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Cubbies Finally on A Roll And Zambrano Back to the Rotation

Rockies Cubs BaseballLast night, Carlos Silva got another quality start, pitching six innings and allowing two runs to drop his ERA to 3.35 and improve to 5-0 on the season.

On a night when we learned that Carlos Zambrano will be returning to the starting rotation shortly, a different Carlos was able to steal the show by pitching six scoreless innings before allowing a two-run home run without recording an out in the seventh and being taken out.

After going 2-9 in an 11 game stretch, the Cubs have been able to pull off three strait wins after taking the finale against the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates and sweeping a two game series against the Colorado Rockies. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Can I Blame For The Season So Far?

97635769JB032_Chicago_Cubs_One week ago the Cubs were 13-13, coming off of a sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks and looked to be back on track to get the most out of their team this season.

All was well in Wrigleyville.

Fast-forward to present day and the Cubs are 14-20 and coming off of being swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates (14-19) and about to suffer the same fate against the Florida Marlins (16-17) pending tomorrow’s matinee as the Cubs try to stop their four game slide.

So one big question continues to pop up in my mind, as I always love to play the blame game. That question is… Read the rest of this entry »

News and Notes From Spring Training

chi_u_lilly_576Sorry for the three-day delay with posts, there is just very little going on. With that in mind, I will try to squeeze out whatever stories are happening and give you some updates on the Cubs.

Here are a few stories that have happened over the past few days.

Aramis Ramirez returns to the diamond

Ramirez has missed some time this spring because of a sore right tricep, but he returned on Tuesday against the Royals as a DH and went 2-3 with an RBI. He hasn’t played since March 13th, but he looked like he hadn’t missed any time in his three at bats. Read the rest of this entry »

Position Breakdown: Bullpen

Carlos MarmolAfter breaking down the starters a few days ago, it’s time to look at the guys who will be working off of their performances.

The Cubs’ bullpen has always been an issue of concern, and they have been going from closer to closer pretty much every season.

Most recently, Kerry Wood and Kevin Gregg held down the closer position, but neither of them were closer for more than one season. So what will the bullpen look like this season?

Closer: Carlos Marmol
Rest of bullpen: Complete Mess

I know that doesn’t offer up too much when it comes to telling you who will pitch what innings this season, but at this point, you’re guess is as good as mine. Read the rest of this entry »

Kevin Gregg Implosions Spark Closer Controversy

1Another day, another blown save.

That’s the life of one Kevin Gregg, who led major league baseball in blown saves last year.

After a nice stretch of uncharacteristic reliability from Gregg, he has returned to Florida, where he pitched in 2007 and 2008, and has blown the lead in two consecutive games. Read the rest of this entry »

Bullpen Blows Early Lead For Cubs

Cubs Braves BaseballThe biggest difference between last season’s Cubs, which had one of the best records in the MLB, and this season’s team has been the continually faulty play of the bullpen.

Without Kerry Wood, the bullpen has struggled mightily as Carlos Marmol has been much worse than last season.

The Cubs failed to back up another stellar start by Randy Wells, who took a no-hitter into the seventh and a shutout into the eighth inning, but was pulled in the eight after 83 pitches.

Despite the strong performance by Wells, the Cubs still lost the game 6-5 in extra innings, mostly thanks to yet another bullpen collapse. Read the rest of this entry »

There are Plenty of Excuses for Slow Start, But the Reasons are Obvious

15Before I even begin with this article, I will state what should be obvious: The ongoing battle between Milton Bradley and the Chicago media has nothing to do with the Cubs’ four-game slide.

Sorry, Windy City press, but you play no role in determining what actually happens on the field.

And this larger, so-called “locker room split” is just the media’s way of stirring things up. Chemistry is something that’s developed throughout the season.

The Cubs have played a total of sixteen games; we won’t know what kind of chemistry this team has until June or July. It’s those long 10-12 day road trips that allow players to bond together. That’s when chemistry is developed.

Now, to the Cubs’ problems.

Walks, walks, walks.

The bullpen can’t find the strike zone, and this is a recipe for disaster. Gregg has walked five in nine innings, Cotts has walked five in four, and Patton has walked six in six.

As a whole, the ‘pen has walked 28 batters in 46 innings. Ironically, the only relief pitcher without a walk is Luis Vizcaino, who is no longer on the roster.

Offensively, the Cubs have been dreadful as of late, scoring four earned runs in the past 36 innings. It’s not as if they haven’t had chances; it’s just a matter of poor at bat after poor at bat with guys in scoring position.

It all starts with plate discipline. The Cubs have drawn a total of six walks in the past four games. That won’t get the job done. The offense has also abandoned the opposite field, becoming very pull-happy.

One of the most telling (and worst) at-bats came from Ryan Theriot last night. Down 3-2 with the bases loaded and nobody out, the typically very patient Theriot did not wait back on the Wainwright breaking ball and hit into the tailor-made 6-4-3 double play.

I don’t mean to pick on Theriot, who is off to a solid start, but he’s too smart to not understand the situation. Wainwright was trying to work the outer part of the plate and Theriot tried to pull the ball. I know it’s easier said than done to lay off, but it all starts with plate discipline.

And on to management. Lou Piniella has done a very poor job during the early going this season.

First, the Cubs decided not to disable Geovany Soto. Have they not noticed Soto isn’t healthy? We are in April, not October. It’s nonsensical to keep him active.

The case is the same for Bradley, who was injured two weeks ago; he’s started just one game since his injury. The 15-day DL made sense back when he got hurt, and it makes even more sense today. But by choosing not to disable Bradley, the Cubs have found themselves very short handed.

And besides that, the on-field decisions by Lou have really left me shaking my head.

Who is the closer?

Lou says Gregg, but he also goes to Marmol. Sounds like a “Bullpen by Committee.” Way to keep both guys guessing, Lou.

And along with his poor handling of the ‘pen, Piniella’s shuffling of the lineup is plain silly.  Soriano, who has thrived in the one-hole this year, now finds himself batting third. It’s way too early for a shakeup, especially when your top two spots in the order have been your strength.

I’ve always been one to compliment Lou for making solid decisions, but I will also call him out for making poor ones. During Saturday’s game, Piniella decided to pitch to Brian Barden with one out and first base open with the pitcher on-deck.

Lou must not have seen enough of Barden last week, when he went 5-for-9 with two homers against the Cubs. He proceeded to burn Chicago again with a two-run single on Saturday.

It’s early, and the Cubs will eventually take control of this division. But they must play better. They’ve struggled defensively, offensively, and their bullpen can’t find the plate.

Lou Piniella must do a better job. There’s a reason he is one of the highest-paid managers in the game, and he must get more out of his players. This type of baseball won’t be tolerated.

-Pat De Marco

Come to Think of It…The Bullpen is the Missing Piece to the Championship Puzzle

113Look, I know that every team has issues in their bullpen, so this isn’t an attempt to discuss the obvious.

But for a team that is supposedly the best team in the NL Central, Cubs GM Jim Hendry has built a club that is flawed in one very critical area, the pen.

Yes, the Cubs allowed Kerry Wood to leave because they figured Carlos Marmol was ready to assume the closer role, but just to make sure, Hendry acquired Kevin Gregg; who blew the most saves of anyone last year.

Gregg has not instilled much confidence thus far. Neither has many of his mates.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella has no confidence in left-hander Neal Cotts, or right-handers Luis Vizcaino or Angel Guzman.

David Patton, who pitched so well in the spring, has never pitched above Class A.

Several lefties were available this spring, rather cheaply in fact, yet Hendry did not even bat an eye.

It’s no coincidence that the teams who played for the National League pennant last October, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, had the top two bullpens in the league.

So, is there a secret to how a bullpen can get better?

”You just have to pitch better,” Aaron Heilman said. ”There’s no magic formula.”

There isn’t a whole lot missing on this team, to be honest. The lineup is solid, and the starting staff should be good enough to win the division, unless injuries come up and bite us.

The bench is good, with the always-ready Reed Johnson, versatile Aaron Miles and speedy Joey Gathright (though Gathright could have saved the dramatics and won the game himself on Saturday if he had a better AB).

Backup catcher Koyie Hill did a nice job while Geo Soto was nursing his sore shoulder.

Micah Hoffpauir hits the ball hard most of the time, and is a clear upgrade over what we had from the left side last season, save for Mike Fontenot, who is now starting.

So that leaves the bullpen as the remaining piece of the championship puzzle. Perhaps Hendry will be able to find some help around the trade deadline. In the meantime, two pitchers are throwing well at Iowa.

I almost hate to mention the name, but Chad Fox seems healthy, though for how long is anybody’s guess. And Jason Waddell is throwing the ball very well right now for Iowa.

By the way, though this isn’t a bullpen note, Jeff Samardzija had a solid start for Iowa on Saturday. He allowed two runs on only one hit over six innings, though the bullpen blew the game for Iowa.

Jeff Stevens, acquired in the Mark DeRosa salary dump, struck out three of the four batters he faced. If Stevens were left-handed, he’d be pitching in Wrigley right now.

One of the concerns I have is the use, or should I say over use of Carlos Marmol. He has appeared in seven of the Cubs first 11 games.

Kudos to Angel Guzman, who finally was useful for the Cubs on Saturday. We need more of that, come to think of it. Meanwhile, let’s savor two wins against a tough Cardinals ballclub.

-Bob Warja

Come to Think of It…Cubs With Decisions to Make; Jeff Samardzija Going Down to Iowa

a1Today is “Earth Hour”, where people are encouraged to shut off their lights for one hour in a symbolic act to conserve energy. But in Arizona, there is nothing symbolic about the decisions Lou Piniella, Larry Rothschild and the gang have to make.

In the bullpen, only four spots are set. The closer will either be Carlos Marmol or Kevin Gregg, with the slight edge going to Marmol at this point. However, Gregg has pitched very well this spring. Either way, one will pitch in the eighth and one in the ninth.

So, with two spots belonging to Marmol and Gregg, that leaves Aaron Heilman as the sixth and seventh inning man. Next, there is the lone lefty in the pen, Neal Cotts. That makes a total of four.

If they go with 11 pitchers, that leaves two remaining spots. Although it hasn’t been officially announced, Bruce Levine of said this morning that the Cubs have decided to send Jeff Samardzija to Iowa, where he can be stretched out in case another starter is needed.

Samardzija has an excellent fastball and a splitter that he doesn’t always command well. He needs to work on his command and another pitch if he wants to be a starter. He would be better in the bullpen, where two pitches are all you need.

I would have groomed him to be a closer from the start. He has the heater and the makeup, as a former Notre Dame football player, to do that job. Alas, no one from the Cubs asked me for my opinion.

Among other bullpen candidates, a couple are out of options and one, David Patton, is a rule 5 draft pick so he would have to be offered back to Colorado for $25,000 if he doesn’t make the 25-man roster.

And Patton has looked good this spring. Rothschild is impressed by his poise and has said he has the best curve ball he has seen all year. Since he has never pitched above Class A, however, it would be quite a story if he did go north with the team.

The two veterans who are out of options, Luis Vizcaino and Chad Gaudin, would likely be lost if they fail to make the team. Both have guaranteed major league contracts, too.

Vizcaino is set to make $3.5 million and Gaudin was signed for $2 million. You can expect Jim Hendry to be trying to trade one or both of these pitchers. Gaudin has looked better since struggling mightily early on, while Vizcaino’s control has improved somewhat.

Other candidates include Angel Guzman, who has the fastball pumping in at 95 MPH, but continues to struggle with his command.

41-year-old lefty Mike Stanton is in camp, but he’s certainly a dark horse candidate to make the team. Another old veteran, Chad Fox, is back in camp once again, and has pitched well. But with his history of injuries, it’s likely they could sneak him through waivers if they wanted to hang on to him.

Guys like Jeff Stevens and Kevin Hart haven’t pitched well this spring, but they still have minor league options remaining. I haven’t heard much regarding the chances of Jose Ascanio, though he also has options remaining.

On the position battle front, in an ideal world, center field would be split between Reed Johnson and the speedy Joey Gathright. But economics dictate that Kosuke Fukudome will likely get the lion’s share of the at-bats early on, since he will start against right-handed pitchers.

The backup catcher will likely be Paul Bako, though Koyie Hill has looked good, making a remarkable recovery from a gruesome injury. Former White Sox catcher Mark Johnson is also in camp.

April 6 can’t happen soon enough, come to think of it.

-Bob Warja

Just Two More Weeks Until Opening Day…How Are the Cubs Looking?

4105_featureThrough 27 Spring Training games, the Chicago Cubs have been motoring as they try to get themselves ready for the season.

When the Cubs are on, they are one of the better teams in the majors, and that has been shown throughout the spring, even though the players aren’t playing full games.

They have won two of their last three games by over 10 runs (13-2 over the White Sox and 20-5 over the Athletics) which is quite a staggering number, and with players playing longer and longer each game, each of these games become more and more of a prediction of how the season will go.

Carlos Zambrano pitched just two games ago for six innings, striking out six and not allowing a walk in a 5-3 win over the Mariners.

The Cubs are, at the time of this article, 13 days and 20 hours away from their first game in Houston against the Astros, and they are starting to get their players accustomed to playing full games, which is exactly what they are doing.

Cubs players, however, are ready to get to Houston and start playing games that count.  Derek Lee has said that he wants to shorten the current Spring Training schedule, which consists of 39 games.

“I don’t think anybody needs that long to get ready. So it’s nice that soon there’s some games that are going to count,” said Lee of the current Spring Training system.

Sweet Lou Piniella has said that he is getting ready to start shortening his roster, as he plans to have the team down to 30 players by Tuesday, which is when he will start playing his starters with much more frequency.

Piniella has also said that he wants Ted Lilly back to the team as soon as the World Baseball Classic is over, and has him slated to pitch a simulated game the day after the WBC finale.

The Cubs fear that he is falling behind on his workouts and would be better off with the team, Lilly hasn’t pitched since March 17th.

The closer position, which seemed to be suited better for Carlos Marmol, is now looking more wide open, as former Marlin Kevin Gregg hasn’t allowed a run this spring, but the fact that he led the majors in blown saves last year leaves the Cubs weary of handing him the reigns.

A much more slept-upon position battle is for the second catcher spot on the team.  Paul Bako, a former Cub, is back with the team and has plenty of experience, but Koyie Hill is batting over .400 this spring and has looked fantastic.

Piniella has said that he doesn’t feel that the decision on that spot needs to be made anytime soon, however, and he might wait a while before choosing who gets to stay in the majors.

The Cubs are playing well, and they look like they could have a great season.  Are they World Series ready?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

-Joe Willett