Chicago Cubs at Colorado Rockies Preview: Now the trouble starts

Posted on April 15, 2011

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The Chicago Cubs managed to survive the season’s first two weeks at 6-6. Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro look very good; Ryan Dempster and Carlos Pena look pretty bad. The losses of Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells from the starting rotation to the disabled list really hurt. Most baseball people generally dismiss the notion that much can be gleaned from the first two weeks of the season, but for the Cubs, there seem to be reasons for optimism.

Except, not really.

I sit down with the schedule every January or early February, and write it out four or five times. I try different permutations of the starting rotation, look for long home stands or road trips, and look to identify critical stretches. This year, I wrote it out once, then went back and immediately blocked off the first 12 games. In the margin, I made the following notes:

9-3=90+

8-4=85

7-5=81

6-6=75 or less

In other words, if the Cubs had won nine of their first 12, I would have seen them as a team with a real chance at 90 wins. If they had won eight, I could have seen them fighting for the title in a parity-stricken NL Central. You get the gyst: That 6-6 has me thinking this team is headed for another 75-win season. Here’s why:

  1. The Pirates, though improved and infused with a really exciting trio of positional guys in Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, still have no pitchers. The Cubs, however, could not generate offense, scoring just 12 times (and four of the runs were direct results of Pirate errors) in the three-game, season-opening series.
  2. The Arizona series was a big blinking beacon of an opportunity to make a statement about the season. The Diamondbacks are in some sort of half-hearted rebuilding mode, and they matched up nicely for the Cubs, who beat Arizona six times in seven games in 2010. They got two out of three this time as well, but the wins were not pretty and the team lost both Cashner and Wells that week.
  3. By the time I did this back-of-the-envelope scribbling, it was clear the Brewers would send just one of their three very good starters during our series with them, and that the other two games would be pitched by left-handers. That made the series an especially important litmus test, because Marlon Byrd, Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano are all lefty mashers with miserable platoon splits. Of their important left-handed hitters, only Carlos Pena has a meaningful split. Beating left-handed starters is a critical ingredient in any recipe for a winning season by the Cubs this year. They have managed four wins in five games so far against southpaws, but one of those wins came against the Pirates’ right-handed bullpen and another was a hard-fought pitchers’ duel between Wells and Arizona’s Joe Saunders. Chris Narveson shut the team down at Miller Park.
  4. Houston is terrible this season. Winning two out of three is fine, but a sweep would have been sweeter. The Astros would lose two out of three if the Royals brought their Double-A squad to Houston next weekend.
  5. After that stretch, things get much tougher. Colorado looms next, and though I did not know Troy Tulowitzki would hit seven homers in his first 12 games, I knew the Rockies would be the first real test for this team. Now the team has little confidence built up going into a tough stretch, and losing two starting hurlers is no way to prepare for a series at Coors Field.
As for this series specifically, the Cubs have lined up Matt Garza for Friday night’s opener and Ryan Dempster for the Sunday finale. In between, the obvious choice would be Casey Coleman, who last pitched Sunday in Milwaukee.
The Rockies will send Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammel in the first two games, then will give 27-year-old Alan Johnson the ball for the first time ever on Sunday afternoon. You have to figure the Cubs feel good about that Sunday matchup, but then, Dempster has been homer-prone in his first three starts and the alarming rate at which opponents are making good contact against him is a bad omen heading into hitter haven Coors.
Offensively, this series is all about the shortstops. Sure, each team has some fine complementary pieces, but Castro and Tulowitzki are elite players at the most critical position on the diamond. If Castro keeps going 3-for-5 every night, the Cubs could win two of three. If Tulowitzki carries over the hot streak that saw him launch a homer in every game of the Rockies’ four-game set in pitcher-friendly Citi Field against the New York mets this week, the Rockies could sweep the Cubs away. That might be the last time Chicago sees .500 this year. Yes, this series is that important.
I want to clarify: There are worse things than a losing season on the North Side in 2011. I think the organization was prepared to overextend itself in the name of reaching the postseason, where they might well have been bounced in the Division Series yet again and had little hope of a pennant. This kind of start ought to discourage that thinking.
Besides, you can still root for a team that is not, strictly speaking, in contention. You can still go the ballpark and enjoy yourself and hope to see one of the 70-75 wins, and really care about the outcome of that day’s game even if there is no big-picture, short-term goal at stake. And Castro, Carlos Marmol and (if he returns at full strength) Cashner offer individual reasons to take interest.
Cheer for Pena to reach 30 homers, or for Ramirez to regain his old form, or for Castro to win a Gold Glove or batting title. And relish your chance to go to games for $5-10 instead of $20-25. The Cubs have been like squeamish park rangers of late, refusing to let their prairie or forest burn itself out naturally and refresh itself. Instead, they have tried artificial irrigation methods (if I dare push the metaphor further) like Pena, Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg. Ecosystems have to burn, destroy and regrow. Baseball teams have to lose, purge salary and rebuild.
Put even more abstractly, the recent Cubs strategy has been one of incrementalism. They want something they can call success, and they pursue minor victories year after year. Instead, they should allow themselves a period of regression and mediocrity, however short (it need only be this year,  in this case), and take aim at a more definite, significant kind of victory (i.e., a long-absent World Series trophy) in a year or two.
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