The Cubs are 18-32 at the end of May. 30% of their season completed and they currently are tied with Minnesota for the second worst record in baseball. In May they suffered through a 12 game losing streak that exposed all the warts on the team. The losing streak was comprised of poor hitting, pitching, bullpen, fielding, base running, coaching and a bad call or two peppered into the mix to add to the frustration.
There are a couple of very interesting things going on. I am a season ticket holder and sell off tickets my wife and I cannot use. Last year at the end of May my losses were 50% higher than they are currently. The month of June has many of our tickets sold and we have saved enough games for ourselves to make it fun. We don’t buy the tickets to make a profit; we just like to break even on the games we cannot attend. So far our two ticket box office is holding its’ own.
As bad and frustrating as the team has played; something is different. I like the feeling.
Most folks would not remember the Leo Durocher era. What is transpiring is amazingly similar. When Leo took over he immediately pronounced, “This is not an 8th place ball club!” He was exactly right, they finished tenth, dead last! The five seasons that followed were the best five year stretch in modern Cub history.
It was about this time in the season in the pre-game show, one of Leo’s often repeated lines was, “back up the truck!” He meant that if someone was not doing the job, move him out and give someone else a chance. They kept auditioning players, found some keepers, and had winning teams for the next five years.
So far, here is what has transpired. Zambrano was gone before the season started even though the Cubs had to eat something like $15 million to get it done. Marlon Byrd is gone, again the Cubs paying the bulk of his salary. Kerry Wood retired and Marmol and Dolis have failed in their closer auditions. Marmol now is in a setup role and Dolis is back in the minors until he can learn to throw strikes consistently. Joe Mather earned a roster spot by playing very well in spring training and they are now finding a way to get and keep him in the lineup. He is getting a chance to show what he can do. I did a quick scan of the current roster and it appears that there are nine names on the current roster that did not break camp with the team. That is almost 40%. Finding out who can’t do the job is progress.
On the flip side is there are some kids in the minors who are doing very well, dubbed “almost ready” by the top brass. Any true Cub fan knows that in the past they would have been up with the big club as a public relations move due to a knee-jerk emotional reaction on the part of management to “do something”. Anyone remember Felix Pie?
At the beginning of the season a friend of mine asked me how I would know if the Cubs had a good season if they have a lousy record. My answer is simple, are they a better team at the end of the year than the beginning of the year?
Let’s ask that question a bit differently. Are they a better team now than they were when they broke camp at the end of March? In my estimation, absolutely!
Now with the second worst record in the game, how can I say that? Let’s look at it by position.
Catcher – We dipped to the bottom of the barrel with Koyie Hill being picked up for cash. Soto is still injured but it is now clear he is not part of the long term plan. He has trade value and Clevenger and Castillo can likely hold the fort until they can really upgrade. Clevenger has been a pleasant surprise.
First Base – I’ll take LaHair over Pena for around 10 million reasons. LaHair is OK, serviceable and has done well. He put up huge numbers in April and is now cooling down a bit. He also can play outfield which means he has trade value; particularly if Rizzo comes up and passes this year’s audition at 1B as he is expected to do. Jeff Baker is a versatile player who can play three infield positions and corner outfield. He has been platooning with LaHair lately. If Rizzo produces as folks hope he will, Baker will have good trade value and should be in demand.
Second base – Barney, Cardenas, Baker and Mather. All four are versatile. None are all stars and I suspect two will be traded before the season is over. Barney spent the off-season in the weight room and it is beginning to show. While he does not appear to be the next Ryne Sandberg he does have 3 HR’s in 168 AB’s this year. Prior to that he has a total of 2 HR’s in 608 AB’s. This projects out to 10-12 HR’s which is certainly respectable. He is still improving and could continue to surprise folks.
Shortstop – Despite Castro’s inability to take a walk, and swing at pitches in the dirt he cannot hit with a canoe paddle, he is well on his way to his third season of hitting over .300. Folks sometimes forget he is just 22 years old, a lot younger than many college players being drafted and he has three years of MLB experience under his belt. Should the Cubs decide to trade him they would likely get a covey of good players in return. That is what it would take or they will keep him.
Third Base – Ian Stewart is holding down the fort. Certainly no all star and the Cubs realize they need to upgrade here. Is Vitters ready? Hopefully that question will be answered in the next few months. Again, Mather, Baker and Cardenas can all play the position with gives the team many options.
Outfield – Soriano gets a A for effort. He is a good guy to have around and is well liked in the clubhouse. Like it or not, by moving other big contracts, and Dempster and Zambrano’s contract off the books at year end, it will be much easier for the team to eat the last two years of Soriano’s contract. He is old, and has bad wheels and is not going to get better. At the same time, so far he is baby-sitting left field until something better comes along. When he is truly blocking a player, then he has to go.
David DeJesus has done a decent job in RF and leading off. There is some discussion about him possibly moving to CF. Right now Reed Johnson, Tony Campana and Joe Mather all can play CF if need be. Campana has shown tremendous value as a pinch runner; however he really does not appear to be a major league hitter at present. If he was he would not be relegated to the bench as he has been lately
My guess is Rizzo will come up and play 1B, LaHair will go to a corner outfield spot and DeJesus will go to CF. Sveum has shown that he likes to platoon a good bit. I could easily see LaHair and Soriano in a platoon situation in LF, Campana and Mather platooning in CF and DeJesus being the constant leadoff man. If Rizzo produces at 1B and LaHair moves to the OF it then makes it easy for the Cubs to move one or more of their highly versatile players in a trade. Good, more players to audition down the road.
The real key is going to be when a second outfielder comes up from the minors or in a trade. Somewhere in the process Soriano is going to take a seat and let another youngster audition even if it costs the team a couple victories.
Starting pitching – So far they have been a pleasant surprise; particularly Jeff Samardzija. My suspicion is Dempster will be dealt to a contender and will bring back young talent in return. Garza will get signed to a long term deal; but that will not preclude him from being a trade candidate. The justification for a no trade clause is when a player gives the club a home team discount. From what I have been reading, that does not appear to be the case with Garza. The club will want to retain the option of trading him. If they can get a great return for him; he could easily be traded.
Relief pitching – This has been a problem all season. At the same time, I love the fact that many auditions have already failed. Certainly some trades can bring more arms and the bullpen should improve as the season progresses.
While this team is on pace to lose 104 games, I personally am not concerned. I love what I see. A lot of long time Cub fans understand what is happening. The team is playing a lot smarter baseball than we have seen in years. They are hustling and running out ground balls; no one is faulting them for not playing hard.
Management seems to be methodically going about their business, finding good talent, developing that talent and giving folks an opportunity to earn their spot. The play on the field, not their contract or personality, is what is going to allow them to keep their job.
When Leo said, “Back up the truck!” he meant it; however it was much easier to do in those days. Players didn’t have agents; there were few long term contracts so a wholesale roster change was something that could be accomplished quickly and inexpensively as compared to the environment today. I think we are seeing a modern day version of the very same thing. Let’s hope at the 100 game mark there are 5-6 new faces on the team that are producing as well, that should help the rebuilding effort take on an even faster pace.
Several times this season my wife has remarked, “Never heard of him, where did we get that guy?” Let’s hope that continues. The team is looking for keepers; meaning those who could easily be in the job for the next 4-5 years. For each one they find, the puzzle gets a little bit easier. For this season, just be sure you buy a scorecard.
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