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I’m Back, and Here Are My Thoughts

Phillies Cubs BaseballI’m finally ready to get back to my Cubs coverage, I’m sorry that it took so long, but I finally have everything set up in my dorm but first, it’s been a while, how about a little update on how the writer is doing (shameless promotion time, if you don’t care, skip down a few paragraphs).

I was asked by Bleacher Report to do an article on Michael Jordan, and I got the first six bottles of Jordan Gatorade produced, check it out if you can here.

I am also going to be part of the new and exciting Fan Huddle. It is launching September 10th of this season. Everything looks outstanding and there are a ton of dedicated writers who can fill you in on any team you want. If you want to check out my writing I will be doing fantasy basketball analysis for the NBA Central Division. To read any of my work there, go to any date after September 10th.

Now on to Cubs analysis. I will start by giving my thoughts on the team in two words. 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 »

Cubs Tie Season Series With Win Vs. White Sox

APTOPIX White Sox Cubs BaseballAlfonso Soriano has been horrible as of late, bad enough for there to be rumblings of him being benched for a couple games.

His batting average over the past five games has been a measly .095, and he hasn’t gotten a hit in his last 15 at bats.

However, today, he went 2-5 with one gigantic RBI.

The Cubs started the day locked in an outstanding pitching duel between ace Carlos Zambrano going up against White Sox stud Gavin Floyd. 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

Thoughts on the Chicago Cubs

111It’s Easter, and the Cubs will be playing in about an hour in the rubber match against the Brew Crew.

Fresh off of a Blackhawks shutout over the Detroit Red Wings (I had to watch hockey today with my family) the Cubs will try to add another win for Chicago tonight.

I have been pretty dormant lately and I figured I could offer a few thoughts on the Cubs through the first five games of the season.

We are only 3-2 and the start has not been that impressive

Sure, we could easily be 4-1, but that will be talked about a little later. This Cubs team can look amazing (see the eight run first two innings against the Astros) but they haven’t been able to put together a full game yet.

I am a little scared that we haven’t been able to pull together a dominant performance even with the stout pitching and amazing hitting we have on paper.

Milton Bradley may only have one hit, but he has been impressive

If you look at Bradley’s raw hitting, it isn’t too impressive, but when you take into account each time he has walked to the plate, he still almost always finds a way to get get on base.

Despite being one for 16 at the plate, Bradley has an OBP of .318 thanks to five walks and a hit by pitch. He also has scored three runs thus far this season.

Oh, by the way, his one and only hit was a solo home run.

Besides Lilly, the starting pitching has been fantastic

Cubs starters continue to put up quality start after quality start thus far this season.

Carlos Zambrano has started two games this season, pitching 12 inning, allowing four runs, for a 3.00 ERA. Ryan Dempster’s last outing was strong, with six innings pitched and just two runs scored, he had a very successful showing in his season debut.

Rich Harden was lights out in his debut, allowing just one earned run on three hits in six innings.  Harden even struck out a ton, as usual, fanning 10 in an impressive start.

The only bad outing has been thrown by Ted Lilly, who was backed up by 11 Cubs runs, allowing him to avoid the L despite allowing five runs in five innings.

Kevin Gregg scares me as the closer

Listen, he had a great Spring Training, and I am trying to take nothing away from his ability, I just don’t trust him to hold down the fort in the ninth inning.

He has already blown one save this season as the Brewers were able to tear him apart in the ninth inning two nights ago, and the fact that he led the majors in blown saves last year is a big red flag.

I think that Sweet Lou should start throwing Carlos Marmol in the ninth and moving Gregg into the eight inning, everything would probably go a lot smoother and everybody would pitch better under those circumstances.

Kosuke Fukudome anybody?

The man was looked at as a possible major liability to this team, with a monster contract and seemingly not enough talent, the Asian Sensation was seemingly done in the MLB.

Then, something crazy happened, he had a great spring. Then, unlike Gregg above, he brought that momentum into the regular season.

Fukudome is batting over .400 with two home runs, three RBI’s, and one stolen base. More good news for Fukudome, Piniella just announced that he will no longer be lifting the surprise player for defensive purposes.

-Joe Willett

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

Come to Think of It…The Long and Short of Cubs Pitching This Spring

The spring training home for the Chicago Cubs

The spring training home for the Chicago Cubs

Only 21 days left until Opening Day, Cubs fans. With the seemingly never-ending spring training in full bloom in sunny Arizona, now is a good time to examine the potential roster for the 25-man club that will go north with the team.

Today, let’s take a look at the pitchers, since there is a little more uncertainty there than with the position players.

The Fifth Starter’s Competition Is All But Over

While Lou Piniella hasn’t made any official announcement, it seems clear that Sean Marshall has won the derby to be the fifth man in the Cubs rotation. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be in the bullpen to start the season, due to early off-days and rainouts (dare we say snow-outs?).

Marshall has had a good spring. He pitched into the fifth inning on Friday, allowing three hits and an unearned run (caused by his own error), and he has a 0.38 ERA for the spring.

Helping to make the decision easier is the fact that the other candidates have not exactly distinguished themselves.

With three off-days in April, it might be a good idea to let Marshall stay for an extended spring training, so he is stretched out and ready to go when they need that fifth starter.

So, barring anything unforeseen (such as an injury or unlikely trade), it appears that Marshall is the chosen one.

However, one of the odd men out may be…

Chad Gaudin

Gaudin has looked awful this spring and is out of options. In 1.2 innings on Friday, Gaudin allowed five hits and four walks. He is set to earn $2 million this year, but if the Cubs release him by Wednesday they will owe him only 30 days pay.

I think it would make sense for the Cubs to release Gaudin, as he appears to have nothing. Perhaps his crazy dumpster injury from last year is still bothering him, who knows?

They could try to trade Gaudin since his contract is relatively agreeable, but a 10.38 ERA in the spring won’t make him all that coveted.

If they release him, it would open a spot for…

Luis Vizcaino

Vizcaino hasn’t been real good this spring (a 5.39 ERA), but he is likely untradeable due to his relatively hefty contract. This, combined with his having thrown a little better on Friday, makes him a likely choice to fill a role in the Cubs bullpen.

Plus, he’s been better than…

Angel Guzman

Guzman was initially drafted by the Cubs and is back for second tour of duty with the club, but it’s likely to be his last. He has allowed eight earned runs in five innings this spring.

Based on how poorly he’s thrown, it would appear that Guzman is headed elsewhere (i.e., out of the organization). He’s out of options, and at 27 is no longer a prospect, so it looks like Guzman will be spreading his wings on another team this season.

One guy who certainly isn’t going anywhere is the young and talented…

Jeff Samardzija

It is clear that the Cubs organization wants “The Shark” to be a starting pitcher, so that likely means a trip to Iowa to begin the season.

Ah, but wait, not so fast. Here are Piniella’s comments on Samardzija:

“We are going to take the best pitchers north, so if Samardzija does not get the fifth spot, he will get all the consideration in the world in the bullpen,” Piniella said. “But let’s see how the organization feels. The organization has a say in that also. We’ll come up with the right conclusion. [Pitching coach Larry Rothschild] likes the improvement of his second and third pitches. And how you improve that the most is by starting and using him more. Usually when you come into a ballgame out of the bullpen, you rely on a couple of pitches.”

Samardzija has surrendered 10 hits and six earned runs in eight innings this spring, but he could still be a candidate for the bullpen if Gaudin is released. I believe the ‘pen is the best place for him at this time anyway.

However, given that the Cubs see him as a starter, it might make more sense to keep Samardzija stretched out at Iowa, so he could come up and fill in during the inevitable times when the fragile Rich Hardin can’t go.

But this one is still up in the air for now.

One bullpen spot that is not up in the air goes to…

Aaron Heilman

Heilman has pitched decently this spring, allowing nine hits but only two earned runs in 10 innings.

Aaron has appeared in four games, three of them as a starter, but his role is likely in the bullpen for the 2009 season.

Proving it’s good to pitch with your left hand is…

Neal Cotts

Unless Marshall starts the year in the bullpen, Cotts will be the lone lefty in the Cubs pen. He has pitched well in the spring, but it remains to be seen whether he can improve upon a shaky 2008 performance.

Keep an eye on a possible trade scenario if GM Jim Hendry decides he needs another southpaw in the pen or if Cotts struggles.

The closer may be…

Kevin Gregg

The battle for the closer’s job may be won by Gregg, though no announcement has been made.

Gregg was acquired from the Marlins in the offseason. He lost the closer’s job late in the season, more due to injury than poor performance. That said, he did blow the most saves in baseball in 2008.

But several of his blown saves occurred while he was suffering from a knee injury. Otherwise, his performance was fairly solid.

He has not allowed a run in five spring innings and is a lock to start the season as either the closer or main setup man.

No matter who the closer is, the Cubs best relief pitcher is…

Carlos Marmol

Marmol raised some eyebrows by pitching in the Dominican playoffs, then appearing in the WBC. Yet, Piniella said he would keep the closer derby open until Marmol returned, and he has. Marmol gave up a triple and hit two batters, but recovered by striking out two in a scoreless inning Saturday.

In terms of pure stuff, Marmol is an easy choice over Gregg. Over the past two seasons combined, he has a 2.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 12.06 K/9 ratio.

For his part, Marmol says all the right things.

“I don’t care. I’m glad to be on the team, and be on a good team,” he told the Chicago Tribune. ” It’s not my decision, it’s their decision. I pitch wherever they put me. I want to be a closer, but if they put me in the situation where I have to pitch the eighth, I’ll go out there. I want to help the team.”

Piniella has said he will decide by next weekend.

Another guy who is being counted on to help the team is…

Rich Harden

While Harden is obviously a lock for the rotation, one move the Cubs could make is to switch him and Sean Marshall in the 4/5 slot, in order to give Harden extra time to get ready for the season. Given his injury-prone nature, that might help make him stronger for later in the season.

Projected to start fourth behind Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly, the Cubs have taken a cautious approach with Harden this spring. He didn’t make his first appearance until last Tuesday, but was sharp, allowing two hits and striking out one in two innings pitched.

In his second outing of the spring today, Harden walked three and allowed three runs in a third inning he couldn’t finish against the Diamondbacks, but he said afterward that it was “probably the best I’ve felt in a long time. I probably could have thrown 100 pitches today.”

There is no doubt as to how good Harden can be when healthy, as long as you can live with the fact that you’ll only get five innings out of him. With the Cubs in 2008, he was 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He says he wants to start 30 games this year, but Hendry wisely suggests 25 starts will be his best-case scenario.

Either way, keeping him healthy will be an arduous task for pitching coach Larry Rothschild again this season. A strong Rich Harden come October would go a long way toward postseason success for the Cubbies this year.

Knock on wood (not Kerry), but one starter whose health has been strong is…

Ryan Dempster

Despite Zambrano’s reputation, it was actually Dempster who was the Cubs ace last season.

The Cubs showed their commitment to Demp when they signed him to a four-year, $52M contract as a free agent this offseason. In return, Dempster showed his commitment to the team by deciding not to play for Canada in the WBC.

Dempster turns 32 this season, but has started only 195 games in his career, so he should have a lot left in the tank.

How many guys with a career losing record and a 4.55 ERA make $13 million per year? Well, in this case, it’s probably warranted after coming off of an impressive 2008 campaign (his shaky start in the playoffs notwithstanding). Dempster was 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA.

Dempster is 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA in eight innings this spring.

He is unlikely to repeat his 2008 stat line this year, so the other Cubs starter will be expected to help pick up the slack, including…

Carlos Zambrano

The Cubs so-called “ace” will start on Opening Day for the fifth consecutive season. While battling little discussed shoulder problems and well known temper issues, Z hopes to bounce back from a 2008 performance that was, for him, somewhat shaky.

He has been decent this spring, with a 3.60 ERA in five innings, allowing four hits.

The Cubs will need him to be strong this year, but there is a steady rotation presence in…

Ted Lilly

Lilly did not allow a run in his two-inning start for the Cubs this spring. Despite a slow start in 2008, Lilly ended up 17-9 with a 4.09 ERA that was boosted by his penchant for surrendering the home run ball.

At 33, Lilly actually appears to be getting stronger, as evidenced by his strikeout rate, which was a career-best 8.09 per nine innings last season.

Other notable spring performances

Chad Fox, a 1.80 ERA in 5 innings; Jose Ascanio, no hits in 4 innings; Jeff Stevens (acquired from the Indians in the Mark DeRosa salary dump), seven hits in 4.2 IP; Kevin Hart, a 9.00 ERA in 5 IP; Mitch Atkins, a 10.50 ERA in two starts.

-Bob Warja

How Close is the Competition for Closer?

Lou Piniella has stated already that there will be an open competition between former set-up man Carlos Marmol, who has been looked at as the likely successor for closer for the past few years, or newcomer Kevin Gregg.

Both are capable and both seem like they want to take the challenge on full force.

“Everybody wants to be the closer,” Marmol said. “That’s what I want to be.”

Marmol has already shown his skills to the coaching staff when he was the fill-in closer last year while Kerry Wood was out last season.

Gregg, however, has a lot more experience as a closer, saving 61 games over the past two season, but his career ERA of 4.0 is a red flag for a reliever. But he has said that he is ready for the season and can’t wait to get going.

“I know Carlos Marmol is a great pitcher himself, and I just look for Lou to pick who he’s comfortable with and go from there,” Gregg said of the competition. “I’m more looking forward to winning and getting back in the playoffs and going deep in the playoffs, that’s the most important thing. As far as what my expectations are, it’s to come in, show what I’m capable of and see what Lou wants to do.”

Gregg also showed love to the fans when talking about why he thinks that he will be better with the Cubs than he was in Florida with the Marlins.

“Going to Florida was kind of a culture shock for me,” Gregg said. “It’ll be nice to go back to 40,000 fans and fans who are intense about the game and expect to win.”

Although Piniella has said that the closer position is going to be openly competed for, he has also shown a preference to go with Marmol as the closer.

“Let them compete,” Piniella said. “I feel comfortable with Marmol, there’s no question. But we traded for this other young man [Gregg] and he was a closer over there with success. Give him a chance, too.”

As for pitching coach Larry Rothschild, he has stayed completely neutral about who he thinks will be the closer this season, and says that he has seen both of them enough for Marmol’s time with the team to not be a factor.

“You know what they both can do,” Rothschild said. “You look at their track records. Kevin has pitched against us enough that we’ve seen him.”

Whoever wins the closer competition can expect a lot of work, but as of now, I have to give the upper hand to Marmol, who has a lot more youth, already knows the staff, and seems primed for a chance at stardom.

-Joe Willett