Chicago Cubs Week in Review AND Week in Preview: What a Deal!

Posted on April 25, 2011


The Chicago Cubs split their six home games this week against the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, taking two out of three from San Diego in a rain-drenched series before losing two of three to Matt Kemp and the Dodgers over the weekend. Beginning Monday, they will host Troy Tulowitzki and the Colorado Rockies before heading to Arizona for four games against the Diamondbacks. This will be the first full week of the season for the Cubs.

Shortstop Starlin Castro went 2-for-13 in the San Diego series, but saw his first action from the third slot in the team’s batting order. In the three games against Los Angeles, he collected five hits in 12 at-bats to remain the hottest hitter on the team. You can follow his pursuit of some team records and landmarks for a batter of his age on this site.

On the other hand, Castro continues to show marginal power and has drawn just four walks in 97 plate appearances this year. He is far from a finished product at the plate and belongs either near the top of the order or batting sixth, not in front of Aramis Ramirez. That said, he may still be a solid candidate for a contract extension.

Pitching depth is becoming a real problem for the Cubs. Cubs starters turned in outings of eight, six, four, two and two-thirds, five and two-thirds and five innings last week, taxing a bullpen with some serious question marks already. James Russell and Casey Coleman, to the surprise of no learned observers, have proved themselves inadequate as big-league starters. Jeff Samardzija and John Grabow have seen more action than any winning team ought to give them, even at their combined salaries of $7.8 million for 2011.

Meanwhile, it has become clear that manager Mike Quade intends to use set-up man Kerry Wood only in very specific spots, and does not want him to warm up without going into the game. That kind of fragile handling is a luxury very few bullpens can afford; the Cubs are not the exception proving the rule. Wood pitched just once last week, an Easter appearance against the Dodgers during which he walked one but allowed no hits or runs.

Wood came at a discount this winter, but unless Quade intends to use him more liberally as the season progresses and Wood’s arm gets stronger, he may not be the value Cubs management anticipated. It appears the Cubs will need to ask even more of some marginal prospects like Marcos Mateo (already bearing an unexpectedly heavy burden in the big leagues), Esmailin Caridad, John Gaub and Chris “No, Not That Chris Carpenter” Carpenter than they had foreseen.

*Author’s Aside: I just watched Paul Janish of the Cincinnati Reds make a tremendous play in the second inning of the Sunday night ESPN offering between the Reds and the host St. Louis Cardinals. with runners on first and second bases and two outs, Cards pitcher Jake Westbrook shot a two-hopper toward the hole between third base and shortstop. Janish ranged to his right, played the ball cleanly as he dropped to a knee, calmly set himself (taking ample time to load and aim his throw) and nailed the slow-footed Westbrook at first base to end the inning. 

The play may or may not make the reels of the game. Certainly the game having been originally aired on ESPN will help its case. Either way, Janish saved an early run in a scoreless game and spared his pitcher, notoriously unsteady starter Edinson Volquez, from facing the top of the St. Louis batting order with runners aboard. It was a heck of a play and just the kind that often goes overlooked.

Back to the Cubs:

The week saw Quade tinker extensively with his batting order, slotting Castro into the third spot twice and moving Darwin Barney into the second slot with some seeming permanence. Marlon Byrd has drifted around, and Alfonso Soriano sinks ever lower. For myriad reasons, these are all bad choices.

Because several of their hitters have extreme platoon splits, the Cubs have two optimal batting orders:

Fukudome- rf Castro- ss
Castro- ss Baker- 2b
Colvin- lf Soriano- lf
Ramirez- 3b Ramirez- 3b
Pena- 1b Soto- c
Soto- c Pena- 1b
Byrd- cf Byrd- cf
Barney- 2b Fukudome- rf

Let’s break down Quade’s mistakes last week using this table.

  1. Colvin got just one start last week. The problem seems to be that Quade envisions him as a platoon partner for Fukudome. Beyond the obvious logical snafu (both men bat left-handed), that ignores a much more viable option: Colvin is really a perfect left-handed compliment to the right-handed Soriano. Their strengths and weaknesses are the same in all phases of the game, yet they are very different players.
  2. Barney is getting far too much playing time and batting too high in the order. If this is merely Quade’s way of riding the hot hand, so be it, but he needs to recognize that Barney is not realistic as a long-term solution. His absolute ceiling at the plate is Ryan Theriot-level production, and Theriot quickly lost viability as an everyday player when he moved to second base, where Barney has to play. Blake DeWitt has scarcely gotten a chance to prove his rough spring was an aberration, and needs to get more than one start every 20 games going forward.
  3. Starlin Castro is not a number-three hitter. He has no power, the critical trait every hitter in that slot needs, and he hits a ton of ground balls, which is a nightmarish feature for a three-hole guy: There are always people on ahead of you. You want someone who lifts the ball. He is a great hitter, again, for average, but he needs to be moved to the top of the order where his ability to get on base (one can hope) 38 percent of the time will come in handy.
  4. Geovany Soto batted eighth four times last week. At worst, Soto is the fourth-best Cubs hitter, behind Castro, Aramis Ramirez, and you pick your guy. At best, he may be better than any of them. In absolutely no event should he be batting lower than sixth.
On a happier note, the week saw a big contract extension for Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, putting the Cubs in even better position to nab Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder this winter when the big man hits free agency. Fielder would help solve the biggest current problem with the lineup, which is that it lacks a true offensive superstar as its anchor.
Farm Report:
At week’s end, Brett Jackson of Double-A Tennessee was hitting .375/.486/.679 with three home runs, 11 RBI, six stolen bases, four doubles, two triples, 12 walks and 13 strikeouts through 16 games. Jackson is the reason the Cubs can comfortably enter 2012 without Kosuke Fukudome or his $13.5-million salary on the roster.
Trey McNutt made just his second start of the season for Tennessee on Friday. He had run into blister problems after his first, and on Friday, he survived just four innings and surrendered two runs. Still, he fanned four and walked just one, flashing the stuff that has many eyeing him as a starter for the 2012 Cubs.
Josh Vitters had an off week at the plate and now has a .263/.323/.509 batting line for the year in Tennessee. In 60 plate appearances, he has three strikeouts, three walks and three home runs, plus five doubles. Vitters is the best option if the Cubs hope to replace expensive and aging third baseman Ramirez next season, thereby saving $14 million.
The Week Ahead
Matt Garza will get two starts this week, and two chances to prove his electric stuff can translate to dominance in the National League. He has 34 strikeouts on the very young season, but has also given up 33 hits in fewer than 25 innings pitched. Garza is the key to any push the Cubs hope to make in 2011, so his turns–Monday at home, Saturday in Arizona–are appointment television for Cubs fans this week.
Colvin is the other critical Cub to watch this week: He has struggled to a .128/.196/.319 slash line so far, but five of his six hits have gone for extra bases. As mentioned, Colvin got just one start last week, and figures to see more action in the coming days. He may even get a start or two over Marlon Byrd in center field against tough right-handed hurlers, since Byrd has been scuffling at the plate lately and is a platoon guy under normal conditions.
Two Cubs whose early struggles should not concern you are Carlos Pena and Dempster, each of whom has played much better than their numbers. Pena has hit the ball really cleanly at times and is using the middle of the field, which will pay off in a big way when the weather warms up. In the meantime his walk rate ensures his strikeouts do not totally rob him of value at the plate.
Dempster, despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 29:12 over 30-plus innings, sports a 7.63 ERA. Fear not: That figure is fueled by eight home runs allowed, an unsustainable streak of bad fly-ball luck. Homers may indeed be an issue for Dempster this year, but if he gives up more than 20 over the next 150 innings he pitches, it will be a surprise. He should be back to solid, mid-rotation production in no time.
Unfortunately, the Cubs will miss Arizona left-hander Joe Saunders on their trip to the desert this week. The team’s OPS against southpaws is over .100 better than it is against righties, a product of Baker’s, Byrd’s, Soto’s, Soriano’s and Castro’s strong affinities for opposite-handed pitching. The only lefty the Cubs will face this week is Rockies southpaw Jorge de la Rosa.
Last year, Kosuke Fukudome told Cubs TV play-by-play man Len Kasper he sees the ball better and hits more comfortably in dome-style stadiums like Chase Field in Arizona. True to his word, Fukudome has a .971 OPS in 34 plate appearances there, fourth-highest of the 11 ballparks in which he has amassed at least 30 career PA. One of the parks ahead of Chase Field is Miller Park in Milwaukee, which follows very similar design parameters.
With a full slate of right-handed starters on tap for the four-game set against the Diamondbacks, and with just one marginal lefty available in the D’Backs bullpen, Fukudome has to have this weekend circled on his personal Cubs pocket schedule. If Quade knows his personnel and his numbers, we will see Fukudome in all four games this weekend.