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March 2009 Archives

Marmol update

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Paul Sullivan's Cubs Bits in the Chicago Tribune mentioned today that Carlos Marmol didn't take his expected turn in relief yesterday because he appeared in a minor league game instead.

I haven't found a report on what he did in that game, but the Trib also had quotes from Lou that seemed to suggest he was letting Marmol off the hook for his bad outing Thursday. That was the day in which all of the Cactus League faced some harsh valley winds--probably the same ones pushing a spring snowstorm toward Chicago at the moment.

Anyway, Lou plans to make his official decision on a closer by tomorrow, but Kevin Gregg looks to have a lock on it.

Closing thoughts on spring

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I just watched my two favorite teams go head-to-head, with the Cubs beating the White Sox 9-4. The Cubs took three out of four from the Sox this spring, though of course, these things must be kept in perspective during spring training.

There were arguably three things notable about the game: First, it was Kosuke Fukudome's first game with the Cubs after his stint with WBC repeat champs Japan. He did not do much in the WBC, and though reports out of Arizona yesterday made it sound like he is better conditioned and in a better mood than he seemed to be last year, at the plate he looked roughly like the Fukie of around early July last year: Not like he could do whatever he wanted, but also not completely lost. He did go 1-4 and scored a run.

The second and third notable items have to do with closers. Bobby Jenks again pitched a scoreless inning for the Sox, which I think brings him to 7 IP this spring with a 0.00 ERA (I added his inning today to the stats in the only had the stats updated through yesterday). He's been looking generally better with each appearance. His hits given up--6, I think (accurate spring stats are sometime hard to come by)--and walks--at least 4--do not engender a great deal of confidence, but seems to stick to the story of Bobby's recent career trend of starting trouble, but ending it before damage is done.

The final notable item is a noteworthy absence. With Lou Piniella about to decide his closer (it may be happening as I write this, so I'll follow up later), there was an expectation we would see shaky Carlos Marmol pitch both yesterday and today. He did pitch yesterday, but not today, and it wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest that Lou made up his mind after seeing Marmol blow a save in yesterday's shortened game against the Giants, giving up a 2-run double to former (and forever) member of the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox, Aaron Rowand.

It was the latest in a string of troubling outings for Marmol, who had hit 5 batters and given up 6 hits in 8 IP since coming back to the Cubs after the WBC, even while striking out 10 and walking 1. Then there was the WBC fiasco: Marmol couldn't decide whether or not to pitch in the WBC, and then went and gave up the game-losing run that knocked his Dominican Republic team out of the tournament. The indecision itself was the latest thing that made me wonder about Marmol, even before he came back to the Cubs and posted a 4.50 ERA in a handful of outings. Indecision = lack of confidence, a closer's worst nightmare.

So, I'm fully expecting Lou to name Kevin Gregg the closer. Gregg has had a brilliant spring (Here's the Marmol-Gregg comparison through yesterday), though he was not used in any actual save situations this spring (Marmol at least had one save opp, yesterday's blown chance). Save opportunities, though, are pretty hard to come by in the spring, when teams are scoring 16 runs a game with regularity. Still, Gregg has had 0.00 ERA in 8.1 IP, 10 strikeouts and 2 walks. Gregg as the closer is not a bad thing, though it makes me wish again that the Cubs had just kept Kerry Wood and kept Marmol firmly entrenched as the set-up man. You have to wonder now if Marmol's implosion this spring will lead some shakiness when the games really matter.

Here come the Cubs

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According to many observations, the Cubs are basically being handed first place in the National League Central and being told, "Don't screw it up." The key to their whole season will be not to believe any of those observations, and at the same time, not to think about October at all until, say, October.

I'm not surprised so many people are picking the Cubs to win the division again. They have won it two years running, and no other team in their division has upgraded enough to challenge them. Of course, the second part remains to be seen once the season begins. Milwaukee lost its two best starters, and didn't upgrade anywhere else except at closer, and you can argue that Trevor Hoffman's best days are in the past. St. Louis didn't do much either, picking up Khalil Greene at shortstop, but they have a couple great, young arms in the bullpen that will mature this year, and Chris Carpenter is back. Houston, likewise, didn't do too much.

The problem, however, is that all three of those other teams finished at least 10 games above .500 last season. That may show how truly great the Cubs were in '08, but it also shows how good the whole division was. None of those three teams really got any worse during the off-season, though Milwaukee lost the single most talented player in CC Sabbathia. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, a loser last year, did get better, obtaining a good-hitting catcher in Ramon Hernandez and dumping a poor-fielding, free-swinging power hitter in Adam Dunn, while holding onto a very strong core of young players.

So, I think there are really five teams in the play-off contest in the N.L. Central. The Cubs may not only have a hard time winning 97 games again, they also will have a hard time winning the division, but they are certainly capable of doing it.

Here's my prediction for the 2009 starting line-up:

LF Alfonso Soriano
CF Kosuke Fukudome/2B Ryan Theriot (against lefties)
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Milton Bradley
C Geovany Soto
2B Mike Fontenot
SS Ryan Theriot/CF Reed Johnson (against lefties)

Lou Piniella's big ambition this spring (other than the since-forgotten idea of moving Soriano down in the line-up) is to create a line-up that makes better us of lefties. That issue may be the only thing keeping Fukie as a starter as the season begins. If he tanks, expect to see an increase in Joey Gathright sightings, though Lou may also just give up on the commitment to lefties and give Johnson the job he probably deserves anyway.

Looking at the line-up, it's obvious the Cubs did not make any of the trades that we suggested last fall, but they did make some deals. They signed a trouble-making, injury-prone hitting-machine named Milton Bradley. I wonder how many plate appareance they will get out of him--I'll be surprised at more than 500. They jettisoned good guy, multi-position wonder Mark DeRosa for, well, for practically nothing as it turns out. They signed 2B/SS Aaron Miles, who now seems like an after-thought with Fontenot having already basically won the 2B starting job-but still a good pick up considering that they also did part with Ronny Cedeno.

What else? They of course parted with Kerry Wood to give Carlos Marmol or new acquisition Kevin Gregg a shot at closer. They dumped Bobby Howry and Michael Wuertz. They picked up speed by signing Gathright, though Gathright's bat is questionable. They lost a quality-hitting, strong-fielding back-up catcher in Henry Blanco, and it's still unclear whether Koyie Hill or free agent signing Paul Bako can pick up the slack, though both reportedly have been good handling the pitching staff. Finally, though not lastly, they sent Jason Marquis packing, giving Sean Marshall, Jeff Samarzdija, free agent signing Aaron Heilman and others a shot at the No. 5 starter job, a job that Marshall seems to have won.

Put all those deals together, and I think you more or less come out even. I still think they essentially downgraded at closer just as Wood was getting comfortable for either a guy who is emotionally unstable (Marmol) or just not as good (Gregg). They lost a very useful, loose dugout guy and increasingly good hitter (DeRosa), but his right-handed bat made him expendable, and picking up two quality switch-hitters (Bradley and Miles) makes up for the loss (and switch-hitter are always favorites of SBW). Meanwhile, Marshall may finally be ready for primetime as the No. 5 mound man.

Speaking of mound men, how about this potential pitching staff:

SP Carlos Zambrano
SP Ryan Dempster
SP Ted Lilly
SP Rich Harden
SP Sean Marshall

RP Jeff Samarzdija
RP Carlos Marmol
RP Kevin Gregg
RP Aaron Heilman
RP Chad Gaudin
RP Neal Cotts
RP Luis Vizcaino

Cotts may have to make it because he's the only lefty in the pen, though I wonder if the Cubs will perhaps trade Vizcaino, Angel Guzman or Kevin Hart for a southpaw to take the spot that might otherwise go to Vizcaino. Except for the closer issue, I think the pitching staff looks good. I don't like Gregg as a possible closer, and he may not be as good a set-up man as Marmol, but he's an obvious upgrade from the fading Howry. Heilman didn't do well in the Mets' pen, but looks great this spring. Among the starters, Marshall is poised for a great year. Harden has been treated with kid gloves this spring and would probably be better as the sparingly-used fifth starter than Marshall.

There's no reason to expect anything worse or better than 2008 from the other three: Zambrano probably will be good between his implosions, Dempster may fall back a bit, but has now proved himself as a starter, and Lilly is still the most reliable pitcher the Cubs have.

What this all adds up to when throw in another utility man here and there (Micah Hoffpauir, maybe Sam Fuld or Jake Fox) is probably a first place team--but not by much. Lee's bat could become a concern, and Soriano, who supposedly will be running more this year, will have to be watched closely. Theriot and Fontenot right now look better than last year, and Bradley is a real threat is he stays healthy. No reason to expect Soto to drop off, and Fukie will either bounce back or be a non-factor by May.

My prediction for the Cubs is first place, maybe 90-72. At worst, I think they'll get the wild card if Milwaukee, St. Louis or Houston manages some magic. My hope is for a World Series, but as good as the team looks, I don't think they look any better prepared for a best-of-five play-off series than they were last year. That doesn't mean they won't do it, but if there's a reason that they can do it this year after going 0-6 in the postseason the last two years, Lou and his players may need to rummage around in their own heads to find it.

Just getting started

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I have been false-starting posts all winter as the Cubs and White Sox made and failed to make various moves, but every time I did, something derailed me, whether it was actual paying work, the mediocrity of the Bulls and the Bears (both the Wall Street version and the football verson)demanding my attention, or my newest obsession, a little column called Fantasy Fix, over at The Beachwood Reporter.

But, finally, someone is prodding me about getting started, and maybe that's all I needed.

There is too much ground to cover in one sitting, so let's begin by looking back at some fun we had last fall trying to predict the Sox and Cubs line-ups for this spring. In both cases, we assumed too many off-season moves. Not that we expected the moves to really happen, but as a fan, I guess you always hope for more off-season business than actually gets done.

Let's start with the Sox, and pick up the Cubs in the next post. Here's what we described back in November as a likely version of the Sox line-up:

CF Taveras
SS Ramirez
LF Quentin
DH Thome
RF Dye
1B Konerko
C A.J.
2B Getz
3B Fields or Uribe

So, we didn't get Willy Taveras, who ended up in Cincinnati. Uribe, who had managed to stick around like a barnacle, is gone. Everyone else is in play. The most interesting conundrums are at second base and third base. At second, there's Getz, but also Jayson Nix, Brent Lillibridge, Wilson Betemit, even the awesomely powerful Gordon Beckham, who would move from his natural shortstop position. At third, Betemit and Dayan Viciedo are in the mix with Fields.

I like Beckham's and Viciedo's to make the opening day roster, but I don't know if both of them can. Maybe neither will. Beckham has been impressive but may just be getting a long look. He's been both patient and aggressive at the plate, though Ozzie still seems uncommitted. Viciedo is getting every chance to become another Cuban Missile, but seems one-dimensional so far--albeit that one dimension is a nice power stroke.

The outfield hasn't changed much, as Jerry Owens and DeWayne Wise probably will stick around, and challenge Brian Anderson in center field. CF is still a question mark for the Sox, but the question seems to become less emphatic each passing season that Anderson, Owens and whatever other speedster du jour is on the roster (now Wise) show up for spring training. Still, I really would have liked Taveras to be the answer.

Among pitchers, Jose Contreras surprisingly is still around and looking good this pring, and new signee Bartolo Colon introduces some interesting options, but the Sox will of course have to watch him closely. Clayton Richard, Jeff Marquez and Lance Broadway are getting a chance.

With all that in mind, here's my new look at the 2009 line-up and starters:

CF Owens
SS Ramirez
LF Quentin
DH Thome
RF Dye
C A.J.
1B Konerko
3B Fields
2B Getz

SP Buehrle
SP Floyd
SP Danks
SP Contreras
SP Richard

RP Marquez
RP Colon
RP Jenks
RP Linebrink
RP Dotel
RP Thornton
RP Broadway

I like Owens to beat out Anderson in CF. I think despite appearances, 2B is Getz' job to lose, and that the Sox don't want to rush Beckham to the majors even if he's fantastic. Same with Viciedo. Fields was terrible during spring training 2008, but has been better this spring.

Among SPs, there are thorny decisions to be made. Three lefties starting? Also, Contreras was not expected to be a factor, and I think the Sox can't write off the World Series vet quite yet. I think Colon could make the roster as a project, maybe even starting out on the disabled list. Marquez has been good so far, and perhaps could still take a starter job that otherwise looks like it belongs to Richard. I think Aaron Poreda is bound for the farm, but will be on speed dial. Same with Carrasco.

So, how will these regulars do? Can they do their half of the job in trying to bring us our dream of a Windy City World Series? We admit last year may have been the rare time when that looked possible for a while. This year, the A.L. Central could really tighten up. The Sox proved last year that you can never count them out, even if you have to extend the season.

This year, I see some fading punch in this line-up, starting pitching with potential, some speed and good defense on the bench, and a bullpen with an increasingly shaky closer and a few other live arms. I think the Sox are good for second place, maybe 86-76, with a shot at first if Cleveland isn't good enough, the Twins are no better, and Detroit and Kansas City fall short in their seeming improvement. No Game 163 this year, for better or worse, and no chance at a Wild Card, which is permanently attached to the American League East.

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