Archive for September, 2012

Game 159: 99 Problems But Being Worst Ain’t 1

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Cubs 7 @ Diamondbacks 2

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

Record
The Cubs sit at 60-99 after the win on Sunday. As Jeremiah correctly pointed out in Saturday’s recap, the Cubs must win out to avoid 100 losses. On Sunday they took the first step in that direction. The win over the Diamondbacks separated the 2012 Cubs from the 1962 & 1966 versions of this club that each posted 59-103 records. They also secured (though I think it was official a day or two ago) the 2nd to worst record in the MLB this year. They cannot finish below the Astros, and the Astros are the only team that can finish below the Cubs. Before you conclude the inevitability of 100 losses, just know that the Cubs host the aforementioned Astros for the final series of the season. And yes, the Astros have been better in September (11-14), but they have posted only 30 wins since May 25th. That’s 30-83. A .265 ‘winning percentage’. The Cubs are 45-69 in that same stretch, with 7 wins against the Astros.

Ok, So It’s Not All Good News
In their final opportunity of the season, the Cubs snagged a win AT an NL West park. That’s right, if you live in Denver and all points west, the closest geographical Cubs win to you this year took place today. The Cubs had not won in the Pacific or Mountain time zone. They will have to do better than that next year – the new interleague schedule has them out west quite often!

The Game – Bad
We’re going to get this out of the way…this play was HORRIBLE! Valbuena can’t field it bare-handed. Ok, not the end of the world. So he decides to overrun it by 30 feet and never give it a second thought. Moronic. Rusin yields to Valbuena, and also continues to run well into foul territory as if he’s backing up a throw from the outfield to third base. Castro is correctly moving to cover third base on the play (albeit a bit lackadaisically), but none of that matters unless someone fields the ball!! Finally Rusin stops, turns, fields the ball and fires home. Only Recker can’t handle the throw, which would’ve gotten Upton nailed at the plate. The ball kicks away and though it never left the infield, two runs scored and the remaining runners were at 2nd and 3rd. Inexcusable. (The great injustice of baseball scoring by the way, heartthrob Recker was saddled with the only error on this play).

The Game – Good
Almost everything else. With the exception of that play, Rusin looked really good. Five innings, only 68 pitches, mostly around the strike zone. He gave up three hits, two walks, and just two runs (1 earned). Castro, DeJesus, Rizzo, and even LaHair all had a big day at the plate. And the Cubs even benefitted from some bang-bang plays at first that helped score runs. The bullpen was great too, only 3 hits, 1 walk, no runs and 5 Ks in the span of 4 innings. If the Cubs want to finish with only 99 losses, they’ll need to pitch like that against the Astros. I don’t really believe that 100 losses is a terrible stain worth avoiding, but I applaud the Cubs for setting goals (however insignificant or unnecessary) and still attempting to foster a desire for winning. Some teams (the Dodgers!) have completely mailed in the games that don’t matter. Of course, the Cubs have been playing those meaningless games all season, but still…

Tomorrow
Final three games at Wrigley. Will the Cubs get a sweep? Even end the season on a series win? Or will the Astros leave the use their final series as part of the NL to embarrass their division foes? I have no idea, but team lackeys for both sides will certainly be busy scheduling a LOT of tee times.

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Game 158: Whoops

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Cubs 2 @ Diamondbacks 8

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

Apologies for the tardy recap. I didn’t watch the game last night (can you blame me?), and forgot it was mine to cover.

From what I can tell, the Cubs were a collective no-show at the plate until Soriano’s two-run bomb in the ninth. Justin Germano and the cast of cast-offs in the bullpen through eight innings of batting practice, so the game was long over before Soriano broke up the shutout.

So to avoid losing 100 games, the Cubs need to run the table the rest of the way. Word is that manager Dale gave the team an impassioned pre-game speech before today’s game. Fortunately, VFTB has unbelievable clubhouse access, and we’ve obtained this exclusive video.

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Minors Report – Stock Down

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Overall it was a good year for the farm system. Anthony Rizzo led way and will be a fixture in the Cubs lineup over the next few years. Management added free agent Jorge Soler and Juan Carlos Paniagua and traded for their new #1 pitching prospect, Arodys Vizcaino, in addition to the players added in the June draft.

But not all was good:

Everyone knows the story on Brett Jackson by now. He simply will not succeed unless he makes more contact. The 42.9% K rate in the small sample is bad enough, but the 33.8% in AAA is worse than any player in the majors! I saw a comment on this site yesterday referencing “Korey” Patterson, but Patterson only had a 20% K rate in his career. If you thought “Korey” was bad…wait until you see a full season of Brett Jackson. At this point, I’d be surprised if he turns into a .220/.300/.400 hitter.

Back when the Cubs traded for Matt Garza before the 2011 season, I was happy that it was Chris Archer and not Trey McNutt that was the main pitcher in the deal because I liked the K/BB rate McNutt put up. Well, he’s regressed since then. Significantly. He was put in the bullpen this year where he’ll try to carve out a career as reliever. I’m not hopeful. It wouldn’t shock me if Chris Archer, with all of 27 innings thrown, might have already  had a better career than McNutt will ever have.


I had higher hopes for Rhee than most. 2011 saw his second season back from injury and a nice increase in strikeouts while maintaining a decent walk rate. But, like most Cub pitchers it seems, Rhee hit a wall in AA and saw a massive drop in strikeouts. If you can’t strike out batters in AA, you’re going to have a hard time making it to the majors. I think it’s safe to say that Rhee won’t be on 2013′s Top 20 prospect list.

Although Gerardo Concepcion isn’t a guy I was very high on coming into the season, his stock is still way down. Nearly into the non-prospect range. With the new CBA putting a cap on the amount of spending for international free agents, many were fooled by the high dollars the Cubs gave Concepcion. But he has a hard time hitting 90 mph on the gun and ended the season with more walks than strikeouts. The Cubs will tell ya he’s still learning how to pitch and he does have the potential for a good breaking ball, but his reputation for being advanced wasn’t validated by his numbers.

All in all, not many disappointments in the Cubs system this year, but I think that’s because there wasn’t much to be expected of the farm to begin with.

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Game 157: Pitching Stung In The Desert

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Cubs 3 @ Diamondbacks 8

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

Alfonso Soriano
The resurgent Soriano walked not once, not twice, but three times against Arizona on Friday night. THRICE! Just how rare is that for Soriano? He’s done it only 4 other times in his career – but two of those four times, he received intentional passes to record two of his three walks. Tonight, no intentional passes, just superhuman plate discipline.

Darwin Barney
Carrie MuskRat had the remarkable stupidity to celebrate Darwin Barney’s errorless streak in this column on Friday. Barney entered the day tied with Placido Polanco for consecutive errorless games in a season at 141. So naturally Barney committed a throwing error on Friday night. It came on a very difficult play with Justin Upton running. The only way Barney gets an out is by throwing the ball off balance as he did, but that made it hard for Rizzo to handle and it skipped past him. Tough break for Barney…and in the 8th inning no less.

Pitching
The current pitching staff is deplorable. Of the guys we regularly use, only Camp, Marmol, and Russell have sub-4.00 ERA. Three of our current starters have horrible 6.00+ ERAs. One of the best pitchers currently being trotted out was Friday’s starter, Travis Wood. He got shelled, by a very pedestrian .500 team. I’m not sure the Yankees’ infamous Murderer’s Row could win games with this crappy staff.

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Diamondbacks Series Preview

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Probable Pitchers

Courtesy of MLB.com

Friday at 8:40pm CT – Travis Wood vs. Ian Kennedy

Wood lasted only five innings in his previous start but didn’t pitch all that poorly. A bases-loaded jam in the first inning hindered his pitch count, but he allowed only one run. He is 1-2 with a 5.51 ERA in his career against the D-backs. Kennedy pitched better than his numbers would indicate last time out against the Rockies at Coors Field. Kennedy allowed four runs on nine hits in six innings. In his two starts before that, Kennedy allowed one run in 15 1/3 innings.

Saturday at 7:10pm CT – Justin Germano vs. Trevor Cahill

Germano lost his last time out, giving up four runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings against the Cardinals. He’s pitched into the fifth inning in all but one of his 10 starts. The righty has a 5.24 ERA in five career games (four starts) against Arizona. Cahill took the loss in his last start as he allowed two runs in six innings against the Rockies at Coors Field. Prior to that, Cahill had won three straight starts and had a 2.79 ERA in those games.

Sunday at 3:10pm CT – Chris Rusin vs. Josh Collmentor

Rusin will try to end the 2012 season on a positive note as well as give the Cubs something to remember when thinking about next year’s rotation. The lefty gave up six runs over 3 2/3 innings in his last outing vs. the Rockies at Coors Field. Collmenter started in place of Tyler Skaggs last Tuesday against the Giants and earned the win allowing one run on two hits over five innings. Collmenter has made 10 starts this year and 17 relief appearances.

Our Take

I really expected a better performance in Colorado. But rather than show a little fight in the waning moments of the season, the Cubs decided to pack it up early and race to the top of the draft board. At this point they’re just running out the clock.

There aren’t words to express how I feel about the apparent inevitability of losing 100 or more games this season. Fortunately, there is this video.

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Game 156: Rock Bottom

Friday, September 28th, 2012

What Went Right

  • Anthony Rizzo dialed up his 15th homer.
  • The bullpen did a nice job of mopping up today’s mess.
  • Cub hitters made some noise in the final frame, but it was too little too late—again. Starlin Castro’s 9th inning K with runners in scoring position and nobody out was a crushing blow.

What Went Wrong

  • Another rotten performance by a Cub starter. Here’s Chris Volstad’s line: 3 IP, 10 hits, 7 ER, 2 HRs allowed.
  • Rockies’ 1B Jordan Pacheco came up with a nice pick on a ball in the dirt to end the game. The Cubs were this close to tying it up, but that and a dollar will get you a cup of McDonald’s coffee.
  • The Cubs left 11 men on base. The Rockies left two.

Those Were The Days

Whenever I think of the Colorado Rockies, I think of their inaugural season. It was 1993, and the expansion Rockies were led by the one and only Don Baylor.

The fans showed up in force that year (4.48 million of them to be exact), but the on-field product wasn’t much fun to watch. Baylor’s Boys finished 67-95 and allowed a whopping 860 earned runs.

A few other tidbits about the 1993 Rockies…

  • Can’t-miss pitching prospect David Nied missed. In 16 starts he racked up an ERA of 5.17 and a WHIP of 1.62. Injuries ended his career before it even began. He was out of baseball (the Majors anyway) by age 27.
  • Andres Galarraga found new life in hitter-friendly Denver. After two terrible years in Montreal and St. Louis, the Big Cat exploded in 1993: .370/.403/.602. He went on to play 11 more seasons and make three more All Star teams.
  • Former Braves star Dale Murphy finished his great career with 42 not-so-great at bats for the 1993 Rockies.
  • Three Colorado starters (with at least 10 starts) sported ERAs of 6+: Butch Henry, Kent Bottenfield, and Greg Harris.
  • Rockies baserunners led the N.L. in caught stealing with 90. Way to take advantage of your home park by running into outs.

It wasn’t pretty in Denver, but fans didn’t have to wait long for a contender. The 1995 Rockies made the playoffs, only to be bounced by the powerhouse Atlanta Braves. By the way, the 1995 Cubs finished two games over .500. Trivia alert…Two Cubs had seven triples that season. Can you name them?

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Northside Archives: Celebrating Soriano

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

As the title says, I want this to be a celebration of Alfonso Soriano’s delightful 2012 season. So I will not be reviewing and critiquing his fielding, because it still sucks. Just because he’s a better version of the flyball booting left-fielder that’s patrolled Wrigley since 2007 doesn’t mean I’m elated to see he’s finally put in the single ounce of effort it so obviously required for him to be anything less than a horrible outfielder. He spent five years lowering the bar, I’m not cheering when he ‘vaults’ over his absurdly low expected performance. Enough of the ugliness.

Best Season As A Cub?
Statistically, it will likely be referred to as his 3rd best season as a Cub. In 2007 & 2008 he posted OPS above .875, OBP above .335 and was still an envied leadoff hitter around the league. He led the Cubs attack with a violent hack that put even the best pitchers on edge to start a game. Just ask Tim Hudson. Other than a slow start to 2008, he alternated between good and great for the better part of two years. Through the end of last season, Soriano was in a steep decline that started in earnest during May of 2009. Since then, those months where Soriano goes on a tear and hits anything and everything in sight have been few and far between. He had a good start to 2009, a very good July 2009, and a good April/May during 2010. Outside of that he was an offensive liability for the Cubs. In 2011, he was all-or-nothing during April with a line of .258/.278/.613. 10 HRs, and 20 RBIs & 23 Ks and 5 GIDPs – by far his best month of the year. He hit only 16 HRs the remainder of the season, ending with a sub-.500 SLG% for the third straight season after having only one such season since his first in the league. But from an ‘enjoyment of the expected’ standpoint this is easily Soriano’s best season as a Cub.  At the end of last year, he had one foot in the baseball grave.

Remember April?
The so-called haters were vindicated as 2012 opened and Soriano seemed to be lacking in baseball talent. A putrid .237/.250/.513 with a scant two extra base hits (both doubles) in 80 plate appearances. The writing was on the wall, he needed to turn it around or he’d become a very highly paid cheerleader with a reserved bench seat to every Cubs game. Still scuffling, Soriano hit his first HR on May 15th. Since that day, Soriano has posted a very solid .265/.327/.557 (other than a dip in AVG, numbers that are much closer to his first two seasons as a Cub). Most importantly, the power has returned – with 26 2Bs and 31 HRs in that same period. For comparison, Triple Crown hopeful Miguel Cabrera has 35 2Bs and 35 HRs since that same date. Testosterone-rich reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun? 27 2Bs and 30 HRs. But how about the AL’s leading HR hitter, and one-time presumptive 2012 AL MVP (probably will still finish in the Top 3) – the recently over-caffeinated Josh Hamilton? Just 22 2Bs and 25 HRs. And Hamilton’s line of .252/.330/.506 is actually worse than Soriano’s during that period. The transformation from Soriano’s steep and lengthy decline to what he’s been since mid-May is the baseball equivalent of a miracle. It’s so unexpected; I hope he’s not juicing.

How Much More Of This Is Left?
Soriano has established a career high in RBIs with 105; if he hits 3 more HRs (still possible) he’d have his most in a single season with the Cubs. Down in the order, the Cubs have found more production for Soriano’s big hits. Is he the ideal 5th hitter? Nope. Will he be one of the Cubs’ best options for a middle of the lineup bat in 2013? Seems probable. Will he have more GMs calling the Cubs about a trade this offseason? Since 1 GM would likely represent “more” – almost definitely. I don’t know if this year is a fluke, I don’t know how much of his resurgence you can attribute to a lighter bat, or even the confidence gained from his immediate success after switching bats. Maybe what Alfonso needed most was to believe himself; that he still possessed the ability to perform at this level. What I do know is that, offensively, Soriano has been nearly back to his old self. At 36 years old (so they say) he has rediscovered his prime and is competing with the best hitters of today (in THEIR prime). The revival of Alfonso Soriano has certainly been a welcome sight!

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An Interview with ESPN’s Keith Law

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Keith Law writes for ESPN providing analysis on all baseball topics.  He also writes about food, literature, and other subjects on his personal blog, The Dish.  You can follow Keith on twitter, @keithlaw. I think he’s a must follow for any baseball fan.  I’d also like to thank Keith for taking the time to do the interview with such a busy schedule.

Q: Since the regime change last winter, many baseball experts have said the Cubs have really smart guys running things and fans just need to be patient.  On the other hand, looking at Boston this year, you can make a legitimate case Epstein’s moves put the Red Sox in the predicament they were in before the Dodgers bailed them out.  What is your overall impression of the Cubs new front office? What do they do right? And why should Cubs fans be patient instead of skeptical?

I think they’re absolutely headed in the right direction, including spending money on Soler ahead of the implementation of the new CBA, going after higher-probability players in the draft without significantly sacrificing ceiling, and giving opportunities to potentially undervalued players like Bryan LaHair (even if that didn’t work out).

I don’t see why Cubs fans would be skeptical, though. What has the regime done so far to merit that skepticism? I also think that if you’re going to debit Epstein for the free agent disasters in Boston, you also need to credit Hoyer and McLeod for building the majors’ best farm system in San Diego.

Q: The new CBA was a total game changer especially for the Cubs who were just starting to exploit the old system’s market inefficiencies.  Except spending more than other teams on their 25-man roster, how can the team still use their financial advantage?

I’d expect them to be more active with players coming from NPB or KBO [Japan and Korea], since those players aren’t subject to the CBA’s limits on international players. I also think their financial advantage allows them to make moves where they take on a bad contract to get a player or prospect they really want – in effect, buying talent through an indirect route.

Q: Speaking of market inefficiencies, I recently published a study on the success rates of first round draft picks from 1990-2006. Overall, teams averaged ~30% success rate on their first round picks. However, the teams employing Tim Wilken were at 57%.  I’m a little disappointed the Cubs moved Wilken out of the Scouting Director position as he’s been so successful for such a long period of time. How do you feel about Wilken’s first round picks since joining the Cubs? Do you know anything about his new role with the team? What can you tell us about his replacement Jaron Madison?

I’ve known Tim for ages and have a ton of respect for him as an evaluator and a director – but I think your method is a little simplistic, primarily since first-round picks are almost never a unilateral decision by a scouting director. Almora was a group decision that included everyone we’ve discussed so far here, as well as other evaluators with the Cubs. My understanding is that Tim will still see potential selections for the team’s top picks, but it sounds like he’ll also be used more on the pro side, seeing possible trade targets and evaluating the Cubs’ own prospects, which is a great use of his abilities.

Q: What are your thoughts on Starlin Castro’s development and his recent extension?

Love the extension – the downside is extremely limited, so even if he doesn’t become the kind of star I expect him to become, it’s still a reasonable deal for the team. I’d like to see more improvement in his approach at the plate – more walks would be great, but I’d settle for better at bats – but I also think it’s going to take time for the new regime to implement that philosophy in the Cubs’ system. Plate discipline wasn’t a priority under Jim Hendry, and it’s a hard enough thing to teach even when it is a priority, so I’d expect it to take a few years before we’ll see an effect up and down the system.

Q: When teams call up their top prospects, they normally want to give them a lot of playing time. Josh Vitters on the other hand is being platooned with Luis Valbuena.  Why is that the case in this situation?  What’s Vitters future moving forward?

I don’t see a future there. He’s long had one of my favorite swings in the minors, but his approach is all but nonexistent, and I don’t see how he’ll ever hit enough to make that swing (and the power it could provide) matter in the majors. If he had Matt Dominguez’ glove, it’d be a different story, but Vitters is at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Q: Can you tell us about the Cubs prospects you do like & when can we expect to see these guys at Wrigley?  

I’m going to defer that till I do my prospect coverage this offseason. There will be plenty of Cubs content in there. I’ll also see Javier Baez a bit in the AFL, so I’ll be writing about him more in October. I’m a big fan.

Q: On the 20-80 scale, how do you rate Matt Szczur’s present and future tools? You’ve been pretty critical of Szczur and his “short, slappy swing” saying unless that changes he will not produce any power at the majors.  What kind of chance does he have at being an everyday lead-off hitter type that brings value by getting on base, using his speed on the bases and playing defense despite a lack of power?

I don’t see him as an everyday player. He doesn’t have the kind of patience to be the player you describe, nor is he a 70 or 80 runner. I think he’s been overrated because of the bone marrow transplant story (which is an amazing thing, just not relevant to his future as a player) and because Cubs fans didn’t have better prospects to whom they could pin their hopes. Now you have Baez, Almora, Soler, Paniagua … players worth getting excited over. The Vitters and the Szczurs will get less attention as a result.

Q:  Some fans bring up Prince Fielder when talking about Dan Vogelbach’s chance to play first base.  I’ve always thought of Fielder as pretty agile for a such big guy which makes him a unique case.  Other than being fat guys who hit for a ton of power, are there any other similarities between the two? Is there any chance Vogelbach plays first base at the major league level?

Fielder’s a much better athlete than Vogelbach, even light on his feet considering his size, and Fielder’s not even a good first baseman. I can’t see Vogelbach playing any position but DH in the majors. He’s a one tool guy.

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Game 155: 100 “L”s Loom on the Horizon

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Box Score / Highlights

Cubs 0 @ Rockies 6

Usually when I write a recap, I like to divide it into good/bad/ugly sections, trying to find a glimmer of hope amongst the dingy, less than lovely baseball that the Cubs have been bringing to the table lately.

With 96 losses on the season, it’s hard to believe that people still watch games, read blogs, and tweet about this team with such enthusiasm! Some of it is sarcasm, but it is enthusiastic nonetheless.

Now, with the hope of a top first-round pick, losing 6-0 in a rain-delayed game at Coors Field seems like a decent strategy. Unfortunately for the commentators that have had to broadcast most of these redundant games, they have run out of material to discuss. Even the team’s reporters are having a hard time finding content for their writing!

The Cubs squeaked out 5 hits tonight. Zero runs. An error. Mather got thrown out at third to prevent Sappelt from scoring. Joe, the man who has become the object of many a fans’ ire, added more fuel to their fires with that boneheaded play.

Playing to lose is tough to swallow. Even if it means getting a high draft pick, it is such an unknown whether the pick will be successful or not. I think it is a bit foolish to play to lose, but when you’re 4 losses away from 100 losses, at least playing to lose is playing for something, right?

To close with a high note, Soriano did flash some leather out there in left field. He made a slightly awkward sliding catch to rob Colvin hit number 3 on the evening. Darwin Barney is also 2 games away from owning the errorless streak record.

On another high note, Ed Hochuli will be donning the zebras this weekend.

Closing Questions:

With Darwin and Brandon Phillips in the running for the Gold Glove, who do you think will win? Obviously, we want Barney to win, but does he make big enough plays to garner the votes he needs?

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