It’s been years–probably many years, in fact–since I’ve been this unfamiliar with a Cubs team to start the season. I’m the kind of fan who usually can’t get enough baseball news during the winter months. And while most of the rest of the sports world is preparing their March Madness brackets, I’m always absorbed with Spring Training and how the Cubs’ roster is shaping up (give me meaningless exhibition baseball over basketball any day).
But not this year. The months since the Cubs staggered to 101 losses have been some of the busiest of my life, and much of the time I normally devoted to offseason baseball was highjacked and occupied elsewhere. I scratched and clawed to keep up with the Hot Stove, but I was consistently behind on the latest moves and news all winter.
Which brings me to Opening Day and a team I know very little about. And rather than cram for yesterday’s game, I decided to wait and see what kind of first impressions the 2013 Cubs made. Here’s what I took away from our quick introduction.
Bob Brenly is gone, and he’s been replaced by longtime Astros commentator Jim Deshaies. I agree with Joe–Deshaies does sound a lot like Dan Roan with a cold. But in what little I watched of the TV broadcast, the Cubs’ new color man held his own without descending into tired routines about marriage or meandering dissertations on prog rock. Despite his flaws, I liked Brenly, so my bar for Deshaies is pretty high. Let’s hope he can bring out the best in Len Kasper (silence?) and not the other way around.
Yesterday I heard a lot of surprising and mildly confusing talk about Jeff Samardzija being the Cubs’ ace. While I’ll grant you that he’s likely the best pitcher we have, and probably by a not-small margin, I don’t know if that necessarily earns him the de facto title of “ace.” Someone had to take the mound yesterday, but that shouldn’t be the only qualification to be an “ace.” Now having said that, if Samardzija wants to be the Cubs’ ace, he just needs to keep performing the way he did yesterday. Pitch counts are always relevant on Opening Day, and after a laborious first inning, it seemed Samardzija might be looking at a short day on the mound. Instead, he was able to stay economical with his pitches and lasted through eight, doing more than his share to secure the victory. And about that first inning–what I found particularly impressive was the poise he maintained to hold on and get the last two strikeouts. Poise is usually in short supply for the Cubs’ Opening Day starters (see Zambrano, Carlos), so it was a rare treat to see it on display yesterday. Jeff Samardzija, trying hard to make me eat my words since 2012.
Here’s a quote from Jonah Keri’s season predictions article from Grantland, published yesterday. “Kind of wish I had a Cubs at 65 million–to-1 World Series betting slip right now. The starting rotation could be downright good once Matt Garza is back, and Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro practically scream breakout. At the very least, this team will be much tougher to push around in 2013.” I know the rotation has potential, but considering the frequency with which arms have deteriorated on the Northside in recent years, I’m a little nervous about getting too excited too soon. Instead, whatever hopes I have for this season rest squarely on the shoulders of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. I know I’m not the only one eager to see what kind of havoc they can wreak on opposing pitchers all season. Castro can effectively cover more of the plate than most hitters with twice the experience, and Rizzo has the kind of effortless power that’s been rare in Chicago for many years. I know neither of them is slump-proof, but I can’t help thinking it will be a real treat to watch them this season, regardless of what the rest of the team can do.
And about the rest of the team, it seems like switching hitting coaches has yet to bear significant fruit. I know it’s only one game, but fifteen strikeouts–especially when we had a lead working in our favor–is inexcusable, particularly when we only managed to take one walk. This team of youngsters, placeholders, and fading stars needs to put a special emphasis on plate discipline this year if they intend to go anywhere, and we didn’t see much of it yesterday.
Remember the rumored deal that would have sent Carlos Marmol to the Angels for Dan Haren? As I was listening to Marmol try to give away the game in the ninth, it honestly seemed like maybe I had imagined the Marmol-Haren deal, and that it only lingered vaguely in my subconscious. Not so. In fact, surprising as it may seem, there was a time not that long ago when Carlos Marmol actually had legitimate trade value. However, that value shattered faster than a Louisville point guard’s shin bone yesterday. It’s entirely possible that Marmol’s tenure as closer could already be up–I don’t expect Dale to have much patience with him this season, and if this patchwork team can carry a lead into the late innings, I doubt he’ll be willing to trust Marmol with it. Also, hats off to Dale for spotting the telltale signs of a classic Marmol implosion and getting out in front of it. Like Joe said, he ought to be credited with the save for getting Marmol out of there in time to preserve the win.