Sunday, September 30, 2007

Numbers Game (part 2)

The old adage is that the numbers always end up where they should be at the end of the year for veteran ballplayers. While Jacque Jones ended the year with just 5 homeruns, the rest of his numbers ended up looking like what we expected them to look like, despite his horrible start.

Almost traded to Florida earlier in the year, Jacque Jones had an awful first half, batting just .233 with 2 homers and 20 RBI. However, his .332 average in the second half along with 46 RBI's brought his season totals real close to what past history has been like for Jones.

#11 Jacque Jones - Outfielder
Bats: L, Throws: L
Born: April 25, 1975 (age 32)

2004 MIN: 151 G, 555 AB; .254 AVG / 24 HR / 80 RBI / .315 OBP / .427 SLG
2005 MIN: 142 G, 523 AB; .249 AVG / 23 HR / 73 RBI / .319 OBP / .438 SLG
2006 CHC: 149 G, 533 AB; .285 AVG / 27 HR / 81 RBI / .334 OBP / .499 SLG
2007 CHC: 135 G, 453 AB; .285 AVG / 5 HR / 66 RBI / .335 OBP / .400 SLG

9-year career totals:
1260 games, 4478 at bats; .280 AVG / 164 HR / 623 RBI / .329 OBP / .455 SLG

Meanwhile, some of the Cubs were clearly on the upswing, posting numbers that were career highs. For example, Ted Lilly matched his win total of 15 wins, but only lost 8 decisions this year, as opposed to 13, the number of losses last year. Lilly's 3.83 was also the lowest his season ERA has been.

Carlos Zambrano set a career-high with 18 wins and Rich Hill bested so many of his previous highs: wins (11), innings (195), starts (32), strikeouts (183), ERA (3.92), just to name a few. Carlos Marmol, despite being a reliever this year and a starter last year, tied his win total (5) and set a new career-high in strikeouts (96).

In fact, the pitching staff finished with an ERA just over 4.04 and finished in the top two in the league for the first time in over forty years. Also, the pitching staff combined for over 1,200 strikeouts, making the Cubs the first team to lead the majors in strikeouts for seven consecutive years since the Dodgers did it in 1957-63.

And while the power numbers were down, Derrek Lee contributed 43 doubles, Alfonso Soriano clubbed 42 two-base hits and three others (Ramirez, Jones, Theriot) had 30+ doubles and the club tied a franchise record with 340 doubles.

THAT THAT~! The Cubs were able to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat many times this season, too. Opposing pitchers blew a save 15 times against the Cubs in the first half of the season and 7 times in the second half. While the biggest of the 22 this year remains as the walk-off homerun that Aramis Ramirez hit off of then-first place Brewers' Francisco Cordero, many of the late comebacks for the Cubs in the second half kept the momentum going and led the Cubs ultimately to the first division crown since 2003.

July 16: Randy Messenger (Giants)
With Rich Hill dealing against the Giants, it looked like Koyie Hill's third inning homerun was going to stand up. However, Pedro Feliz evened the score with a solo homerun of his own and Guillermo Rodriguez's RBI single put the Giants up in the eighth inning. After Piniella cut down a squeeze play by pitching out, Aramis Ramirez doubled home the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth for the win.

July 27: David Weathers (Reds)
Down 4-1 in late, the Cardiac Cubs came storming back against a very bad Reds' bullpen, eventually scoring the tying run off of Weathers in the ninth. Jacque Jones' bid to score the go-ahead run was foiled by Ryan Freel, however, and Edwin Encarnacion's walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth ended the Cubs' rally.

August 28: Scott Linebrink (Brewers)
Now with the Cubs in first place, the Brewers had their backs up against the wall. After Corey Hart gave the Crew a three-run lead with a sac fly and a two-run single, the Cubs came storming back with a 4-run seventh, including Jacque Jones' two-run double off Linebrink that tied the game.

September 2: Chad Qualls (Astros)
Down 5-1, the Cubs never gave up. Two runs in the sixth and Soriano's solo homerun in the seventh inning set up Derrek Lee's clutch two-run go-ahead homerun off of Chad Qualls in the bottom of eighth inning for a win.

September 6: Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers)
Broxton became the first pitcher to make the TAKE THAT~! list twice on the year, serving up the second homerun of the day for Alfonso Soriano in the seventh inning, but the Cubs' bullpen fell apart, allowing a run in the eighth and four in the ninth to lose the game by an eventual 7-4 final.

September 15: Ryan Franklin (Cardinals)
With the Cardinals six games behind the Cubs, the North Siders put an incredible painful loss on the Cardinals in the first game of a doubleheader, sending the Cardinals to their ninth straight defeat. After Sam Fuld, the pinch runner, was nearly picked off of first base twice, Alfonso Soriano delivered a two-run homer, the eventual game winner of of Ryan Franklin.

September 17: David Weathers (Reds)
Weathers became the only other pitcher to blow multiple saves against the Cubs. While his first blown save resulted in a win thanks to clutch defense and timely hitting, Weathers wasn't as fortunate when he blew the save at Wrigley Field. After the first two runners reached, Aramis Ramirez hit a triple just out of the reach of diving Norris Hopper to tie the game and Mark DeRosa's fifth hit of the day was the game-winner.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Little Cubs beat Harang; Hill twirls gem

Less than 24 hours after winning the division thanks to Milwaukee's loss at the hands of San Diego, Rich Hill came out and tossed a stunning game against the Reds.

Rich Hill went six innings, allowing just one hit while Sean Marshall and Scott Eyre contributed three hitless innings to complete the one-hitter. The lineup, which was missing Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Cliff Floyd, Jacque Jones, Mark DeRosa, and Jason Kendall still came through against the Reds' ace, scoring four times in the game's first three innings. For once, it was good to be able to watch a Cubs' game without having to live and die with every pitch and not being eliminated from the playoffs either. In recent past, too many of the Cubs games that didn't count for anything was because we were already mathematically eliminated, but today it was the other way around.

Ted Lilly will start tomorrow, but it would be interesting to see how Piniella decides to handle the pitching. With the lefty being scheduled to be game 2's starter, that would be short rest. Obviously, Lilly wouldn't have pitched a full outing anyway, but there's no question that he needs some work in between now and the playoffs; otherwise, he'd have eight days in between starts.

The bullpen is going to be tough to control as well. With two off-days before the postseason starts, guys could get rusty. If Wood doesn't pitch tomorrow, it'll be five days in between appearances for him and if Marmol doesn't pitch in the final game of the regular season, that'll put six days between outings. For Dempster and Howry, it would be four days, so you've got to assume that each of the big four will get to pitch tomorrow.

Handling Jason Marquis also becomes interesting. With Rich Hill looking like he's won the job as the starter for game 3, Jason Marquis would have ten days' rest in between starts if he doesn't throw tomorrow. However, with only a finite amount of innings in tomorrow's game, giving Jason three or four innings doesn't seem like a possibility. Perhaps he does some side work during the off days and pitches out of the bullpen in game 1?

Working with the starting players seems a little difficult too. Certainly you don't want to sit all of them again as that would put four days off in between live game action for those guys, but Piniella probably doesn't want all of his regulars going the whole nine innings either. I expect Lou to give his regulars two (or even three) times at-bat in the season finale before turning the game over the the reserves like he did from the very beginning today.

Where to? With more finals coming in today, the first round opponent seems to be getting clearer and clearer. With the Padres loss to the Brewers today, we know that it won't be San Diego in the first round. While still lists the Diamondbacks' magic number to clinch the west as 1, Arizona can already consider themselves champions of the west. That's because they own the tiebreaker over the Padres; should the two teams finish in a tie (and the Snakes have guaranteed at least that), Arizona would be crowned champions without a playoff.

The Mets and Phillies are now tied atop the east once again and San Diego leads the wild card over both of those teams by one game. Should both of the east teams win tomorrow and the Padres lose, we would have a three-way tie for two playoff spots. In that scenario, the tie for the eastern division would be broken at Philadelphia on Monday with the loser of the division playing the Padres for the final spot on Tuesday.

The Rockies still have a back door in as well. Should the Rockies, Padres, Mets, and Phillies all end the season with 89 wins, repeat the same scenario as above, except the winner of Tuesday's game would have to host Colorado on Wednesday.

If the Mets and Phillies both make the playoffs, the Cubs would have to travel to the east for the first round of the playoffs. If not, the first two playoff games for the Cubs would be at Chase Field.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Chicago Cubs win division in 2007

“Don’t blame us if we ever doubt you, you know we couldn’t live without you…”

Originally, it was sung by Dropkick Murphy’s towards the Boston Red Sox, but I think this definitely applies to our Chicago Cubs, especially in the 2007 season.

We all know that, from time to time this season, I have doubted Piniella’s boys. I’ve doubted their character, determination, and hustle, because let’s face it: their effort on the field was, at times, pathetic. But riding the ups and downs with the Chicago Cubs this summer has been an experience quite unlike anything else. I remember 2003 and 2004, but there’s no doubt that my love for the team has grown since then, and this season will definitely be one that sticks in my head for a long, long time.

Coming into the season, there were very many differing opinions about the Chicago Cubs. Few had hoped that the division might be bad enough for us to have a shot at it. Others thought that we were a .500 team, at best. I thought that we were still one or two pitchers short. Thankfully, those pitchers appeared from within the organization. Sean Marshall was more than serviceable as the team’s fifth starter for the greater portion of the year. When Wade Miller and Angel Guzman couldn’t get the job done, Marshall kept every fifth day from being an automatic loss, by going 7-8 while posting a 4.00 ERA.

The bullpen pitchers, who started off real slow, really have stepped things up, too. Carlos Marmol was the surprise of the season, throwing 68 1/3 dominating innings, allowing just 41 hits and 11 earned runs, while striking out 95. Bobby Howry had a horrible April and Scott Eyre had a disastrous first half, but both of those pitchers have bounced back and closer Ryan Dempster has been literally just a sliver shy of absolute perfection. We can't forget about Kerry Wood and Michael Wuertz, either; they've been equally terrific.

Now that all is said and done, the Chicago Cubs have won the division in 2007 and now are looking to make some noise in the postseason. The likely first round opponent is Arizona, who currently lead the NL West by one game and own the tiebreaker over San Diego. Brandon Webb tossed for the Snakes on Friday, meaning he could go in game 1 on regular rest, just like Zambrano.

Before then, however, there are still two regular season games to play. Rich Hill will throw in Saturday’s game and Ted Lilly may still get some work in on Sunday. With off-days on Monday and Tuesday, Lou might want to get some work in for his relievers, too. I would even advocating treating Sunday’s game like the all-star game: make sure everyone gets one inning.

But we can worry about that later. For now, we just enjoy the moment.

Thank you, Chicago Cubs for a wonderful year!

Did Piniella predict this? Remember when Lou Piniella said at the beginning of the year that he wanted to break the season down into 10 separate sixteen game seasons? Many joked that Piniella couldn’t add while others suggested that implied that we would’ve had the division locked up after 160 games. Well, the latter turned out to be true.

Rotation lining up nicely: If the Chicago Cubs have one thing going for them in the postseason, it's the way the home/road splits match up for the starting pitchers.

Carlos Zambrano would pitch games 1 and 5, which are on the road, where he's 11-4 with a 3.26 ERA compared to a mediocre 6-9, 4.96 ERA at Wrigley Field. In game 2, Lilly will most likely get the nod but location doesn't seem to bother him: 3.86 ERA on the road while 3.87 at home. Then, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill will throw games 3 and 4 at Wrigley Field. Jason Marquis is 8-3 at home, and the young left hander is 6-2.

Go Brewers, Go? Now that we have won the division, should we be pulling for the Brewers? With just two games left in the season, the Padres still are alive in the race for their division. Facing Peavy, Young, and Maddux would be a daunting task, and I'd much rather wait and worry about them later. That means the Brewers are going to help us out.

NL race gets even tighter

It's been quite some time since the American League playoff picture has been determined. Granted, it was only official two days ago and there are certain teams still fighting for home field advantage, but the race in the Senior Circuit is so much tighter.

But first, the American League.

1. Boston Red Sox (94-65)
2. Cleveland Indians (94-65) - AL CENTRAL CHAMPIONS
3. Los Angeles Angels (92-67) - AL WEST CHAMPIONS
4. New York Yankees (92-67)

Those four teams are in, but they're still battling for the position. If the playoffs were to start today, the Red Sox would host the Angels and the Yankees and the Indians would square off at Jacobs Field. However, there are still plenty of things needed to be determined.

For starters, the AL East Championship is still very much up for grabs, even though the Red Sox have a two-game advantage with just three games to play. The Yankees do have one thing going for them: because both teams have already clinched the playoffs, there would not be a tiebreaker if the teams ended up tying atop the division. Instead, the division title would go to the Bronx Bombers for the better head-to-head record.

Also, the Cleveland Indians continue to battle for home field advantage throughout the playoffs while the Angels still have a shot at home field adavantage in the division series.

The National League is so much more crowded though. As opposed to all four teams having been determined in the AL, none have been determined while 7 teams remain alive, mathematically.

T1. New York Mets (87-72)
T1. Philadelphia Phillies (87-72)

The reeling Mets have lost four games in a row and now find themselves not only in a tie for the division lead, but in jeopardy of falling out of the playoffs. The Phillies would have home-field advantage in a potential one-game playoff and they face off against the Nationals to finish out the season, so it appears that they have a clear advantage.

1. Chicago Cubs (83-76)
2. Milwaukee Brewers (-2.0)

Believe it or not, the Cubs are the team closest to clinching the division in the National League. The sweep to Florida hurts, not only because of what it means in our race against Milwaukee, but the New York's struggles had allowed the Cubs to potentially sneak into the home-field advantage in the first round. Now, the Cubs are four behind New York with three to play, so it is guaranteed that if they make the playoffs, the first two games will be on the road.

Trying to figure out who the first round opponent could be for the Cubs hasn't gotten any easier over the past couple of days. In fact, it's gotten harder. With just three days remaining, there are five very possible scenarios:

a) Cubs would play New York, if Phillies (T in div, -1 in WC) won the Wild Card.
b) Cubs would play Philadelphia, if Mets (T in div, -1 in WC) won the Wild Card.
c) Cubs would play Arizona, if Padres (+1 WC) or Rockies (-1 WC) won the Wild Card.
d) Cubs would play San Diego, if Diamondbacks (+1 div) won the Wild Card.
e) Cubs would play Rockies, if they (-2 div) won the division AND Padres or Diamondbacks won the Wild Card.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (89-70)
2. San Diego Padres (-1.0)
3. Colorado Rockies (-2.0)

You might say that making up two games in three days is hard enough, especially when you have to leapfrog another team, but with the Padres playing the Brewers and the Rockies getting to take matters into their own hands against Arizona in the final weekend, Colorado has a realistic shot. Besides, they've already won 11 in a 3 more shouldn't be a problem, right? (If only it were that easy.)

The Padres currently have a one-game lead in the Wild Card race and trail the division by one-game. By virtue of records, the Padres could be battling for the difference between the #1 seed and the #4 seed.

1. San Diego Padres (88-71)
T2. Colorado Rockies (-1.0)
T2. Mets/Phillies (-1.0)

As many as three of the four teams on this list could make the playoffs, if the Diamondbacks fall far enough. However, their magic number to clinch a playoff berth is currently at 2, and they do not need reach that number against all of the teams listed. Considering the fact that a win against the Rockies would drop Rockies' E# immediately to zero, the Diamondbacks could clinch a playoff berth with as little as one win and a loss from EITHER the Mets or Phillies.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Slipping lead reminds fans of 2004

After 153 games in the 2004 season, the Chicago Cubs were coming off of a four-game win streak, had an 87-66 record, and a 2 1/2 game lead on Houston for the Wild Card. However, a 2-7 finish to the season against the Mets, Reds, and Braves allowed the Astros to win the wild card by a whopping 3 games.

After 156 games this year, we were similarly coming off of a four-game winning streak and had a 83-73 record, which was good for a 3 1/2 game lead over the Brewers for the division lead. We all remember 2004 and we all had it in the back of our minds, but we kept reassuring ourselves: "it can't happen again" or "we have a bigger lead this time."

And while it's true that the lead was greater and we were three games deeper into the season this year, the Cubs seem to be more interested in arguing with the umpires than actually playing baseball, leading to a sweep at the hands of the Florida Marlins and are now in jeopardy of seeing their lead dwindle to just one game at the end of tonight's play.

The Cubs will play the Reds, the same team responsible for the playoff contention elimination in 2004, in the final three games of the season at the Great American Ballpark. While Adam Dunn is out for the season, the Cubs do still have to deal with both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang.

The only good news is that the Brewers have their last four against the Padres who are very much in the middle of the playoff hunt. With Maddux and Young (and possibly Peavy) going in the series, Milwaukee already had their backs up against the wall, but the loss of Ben Sheets will hurt even more.

Sheets, who left his last start two turns ago after one inning due to a hamstring pull, was scratched from Friday's start and lefty Chris Capuano has been inserted in place. The Brewers have lost each of the last 21 games in which Capuano has appeared, but you throw all of that out the window at this point in the year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Piniella ponders rotation as Crew pull to 2

(NOTE: The charts may not line up with the text as intended, depending on the browser and window size.)

Just two days after I had counted the Brewers out, Milwaukee has come back with a fury, taking the first two games against the Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Cubs dropped the opener in Miami and now the lead is down to just two games. Granted, we're still in a good position as only five games remain on the year, but the past couple of days have gone exactly how the Brewers wanted it to go.

Now, with the division race getting closer and closer, the primary focus goes back to winning the division instead of trying to set things up for the postseason. With that having been said, Piniella announced before today's game that Steve Trachsel might not get the nod on Thursday. The veteran right-hander was tentatively scheduled as that game's starter, but there are other options.


As it stands, the rotation stacks up like that.



OPTION 1: Monday's off-day would allow Piniella to skip Trachsel by bringing back Hill and Zambrano on Thursday and Friday on regular rest, but that would force Lilly and Marquis to pitch the final two games on short rest.


OPTION 2: It's also possible that Lou takes a wait-and-see approach: throw Hill and Zambrano and then re-evaluate the situation for game 161. If we can build back a large enough lead by then, Steve Trachsel could get the nod in order to keep Lilly and Marquis at full strength for games 162 and 163. (Or even better: if we clinch by then, Lilly can be saved for the playoffs.)

(Notice that throwing Zambrano on Friday also lets him pitch in Game 1 of the playoffs on regular rest.)

The bottom line is that Steve Trachsel needs to pitch at least one game in order to prevent Lilly, Marquis (and possibly Hill) to all have to pitch on short rest. Saturday's game 161 seems like the ideal time, except for the fact that pitching Trachsel in a meaningful game that late in the season can be unsettling. But then again, aren't all games equally meaningful at this point?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Double result changes "if" to "when"

A lot of the discussions about the Cubs I've been having since the sweep of Pittsburgh and the Brewers loss to the Braves have been about what will happen when we make the playoffs, instead of being concerned about if we will make the playoffs. Granted, the magic number is still 4 and I know that nothing's been decided yet, but we have a 3 1/2 game lead in the division; even if we finish the season 1-5, the Brewers still have to go 5-2 just to force a tie. And is giving us anywhere from 95% to 98% odds of making the playoffs.

The rotation is an interesting thing to ponder. Currently, Carlos Zambrano is set to pitch in game #161 on Saturday and Ted Lilly will get the nod on #162 on Sunday. While I completely understand that it may be too early for us to start considering things now, let's face it: it's (statistically) likely that we won't need either game.

If that's the case, the impulse decision would be to push Zambrano and Lilly back to games 1 and 2 of the division series, respectively. But with the new postseason schedule, that would put nine days in between starts for Zambrano. For a guy that lacks command like Zambrano does, giving him too much rest could be problematic. So what are your other options?

Pitching Zambrano out of the bullpen or letting him throw in a simulated game aren't good options, which leaves just one thing. Let him throw in game 161, regardless. Push Ted Lilly back to the first game of the playoffs, which would lead Zambrano to pitch in Thursday's game 2. He'd still be going on regular rest and he'd still be pitching on the road. And you could still give him two starts (if that's what you want); Monday's off day makes Tuesday regular rest for Thursday's starter.

The postseason roster is also becoming clearer: it seems as though Piniella has made it obvious that he will be taking Soto, Wuertz, and Murton, by the way he's been using those guys over the past few days. The second lefty reliever has still yet to emerge, but Angel Pagan has officially been deemed as being out for the year, meaning Felix Pie is the guy the Cubs will turn to, if they want a defense/running substitute.

The possible first round opponent certainly hasn't gotten clearer, though. We still know that it will be the winner of the division that gets the wild card, but the Phillies are just 1/2 game behind San Diego, meaning the Cubs need to stay on their toes for both the Mets and the Diamondbacks. If that wasn't confusing enough, the Rockies are now just 1 1/2 games behind the Padres, while margin in both divisions is just 2 1/2 games. It's possible that we might have to play either the Phillies or Padres, if either of the current leaders gets knocked down to second.

Just in case you're wondering, we were 2-5 this year against the Mets, while posting a 2-4 record vs Arizona. Against Philadelphia we went 3-4, and 3-5 against the Padres.

The final week For the final seven games, the Brewers will return home, where they are 47-27. However, they have been 5-7 against the Cardinals thus far this year and 0-3 vs San Diego. The Cubs will hit the road after an off-day, but the road hasn't really been a problem for Piniella's boys, unlike Yost's club. We're 39-36 away from the Friendly Confines.

The pitching matchups also look favorable for us. While the Brewers have to face Wainwright, Looper, Maddux, and Young (and/or Peavy), we have Willis, Barone and Olsen in the series against the Marlins.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Torres vows revenge on Soriano

This guy makes it so hard to root for him. Every time he does something good, he manages to make a complete ass out of himself. You'd think he'd learn to stop hopping before catching fly balls after his muffed pop up turned into fielder's choice and outfield assist against the Cardinals, but I guess not.

A week after doing everything but somersaults after hitting a homerun, Alfonso Soriano was at it again. Facing former Pirates' closer Solomon Torres in the fifth inning, Soriano posed after hitting a deep fly ball.

"I didn't appreciate him standing at the plate, but what are you going to do?" said Torres after the game. "That's his routine. Next time, I'll have my routine. I'll strike him out and show him up."

And I appreciate Torres for saying the right things. I know it's tempting to want to bean him the next time he's up and Torres still may, but at least he didn't lose his cool in front of the microphones. The funny thing is that I was watching Soriano closely after he hit that shot; it looked like to me that Soriano didn't celebrate as much as he usually does. I guess that just goes to show you how much of an asshole he can be.

One of these days, Soriano is going to cost his team a star player. If Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, or one of our pitchers gets hurt for his childish antics, I want that fucker's head on a platter. Literally.

Magic Number: 6 I've kept a quiet count of the magic number for a few weeks now, but now I think it's safe for me to start counting out loud. With a 2 1/2 game lead on the Brewers with just 7 games to go, it would take a gigantic Cubs collapse to let the division slip out of our hands. Granted, the Cubs are capable of such collapse (erm, 2004) but to put things into perspective: if the Brewers go 6-2 in their remaining eight, we can still force a playoff with a 3-4 performance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lou overthinks rotation

Boy, I didn't like how Piniella has handled the rotation over the past couple of weeks and I definitely don't like it now that I've seen three innings from Carlos Zambrano.

Ever since we acquired Steve Trachsel, the rotation's been in shambles. I wouldn't have minded had the fifth spot been the only thing that was affected, but while trying to juggle his pitchers, Lou made a mess out of his staff. Okay, maybe the doubleheader on Saturday had something to do with it, but I really think that Piniella over thought it.

Piniella brought Steve Trachsel back on short rest in the final game at Minute Maid Park so that Zambrano could throw against the Cardinals. I thought that was a risk, but it turned out to be okay, as we ended up winning both games. Had the Cardinals been closer to the division lead, I would've agreed with the move. I certainly agreed with Tony LaRussa's decision to push Adam Wainwright back; he was down and had no other choice. But, was it really worth the risk to push a team five games out further back?

Then, Piniella decided to bring back Zambrano on short rest (after 8 innings and 101 pitches) with a one-game lead in the division! We're ahead, so why are we taking the risks? We should've been okay with pitching Trachsel today against the Reds so that the worst case scenario was a tie in the division lead and our pitchers at full strength. Instead, we've now risked falling into a tie anyway and having to bring back Lilly on the fourth day.

What bothers me most about this is that it seems like we pushed Zambrano back last week, just so we could bring him back on short rest?

That's not something we should do with the division lead.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Soto adds confusion to potential playoff roster

Okay, so I know that it may be a bit premature to think about the playoff roster. After all, we're just tied in the loss column and more than two weeks of season remains, but you can't help but think about what the Cubs options are, if and when they make the playoffs.

It was just six months ago, that the Cubs were looking at a large roster, looking to make cuts down to 25. Then, it was the end of Spring Training and the team was looking to finalize the roster for the regular season. Now, the rosters have expanded and more is on the line. Changes to the roster won't be able to be made as easily and so there is a lot more and stake here.

Geovany Soto had a career year in Iowa. We all know that. Batting .353 while clubbing 26 homeruns and driving in 109 in just 385 at-bats earned him a 1.076 OPS and MVP honors for the Pacific Coast League. Now, Soto is with the big club and he hasn't stopped hitting. His 4-for-5 on Sunday raised his batting average to .423 (11-26) and he's now slugging .692 with a 1.175 OPS. I understand that the sample size is small and that expecting to put up those kinds of numbers, especially against quality pitchers from playoffs teams, is unreasonable. Hell, if we did expect that, there wouldn't even be a discussion here.

But, one thing is for certain. Soto brings so much more to the table offensively than Henry Blanco, who has been hurt for most of the year. So, are his offensive abilities worth leaving Henry Blanco and his sparkling defense off of the playoff roster? It may depend on who the first round opponent is. If the Wild Card comes out of the east, we would have to take on Jose Reyes and the Mets. If the Padres can hang on to the National League's final playoff berth, our first round opponent would be the Arizona Diamondbacks, a station-to-station team.

So why not take three catchers? Well, the problem is that there is a log jam already for the limited number of bullpen slots and outfield slots; we shouldn't be taking away another roster spot just for a third catcher. Lou can't have eight relievers, five outfielders, and three catchers and it seems to me like the third catcher is the least important.

The way I see it, there are 20 locks for the playoff roster. The top four pitchers in the rotation will obviously be the starters used in the post season, while the big four in the bullpen will obviously all make the team. Scott Eyre and Sean Marshall are the obvious choices for the lefties in the bullpen, but who the other two choices are -- and if Lou even wants two more choices -- is anybody's guess.

As far as infielders are concerned, the team would likely go with the six main guys that they have used all year: Lee, DeRosa, Ramirez, Theriot, and Ward are all must keeps while Fontenot is the default sixth. The three starting outfielders should make the playoff roster as well, but that leaves just two slots remaining for Pie, Murton, and Monroe. The latter two guys would both serve the same purpose (to hit lefties), so maybe Pie comes on for the defense and speed. But, then which of the two righties would you take?

Jason Kendall rounds out the locks as the starting catcher.

Of the players on the team, there are also locks for not making the playoff roster. Pitchers Carmen Pignatiello, Will Ohman, and Kevin Hart fall into that list as do Ronny Cedeno and Sam Fuld. It clears up the picture a little bit, but it's still not perfect. Gallagher, Wuertz and Trachsel will probably battle the rest of the season for the final two (or maybe just one) remaining slot in the bullpen.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Cubs hand split to St. Louis

Well, evidently Jason Kendall and his teammates thought that a four-game winning streak was enough. You know, you wouldn't want to win too many games in a row, right?

There is plenty of blame to go around for the Cubs' split with the Cardinals on Saturday. First goes to Mike Quade. His decision to send Derrek Lee in the first inning was not a bad decision, but the choice to cut Ryan Theriot loose in the second inning was one of the worst decisions since (and including) Wendell Kim's tenure with the Cubs.

Alfonso Soriano homered to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead immediately following the play, but Quade didn't know that that was going to happen. He had to assume that Soriano would be in a better position with two runners on base and just one out instead of the other way around. Even if Theriot does score, is that the best result? Obviously if you knew for sure that Theriot would score, you should send him, but as long as you're not sure, why not keep the pressure on a reeling Joel Pineiro?

Then, Jason Kendall thought that a three-run cushion meant that he was allowed to stop trying. After a strikeout to Ryan Ludwick, Jason Kendall picked up a dropped third strike and lobbed the ball over to Derrek Lee. What good reason is there to lob the ball, other than the fact that maybe he was too lazy to actually cock his arm back and throw it? The lob throw cost him, two unearned runs scored as a result of that error, but the complexion of the inning changed drastically. There's no telling how Marshall would've attacked the Cardinals batters with two outs and nobody on.

The lack of effort was again clear in the fourth inning. Kendall, usually a good professional hitter, seemed like he just didn't care. He took a 2-1 fastball off the outside corner and tried to yank it down the left-field line. Of course, the end result was a weak grounder to the left side. (If Kendall is losing passion for the game, especially at this poitn in the season, perhaps he should consider retirement after the end of the year.) Then, Theriot swung for the fences and popped out, while Michael Wuertz lasted only two pitches. Shoudn't Wuertz at least take a strike? Seeing as how he was down a run. Seeing as how there were two outs and nobody on. Seeing as how he's a relief pitcher?!? Guess not.

Alfonso Soriano and Jacque Jones hit weak grounders in the fifth inning, again trying to pull pitches of fof the outside corner, which promoted Bob Brenly to question the desire of the Cubs in the middle of the inning.

Then, representing the tying run in the eighth inning, Soriano got himself thrown out at second base because he was trying to be too cute on a grounder by Jones. Then, Derrek Lee fouled out with the tying run on on the first pitch he saw and Aramis Ramirez seemed to be more interested about going after Russ Springer than actually playing the game. Then, in the bottom of the eighth inning, Soriano made a play to the grandstands. (You expect anything different from him?) After chasing down a fly ball on the warning track in left, Soriano took three steps, then a stutter step before lowering his shoulder, leaping high into the air and crashing into the wall. Coming off of the wall, Soriano twirled a couple of times and stared down the outfield wall.

With just 14 games left in the season, the Cubs do have a one-game lead, but they don't appear to want to win. The Brewers haven't exactly taken the division and run away when they had a shot and the Cardinals have been in a free-fall.

Hmmm, the Reds have six games left with the Cubs and trail first place by just eight games in the loss column.

Monday, September 10, 2007

One Cardinal down, one to go

With the Chicago Cubs knocking off the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday's makeup game, the Cubs could regain a share of first place. Meanwhile, my San Francisco 49ers will start the season on Monday Night Football against the Arizona Cardinals. Hopefully, the Cardinals will fall again.

Monday's win was nice, but a lot of things about the game troubled me. Sure, I loved offensive outburst, but all wasn't happy-go-lucky. Aramis Ramirez hit two homeruns and two doubles and Derrek Lee finally looked like Derrek Lee again. Lee hit the ball hard in the final game of the Pirates series, but only had one hit to show for it. Today, against the Cardinals and a more conventional defensive alignment, Lee pounded out three hits.

But, where Derrek Lee left off, two other guys key to the team's success picked up. Ryan Theriot is now .179 since Alfonso Soriano's return to the lineup and he failed to come through in many clutch situations today. Theriot came up with the bases loaded twice and once more with two on, but he was unable to deliver: an 0-for-5 with two double plays.

Also, Mark DeRosa doesn't appear to be the same batter that he was with men in scoring position earlier in the season. DeRosa has been hitting into more key double plays recently, has just 9 hits in his last 39 at-bats, and his run production of late has drastically decreased. He's only homered once since the June series with the Brewers at Wrigley (the one with the Ramirez walk-off) and his RBI numbers have decreased too. DeRosa entered July 3 with 46 RBI on the season, but has driven in just 19 runs since then; he only has 16 RBI in the second-half of the season. His fundamentals are deteriorating, too.

Up 7-3 in the seventh inning, Aramis Ramirez led off with a double. I expected Piniella to ask DeRosa to lay down a bunt. Instead, he swung away and tried to pull everything. After looking foolish trying to roll over on outside breaking balls for strikes one and two, DeRosa finally did roll over and grounded weakly to the left side. Sure, we still scored a run in the seventh inning, but I can't help but wonder why Piniella didn't call for a bunt. Did he lose faith in DeRosa's abilities? After all, it was DeRosa's failed bunt earlier in the month that prompted the Cubs' skipper to say that the team was going through a "bunting slump."

If I'm Lou Piniella, this is my lineup for tomorrow's game:

LF Alfonso Soriano
C Jason Kendall (if he thrives here, it allows Theriot to be moved down)
1B Derrek Lee
RF Cliff Floyd (if it ain't broke...)
3B Aramis Ramirez (...don't fix it)
CF Jacque Jones (I've always loved the lefty-righty)
2B Mark DeRosa (move him down a slot for now)
SS Ronny Cedeno (not "benching" Theriot, just a day off)
P Jason Marquis

Another interesting move in that seventh was Piniella's decision to use Jason Marquis as a pinch-runner. With a 25-man roster, that's not a bad idea, but with guys like Fontenot and Fuld on the bench, why risk your pitcher on the bases?

Finally, the Cubs rout of the Cardinals proved one more thing: we can beat the good teams, but for some reason we can't beat the bad teams. Usually, playing a schedule full of opponents below .500 would be a good thing, but considering we're 8-4 against St. Louis and 9-6 against the Brewers, I wouldn't mind a few more games with them. Granted, we do have four more games left with St. Louis, but all of the other games are against the Astros (we're 6-6 against them), Reds (5-7), Pirates (5-7), and Marlins (0-3). We're going to have to turn that around if we want any shot at being remotely close to the division lead, let alone winning the division.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Cardinals poised to take division lead

With the Cubs and Brewers tied for first place and leading the St. Louis Cardinals by a single game in the standings, the top two teams in the division showed within the first hour of play that neither team is capable or even willing to grab the pathetic playoff berth that the NL Central will be.

The Brewers continued to wet themselves away from Miller Park. In the first inning, Dave Bush was tagged with six runs on seven hits, but his defense let him down. Rickie Weeks was too lazy to get his body in front of a ground ball, turning a sure double play into an RBI single for Ken Griffey. Then, when Brandon Phillips hit a ground ball up the middle, J. J. Hardy's nonchalant flip to Weeks was late, turning another out into a Reds safety.

The Cubs seemed equally unwilling to try. Mark DeRosa doesn't know how to throw the ball on time, or on the mark for that matter, and Lee took his offensive and defensive struggles with him on the bases. Alfonso Soriano refused to make contact with the ball or play any level of competent defense. Geovany Soto needed time to think before realizing that he needs to throw the ball when a baserunner tries to steal on him, while Rich Hill simply doesn't think that he's required to play defense and he is unable to stop the bleeding. Feeling there is no difference between allowing one run and four runs, Hill gave up after the Pirates dented the scoreboard.

Not only are the Cardinals the only team within the division that has been playing good baseball recently, but they appear to be the only team that really gives a damn about winning. If they can win later tonight against the Diamondbacks, there will be a three-way tie atop baseball's most pathetic division. St. Louis has been outscored by 58 runs this season and was 10 1/2 games out of the lead as late as June 30, but the Brewers' and Cubs' incompetence has put St. Louis in the driver's seat.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

We have a right to boo

Usually, I like the fiery nature of Carlos Zambrano. I don't mind when he breaks his bat over his knee. I don't mind when he spikes his helmet into the ground. I did mind, however, when Zambrano ran through a stop sign and when he fell apart after running through that stop sign.

When Carlos Zambrano was booed off the field as he was exiting after allowing what would become eight earned runs, it looked like he was taking accountability and was accepting the booing. He appeared to be nodding his head in agreement and pointed to himself as if to say that he knows. In fact, this even caused some fans to change their booing into a cheer: "finally, a player willing to take responsibility".

It turns out, Zambrano was not accepting responsibility. He made his position clear after the game when he lashed out at fans. "I don't accept the fans were booing me," the right-hander said in a post game interview. "They showed me today they just care about them. That's not fair...I pointed to my head because I will remember it. The great moments of my career will come."

If you ask me, those sound like words from someone who doesn't care about the fans...or his team, for that matter.

Perhaps Zambrano should remember where the funds for his $91 million contract are coming from. It comes from each fan who shells out $40 (and in some cases are giving up an entire day) just to watch you guys play. We could just watch the game on television, but we care about you guys so much that we put up with $4 hot dogs and $7 beers to fill the ballpark day after day.

We're not asking for too much. Just that you don't run through stop signs or walk five batters in a game, let alone in two innings. Hell, we don't expect even that from you guys every day; we know that there are rough stretches. We just expect that you guys accept the booing when it comes. Like I said, fans started to console Zambrano by cheering when they thought he was accepting responsibility.

We also expect that you don't lie to us. "I didn't see the stop sign. If I see the stop sign, believe me, I stop," added Zambrano. The only problem is that Carlos clearly did see the stop sign. He almost ran over Mike Quade, who had both hands up in his face, when he was rounding the bag at third.

Derrek Lee, usually a very quiet guy, came to his defense. "I'm not a big fan of booing at home," said the man who hit into two double plays. "Maybe if it's lack of effort, or something like that [it's OK]." Well, Derrek, you'll be glad to know that it is because of a lack of effort. How else do you explain running through stop signs, a lefty specialist (Ohman) throwing four straight fastballs to a lefty (Loney) after two strikes, or a runner (Soto) refusing to run home on a ground ball with the bases loaded? Besides, wasn't Derrek the one that didn't run out a double play ball about a week ago?

You hear about the blue wall in the police force; officers bending over backwards to hide each other and help them escape accountability. Well, it looks like there's a Cubs blue wall as well. You wonder how much of it is the residual effect from Dusty Baker and how much of it is the money and fame turning the ballplayers into greedy people.

Trachsel looks to right ship: Veteran Steve Trachsel will make his first start since rejoining the Cubs later tonight against Brad Penny. Personally, I want Trachsel in the rotation for good and Marshall in the bullpen. This isn't necessarily because I think that Trachsel is the better pitcher (though I do believe that), it's also because the veteran right-hander has more experience. Besides, we can still get use out of Marshall from the bullpen; he's pitched in the bullpen before. Moving Trachsel to the bullpen is out of the question.