Tagged: Training

Center Field: Marlon Byrd

A year ago, when the Chicago Cubs signed Marlon Byrd to a three year, $15 Million contract, several eyebrows were raised. Fans were wondering why exactly they signed him, when they have so many young outfielders who seem to be ready to make the leap to being a Major League player, such as Tyler Colvin. There was seemingly no reason at all for the Cubs to add another outfielder, and create an even bigger logjam in the outfield. To many fans, this was just another nail in the Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry’s coffin. Another reason several fans wanted him fired.  However, after his first year with the team, everyone knows that Byrd is the word!

The 2010 season opened several people’s eyes showing them just who Byrd was, and what he could do to assist the Cubs in winning some games. He went out there day in, and day out busting his ***, proving that the previous three years were no fluke, that he had figured something out which improved his game. The light came on for Byrd, and he became an offensive threat, maybe not with obscene power numbers, but with just enough power to make him dangerous.

Unfortunately for Byrd, he is connected with Victor Conte, the known steroid deal who helped over inflate Barry Bonds’ arms, head and power numbers catapulting him into legendary status. While Byrd vehemently denies taking steroids because he says that Conte would not want to go through more trouble like he did with Bonds, the questions will always be there. Byrd stated that he started talking with Conte because he was worried about accidentally using something on the banned substance list and being suspended. So he went to someone who knew what they were doing with supplements. Whether Byrd is using steroids or not, one thing can not be denied. As soon as he started working with Conte, his offensive game dramatically improved. Do not take this as my saying that he is taking steroids, there is a very good chance that everything Byrd is taking is 100% legitimate. I am just simply stating that the questions and suspicion will be there for the remainder of his career.

On top of his offensive efforts that he is able to bring, you can not forget about all of the defensive gems from last year. Byrd never left you wanting more when he took the field, and more often than not, he delivered when you least expected him to. Whether you are talking about his behind the back catch in center and his game saving defensive play in the All Star Game, Byrd became an instant hit with Cub fans.

Following up on his 2010 season might be hard for him to do, but not at all impossible. However, he can not be the team’s best hitter if they expect to go anywhere. As I pointed out in previous blogs, the Cubs needs Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano to step things up, and lead this team offensively if they want to go anywhere. That is not to say that Byrd can just sit back and relax, he still needs to deliver another quality season for the Cubs to have success.

For the upcoming season, I can see Byrd hitting for an average of around .280 with around 15 home runs and about 80-90 RBI if men are getting on base in front of him. I know I have been saying that a lot with these past few players but, to be completely honest, that is what needs to happen for this club to have success. You can not lean on one person alone. Nor can you lean on two or three, everyone needs to step up to the plate and deliver when their name is called. Byrd can not be the main offensive weapon, but he needs to be an instrumental one; especially because he is going to be hitting in the heart of the lineup.

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Shoddy Defense Lights Silva’s Short Fuse

When Carlos Silva took the mound today for the Chicago Cubs fourth Spring Training game, he was preparing to start his battle to win a spot in the rotation. What he was not counting on though, was the defense behind him committing three errors in the very first inning; all before there were even two outs made.  Aramis Ramirez committed an error right before Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee hit a two run homer tying the game. Starlin Castro also committed another error, his second of the Spring, as did catcher Koyie Hill when he was called for catchers interference which deleted an inning ending double play.

Whether or not there were a multitude of errors committed behind him, giving up six runs in the first inning is no way to make the team, let alone the starting rotation. Pitching around the errors behind you is part  of the game, and something all pitchers must do if they want to be successful. Earlier in the spring, Silva was claiming that he should not have to be in a competition for a job this Spring, and I have got to completely agree with this statement. The competition for the final two spots in the starting rotation should not include Silva at all. Today’s outing just furthers my belief that his spot on the roster should go to someone more deserving.

If his poor pitching today was not enough to show Cubs Manager Mike Quade that he did not belong in the starting rotation, then he may very well have another reason to leave him out in the cold. After the error filled first inning, Silva returned to the dugout and got into a heated altercation with Ramirez; the fight was quickly broken up. When you are fighting for a spot on the team, fighting with your teammates should immediately take you out of contention, and get you your walking papers.

Granted, Silva is not the first Cubs pitcher in recent memory to get into a fight with a teammate in the dugout. Carlos Zambrano famously got into a fist fight with Michael Barrett, an altercation which far exceeded the little skirmish that took place today. The difference between the two fights, as well as the two pitchers, is that Zambrano actually has talent and  the ability to pitch.

People wrote off Zambrano’s crazy antics as being competitive, and letting his emotions getting the best of him. A majority of fans loved seeing him get upset, because that showed them that he cared, that he wanted to win. So why not give Silva the very same benefit of the doubt? Why not write off this fight as the same emotional, competitive nature that people use to defend Zambrano? The answer to that is simple.

Whether you like the circumstances or not, start athletes get preferential treatment. They get more slack, and people turn their heads more frequently than when lesser players cross the lines that should not be crossed. Zambrano attacked Barrett, and Barrett was the one sent packing. Zambrano beat the living hell out of the Gatorade machine, and we haven’t seen that machine since. Unfortunately for Silva, he does not carry the same amount  of pizzazz as Zambrano, and he can easily be dumped without anyone giving a second thought.

While Silva is in the final year of his contract, and is still owed $12 Million for 2012 ($5.5 Million of which is paid by the Seattle Mariners), finding a trade for him still may not be easy without chipping in a few more million to take the edge off. That would still be cheaper than giving him his outright walking papers, which may be the course the Cubs are forced to take.

Left Field: Alfonso Soriano

Earlier in the off season, I mentioned that Aramis Ramirez was one of the two keys to the Chicago Cubs season; meaning if the Cubs are going to go anywhere, they will need these two men to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Today, the other key to the Cubs season, Alfonso Soriano is my main focus.

I know how things go around here, and the argument never changes. On one side you have fans clamoring for the Cubs to cut Soriano, or to trade him. They want the Cubs to eat the contract and to replace him with someone they feel can do a better job. They rue the day that Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry signed him, and say this signing is more than enough ammunition to give Hendry his walking papers. Then you have the other half of the fans who always remind people that there were very few people who were actually crying foul when he was signed. They will remind you that most people celebrated the arrival of a player who could help lead us to the promise land.

While that has not happened yet, you can not dispute the facts that he was the main reason the  Cubs did anything in his first two years on the ball club. He was the main reason the Cubs won the division in 2007 and in 2008. His bat carried the Cubs to the playoffs, and made them a team that you could not take too lightly. Of course, with this you will always hear the retort of “yea, but where was he when the playoffs started?” This is true, his bat disappeared in the playoffs, just like the offensive attributes of Derek Lee, Ramirez and several other key players for the Cubs. If you want to call him out for his offensive struggles in the playoffs, don’t forget about everyone else who joined in him the massive failures that were the two playoff runs.

However, as good as his first two years were, his last two years were just as bad. In his first two years, Soriano hit .299 and .280, a combined 62 home runs and 145 RBI with a WAR (wins against replacement) total of 11.2. Pretty damn impressive if you as me. However, because baseball is a what have you done for me lately sport, his last two years were pretty pathetic. His batting average dropped to .241 in 2009, and .258 in 2010. He only totaled 44 home runs and 131 RBI (which while not great is only 18 homers and 14 RBI off from when he carried the Cubs) in the same two year span. His WAR numbers also took a nose dive as he total only a 2.9 over his past two years, sadly he earned that number entirely last season as 2009 he was no better than a replacement player at all.

Keeping his poor season in mind last year, he was second on the team in both home runs, RBI and runs scored, so if he was a bum last season, so was everyone else. Granted, these past two years he has not lived up to the hype and he certainly has not earned the money he is being paid, but that does not change the fact that if the Cubs are going to go anywhere this season, they need Soriano to  get back into form. No, not the 40-40 guy we thought we were getting when we signed him four years ago, but the guy we saw back in 2007 and 2008.

For several fans, “sorry-ano” or “sore-arm-ano” as some of them like to think he is called, is washed up and should be taken out of the lineup. I will not argue that he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but I do think that he has at least one or two more good years left in him. He will never earn the $18 million a year that he is now making for the next couple of seasons, but he will be able to give you enough to make you a competitive team.

If the Cubs are able to get him to hit somewhere between his first two years and his last two years, the team will be in fantastic shape. If he can deliver a season where he is able to hit for an average of at least .270 and produce his typical 20+ home runs a season with close to 70 RBI, then we will have something going this year. Is he capable of putting forth statistics like these? Absolutely he is more than capable of doing so. In fact, as I have said, if he can not deliver statistics that are at least close to these, the Cubs chances for the 2011 season will be dwindling down into nothingness.

So whether you love him or hate him, want him to play or be benched, you need to cheer for the guy and support him.

Shortstop: Starlin Castro

Today, we turn our focus will be on one of the young rising stars in the Chicago Cub’s system, starting shortstop Starlin Castro. One of the most appealing and energetic players for the team this year, he burst onto the scene last season and was an immediate fan favorite. As a matter of fact, in his very first game he set a few rookie records which include most RBI (six) in his debut. While he did not continue of the sizzling pace he set for himself in his first game, he did end his rookie campaign with some pretty amazing statistics to boast about.

Ending the year with an even .300 batting average to go with his three home runs and 41 RBI is not bad at all for a rookie, even though he did pale in comparison to rookie of the year Buster Posey. In his less than a full season, he also racked up a WAR number of two, which for less than a full season is fairly impressive. Add in his speed, and you have a pretty impressive player in the works.

The only flaw in his game, which I am sure will get better the more time he spends in the majors is his occasionally shaky defense. I have absolutely no complaints about the kids range, as he can cover more than his fair share of ground. The problem comes into play with his throws to first base. Even with a solid defensive first baseman in Derek Lee, he still racked up a tremendous amount of errors. That is likely one of the few things which knocked him out of contention for Rookie of the Year, though even with eliminating his errors I would have a hard time passing up Posey for that award.

This season, Cubs Manager Mike Quade has already voiced his opinion on where the young Castro will be hitting in the lineup. While I disagree with batting Castro hitting second in this lineup, I can not fully disagree with the idea of having a .300 hitter batting second. However, that is another blog for another time and I will get back to that topic later.

This season, I see Castro continuing to grow and to improve on the basic skills. With another year about to begin, and another Spring Training in the works, look to see Castro grow more into his body and develop some more power. You may never see outstanding power numbers out of Castro, but during his career he could easily reach the mid teens or low 20s in the home run category. His glove work should almost certainly improve as well as one would find him repeating 27 errors in 2010. He needs to learn which balls he can reasonable get to, and to better judge the amount of time he has to throw the ball to get the runner out. There are times that I believe he tries to do too much, and in time he will learn what he can and can not do better.

While I highly doubt that he will ever reach the quality of defense that “The Wizard of Oz” Ozzie Smith was able to do, keep in mind that in his rookie campaign he made 25 errors his first season as well, in fact he was in the 20s his first three years. So there is hope that Castro can and will vastly improve his defensive play.

For the year to come, I see some improvements coming for Castro. His batting average might very well go down, but I see an improvement in each of his other statistics. I think he will level out to around a .280ish batting average with about the same amount of homers, maybe a few more which could bring him up to about five. The RBI level should also raise, assuming he has someone on base ahead of him. He could reach the 50 or 60 range. Of course, this is assuming he does not fall into the traditional “sophomore slump” that sever players have fallen into for one reason or another, Geovany Soto being one of those who suffered that fate.

 All in all, 2011 should be a signature season for Castro as he looks to continue to prove that he belongs in the big leagues.

The Hot Corner: Aramis Ramirez

After a brief hiatus from taking a look at the various players who will be starting for the Chicago Cubs, we return to examining those who will be taking the field day in and day out. Today, the focus is placed on the third baseman for the Cubs, Aramis Ramirez. Just like he has been in every previous year, he is one of the two biggest cogs in the offensive machine. If this team is to go anywhere this year, Ramirez will be one of the major driving forces leading the way. If he is unable to come back to form, and return to the level we have become used to seeing him perform, then this season will be a lost cause.

Ramirez just has not been the same since injuring his shoulder early in the 2009 campaign in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. He missed a few months, but when his shoulder was rehabilitated and he was able to get back into the everyday lineup, he eventually returned with a bang. He looked like the Ramirez of old, and even came close to what his career statistics say he should be at, if you were to expand them to a full season. In the mind of the Cubs fans, all was well and he would be fully prepared to deliver a traditional Ramirez year in the 2010 season. As you all know, that just did not happen.

Last year, Ramirez stumbled out of the starting gate, and put up the worst offensive year of his professional career.  He was racking up strike outs at a rapid pace, and leaving runners on base and quickly deflating the hopes of the fans. He was quickly becoming thought of as an automatic out every  time he stepped into the batters box, that is how bad things got for him. He fell so far in the hearts and minds of some Cubs fans, that he was placed in the same category as fans place Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome; overpaid for a much too long contract. Personally, I am not one of these fans who believe this about any of those players, but who am I to argue and tell someone their opinion is wrong?

Thankfully, for his sake, Ramirez was able to put together a pretty good end of the season. He started showing signs of snapping out of his season long funk, and began looking like the Ramirez of old; granted he did so in garbage time when the Cubs were all but eliminated, but he showed signs of being back in form.

For those of you who believe in the myth of the contract year explosion of stats (I do not believe in this myth, but I wont begrudge those of you who do), this is your time to see just how real that idea is. Technically, Ramirez is in a contract year who needs to convince the Cubs to pick up his $16 Million dollar option for the 2012 season. In order for the Cubs to do this, Ramirez needs to return to his 30 plus home runs with 100 plus RBI. If the Cubs are going to contend this year, those are the stats he must put up. This is a very simple win win scenario for both sides. If Ramirez earns his option year in the Cubs eyes, the chances are very good that the team is in contention. However, the opposite is also true. If he does not live up to expectations and fails to earn his option year,  the Cubs are likely out of the running for the division title.

Cubs Manager Mike Quade has already announced that Ramirez will be hitting cleanup for the Cubs in 2011, which is a great place for him. With his typical power and run producing skills, there could not be a better place for him, again if he is the Ramirez we have all come to know and love. While the nickname belongs to Jeff Samardzija, I have taken to calling Ramirez “shark”. The reason behind this, is because when he is in form, he smells RBI on the bases like a shark smells blood in the water. He is an RBI chaser, whom most teams would give anything to have in the heart of their order. Thankfully, for the 2011 season, Ramirez is still a member of the Cubs, and will anchor their offense.

For this season, I honestly see Ramirez having a rebound year. Not because he is in a contract year, but because he is a tremendous offensive force. With Marlon Byrd hitting in front of him, and Carlos Pena behind him, Ramirez is surrounded by talent and should have plenty of opportunity to deliver a standout offensive year. I can easily see him returning to the 30-100 campaign that we are used to seeing. That is not my wearing my Cubs colored glasses, that is an honest assessment of what I think he can and will do in the year to come. I think he will do more than enough to earn his 2012 contract with the Cubs,

That can only mean good things for the year to come, don’t you think?

Whats 2B for the Cubs in 2011: Jeff Baker and Blake Dewitt

After a bad case of the Mondays struck hard and fast, I am back to continue the look at the Chicago Cubs position by position. Today, we find ourselves at second base. I have to be honest here, the second baseman for the 2011 season, is our weakest spot in the lineup, and has been since Mark DeRosa was traded. To kill any debate before one is started, I am not saying the Cubs should not have traded DeRosa at all. Seriously, what has he done the past two years to make you wish he was still on the Cubs those two years? Absolutely nothing. So if you want to throw your two cents in about him, feel free. However do not be surprised if I do not agree with you.

Anyway, back on topic. Second base is an interesting position for the Cubs in 2011, because of how weak they are there. They do not have any standout candidate to pickup the job and claim second as their own. The two candidates for the position are Jeff Baker and Blake Dewitt, which is what makes today’s examination so interesting. What Cubs Manager Mike Quade should do with these two, is give them a straight lefty/right platoon.  In this case, Dewitt would get the majority of the at bats because he is a left handed bat, and Baker could take over when there is a left hander on the mound. This fits in perfectly because he crushes lefties, and could easily slide in the leadoff spot on days he is starting.

When Dewitt came to the Cubs via a trade for Ryan Theriot, the comparisons began. To make a long story short, Dewitt is a younger and left handed version Theriot; he comes with a little less speed, a little more power, but he comes without the cool sounding last name or the Tooblans (Thrown Out On The Base paths Like A Nincompoop). Theriot was famous for them, and you could usually count on him to make at least one boneheaded base running mistake a ballgame. With Dewitt, you do not get that. He knows how to run the bases. One more quality that he brings to the Cubs that Theriot did not, was the ability to draw a walk once in a while. However, in an honest moment, he likely will not be the reason we will be winning many games this year.

Defensively, he is an upgrade over Theriot, but that is not a hard task to do. He may not drive in too many runs for the Cubs, but he will not allow too many to score because of a boneheaded defensive play.

With Baker filling in against the left handed pitchers, you will not miss a step offensively. For his career, he is hitting at a .350 average, and getting on base close to a .400 clip. Those are outstanding numbers, and using him properly against those left handers, and you could very well see him putting up some very impressive statistics, even for a part timer. He does not have much power, which might turn him off from some fans though.

I can not try to sugar coat this, overall, second base could very well be a complete disaster for the Cubs this year. As I mentioned, this is our biggest weakness going into the season. Do not expect much out of either of these two offensively.

We will be lucky if Dewitt hits .260 this year with around five or six homers and 50 RBI. Not great statistics, and on par with what Theriot was producing. The upside, as I mentioned, he will get on base at a higher rate than his predecessor and be on base more to get driven in. That could very well be the most important difference between the two. Dewitt will not be thrown out before the rest of the team has a chance to drive him in,

With Baker, if he only bats against the left handed pitchers as I hope, he could be in store for a good season of .280 ball with maybe three or four homers and about 30 some RBI.

Of course, both these statistics could be way off based on playing time, or better play at the plate. Hopefully I am wrong and both men have outstanding seasons and blow my predictions out of the water. I would not be disappointed to be wrong at all, in fact, I hope that I am.

That being said, I am getting prepared for a headache when we think about second base for the 2011 season.

The first sacker: Carlos Pena

As we anticipate the potential free agency of the greatest player in baseball, Albert Pujols, we should not forget about the player who will be playing first base for the Chicago Cubs in the 2011 season, Carlos Pena. While he is not in the same league as the impressive slugger, he is not a bad option to have camping out at first base for your ball club.

While his batting average has continued to dip further and further into less than mediocrity over the past few years, his power and run producing numbers have not been hurt at all. As a matter of fact, his past four years have been his most productive years of his career. In that time frame, he has hit an average of 36 home runs and 101 RBI, which stands up there with some of the best sluggers in the game.

Now, in signing him to a one year deal, this opens up a lot of doors for the Cubs, as well as for Pena. For the new first baseman, this allows Pena to prove that he is fully healthy, after an injury plagued year saw his batting average slip below the Mendoza line, and saw both his power and run producing numbers to slip below the 30-100 (he wound up with 28-84) mark from the first time in the past four year mark. While those numbers would still be a big help to any team, they still leave you to wonder if Pena has anything left. That is where is benefits Pena.

While I do not believe in the contract year myth, though several do, I do believe in the redemption year thought process. I will give you that there are several arguments in favor of the contract year, Adrian Beltre is the primary example, there are just as many cases of people in contract years who do not have outstanding numbers; one such example is Pena. He did put up impressive power numbers in his contract year, but his average and on base percentage took a hit which would scare some teams away. They didn’t scare the Cubs away, but likely allowed them to sign him at a lower price than the power numbers would have suggested.

In this redemption year, Pena has something to prove, which would make him more determined to shine than he normally is. In an effort to not be a hypocrite, I will not back off of anything that I have said in the past. Players should always be fully motivated and determined to do the best job they can possibly do, but there will always be instances where you find that little something extra to help carry you to the next level. I believe that will be the case for Pena this year. I am not talking about a complete rebirth or explosion of stats, but a potential leveling out of his stats to some sense or normalcy. Signing the one year deal, allows him to get paid a decent amount for this season, with the potential to get one last big money deal for extended years after this season if he proves to be back to form.

Where this benefit’s the Cubs, is they now have a stop gap between first basemen. While they did not really have anyone in the farm system you would trust to play first base, at least not a young player close, free agency was the path to take. Because of his season long lingering injury, and dipping statistics, the one year deal is less of a risk than they would be facing if they signed him to a longer term deal. If he is a great success, and returns to a mid to high .200 batting average with 30-100 numbers again, you could very well re-sign him to a pretty good deal, and the potential that he could give you as slight discount knowing that you took a chance on him where others may not have been so sure.

This one year audition of sorts, also allows the Cubs the flexibility and opportunity to sign one of the pending free agent first baseman who will be hitting the market after the 2011 season. I fully believe that was the main reason why Pena was signed to a one year deal. There would be no one standing in their way of pursuing one of the two free agent slugging first basemen. While there was only one guy who we figured to reach free agency, Prince Fielder, now there could potentially be two with Pujols.

With the potential offense that Pena could bring to the Cubs, he also brings gold glove defense. With Aramis Ramirez always a threat to throw the ball away, and with Starlin Castro likely to do the same, you need someone over at first who can prevent those wild erroneous throws. Never under estimate the importance of a good defensive first baseman.

Because of his power, Pena will be batting in the middle of the lineup, either third or fourth. With the proper batters in front of him, meaning guys who cant actually get on base, he should have plenty of opportunities to drive runs in. This means a potential return to the 100 RBI plateau, which will be a massive improvement over anything we got from last year’s first sacker Derek Lee, which is another example of a player in a contract year failing to deliver breath taking statistics.

As far as what I expect to see out of Pena for 2011, I would like to believe we will see a jump in all his numbers. While this will not be impressive, I think Pena can bring his average back above the embarrassing Menzona line, and finish with possibly a .250 average, which sadly would be his highest average since his power surge began. As far as power and run producing, I would be surprised if those change too much. Expect a near 30 homer season and around 100 RBI, again this all depends on if people can get on base in front of him.