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Cubs Notes Entering Final Week of Spring Camp

By bullpenbrian - March 23, 2013 - 2:50 pm Leave a comment.

Dale Sveum

This is it, folks. One more week of spring games before the lid lifter at Pittsburgh on April 1st. And somewhat surprisingly, this year marks the first time since 1978 the Cubs will open on the road against the Pirates. Who knew?

Meanwhile, this time next weekend the Cubs will be in Houston for two exhibition games against the Astros to wrap up the spring. Entering this afternoon’s Cactus League contest against the Angels at HoHoKam Stadium, the Cubs are (14-15) overall having won 9 of their last 14 games.

Minutia of note:

  • Cubs pitching has walked just 2 batters in the last 5 games.
  • And for the spring has allowed 3 or fewer walks in 18 games (Nice).
  • Chicago’s 43 spring HRs are second most in the majors (Seattle, 47).
  • David DeJesus is on a 10-game hitting streak.
  • Dioner Navarro leads the club with 11 RBI.
  • Carlos Marmol has not allowed a run over his last 6 outings (5.2 IP).
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Anthony Rizzo’s Stats from the World Baseball Classic

By bullpenbrian - March 15, 2013 - 12:05 pm 2 comments.

Anthony Rizzo Italy

Anthony Rizzo’s strong performance in the World Baseball Classic eased my concerns he might suffer a sophomore slump in 2013.

It’s not that I expect Rizzo to struggle. He was poised and focused from the moment he arrived in late June last summer. And nothing about his 15 HRs, 48 RBI or .285/.342/.463 slash line in 87 games suggest the numbers are phony.

But sophomore slumps do happen: Jerome Walton, Geovany Soto, Randy Wells, et al.

So when Rizzo decided to join team Italy in favor of training with the Cubs this spring (and which the Cubs gave Rizzo their blessing to do so), I wasn’t sold the tourney was in his best interest while entering his first full season in the bigs.

Rizzo, however, played well in his 5 WBC games, and most importantly, avoided injury. At the plate he went 4-for-17, including a couple of doubles, scored 4 runs, drove in some clutch RBI (6) and walked 5 times vs. 3 strikeouts.

Rizzo’s 5 walks led the team. His 6 RBI and .409 on-base percentage ranked second-best on the squad. He added Gold Glove defense at first base.

Not to mention, the underdog Italians won their first two games in round 1 defeating Mexico 6-5 and Canada 14-4.

And they nearly won both their games in round 2, but eventually fell in thrilling one-run losses to the Dominican 5-4 and Puerto Rico 4-3.

The experience of learning from different coaches and playing in meaningful games (let’s be honest, that wasn’t happening with Chicago) appears to have left a positive impression on Rizzo. “It was a great experience for him,” said Dale Sveum.

Is it a sign Rizzo’s on track for another standout season? Let’s hope so. He’s the biggest bat in the lineup, aside from Soriano, and that could change in a hurry if Sori is traded or declines in production from last year.

For the Cubs to have even the slightest chance to compete this season they’ll need all their top guns performing up to standards. Rizzo will obviously play a huge part, assuming he can fend off the dreaded sophomore jinx.

Right now I’d put my money down on Rizzo to be just fine this season, and for many seasons to come.

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Will Dale Sveum See Cubs On Right Side Of Rebuild?

By bullpenbrian - December 7, 2012 - 5:15 am 1 comment.

Any idea who’s currently the longest tenured manager with one team in MLB? It’s Mike Scioscia. He’s been at the helm of the Angels the past 13 seasons.

In the long history of the Cubs only one of its managers lasted as long as Scioscia has in Anaheim. Cap Anson skippered Chicago for 19-straight seasons from 1879-1897. Quite awhile ago.

Meanwhile, the present runner-ups to Scioscia include Twins manager Ron Gardenhire who’s lasted 11 seasons in Minnesota, Charlie Manuel with 8 seasons in Philadelphia, Jim Leyland with 7 seasons in Detroit and Joe Maddon with 7 seasons in Tampa Bay.

Outside the Top 5, however, there’s a noticeable decline in manager’s staying power. In fact, the average length of time spent on the job for current managers heading into 2013 is less than 3.5 seasons.

Only five managers exceed that average: Ron Washington in Texas (6), Bruce Bochy in San Francisco (6), Bud Black in San Diego (6), Joe Girardi in New York (5) and Dusty Baker in Cincinnati (5).

Otherwise, two-thirds of the league’s managers have been on the job three seasons or less. Six begin their inaugural season with their respective clubs next spring, half of which are rookie bench bosses: Bo Porter (Houston), Walt Weiss (Colorado) and Mike Redmond (Miami).

I became interested in this topic thinking about how much string Dale Sveum will receive as the Cubs manager? Epstein and Hoyer reiterate they envision Sveum as‘the guy’ when the team finally turns the corner from rebuilding, which still appears several seasons away.

If we project the Cubs to be .500 or better in 2015 Sveum will have already been on the job three years. And if he’s lasted that long there’s reason to believe he’ll be retained with a team poised to compete for the postseason.

That could put Sveum on path to near the head of the class for the league’s current list of longest tenured managers with one team, assuming the Cubs continue to win.

On the other hand, as the Cubs climb closer to being competitive the patience of the rebuild will have worn thin on Team Theo and the fans. Everyone will expect a winner given the talent on the field and the tedious wait to assemble a competitive roster.

Sveum, needless to say, will have little room for error if he’s to become the Cubs’ version of Mike Scioscia vs. the latest quadrennial skipper. Of course, all he needs to do is win a World Series. And how hard can that be?

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Cubs Manager & Coaching Grades

By bullpenbrian - October 9, 2012 - 11:00 am Leave a comment.

-Dale Sveum: (B-): No good Cubs fan blames the first year manager for 101-losses. And had it not been for Sveum’s strong leadership, it’s probably an even worse record.

Remember, this Cubs team could’ve mailed it in on several occasions…a 12-game losing streak, the trade of veterans at the deadline or the horrific beating by the Nationals in Washington, just to name a few. They never did, and that’s about the most encouraging sign for this team, and its manager, moving forward.

That’s not to say Sveum isn’t without fault, he certainly made his share of mistakes, too. But given the youth, inexperience, and at times, inexplicable bone-headed plays from his players, Sveum handled it all with poise and professionalism. There couldn’t be a better quality for a manager skippering a team on the rebuild.

-Dave McKay (A+): He proved to be one of the best acquisitions last offseason. His instruction responsible for Soriano’s improved defense was invaluable on its own, as was his coaching of base runners at first. The Cubs are very lucky to have this guy.

-Chris Bosio (B): His arrival was a first step in the right direction for the pitching staff. The starters thrived before the All Star break and the deadline departures of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm. More importantly, Bosio finely tuned Jeff Samardzija into a quality starter, oversaw the redevelopment of Manny Corpas, straightened out Carlos Marmol and survived the task of coaching a bullpen largely void of major league talent. Next season will test Bosio’s mettle even more, but it’s promising to think what he could actually do with an entire staff of major league quality talent.

-James Rowson (incomplete): Will he stay, will he go? We do know Rowson buys into the new regime’s patient plate philosophy, and it seemed the Cubs took kindly to Rowson after he replaced Rudy Jaramillo mid-season. You obviously can’t fault Rowson for the Cubs’ lackluster offensive production, but there’s a ton of work to be done between now and the end of spring training…and not much to work with. I imagine he won’t have the long leash Jaramillo did either.

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Now What For Bryan LaHair?

By bullpenbrian - October 4, 2012 - 4:15 am Leave a comment.

I couldn’t be more happy for Bryan LaHair. His walkoff hit against the Astros leaves us with a favorable memory of the 2012 All Star in what could be his final at-bat with the Cubs.

That’s not an image Cubs fans have been privy too since LaHair’s decline from feel-good story of the spring and his All Star appearance…to a prolonged second half slump and a reserve role on Dale Sveum’s bench.

Even his solo HR and game-winning single with two-outs in the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday does little to repair the loss of confidence in LaHair’s ability as an everyday player, or increase the odds he’ll be wearing a Cubs uniform in 2013.

There’s already speculation the 30-year-old could be headed to the Japanese League, and even LaHair himself is on the record as saying he believes there’s only a 50/50 chance he’ll remain in Chicago.

I’m still of the opinion LaHair’s regression may be attributed to the arrival of Anthony Rizzo, which forced LaHair into a position change from first base to right field.

Whether or not that’s true is beside the point. We know Rizzo isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and if LaHair can’t cut it offensively playing the outfield, well, what purpose does he serve on a team rebuilding with younger players also in need of more major league playing time?

Of course, it’s in LaHair’s favor he’s a left-handed hitter with power, which is always in need, especially in the National League. But such a specialized a role is typically reserved for contenders, not teams rebuilding from 101-losses.

That means LaHair’s game-winning knock yesterday could be his final at-bat with the Cubs. If so, I couldn’t think of a better ending for a guy we all wanted to succeed, but just couldn’t deliver.

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Sori’s New Company, Barney’s Streaks, Marmol & Valbuena

By bullpenbrian - September 20, 2012 - 3:00 am Leave a comment.

Yesterday I gushed over Alfonso Soriano’s numbers this season. He homered again last night, a two-run blast onto Waveland Ave in the sixth, giving him 30 HR & 103 RBI for the year.

He now joins an elite group of Cubs players age 36 or older to hit 30-plus HR and drive in 100 or more RBI:

  • Hank Sauer
  • Andre Dawson
  • Fred McGriff
  • Moises Alou

GOLD GLOVE: Last night Darwin Barney struck out swinging in the bottom of the ninth snapping his string of 55-plate appearances without a strikeout–which was the longest in the majors.

His 0-for-5 performance also ends his career-high and team season-high 13-game hitting streak this year.

However, Barney’s National League record of consecutive games without committing a fielding error remains intact at 134-straight contests. With 12-games remaining this season Darwin still has an opportunity to break Placido Polanco’s major league record of 141-straight games without an error at second base.

MARMOL TIME: Would you believe Carlos Marmol has successfully converted his last 19 save opportunities? That’s a career-high for Marmol, whose previous mark of consecutive saves was 18-straight from August, 2010- April, 2011.

Marmol’s last blown save came on May 2, making him one of only two closers in the majors to be perfect in save chances since the second month of the season–the Padres’ Huston Street is the other (18/18).

DOWN LOOKING: I want to believe in Brett Jackson, but his glaring strikeout rate and inexperience was on full display last night when he struck out looking with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth and the game tied 5-5.

That simply can’t happen, especially on a pitch up in the zone and right over the inner half of the plate.

Bob Brenly wasn’t pleased with Jackson’s at-bat either saying “A batter has to be hungry to hit in those situations.” A lesson learned I hope.

WAKING UP LUIS: Is Josh Vitters’ lack of production making Luis Valbuena a little too comfortable at third?

It was only a month ago Valbuena was guilty of not running hard out of the box on a hit he presumably thought would leave the yard in Milwaukee. Valbuena was inexcusable picked-off second base while fiddling with his batting gloves last night.

Is Sveum too desperate to avoid a 100-loss season that he won’t sit Valbuena to send a message. What’s it going to take to keep Valbuena’s head in the game?

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Defining Moment Awaits Dale Sveum

By bullpenbrian - September 7, 2012 - 3:45 am 4 comments.

Recovering from this bloody beating against Washington is Dale Sveum’s biggest challenge to date with the Cubs. Not his win/loss record, not the 12-game losing streak, nor anything else this season compares to the immediate difficulty ahead.

Sveum’s club wasn’t just crushed on the scoreboard, they were crushed emotionally, which presents a threatening danger for the manager and his troops.

The carry-over effect could turn daunting for a team practically sprinting towards a franchise-worst record.

“Probably one of the biggest butt-whippings I’ve gotten in my career, as a coach or player.” “I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of.” –Dale Sveum

Being bludgeoned so decisively further weakens the shaky confidence of his younger players, diminishes his team’s moral and puts the club at risk of falling into a season-ending tailspin—essentially reaching depths more damaging than 103-losses.

In a season already long lost, that’s not something Sveum or the organization can afford to let happen.

CUBS SHOWING LACK OF DESIRE

I don’t know for certain if the Cubs mailed-it-in at the nation’s capitol, but it sure came across that way on television.

Chicago appeared mostly unresponsive, disinterested and content while getting their collective heads kicked-in by the Nats. For all intents and purposes, Chicago rolled-over in awe of the team with the major’s best record (85-52). It’s not about why the Cubs got swept, it’s how they got swept that’s troubling. 

The outcome doesn’t necessarily come as a shock given how young, inexperienced and out of contention the Cubs are this year. But it’s also not the kind of unacceptable effort Sveum can allow to fester.

Letting bad energy and raw emotions, the likes of which we saw from bench coach Jamie Quirk Thursday night, run a muck is kryptonite for a clubhouse. And once a skipper losses his clubhouse, there’s no getting it back (Bobby Valentine), not even Sveum, who’s being judged aside from mere wins and losses, can overcome such disruption.

Now, I’m not suggesting Sveum’s lost anything yet, but the risk is most definitely there after a humiliating series like this one.

IS SVEUM THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB?

Have I lost faith in Dale Sveum? Not at all. He’s pulled through numerous trials and tribulations this season …everything from clubhouse leader Kerry Wood’s early-season retirement, to lengthy losing streaks, to Bryan LaHair’s demise from All Star to bench-warmer, to watching the few good players he did have depart via trade at the end of July.

In fact, Sveum’s leadership has hardly come under question at all this season. He’s overcome every setback, taken every punch, and all the while continues to steady a sinking ship we believe is on course for brighter days ahead–for the Cubs and its manager.

That’s why I’d hate to see Sveum lose our faith and that of his players so close to season’s end. And I’d hate to think of the repercussions this offseason if he does lose the support on both sides.

Sveum’s done too good a job to lose it all now, but that’s what could be on the line as the Cubs continues its road trip through Pittsburgh and Houston…and over the final month of the regular season for that matter.

It’s going to take a lot more than one god-awful series to warrant Sveum’s dismissal. But failing to extinguish the dumpster-fire in DC only allows the chance for it to grow into a burning inferno.

So while there’s not much for Cubs fans to care about the rest of the way, Sveum’s response, and more importantly, his players’ response, from such an embarrassing series is well worth paying attention to.

If Sveum has anything left to prove in 2012, it’s that he can put out this fire–and pronto.

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What’s Causing James Russell’s Slump?

By bullpenbrian - August 14, 2012 - 3:00 am Leave a comment.

Many pitchers experience a dead-arm period twice per year. It happens most often during spring training and then typically late in the season.

I’ve been thinking James Russell might be suffering through a dead-arm spat, especially after the 26-year-old lefty was slapped around by the Reds at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon.

On in relief of Travis Wood, Russell squandered a 2-1 lead by allowing three earned-runs on five hits, none of which were of the cheap variety.

The Reds tattooed Russell with three doubles and two singles. And had it not been for an inexplicable, bone-headed base running mistake by Ryan Ludwick (doubled up at second base on a routine fly out to Soriano) the damage most likely would’ve been worse.

WOULD THE REAL JAMES RUSSELL PLEASE STAND UP

Entering Monday’s game against Houston, Russell had allowed four runs on eight hits over his last three outings–a far cry from the pitcher who had held the opponent scoreless in 42 of his previous 54 appearances.

Russell fared far better Monday in his one inning of work retiring three Houston batters in order. Tyler Greene, however, nearly took Russell yard missing a HR by just a few feet in left center field–Brett Jackson caught the ball with his back at the ivy.

WHAT’S THE ISSUE?

If it’s not dead-arm syndrome Russell is battling it may be the heavy workload that’s catching up with him.

He’s easily on course to surpass his career totals in appearances and innings pitched–and there’s still eight weeks left in the season.

His recent struggles, however, shouldn’t diminish what’s been a very successful campaign to date. Russell (5-1, 3.52 ERA) has been a rock in Dale Sveum’s bullpen, and all signs continue to show he’ll become even better down the road.

That said, I’ll remain very interested to see how Russell performs in the season’s final weeks. He hasn’t pitched like his usual self lately and I’m suspicious something’s up.

I’ve got my fingers crossed it’s nothing more than, perhaps, a dead-arm period or natural fatigue setting in during the dog days of August.

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Who Is My Favorite Cub?

By bullpenbrian - August 8, 2012 - 2:15 am 2 comments.

It recently struck me many of my long-time favorite Cubs are no longer Cubs.

Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster: all gone. Reed Johnson: gone. Carlos Pena, albeit his short stay: gone. Heck, even Sweet Lou: gone.

I’ve grown to like Alfonso Soriano a little more each season, but he’s never been one of my favorites. And there’s not much else to choose from as far as tenure is concerned.

SO WHO IS MY FAVORITE CUBS PLAYER?

David DeJesus is a strong candidate. He’s always been a player who caught my eye, even before joining Chicago this offseason. I appreciate his game, his hustle, his professionalism, but chances are he’s gone by next July’s trade deadline or following the season.

The same can be said for Matt Garza.

Starlin Castro has been a lightning rod among Cubs fans–some want him traded, others want to him stay. I tend to side with the ‘keepers’ and think the Cubs should build around him.

Sure, I like Castro enough, think he’s a legit ballplayer, but not sure he’s a favorite just yet. He at least needs to clean up the mental errors for a start. (Who doesn’t hate mental errors?)

Bryan LaHair was a suitor until, well, he stopped hitting. Carlos Marmol? Dude just drives me insane.

WHO’S LEFT?

It seems I’ll need to spend the latter half of the season determining who’s my next favorite Cubs player.

Who’s going to be the guy I can count on, the guy who sticks around long enough to see the rebuild through, and help lead our beloved Cubs back to glory?

Of course Anthony Rizzo is a clear favorite. Maybe Travis Wood, too. I’ve always had a soft spot for crafty lefties (I miss you Ted Lilly). Or is it time I switch to a power-throwing right-arm the likes of Jeff Samardzija?

What about Dale Sveum?

Maybe it’s a Brett Jackson or Josh Vitters who catches my eye? Perhaps Jorge Solar steals my heart? I have no idea.

I guess, only time will tell.

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Cubs Review: Epstein, Dempster And Sveum

By bullpenbrian - August 4, 2012 - 11:30 pm Leave a comment.

While the Cubs were busy this past week during the non-waiver trade deadline, I too had my hands full signing a new long-term contract.

I’ve had some Cubs thoughts on my mind after taking Thursday and Friday off to enjoy my mid-week wedding.

THE DEMPSTER TRADE

Kudos to Theo Epstein for spilling the beans on the Ryan Dempster trade saga. The fans deserved a more detailed explanation of why Dempster ended up with the Rangers and not the Braves besides defending his 10-5 rights.

We now know Dempster wasn’t blindsided by the Braves deal. In fact, the Cubs had informed Dempster days before about a possible trade to Atlanta.

Epstein also candidly admitted the difficulties in trading Dempster because the pitcher backtracked on his original word.

Perhaps the only thing more important for the Cubs this season than its July trades was the June Amateur Draft.

The Draft went off without a hitch, but the Cubs fell short of trade expectation thanks in large part to Dempster’s dishonesty.

His stubbornness on being traded to LA, who wasn’t willing to come off a fair trade return, and his indecision on accepting trades elsewhere, even teams he previously agreed to be traded to, left the Cubs in a compromising position while scrambling right up to the deadline to land anything of value in return for Dempster.

That’s why I’m giving Epstein and Jed Hoyer much credit for pulling off the Dempster trade in addition to the other trades made on Tuesday.

Sure, the Cubs deadline deals went far off-track from originally planned, but Team Theo got the job done in the end by landing several talented prospects.

DEMPSTER STILL A FAN FOVORITE?

At first news of the late Dempster trade I was disappointed the 35-year-old’s lasting image was of his refusal to go to Atlanta and his dugout outburst in Pittsburgh in what turned out to be his final outing in a Cubs uniform.

But with a better understanding of how the entire scenario played out, Dempster himself is the only one to blame for the lasting image he leaves with the Cubs–and it’s not a favorable one.

Let’s not forget Dempster had months to prepare himself to be traded. He’s the one who didn’t honor his own word, and it’s his problem, not the Cubs, the fan base soured on him so quickly.

It’s all fine and dandy Dempster exercised his 10-5 rights, I have no problem with it. But right now that appears a poor excuse after Team Theo played fairly, and they, not Dempster, were blindsided by the Braves fiasco.

That’s too bad because Demps has long been one of my favorite Cubs. However, I don’t feel the same way after this week, and I’m not sure that changes if he should return to the organization.

As of right now, good riddance.

POST TRADE DEADLINE WOES

When I settled into my Wrigley Field seat to watch the Cubs and Pirates square off Tuesday night I thought to myself “this Cubs lineup isn’t that bad.”

Sure Dempster, Maholm, Johnson and Soto had been dealt hours earlier, but the Cubs would still have a chance to play winning baseball with guys like DeJesus, Castro, Rizzo, Soriano, LaHair and Barney, right?

Immediately after Casey Coleman surrendered a fist inning grand slam, AJ Burnett toed the rubber and began setting down the first 11 Cubs batters he faced.

Adrian Cardenas, of course, eventfully broke up Burnett’s no-hit bid at 7.2 innings, but it meant little in a 5-0 loss.

The Cubs haven’t been any better since dropping the series finale against Pittsburgh 8-4 before losing consecutive games at Los Angeles 6-1 & 3-1.

CUBS (0-4) SINCE TRADE DEADLINE

The winless record since Tuesday is perhaps a sign this club is feeling the effects of watching some of its better and more respected players head towards greener pastures.

Nothing about this season’s struggles has come any easier for manager Dale Sveum. The recent slump is no exception.

How he’ll motivate his club the rest of the way will be of interest to me. As I’ve said before, it’s not so much about the Cubs overall record then how it is Sveum remains in control of the locker room.

I don’t doubt Sveum is the right man for the rebuilding job, but managers who lose 100-plus games don’t get much rope, even ones with lackluster rosters like the Cubs have for the remaining 57 games.

Right now the Cubs are on pace to finish the season (67-95).

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