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Catching heat

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I don't really understand the uproar over A.J. Pierzynski not being chosen for the All-Star team. What I mean is that he definitely should have made the team, and has the best across-the-board numbers among American League catchers, and I certainly would have picked him, but that he didn't get chosen is hardly surprising.

With the exception of Sox fans, baseball fans don't generally like him, and with the exception of Sox players, baseball players like him even less, according to a recent survey in which he ran away with the title of least popular player.

The fans voted a catcher into the starting line-up--Mike Napoli of the Rangers--who has been sub-par this year after a great 2011. Not much you can do about that. A.L. All-Star manager and Rangers manager Ron Washington might have chosen his own player as a back-up anyway, but when he didn't have to, he passed over A.J. for Joe Mauer, who has a better batting average than our guy, but not much else.

There have been many more surprising snubs than this one, and I never would have expected, even with his solid first half, that A.J. would be an All-Star. I do think that Washington should have chosen Jake Peavy, but Peavy will have to rely on getting the "last man" vote. Chris Sale was an easy pick as an All-Star, and so was Paul Konerko, though outside of a six-week stretch where he was hitting like Ted Williams, Paulie has been having kind of a quiet year.

Adam Dunn making the team was a pretty big surprise, despite his home run total. I guess in a perfect world, A.J. makes it, and Dunn doesn't.

However, the biggest All-Star shocker to me is that Bryan LaHair will represent the Cubs, along with Starlin Castro. There was a lot behind the LaHair campaign, but in the last month or so, his bat has quieted down and he has been benched for against almost every left-handed pitcher. Most of his numbers came well before June 1.

There had to be other players more deserving. But, LaHair has a nice story to bring to the All-Star Game, one I'm sure that will be told over and over. I don't know if he should be going, but maybe the fact that he got picked demonstrates what can be right about the selection process, even as A.J.'s snub may demonstrate what can be wrong with it.

Crosstown cringing

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Some things I thought while watching portions of a generally unexciting Crosstown Classic this week:

-If you missed the game and only saw Cubs manager Dale Sveum's post-game press conference, it would be impossible for you to figure out from his statements, attitude and facial expressions (or lack thereof) whether the Cubs won or lost.

-Maybe Sveum was hired to manage the Cubs precisely because of his ability to go into a catatonic state as a strategy for surviving a 100-loss season.

-Sveum makes notorious quiet White Sox skipper Robin Ventura seem effusive and energetic by comparison.

-When compared to anyone else, Ventura is in no way effusive and energetic, and has a habit of tempering both positive and negative observations so that you end up having no idea how he really feels about how the Sox are doing.

-Come to think of it, almost none of us have any idea how we feel right now about how the Sox are doing...

-Is the lack of energy among the managers to blame for the Crosstown Classic losing its luster?

-Crosstown Classic may be more fun with characters like Carlos Zambrano, Ozzie Guillen and Michael Barrett. We're not asking for those characters back, though.

-A.J. Pierzynski seems as feisty as ever, but no one is taking the bait.

-At times, Jake Peavy seems like the player-manager of the Sox, and Ventura seems like one of his assistant coaches--or maybe one of Don Cooper's assistants.

 -Not many people were buying the Sox as a first place team before the Cubs arrived--now, no one is. Peavy was right to say the Sox shouldn't be losing to a team like the Cubs, and hopefully the rest of the players will be motivated by their player-manager's challenge.

-Gavin Floyd finally showed up, just in time to save the Sox from being swept by a last place team. Can he pitch that well against a team with even a marginally better record?

-Adam Dunn really has rebounded back into the player we knew and loved, you know, the guy whot hit three or four tape-measure homeruns a week and struck out every other at-bat.

-Orlando Hudson is not the answer for the Sox at third base, but he's a better guess than Brent Morel, at least until someone like Kevin Youkilis comes to town.

As hard as it is to have faith in the Sox staying in contention, there is little reason to panic just yet about falling out of contention.

-Phil Humber needs to pull a Brent Morel and go on the DL for the good of his team. Update: He did go on the DL, and call-up Dylan Axelrod could be one of the Sox' most important players in the next few weeks.

-Kosuke Fukudome looks out of place with the Sox, getting too few at-bats to go on one of his patented 10-game tears before slumping into worthless mode. Update: The Sox DFA'd him later in the week.

-Most of the Sox apparently had not heard what a poor fielder Matt Garza is.

-Geovany Soto has still got it. Unfortunately, he is injured too frequently to actually use it.

-Travis Wood is starting to look like a player who was worth trading Sean Marshall for, never mind he was one of three players the Cubs got for Marshall.

-Between the Sean Marshall trade and the Carlos Zambrano trade, the Cubs had received no wins and mostly headaches until this past week.

-Whatever happened to Joe Mather?

-If first base were 88 feet from home plate instead of 90, Tony Camapana would be hitting .600.

-David DeJesus is starting to become everyone's favorite Cub--God help him...


Rudy in review

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The Cubs are at least as bad as a lot of people expected them to be (although definitely worse than I expected), and they also are obviously at the beginning of a vast rebuilding project. Those two notions seemed like enough to keep the current coaching staff employed while the rest of the organization morphed around them, but one of them didn't make the cut.

Rudy Jaramillo, the holdover from the Jim Hendry regime, was fired this week. What seems like an obvious move for a team that hasn't been scoring many runs is more a move about timing and circumstance. It's true the Cubs team batting average and on-base percentage declined each of the three years Jaramillo was hitting coach, though by this year the widely-respected teacher was not exactly working with a bunch of honor students.

Jaramillo had been much more successful in Texas and Houston, and may still be more successful elsewhere, but if you believe the coverage of his firing, he's more about refining swings and less about improving plate patience. In any case, his approach sure seemed to work for the Rangers, and to me this seems a little bit of a missed opportunity for the Cubs.

The new hitting coach--though only on an interim basis for now--is James Rowson, who had been the Cubs' minor league hitting coordinator, and unlike Jaramillo, hasn't proven he can get a major league team to hit better. However, he looks like the right guy at the right time, if you consider that the Cubs are going to become a much younger team in the second half of this season and for the foreseeable future.

Some will say Jaramillo didn't do his job, but he had progressively less to work with the last three years. Others will say hitting coaches are always dead men walking, often the first head to roll when a team isn't winning. I guess that means we shouldn't get too comfortable with Rowson either.

Kid stuff

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Both the Cubs and the White Sox picked high school outfielders in the first round of this week's MLB first-year player draft, further proof that neither of our teams is looking for any immediate help.

In the case of the Cubs, they sure look like they could use the help. But, this particular draft, much anticipated by the organization and fans who were getting their first look at the types of players that make the grade for Theo & Co., is all about rebuilding the system according to a new vision.

The Cubs demonstrated how serious they are about sticking to that vision by skipping the chance to take the widely-projected No. 1 pick, a polished college pitcher, and taking instead the kid they had in mind all along--Albert Almora.

I don't follow the prospect chatter as closely as some people, but judging from the coverage of his much-hyped work ethic, strong family ties and overall mature character, Almora looks like a great choice. Stories of his dad working him out on a daily basis sound similar to some other MLB success stories like Tim Lincecum and the Upton brothers. Almora sounds like a budding power hitter, with potential to hit well for average, too, though his defensive skills have gotten almost more attention than anything else.

The downer is that Almora is a Scott Boras client, which is why he's already saying going to college is a priority, but I'm pretty sure Theo & Co. will do just about anything to avoid their very first Cub draft pick becoming a swing and miss.

The Sox don't need much help right now, but do need to re-stock the farm system that Kenny Williams has pillaged more than once. The Sox went with high school outfielder/pitcher Courtney Hawkins, who looks to be one of those do-it-all types with the above-average speed the Williams always seems to favor in draft picks. Hawkins supposedly fell to the Sox at No. 13, and reportedly, he needs to learn some plate patience, and may even need his stance tightened up a bit.

I cringed when Hawkins celebrated getting drafted by doing one of his apparently-trademark back-flips on TV, and it's good bet his new GM did, too. There will be no more of that, young Mr. Hawkins.

Hopefully, both these guys and other key draft picks for our teams will sign in the next month. Best-case scenario is that Almora will partner with Anthony Rizzo to lead the Cubs to the 2015 World Series, facing off against the White Sox, starring Hawkins and that year's runaway Cy Young, Chris Sale.

Serving notice

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I wasn't impressed with the White Sox sweep of the Cubs, especially after the Sox were embarrassed by the Twins upon their return to the Southside. However, two sweeps of first-place teams later, and with an eight-game winning streak that has carried them into first place, I'll admit it: The Sox have had a great month.

That great month, though, was May, and there's a long way to go. Maybe that makes it sound like I'm not giving the Sox credit where it's due. I really am impressed though, with their sudden ability to score runs--tallying 66 runs in the last eight games. Everything is clicking on offense, with Paul Konerko impersonating Ted Williams, Gordon Beckham impersonating his own rookie self, Alex Rios reliving 2010 and Dayan Viciedo finding his mojo. These guys have even made up for a recent decline by Adam Dunn, who is now trying to remember what he did right for the first six weeks of the season.

I'm also impressed with how the Sox starting pitching has held together even through a DL stint for John Danks and a couple of sluggish games for Gavin Floyd and Phil Humber. After having his arm health and role questioned, Chris Sale turned in a 15-strikeout game and Danks-replacement Jose Quintana actually has been the best pitcher on the staff in the last week, better even than Jake Peavy.In the bullpen, Adam Reed has nailed down the closer job for the foreseeable future.

Even minor distractions over umpire calls have not been able to sink the Sox (Hawk's rant was so predictable, I'm surprised it's getting so much attention.) 

The Sox are serving notice that they belong in the fight for the Central Division, but we haven't seen the best Detroit can offer yet. We can't count on Konerko to be hitting near .400 the rest of the season, and though Dunn, Rios, Beckham and Viciedo appear to be rebounding from prior struggles, we don't know quite where they are going to settle. There's also a question at third base: Does Brent Morel deserve a chance to win his job back after a putrid early-season slump? Ironically, I once wanted the Sox to sign Orlando Hudson, but years after his best seasons, I'm not sure he's the answer at third base either.

First place is a great place to be in on June 1, but it's an even better place to be in on October 1. A rookie manager and a streaking offense will continue to be put to the test.

Cheap sweep

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Any thoughts that a sweep of the Cubs proved how good the White Sox are should be put back into perspective by Tuesday night's 9-2 thumping by the Twins. This is not a good Twins team. It is one of the worst in recent memory.

The Sox, 21-21 going into Tuesday's game, have been getting some good power in recent games, off the bats of Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham in particular. That's nice to see, but the Sox are now entering a tough stretch that should answer the questions about what kind of .500 team they really are--the kind that is a little streak away from being a winning team, or the kind that has used beatings of worse teams to puff up its record.

The Sox sweep at Wrigley may have proved more about exactly how bad the Cubs really are than how good the Sox are. With Bryan LaHair coming back down to earth a bit, the Cubs offense has been limited of late to the occasional Alfonso Soriano homer and a handful of runs so late in blowouts that the other team's closer wasn't being used.

The Cubs were 15-27 going into Tuesday's game at Houston, look like what they are--they worst team in the majors by number of losses. It's not only the offense, as the starting pitching has not been nearly as brilliant as it was in April. If anything, the bullpen, which let the Cubs down so often in April, has been better in recent games.

However, the lost weekend against the crosstown rival may have left the Cubs in too deep of a hole to come out of, even though they are actually only about eight games out of first place. Suddenly, the fans want Anthony Rizzo called up, something the Cubs said they weren't in a hurry to do.

I don't see a dire need to call up Rizzo now. to do so would suggest he can fix everything that''s wrong with the Cubs. I'm definitely in favor of bringing him up later in the season, but he's still young enough that the minors are where he should be. He may be tearing up the minors, but that's exactly what he's supposed to be doing.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, I'm not feeling great about either of our teams. It will be interesting to see which one has brighter prospects when the next crosstown series rolls around next month. The Sox should still have the better record, but I have to wonder if both teams will be settled well below .500 by then.

Don't got Wood

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Some moments are bigger than the game. Whether or not they should be depends on your perspective, and it is difficult for most Cubs fans to consider anything Kerry Wood does with a balanced perspective. 

In announcing his retirement yesterday, Wood upstaged the game--a Crosstown Classic at that--and the Cubs assured that he could go out the way he wanted, facing one last batter in a close game, and getting a tender in-game farewell from fans and players alike

Since his 20-strikeout game on May 6, 1998, it has been impossible for a lot of us to view Wood as you would any other pitcher who has been on the disabled list 16 times in 14 years and who hasn't even spent his entire career with the Cubs. 

Wood had one truly great game and a handful of very good ones, but the promise of miracle talent flashed at age 20 created a legend that wouldn't fade, and when he set himself apart from other players by being an all-around nice guy and generous tipper, it only enhanced the warm feelings people have had for him. The injuries gave him the star-crossed quality of someone who can never really fail in the eyes of fans because he never really gets the chance.

Of course, what many fans forget is that Wood did get that chance. If he had won the biggest game of his life--Game 7 of the 2003 NLDS--the 20-strikeout game, the 1998 Rookie of the Year award and some other good performances might have been only chapter headings in a bigger and broader legend. You certainly can't heap all the blame for that year's postseason implosion on him, but that loss is something a lot of fans are likely to ignore when they think about Wood.

I can't really think of an over-hyped player getting the farewell from the game that Wood got yesterday, but I guess it was in the cards when the Cubs re-signed Wood last winter. I thought when he returned for the 2011 season, it was a decent signing of a fan favorite who had a bit of talent left and probably would retire at the end of the year. When Theo & Co. seemed committed to re-building, I thought Wood would take the hint and announce his retirement, but instead he forced the team to make a PR decision and sign him to a cheap deal. It's the only time new management has blinked so far.

I don't really fault Wood for dictating his own public exit in the middle of a game--I think he wanted it for the fans more than for himself because he has probably been a fan of the legend, too. But it was emblematic of everything else about Wood's whole story--kind of out-sized and disconnected from reality, the kind of moment fans celebrate because, like Wood, they have no idea what it's like to win the biggest game of their lives.



Blame game

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Carlos Marmol had a horrible April that extended into May before he lost his closer job last week. If you ask most fans, they would probably say he is the main reason the Cubs went 8-15 in April, and stood at 10-17 going into Sunday's game.

It is hard to argue that point of view. If Marmol had been perfect in every appearance, the Cubs would have finished April 12-11 and would have been 15-12 going into Sunday. Not great, but a winning team.

I wouldn't stick my neck out too far to defend Marmol, but he shouldn't get all the blame for the bad start that all of us were expecting from the Cubs. His blown saves and bad appearances have had the ironic effect of making the Cubs look like contenders in an "if only..." sort of way.

The Cubs are not so good that a few saves would make all the difference. I'm not saying they can't become contenders, even this year. But, they have had more problems than Marmol can take the blame for. The bullpen has been scattershot, with James Russell and Scott Maine the two most consistent relievers--and Maine had to be sent down to make room for guys who were out of options. Kerry Wood has been particularly ineffective and typically absent. 

The offense has little power and scored five or more runs in only seven of 27 games going into Sunday. There have been some great moments of two-out hitting and innings where the Cubs effectively string together singles to score runs, but more often they look a lot like the Cubs offense of last year. The defense also at times has looked as porous as it was last year.

The best thing about the Cubs obviously has been the starting rotation, even though they have yet to get a win out of Chris Volstad. The starters are keeping games tight into the late innings, which is the mark of a winner in the making. Also, since Marlon Byrd was shipped out, and Tony Campana came back up the whole line-up has seemed more aggressive on the bases.

There is reason to hope the Cubs can bounce back from a bad April, but it will take more than faith in Russell and Rafael Dolis as replacements for Marmol, just as it was not only Marmol's fault that the Cubs sputtered out of the gate.

Not the cruelest month

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Here are a few White Sox highlights from the first month of the season:

-Phil Humber pitched a perfect game.
-Jake Peavy pitched two complete games and went 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA. He pitched well enough to go 5-0 for the month.
-Adam Dunn had five homeruns and 16 RBI.
-Alex Rios hit .311 for the month.
-A.J. Pierzynski had four homeruns, 17 RBI and hit .309 for the month.
-The Sox won a series against division-favorite (and World Series-favorite, according to most people) Detroit.

Given our uncertainty before the season started, how could we possibly ask for more? Several players we were worried about being a liabilities have responded. If you didn't know better, you would say the highlights above belonged to a first-place, 18-4 team.

As it stands, the Sox spent a day or two in first place during April, and were running a close second as the month ended. Their record for April was a bland (like Robin Ventura) 11-11. Again, any of us would have been glad to be handed that first-month fate on Opening Day. But, the highlights suggest greater potential.

The Sox have two main problems right now. One is a disjointed, inconsistent offensive effort that has kept them out of a few winnable low-scoring games featuring masterful efforts by their starting rotation. The other is a shaky closer. Hector Santiago gave up as many homeruns in a month--four in just 7.1 innings--as some great closers give up in a season.

The offensive inconsistency could be traced in part to the handful of player who didn't get the memo about starting the season in strong fashion, though even some of these dreary performances come with a slight upside:

-Gordon Beckham is playing his customary role hitting below .200, though he showed signs of life in the foggy first game of May against Cleveland last night.
-Brent Morel, who had a great sprint training stretch, opened horribly, hitting below .200. He had just 13 hits in April, though he managed to score 11 runs and did have eight hits in his last eight games of the month.
-Brent Lillibridge has not been the super-sub he was last season, though he does lead the team with six stolen bases.
-Dayan Viciedo is hitting just .211, though he has flashed a little bit of power with three homeruns.
-Alexei Ramirez is hitting .207. There not really an upside here, except we know he always starts slowly.

The closer situation, while annoying, is not completely dire because the Sox have a lot of options. Yes, this is exactly what I said last season before every single option dissolved before our eyes, but it's new season right?

All of this makes me believe the Sox could finish May with a slight winning record.

Baby steps.



Perfect story for a perfect game

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I'm slogging through a weekend full of work, and haven't had much time to say anything about Phil Humber's perfect game yesterday. I don't know that I have anything original to add to the conversation in this brief post, but what I love about this particular gem is that it was one of those games that was so unexpected, and came with a great back story: A former first round pick who never realized his potential used probably his last Mulligan to barely make a team last year with a great pitching coach who saw something worth saving.

A fast start last year led to a decent, but unremarkable 2011 season for Humber, and more than a few of us probably wondered if that was all he had left. Maybe that's why this USA Today story on Humber's perfect game focuses on how he apparently is just another nobody who got lucky (and if you watch enough replays of the half-swing and dropped third strike, you may feel the same).

But the thing about no-hitters, perfect games and baseball glory in general is that you don't always have to be someone like Babe Ruth or Greg Maddux to do something truly great. Maddux never had a perfect game. A lot of the greatest pitchers never had perfect games. Sometime the stars align for those who try their hardest, sometimes they don't.

Maybe Humber got a little bit lucky, as all pitchers of perfect games do (just ask Mark Buehrle and DeWayne Wise). Maybe the real story here isn't perfection, but perseverance.


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