaint with Dempster in yesterday’s game, was his at bat where he tried to bunt for a base hit with two outs. What he was thinking with that at bat is anyone’s guess. Other then that, Dempster was the star of the game.
While Dempster delivered seven innings of scoreless baseball, the bullpen stepped up and finished the job. Angel Guzman continued his dominant stretch in his new setup role, recording a 1-2-3 inning. With Guzman and Carlos Marmol in the tail end of our bullpen, I like our chances to win a lot of close games down the stretch. Those two alone can be a very dominant 1-2 punch out of the bullpen. That brings me to Aaron Heilman, who while looking shaky, got the job done. Sure, he allowed two men to reach base before getting out of the inning without a run scoring, but how many times have we seen Marmol do that same exact thing? While Heilman gives many Cub fans fits, he is exactly who he has always been out of the bullpen. There is rarely an in between for Heilman, as he is either really good, or really bad. All Cub fans can do is hope he is really good more then he is really bad. That being said, he has lost his setup role to Guzman, so we will likely only see him in games that are out of hand one way or another.
Hopefully, in tonight’s game, Sean Marshall can continue the dominant pitching we have seen from the Cubs starters. He has pitched well this season, only allowing more then three runs once this season, so there is no reason to expect anything else. Tonight, the Cubs can get a small piece of revenge against the team that swept them out of the playoffs last year. While this series win would be nothing compared to a playoff series, you still have to feel good.
The Chicago Cubs just cant seem to catch a break, can they? Today the Cubs activated staff ace Carlos Zambrano from the disabled list, and unfortunately made a corresponding move by placing Rich Harden on with a back strain. I guess everyone should have seen this coming, as a season without Harden getting injured and placed on the disabled list just doesn’t happen. They will spin the injury the same way they always have, that this is not an arm injury so there is no need to be overly concerned. But guess what, while the injury is not arm related the back also plays a role in a pitchers delivery.
Many people, myself included, feel that when healthy Harden is the best pitcher in the rotation. His injury is just another slap in the face of Cub fans, and will prolong the M*A*S*H parade the Cubs have been on all season. What this move means, is that neither Randy Wells or Sean Marshall will need to be moved into the bullpen at the current moment. Wells will take Harden’s start on Saturday, and will give Cubs Manager Lou Piniella another look at his young starter to help him decide which pitcher will remain in the rotation when everyone comes back healthy.
We managed to survive for three weeks without Zambrano due to the other pitchers picking up the slack, and pitching gems. They will have to continue doing so now that Harden will be out for two weeks. This injury to Harden really is a shame, because Harden has been pitching well and has looked healthier then any other time in his career. The dog days of Summer are upon us, and June is right around the corner. This is just another obstacle the Cubs will have to over come on their own, as there will not be a trade made to save them.