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April 2011 Archives

Managers in trouble?

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I'm really beginning to think Mike Quade is in over his head as Cubs manager. It's a strange thing to realize about a guy we saw managing the team so well late last season. You certainly can't tell from just looking at the score of today's 10-8 Cubs victory over the Dodgers, and you can't tell when you look at the Cubs 10-10 record, which is as good as anyone could have expected for April.

But, there have been some moments of either indecisive hesitancy or situational brain-farts from Quade in numerous games this season. Some of them have involved pitching--for example, under-using Kerry Wood, who has appeared in only seven of 20 games, and over-using Jeff Samardzija, who has 14 walks in 11 innings, and Marcus Mateo, who has appeared in more games than any ther Cubs pitcher at 11, yet has an 8.64 ERA.

Quade also has tended to leave struggling Ryan Dempster on the mound for too long. He did it in Dempster's first three outings this season--though he did yank Dempster in time to get a 5-4 win in Houston--and did it again today, allowing Dempster to pitch into the sixth inning and give up seven runs, when it was pretty obvious after a three-run fifth inning, and even more obvious after giving up the game-tying to open the sixt,h that Dempster was done for the day,

But, that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that Quade had an obvious opportunity in which to send a pinch hitter out for Dempster in the bottom of the fifth, when the Cubs had the bases loaded with two outs and a chance to pad a 5-4 lead. Dempster, whose hitting chops should never be confused with Carlos Zambrano's, should never have come up to the plate. Naturally, he struck out, despite the best effort of a Dodger reliever to walk him by running the count to 3 and 2.

What was Quade thinking? Maybe he wants to give Dempster the benefit of the doubt and help him work out of a tough start to his season by letting him try to work deeper into the game, but that still doesn't forgive whiffing on a textbook situation for deploying a pinch hitter in a close game.

What ultimately counts today is that the Cubs had an amazing comeback win. But, if that's what it's going to take for the Cubs to maintain a .500, Quade better start consulting his textbook more often.

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I'm increasingly worried about Ozzie Guillen, too. Some may believe he is unlikely to be fired after gettng a one-year extension not long ago, but a White Sox team with first place talent is now 8-13--and it's not a good, hitting-the-ball-hard, pitching-well-just-not-good-enough 8-13.

The Sox are flat in every facet of the game, and what's worse is that Ozzie has already been through his whole we-stink, they-can-fire-me-if-they-want diatribe, and the Sox have not responded. A number of hitters are slumping big-time, starting with new arrival Adam Dunn, and the pitching has been no better, with the starters trying to out-do the bullpen in a race to see who can embarrass themselves the most on the mound.

The American League Central Division looks turned upside down, with the Indians and the Royals fighting over first place, and the Sox and Twins fighting over last, with the Tigers in between. Maybe that can't last, but if the Sox come out of April five or six games under .500, or worse, they will need more than some interleague luck this year to win the division. They wll not only have to beat the Twins, which they failed to do last year, but they will have to make up some victories in Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit, where they have lost two in a row in lifeless fashion.

Maybe Ozzie isn't going anywhere, but if his tough love and energy can't get a reaction from his team, it's a good bet the Sox aren't going anywhere either.

The Cubs have won two extra-inning affairs in a row after this afternoon's 11-inning 2-1 victory over the Padres courtesy of a Reed Johnson homerun. It should have been a 1-0 victory in regulation and Matt Garza's first win as a Cub, but Carlos Marmol was in his usual early-season form and blew the save.

Anyway, the win put the Cubs in a tie for first place with the Reds with a 9-8 record. They are trying for their first three game winning streak this year tonight in standard-issue 40-degree April weather in the game postponed from last night--and currently losing as I write this 4-2.

Spending a few hours in first place may help the Wrigley faithful--including my two young nephews--get through a cold evening tonight with smiles on their faces, but we probably shouldn't get used to it being at the top of the standings.

There are some reasons to think the Cubs could contend--they have been tough in one-run games, the top of the order has been hitting well, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez have started strong. You could also argue that a least two current minuses--the starting rotation and Carlos Pena--are really pluses in waiting, Once the rotation gets warmed up and Pena actually hts a few homers, things could brighten up.

But... let's not go there yet. Milwaukee and Cincinnati have both looked overwhemlingly good in stretches this season, and you can still make the argument that the Cubs are 9-8 thanks to a very soft schedule--with the exception of the National League-best Colorado Rockies, to whom the Cubs lost two of three.

If the Cubs are still in first place July 1, I'll be the first one to warm up the bandwagon.

 

9th inning blues

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The White Sox bullpen has blown six of its last seven save opportunities, and combined with a sudden spate of errors, in the outfield in particular (and by Juan Pierre, to be even more particular), this team that a good number of people picked to finish first in the central division is looking just awful.

They lost 7-4 today after leading 4-1 going into the 9th inning, and if not for a couple extra inning wins, they would have a 5-7 record instead of sitting at 7-5. The Sox are on the right side of the ledger, and it's still early, which is something the growing number of boo-birds should remember--though I will not dispute their right to boo, a right Sox fans have been known to embrace when the mood strikes.

Yet, the Sox and especially manager Ozzie Guillen look like they have no real answers right now to growing crises around the bullpen and defense. What can you do when your nly defensve replacement for Juan Pierre is Mark Teahen? What can you do when a proven set-up man, Matt Thornton, can't handle the job any better than the youngster, Chris Sale, who looked so good closing last year, but is giving up hits by the bundle now?

Not even the offense seems to have the punch it had the first couple games of the season, though hitters have shown obvious improvement over last year, and mostly have scored what seemed like enough runs to win before the game was handed to the pen.

The Sox just look hapless, like the Cubs at their worst, like they are allergic to the idea of winning. It's just a little funk they have found themselves in at the beginning of the season, but the thing is, Guillen's job may depend on how long the funk lasts and how strong the Sox look after they come out of it. It's a delicate year for the Sox and Guillen. The Sox look like they have the makings of a great teams, but Guillen is at the end of his contract, and GM Kenny Williams may not think twice about dropping him if this team doesn't play up to its potential.

I can't say I'd argue with anything Guillen has done this year. He has simply relied on guys to play their roles and do their jobs. The other night, I was hoping he would leave Mark Buehrle in for the 9th, just because Buehrle was some dominant right to the end and was barely up to 100 pitches, yet Guillen's logic for saving Buehrle's arm for later in the season was sound. Pierre's 9th inning error may have been the most glaring mistake, but Thornton let the lead-off man get on with a double.

Today, John Danks pitched a great game, but seemed to be at his limit ending the 8th. Going to Jesse Crain might have been the alternative to starting the 9th with Sale, but Crain has never been a closer, and both Sale and Thornton have that experience.

If these guys don't start doing their jobs, Guillen's job may be at stake.

Pain, no gain

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Is appendicitis catching? Because it sure seems to be going around. That sounds like something Yogi Berra might say, but it could be a relevant question after the White Sox' Adam Dunn became the second big-name player (after the Cards' Matt Holliday) to require an emergency appendectomy in less than a week.

Dunn supposedly will be back within a week. That's good news, because he's off to a solid start, though through the first week of play, the Sox offense surprisingly has not lacked for contributors, so Dunn can afford a few days off.

I'm heading out into the fog later to join my friend the Commish for yet another White Sox home opener. Even if an offense powered by Paul Konerko, and the resurgent Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham, doesn't miss Dunn, we will--we sit in right field just behind the patio, which seems like a great place to nab a Dunn homerun. But, there will be plenty of chances this summer.

The Sox are 3-2, and I will be honest: After the first two games, I started envisioning them being 5-0 heading into the home opener. But, 3-2 is just fine in the early going. The pitching, both on the front end and back end, has been a bit shaky, but as long as the Sox keep pace with division-leading Kansas City (yes, it's early), that's all we need out of these first couple weeks.

The Cubs have their own injury problems, with Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells both going on the DL after their first starts. Did anyone imagine that cutting Carlos Silva would come back to bite the Cubs this early in the season? Silva was acting like a nutcase, though I wouldn't have been surprised to see the Cubs keep him in the bullpen with a promise of possible future starts and send down Marcos Mateo. The fat man who wouldn't take a minor league demotion is surely laughing now, though he probably doesn't have much else to do sitting at home in his living room.

The injuries aren't a big deal, we have been told, because they are happening early and both pitchers are sure to return soon. I'll but that, though life with the Cubs never turns out to be as simple as advertised. The potential silver lining is that the likely replacements--Casey Coleman, Thomas Diamond, maybe Sean Marshall (?)--have some big league experience.

The Cubs are 3-3, which is on pace with our expectations. There have been unexpected bright spots, like quick starts at the plate for Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, but I was reminded this morning that the Cubs started 3-3 against the two worst teams of last season. As usual, it's difficult to feel confident about what comes next.

 

Opening Day

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Opening Day looks pretty dismal weather wise for both the Cubs at Wrigley and the White Sox in Cleveland. Let's hope the outcomes are brighter, both today and at the end of the season.

I've given a lot of thought to how both are teams will finish this year. Here's how I see it.

Cubs:

I would say my opinion of the Cubs at the start of spring training was that they were a .500 or barely sub-.500 club. In the weeks since, that opinion has shifted lower, then surged higher, and as of this week was pretty much back to where it started. It seems like not many people know what to make of the Cubs, which usually results in predictions of an 81-81 record. I'll climb aboard with that.

The Cubs could easily end up worse if question mark players like Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez fail to deliver, but I think the energy that could be supplied by Starlin Castro, Marlon Byrd and Mike Quade, among others, could balance out any slumps. I see a team that could start strong--unlike Team Lou that last couple years--and be in first place discussions at the All-Star break, but ultimately take a back seat to better teams like the Reds and the Brewers. I think 81-81 is good enough for third place, though I wouldn't be surprised to find the Cardinals just ahead of the Cubs, pushing them into fourth.

My predictions for team leaders:

Homeruns: Pena, 33 --Let's not discuss batting average, but he should be a lock for at least 30 HRs.

RBIs: A-Ram, 95 --Probably a bit ambitious. I think Pena could walk a lot, and with him and/or Castro setting the table for Aramis, he could still got a lot of RBIs even if he misses 20 games.

Batting Average: Castro, .315. He is the real deal.

Stolen bases: Castro, 20 --Will the Cubs run or not? Seems to be one of the big questions, but spring training suggested not.

Wins: Carlos Zambrano, 16 --Surprised? I'm sure this is foolish, but I believe he'll bounce back and nudge ahead of Ryan Dempster in this category.

Strikeouts: Ryan Dempster, 215 --I think the Cubs' staff could lead the league in this category.

ERA and Saves: Carlos Marmol, 2.20, 45 --I know it's obvious. He had a shaky spring, but I think will have his best season yet.

MVP: Kerry Wood --Maybe a sentimental vote being cast here, but Wood seems comfortable back with the Cubs and his role as set-up man could be key to the Cubs reaching 81 wins.

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White Sox:

I was pumped at this time last year. The Sox looked to be storng at almost every position, and the pitching staf top to bottom looked like the best in the American League. And, during one fantastic stretch, they did everything right. Alas, the bullpen, stacked on paper, ultimately collapsed, Jake Peavy fizzled, Gavin Floyd had problems, Gordon Beckham spent half the season underwater, and Mark Teahen was a bust.

Even with the addition of Adam Dunn, I don't think the Sox now look as good as they did last April, but maybe that's just fine. The line-up looks pretty good, though I'm wondering when the questions about Brent Morel will start. The starting rotation, with the exception of Peavy, looks solid, and the bullpen, while a far cry from what last year's looked like on paper, has some decent veterans and one very intriguing rookie.

A lot of people seem to think the American League Central will be a tough fight, maybe once again down to the final day an beyond. Yet, I think the Sox have far fewer questions than Minnesota, which has a blah rotation and bullpen and major question around the health of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan. Third base could also be an error-probe psoition for them. Detroit, meanwhile, has two great hitters in Mique Cabrera and Victor Martinez, one great starting pitcher in Justin Verlander and not much else. Their set-up man, Joaquin Benoit, was great for Tampa last year, but I don't get why they are even being talked about for first plav

My prediction: The Sox will win the division with a 90-72 record and won't need a Game 163 to do it. I am not going beyond that to predict anything else--catch up with me at mid-season. The Twins, of course, will be second with something like 86 wins, and my surprise pick for third place is the Royals with 85.

My predictions for team leaders:

Homeruns: Dunn, 42 --Sorry, Paulie. Dunn will be striking out a ton, but will deliver the tape measure shots those of us who sit in right field are hoping for.

RBIs: Dunn, 105 --Juan Pierre and Gordon Beckham will give him a lot of opportunities.

Batting average: Paul Konerko, .300 --I think Paulie will have another strong year, not quite like last season. I see Alex Rios, Beckham and a couple others right behind him in abusy Sox line-up.

Stolen bases: Pierre, 65 --This is what they call a no-brainer.

Wins: John Danks, 20 --He has improved each of the last three years, and is ready for his biggest step. 

Strikeouts: Danks, 200 --Big jump from last year, but like I said--big step.

ERA: Edwin Jackson, 3.05 --Camp Cooper will do wonders for him. I think Danks' ERA will be a little higher just because he'll be trusted a bit deeper into games.

Saves: Matt Thornton, 28 --I'll qualify this by sayung I think Chris Sale will close some games and get around 10-12 saves himself.

MVP: Ozzie Guillen --There will no doubt be controversy and questions, but Guillen's decisiveness with moves like taking an extra position player and leaving the pitching staff at 11 and the related move of keeping Lastings Milledge will be difference makers.

 

 

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