Archive for the ‘Cubs’ Category

Better Luck Next Year: Chicago Cubs

September 9, 2009

Hey, happy 09/09/09 (at 9 a.m.)!

So, theirs is the one failure that has surprised me most in 2009. At 70-67, the Cubs haven’t been awful, but I (and almost everyone else) thought they’d run away with the NL Central, and instead they’ve let the Cardinals run away with it. The Cubbies are now about 11 games behind in the division and eight games (and five teams) out of the Wildcard, with just 28 to play. So the streak without a championship will certainly run to 101 seasons; any chance it ends there?

2010 Cubs now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C: Geovany Soto (1.1)
1B: Derrek Lee (4.0)
2B: Mike Fontenot (0.2)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (1.7)
SS: Ryan Theriot (2.3)
LF: Alfonso Soriano (-0.7)
CF: Kosuke Fukudome (2.5)
RF: Milton Bradley (1.7)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Ryan Dempster (4.02)
Ted Lilly (3.88)
Randy Wells (3.85)
Carlos Zambrano (3.90)
Sean Marshall (4.35)
Bullpen: Carlos Marmol (4.01), Aaron Heilman (4.43), Angel Guzman (4.34)

It would be kind of gratifying to blame this season on GM Jim Hendry’s predictably terrible offseason moves — chief among them his baffling decision to pick up mediocre “closer” Kevin Gregg and his severe overpayment of problem child Milton Bradley — but take a look at this. This is the difference between the following players’ 2008 and 2009 WARs:
Soriano: 3.9
Soto: 3.5
Fontenot: 2.9
Ramirez: 2.3
TOTAL: 12.6

Add those 13 wins to the Cubs’ total right now and they’re 83-54, about two games ahead of the Cards (and that’s assuming, probably falsely, that none of those extra wins come against the Cards).

Now, that oversimplifies things. Rookie Jake Fox came in and relieved some of the pressure from losing Ramirez to injury with a solid bat (though WAR says he’s given most of it back on defense), and Lee has been much better than expected. And it’s not like Gregg hasn’t cost them a win or so, and Marmol’s complete loss of the strike zone, and Dempster and Harden not being quite as good as they would’ve hoped…but really, make whatever little adjustments you want, and still, if you give those four guys listed above their 2008 numbers back (and none of them were outlandish numbers, really), you’ve got a real race for the division.

So here’s where I normally do the three things they need to MAKE happen and the three things they need to HAVE happen…but I don’t think that works here, for a few reasons:

First, there aren’t a lot of moves to be made for this team. They might bring Harden back and kick Marshall back out of the rotation, or they might sign another starter, and they could certainly stand to improve that bullpen, but outside the pen, everyone on the list above has been a quality full-time major league starter at his listed position sometime in the last two seasons. That’s not to say that you can’t improve one of those positions, but it’s just hard to see how it would go down. Most of these guys are well paid, few would be terribly attractive targets to teams looking to dump talent, and the Cubs’ prospect list is pretty thin at the top. I’m sure Hendry wants to do something anyway, but I’m not convinced that anything he might do is likely to actually help this squad.

Second, and maybe more importantly, I’m not sure they’ll be permitted to make any moves at this point. Assuming the sale of the team is even finalized by the time for moves to be made, who knows how much the owners will want to spend? They’ve already got more than $10 million each (and in some cases, much more) committed to Lee, Bradley, Dempster, Fukudome, Soriano, Ramirez and Zambrano for 2010. Now, the Cubs and Wrigley Field may look to you and me like bottomless bowls of money (in the sense of the bottomless cup of coffee you might get at a diner), but we also know that millionaires and billionaires get to be millionaires and billionaires by not looking at the world that way. There’s definitely a limit to what the Cubs will (and in a business sense should) spend, and I think there’s a good chance they’re already pretty close to that limit for 2010. Also, a lot of these guys’ contracts are expiring in 2010 or ’11, and while that may mean that 2010 is when you really go for it, it also means that it might be a bad time to sign a big free agent to a long-term contract; it’s hard to believe with a team like the Cubs, but you might be looking at a rebuilding situation in a year or two.

Of course there are still potential trades out there. Josh proposes that the Cubs trade Soriano and Bradley for Vernon Wells, which would trade two bad contracts for one and free up some payroll in the short term. Even if the Jays would do that, though (and I can’t think of a reason they would), if I’m the Cubs, I’m saying no to that one. In all likelihood, the Jays are getting the two best players in a three-player deal, and Bradley’s contract isn’t that bad (he’s still a valuable player despite all the bad press, and has a chance to be a very valuable one again in 2010).

So I’d pretty much stand pat and hope for the best. With four starters with FIPs right around 4.00, they’ve got one of the best rotations in baseball (Randy Wells’ minor league record suggests he’s not really that guy, but even if not, Sean Marshall isn’t that much of a dropoff). Bring Harden back (4.30 FIP in 2008, but 3.58 career), and it gets even better. I don’t see much else for them to do right now than to count on some combination of bouncebacks by A-Ram, Soriano, Soto and Fontenot, improvements by Fukudome and Bradley, or another big step forward by Jake Fox to provide offense behind that pitching staff. And improve the bullpen, naturally, but scoring runs is the big thing.

One idea, though: trade Milton Bradley to some AL team for prospects. He’s okay in the field, but he arguably has more value to a team that can DH him to keep his bat in the lineup. Then, move Fukudome back to RF and pick up a good one-year center fielder…someone like free-agent-to-be Mike Cameron. Fukudome is a plus defender in the corners and an average defender in center, while Bradley is merely an average defender in the corner. Cameron will be 37, but has long been one of the best outfield defenders in teh game and can still cover plenty of ground out there. He’s still got a pretty solid bat, and has the kind of gap power that Wrigley could turn into homer power (small sample, but he has a career .577 SLG there). It would improve their defense without sacrificing much, or possibly any, offense (unless Bradley bounces back into 2008 form).

I’d be reluctant to do that, because the bad press and low power output have made Bradley pretty undesirable right now. They’d get very little for him, and may end up having to pay a large portion of his salary (which, depending on the team’s budget, might put even Cameron out of their range). It’s a lot of work and a lot of risk for a pretty marginal improvement.

The Cardinals are almost guaranteed to come back to earth in 2010, barring a big surprise move or two in the offseason (more on that at some point, I’m sure); there’s no reason to think A-Ram will get hurt again; and Soriano and Soto almost couldn’t help but get better. So while the bad news is that I don’t see a lot of ways for them to get better for 2010, the good news is that I think the team as currently constituted (plus some cheap bullpen help and maybe Harden) has a very good chance to compete.

Gameblog #3: Dodgers at Cubs…with Beer!

June 1, 2009

This game is taking place barely a mile from here, and at one of the very best places on earth, Wrigley Field. I could, if I wanted, walk right down there right now, overpay some scalper for a ticket and see it all in person. But then how would you ever find out about all the stupid stuff Joe and Steve said?

Warmups

Broadcast: ESPN; Jon Miller, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips. I watch them so you don’t have to. The game hasn’t started, and Joe has already called Juan Pierre “an everyday player–a fabulous everyday player” and opined that with Pierre, they could go without Manny for the rest of the year “and not miss a step.” This is going to be FUN!

Pitchers: Eric Milton (1-0, 3.00, 4.94 FIP) vs. Sean Marshall (3-3, 3.70, 4.59 FIP). Eric Milton!!!! Wow. Pretty good pitcher for the Twins in 1999-2002. I remember his no-hitter. Putting the 33 year-old version of Milton in Wrigley is like putting a fat rat with a bad leg in a den of starved lions. Marshall, like Milton, has been pitching much worse than his traditional numbers so far would suggest. Could be in for a high-scoring game.

Beer: An absolute necessity for dealing with three hours of Morgan and Phillips, we’re opening today with your basic Fat Tire Amber Ale. Word is, though, that Fat Tire is on a strict pitch count, and we’re not afraid to go three, even four different beers deep in the fridge, if that’s what it takes to get through this broadcast. All will be enjoyed in the author’s commemorative Second City tall glass.

First Inning

Look, Juan Pierre is a bad baseball player. Bad baseball players (especially ones with empty .300 career averages) sometimes hit .380 for a month and a half. There’s no reason to believe he’s “stepped up” in Manny’s absence or has somehow “figured it out” at age 31. He gets an infield hit here, which means we get to hear Joe ‘n’ Steve praise him a whole bunch more. He even gets credited for #2 hitter Furcal’s hit (which is just a ground ball that happens to find a hole), because, you know, when you have a base stealer on first base, it opens up the right side and you get more fastballs. The Dodgers actually open with five consecutive singles, all of them kind of cheapies, and then it’s 2-0 with the bases loaded, nobody out and, finally, Matt Kemp (arguably the first good hitter they’ve sent up there) naturally strikes out on four pitches. Bad hitter #6 (Mark Loretta) comes up with hit #6, a double that drives in two. Lou’s already got somebody warming up in the bullpen, even though Loretta’s was the first fairly hard-hit ball that Marshall has surrendered. The next guy is Jamie Hoffmann, who I’ve honestly never even heard of (apparently a New Ulm, MN native, though), and he hits a booming sac fly to center. 5-0, and Eric Milton himself finally ends the inning, taking the first pitch to the warning track in dead center field.

The guys mention that Milton has the highest career home run rate of any active pitcher with 1000 innings pitched. Jon Miller (the one I like out of the three) still pronounces OPS as though it were a word, like in “special ops.” Now they’re talking about Derrek Lee and marveling over how he’s fallen off since 2005. And he’s been terrible so far, and might well be done, but guys? Lee was never the hitter he looked like in 2005 (.335/.418/.662, 50 2B, 46 HR, 174 OPS+). Outside of that, his career high is a 131 OPS+, a number he matched in 2007. It’s fine to talk about his big dropoff this year, but to put it against the backdrop of his freaktastic 2005 makes no sense at all. Anyway, Theriot lines a sharp single, but otherwise the Cubs go quietly. Most Cubs fans have probably already given this one up, and are rebudgeting their evenings to make room for a couple more Old Styles. Me, I’m going for Fat Tire #2 (it’s much smoother and less bitter out of the bottle than it is on tap, I’ve decided).

Second Inning

Pierre strikes out on three pitches, and still gets video-montage love from Joe Morgan. Marshall looks like a different pitcher, getting 3 outs on 8 pitches.

Reed Johnson bloops one into center that falls in front of the diving Matt Kemp, and ends up with a double. Kemp takes kind of a nasty fall, but seems okay. Something is clearly wrong with Geovany Soto, who has hit one HR this year after hitting 23 as a rookie in 2008. He takes a big, good-looking flyball swing on a batting-practice fastball, and can’t even get it to the warning track in left. Johnson tags and makes third on a rainbow from Juan Pierre, which Morgan calls “a good throw.” Sigh. Johnson then tries to score on a diving catch in short right by Hoffmann, and is gunned down pretty easily. Great play by that one guy (a rookie with an unimpressive minor league record who no doubt got the call for his Juan Pierre-like .294/.435/.484 fluke between AA and AAA so far in 2009). Still 5-0 Dodgers.

Third Inning

Marshall was really cruising through the first two batters, giving him seven batters retired in a row, but then Kemp (who I do believe is the lone good hitter in the Dodgers’ lineup right now) absolutely crushes one over the fence in left-center. 6-0 Dodgers.

Nice play by Hudson to retire Mike Fontenot for the first out. As you get into the middle innings of an ESPN broadcast, it’s kind of hard to remember that you’re watching a ballgame, because they find so much tangentially related crap to prattle on about. Now they’re talking about aggressive hitters vs. patient hitters, I guess, and it’s as asinine as you’re picturing it. The Cubs manage just a walk in the third. They had to figure that they’d have driven Milton out of the game and back into reality by now.

Fourth Inning

Marshall hit Eric Milton with a pitch. That’s…not good. Pierre hits a weak line drive to short, and luckily they’re talking about Matt Wieters right now, so they can’t be bothered to praise Pierre again. The HBP is all they get.

This is getting embarrassing for the Cubs. Milton gets Milton (Bradley) to hit a towering popup to very short right and D-Lee to hit a warning-track flyout to center before permitting Johnson an infield single. Then Soto flies out to medium right. Milton has gotten through four innings in 56 pitches, giving up three hits (only one, Theriot’s, legitimately hit) and a walk while striking out two.

Fifth Inning

Sean Marshall may still be in the game despite giving up six runs, but we’ve got a relief beer: Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, which the makers themselves describe as “really hoppy, strong.” It’s good stuff.

Loney doubles in Martin, who had walked, for his second RBI of the game and 38th of the year. I talked a bit about this yesterday, but let it also be said that he’s had 184 runners on base for his plate appearances coming into tonight, more than anyone in the majors, and driven in 18.5% of them, which is more than you would expect from a guy who has been such a bad hitter overall, but not particularly close to being among the best in the league. He’s just been a bad hitter in an advantageous position in a high-OBP batting order. Anyway, his double makes it 7-0 and chases Marshall from the game. This is getting awfully boring, though you have to believe the Cubs could hang up four or five one of these innings. Joe says the Dodgers should still be running because “this is Wrigley field; a bloop and a blast and you’re right back in it.” No, Joe. Runs are worth the same amount here as they are anywhere else; a bloop and a blast, and you’re still losing 7-2. Anyway, they do run, and an errant throw down by Soto brings the 8th run in.

Bobby Scales is leading off for the Cubs, an instant fan favorite and one of the better stories in the league this year. But he doesn’t do anything here, of course. The baseball blogging gods have forsaken me for this one. Third in the inning is rookie Jake Fox, who swings the hardest of anyone I’ve seen since probably Geronimo Berroa. He strikes out like he has someplace to be in an hour, which is pretty much how all the Cubs are playing right now.

Sixth Inning

Now they’re talking about what position Fox will play (right now he’s at first), so they can’t praise Juan Pierre while he strikes out looking (now 1-4 with an infield single and a terrible throw to third base, if you’re scoring at home). Nice play by Theriot to end the inning after a Furcal walk.

Theriot, not-at-all-shockingly, hasn’t hit any more HR since I memorialized his sudden power stroke in verse. How do you (Milton) know you don’t have the hitters’ respect? If you hit a guy with a pitch (here, Lee) and he doesn’t want to take his base. That loads the bases, and Johnson hits a two-run double (his third hit of the game and the first time he’s really hit the ball). Eric Milton is finally coming back to the reality of 2009–N*Sync has separated, Gladiator and Cast Away are no longer in theaters, and so forth. He leaves the game– 5 1/3, 6 hits, 2 ER (so far), a walk and 4 K’s. Ronald Belisario, a rookie who (awesome name aside) is just about the dictionary definition of a good middle reliever, gets the next two chumps out to end the threat.

Seventh Inning

Whoever is in for the Cubs now (fourth pitcher, and honestly I just don’t see why it matters) gives up a base hit to Martin to start the 7th, just a little dribbler up the middle. It’s amazing that Martin doesn’t have a home run yet after averaging 14 for the last three seasons. He gets on base at a fine clip, but has a .319 slugging percentage…and is batting cleanup for the team with the best winning percentage in baseball. He does steal a base (his 7th in 10 attempts), on another terrible throw by Soto. There’s a walk after that, but Hoffmann strikes out while Jon, Joe and Steve are praising him, ending the inning.

Jake Fox strikes out again. Morgan says the Cubs “overreacted” to being beaten by the Dodgers in the playoffs last year. But isn’t the point not just that they made moves (it’s not like the Cubs didn’t have any room to improve), but that they made the wrong moves? Trading DeRosa, signing Bradley…these were dumb things. I don’t think they were dumb because the Dodgers won three games against them in October; I think they were just dumb. Soriano doubles and Theriot almost gets de-faced by a 93 MPH fastball, but otherwise uneventful.

I’m surprised they didn’t have anything to say about whichever celebrity sung the stretch…I hope s/he was better than this.

Eighth Inning

It’s not a save situation, but I’m turning the game over to my closer, Strongbow English hard cider. It’s almost like dessert beer.

Lou goes to the guy who should be his closer, Carlos Marmol…though he’s had some crazy control troubles this year. Why would anyone want to throw at Brad Ausmus? Brad gets a free base, but Pierre takes a called third strike again; 1-for-5 with 3 Ks now, and the praise has stopped. Marmol made a really funny error on a grounder by Furcal; he must’ve tried and failed to pick that ball up six different times. Marmol gets an out but then walks Martin, loading the bases entirely under his own power (HBP, E1, BB). Joe: The Cubs aren’t as good as they were last year. Steve: Yeah, but their best baseball is still ahead of them. Joe: Yes, but I still don’t think they’re a better team than they were last year. That’s why you two get the big bucks. Marmol strikes out Loney to bring this conversation to a merciful end.

Ramon Troncoso comes in, presumably to close this one out. I think I get why the Dodgers are so good; if a guy with a 1.95 ERA (and 2.88 FIP) is the guy you bring in to get some outs near the end in a six-run game, you’re in good shape. There have been a lot of pretty-looking deep flyouts hit by the Cubs tonight, and Bradley hits one here. Lee loops a single into right and Soto rips one there. Dodger closer Broxton starts to get loose, which still feels like a waste with two guys on and two out in a six-run game. Pinch hitter (and probably the Cubs’ best hitter right now) Kosuke Fukudome strikes out to make it all moot and send us to what promises to be a pretty meaningless ninth.

Ninth Inning

Jon can’t get the word “steroids” out of his mouth. “Manny was suspended, of course, for…for…breaking, the…baseball…MLB…rules, as pertaining to…for…performance-enhancing substances….” I like Miller, but that was just weird. He’s trying to start a conversation about whether Manny should be allowed to rehab for 10 games in the minors while he’s “suspended,” and this just isn’t going to go anywhere interesting or informative. Phillips is ridiculous one way, and Morgan is ridiculous in an equal and opposite way. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ terrible closer Kevin Gregg has given up a hit and a walk, and this game has gotten so boring that even whoever is updating “MLB Gameday” hasn’t noticed that it’s Andre Ethier pinch-hitting, and not the pitcher Troncoso taking his cuts right now. They get out of it without any more damage, and the Dodgers are actually bringing in Broxton to get his work in. This won’t take long.

Broxton is probably the nastiest pitcher going right now. Most relievers with a 1.50 ERA would have like a 2.75 or 3.00 FIP…it’s just not possible to have a 1.50 ERA and actually come by it honestly. But Broxton’s FIP is 1.45. He’s on pace for around 30 saves and around 15 wins. He’s good. Jake Fox, who entered in the fifth, strikes out a third time…not bad for a half game’s work. With a 1-2-3 ninth, the Cubs leave Chicago with a whimper, headed for a series in Atlanta on Tuesday.

———————————————–

Well, I foresaw a high-scoring game, and I was half right. The reanimated corpse of Eric Milton’s career was hardly dominant, but he’ll live to make another start, which will give him four more Major League starts than you had to figure, a few months ago, that Eric Milton would ever get again. We know now what everybody should have known already: the Dodgers can win without Manny and without Juan Pierre somehow hitting like Manny.

As a pseudo Cub fan (well, I care about them more than any other NL team, if only for geographical reasons), I’m glad this was a four-beer gameblog. Not the kind of game one should watch while sober.

Is Tim Lincecum on Lou Piniella’s Fantasy Team?

May 6, 2009

Check out the lineup Sweet Lou trotted out yesterday afternoon against the reigning Cy Young Award winner:

1. Gathright CF
2. Miles SS
3. Fukudome RF
4. Lee 1B
5. Hoffpauir LF
6. Fontenot 3B
7. Scales 2B
8. Hill C
9. Marshall P

Oy.

I mean, Fontenot isn’t a third baseman, but Aramis Ramirez is hurt, so no choice there. And D-Lee has earned the right to play himself out of the lineup, which he may be in the process of doing, but he hasn’t done it yet.

But Gathright’s speed is his only asset, and with a career .302 OBP, he doesn’t give himself much of a chance to use it; Miles has never been a good player (and really isn’t a shortstop) and is off to a .483 2009 OPS; Scales is a great story, but is still a 31 year old making his big-league debut; and Koyie Hill is the backup catcher, which you expect to see for any day game after a night game, but Hill may well be the worst-hitting non-pitcher in the Major Leagues.

On the bench, meanwhile (and apparently healthy), are Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto, Milton Bradley, Ryan Theriot, and Reed Johnson. Throw in the sort-of-injued A-Ram, and you’ve got 11 All-Star appearances, four top-ten MVP finishes, last year’s National League Rookie of the Year, last year’s American League OPS leader, one of the best offensive shortstops in the NL, and, well, Reed Johnson (who did hit .300 last year), all on the bench. For Joey Gathright and Aaron Miles.

My only theory: Lou Piniella is in a fantasy baseball league, and just really needs a win from Lincecum this period. Fukudome (the only legitimate starting position player who is playing like such this year and started for the Cubbies yesterday) is also on Lou’s team, but Soriano is on the roster of his closest competitor.

I’d like to see you come up with a better explanation for this nonsense…

And hey, guess what! it worked. For Lou’s fantasy team, that is.