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Weaknight showdown

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There is not much to look forward to as the first battle in the Crosstown Classic series starts at The Cell tonight. Last year, the White Sox were on a winning streak and an impressive month-long run that went on to fuel division title hopes until mid-September (the Cubs ended their streak at 11 games in the series finale). The Cubs, meanwhile, were already falling apart, well out of first, but still creating headlines with speculation about Lou Piniella's job and Carlos Zambrano's uncontrollable rage.

Perhaps it's fitting that Zambrano returns to the scene of the crime tonight in the series opener. Last year's tirade had many assuming Zambrano would be traded or let go, but instead he went off to anger management and became a new man, at least until he recently criticized Carlos Marmol, disrespected Mike Quade and apparently tried to conduct an interview during this past Saturday afternoon's game with Fox field reporter Ken Rosenthal. After the recent shenanigans, I think Z's about ready for another blowout.

So, perhaps the series is worth watching to see how far Zambrano walks down the plank. Other than that, the Sox beat a good Arizona team two out of three over the weekend. If they beat the Cubs two out of three or sweep, they'll have the chance to push over .500 this weekend. But, their inability to beat the Tigers and Twins recently has me less excited than I was last year about a possible mid-season run.

The Cubs beat a streaking Milwaukee team three out of four, but barely escaped a visit from the Yankees with a win in their pockets. The Cubs are providing some exciting moments, but nothing worth a long-term emotional investment.

The worst part about this year's crosstown series is that the Cup won't be there--the Stanley Cup, I mean. Unfortunately, that stupid BP Cup will be in attendance.

If you haven't slammed the Cubs yet today, you are way behind. Carlos Zambrano did so yesterday, with comments that were 90% correct and refreshing to hear, and 10%--but a hard to overlook 10%--selfish and mean.

Today, Bob Brenly, in mostly agreeing with Zambrano's comments, called the Cubs a "dead-ass team." Again, it's an accurate call, though if it were Steve Stone talking, he would have been fired 30 seconds after he said that. It will be interesting to see what happens to Brenly. Maybe he can go over Jim Hendry's head to Tom Ricketts and convince the owner that Brenly himself would be a better manager than Mike Quade.

Zambrano, who continues to pitch almost better than he ever has, called out his team after another missed opportunity yesterday vs. the Cardinals. He was right to do it, but I suspect he was motivated more by his own annoyance at losing a W for his personal record than anything else. I have no way of knowing for sure, of course--I'm just making an assumption based on past poor behavior, and don't tell me there is a lack of that.

He also criticized the pitch choice of Carlos Marmol, who blew the save yesterday when Ryant Theriot (et tu, The-Riot?) doubled in the tying run. Zambrano morphed into Sparky Anderson, and said Marmol should have thrown a fastball instead of a slider because everyone apparently knows Theriot isn't a fastball hitter (though he seemed to do nicely with one earlier in the game on an opposite-field single).

I don't know about that. Maybe there's case for Zambrano's line of thinking. However, Marmol's best pitch is the slider, and he still had a ball to give away on a 2-2 count, which suggests one of his patented tailing-away sliders would be a good choice. Also, callng out your closer on a single pitch he threw is just bad form--would Zambrano like to hear the same from Marmol every time he walks a guy?

Marmol has blown two saves in a row, and I think's he's going through his typically mid-season swoon more than anything else. His real problem was letting a guy on base in the first place, a game he plays often, but usually wins.

What's forgotten amid all the criticism is that the Cubs almost took 2 of 3 from the division leaders. They got swept instead, which is not to be easily forgiven. If you are going to criticize anything, it should be the lackluster offensive effort. Hitters gave up both days and were swinging early and often.

I agree with Brenly that some players seem indifferent. In Zambrano's case, it might sounds like he cares too much, but to some extent, his comments--and his reaction following his recent bat-breaking incident--show that his main issue is his apparent disrespect for Quade.

If Quade has lost control of the team, now 11 games under .500, that is a problem, and Ricketts or Hendry should deal with it in some way. I would still be mosty against firing him unless Brenly or Bobby V. or the ghost of Leo Durocher has some kind of sure-fure instant fix in mind.

But, again the evidence is mounting for the Cubs to back up the truck early this year. Unload Zamrbrano while you can--he is playing great, and seems more likely than ever to agree to be traded. Send Aramis Ramirez packing, and maybe Alfonso Soriano, too, when he comes off the DL. I could see at least one top-tier majors-ready prospect coming in for each of them. If Hendry doesn't want to do that, then Ricketts should unload Hendry, too, and find a GM who is ready to begin rebuilding now rather than at the end of this year.

Recent success has taught Cubs fans to expect to win. It won't be happening much this year, so let's just see if more of these kids can play, and in the meantime get started on building a team, a management structure and an attitude that will bring us a competitive team next year.

Spring training isn't over yet, but I just don't have Mike Quade's patience when it comes to making final roster decisions--or for being level-headed amid disastrous performance. With that in mind, here's my partial assessment of spring training heroes and zeroes thus far for the Cubs, in a language you social media-loving kids will find easy to understand (my White Sox review will follow shortly):

Starlin Castro: Like. Revive the hyperbole that greeted Castro's MLB debut in Cincinnati last season. With 4 HRs and 12 RBIs this spring while keeping his average consistently above .400, Castro is showing signs that he is ready to accept the probably unwanted mantle of being the Cubs' next big star. Is it too early to start planning where we will put his statue? How about at the corner of Aggressive Hitting and Poor Defense?

Carlos Zambrano: Like. Even-tempered? Check. Pitching well? Check. I reserve the right to click "Unlike" if either changes by May 1.

Carlos Silva: Unlike. He really should be gone by now, but the Cubs have a possibly misguided idea that keeping him on the staff will somehow project trade value upon him. Day by day, the out-of-shape, poor-performing, ill-tempered Silva is changing the assesment of the Milton Bradley trade from a clear win to a probable draw.

Blake DeWitt: Unlike. Seemed like a nice acquisition last year, but a pitiful spring has the Cubs rumored to be considering vet Luis Castillo, just released from the Mets.

Cubs starting pitchers: Like. Even though Silva didn't show up for the starting rotation battle, other starters have looked very good, and Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner have given little reason not to pick them as the fourth and fifth starters.

Andrew Cashner: Like. You can unlike the seven walks and 11 hits in 11 innings, but Cashner has been mostly effective. We'll see how we feel about him after he gets a spring training start.

Cubs defense: Unlike. The less said about this the better. Maybe a sign of the team's youth, but Aramis Ramirez in particular seems to be regressing.

Scott Moore: Like. Back in a Cubs during training uniform again after a brief stint in Baltimore, he is looking like a better back-up to Ramirez at third than DeWitt.

Wellington Castillo: Like.11 hits in 15 at-bats, and with the Cubs basically already out of contention, why not give him a longer tryout? Koyie Hill, by the way, is 1-for-24.

Tyler Colvin: Like. Another tentative endorsement. He is not exactly hitting everything in sight and defesne remains questionable, but you can tell the power storke is there.

Carlos Pena: Like. Ask me a week ago, and I would have felt differently, but Pena has slowly raised his average and found his homerun stroke.

Matt Garza: Like. Another slow starter who seems to be picking up the tempo, along with his pitch velocity.

Carlos Marmol: Unlike. Spring is just a tune-up, of course, but his propensity for walks is rearing its ugly head at a time when he should become the top closer in the majors. He's got about 10 days to get his head on straight.

Mike Quade: Like. Totally engaged and level-headed, though I would like to see him challenge his guys Ozzie-style on their defensive play and shoddy bullpen outings.

Jeff Samardzija, John Russell, John Gaub: Unlike.These guys all still look more like Quadruple A pitchers than big leaguers, which doesn't bode well for the future.




Wrigley Field East

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For some reason, the New York Yankees seem intent on assembling a team out for former Cubs.

First, they brought on Joe Girardi, who of course is also a former Yankee, as manager. Then, Kerry Wood came to NYC seemingly at the end of his rope, but revived his career as a solid set-up man. Next, the Yanks stole Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, whose pitching staffs in Chicago tended toward better than average, but never quite seemed to match his reputation as a star coach.

This week, there have been reports that the Yankees have signed Mark Prior to a minor league dealand would consider trading for Carlos Zambrano.

With the exception of Girardi, this sounds like a group of underachievers. But, knowing the Yankees, they will probably make it work and end up in the World Series again.

Good Carlos

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What's more rare than a Cubs win? A win by Carlos Zambrano. But, the rehabilitated hothead got one today, without throwing a temper tandrum and while only walking two batters. The Cubs beat the Cardinals 3-2 in St. Louis, where Zambrano usually rises to the occasion.

Zambrano's trajectory the last two months of the season may be one of the few things left about the Cubs that's worth watching. Can he finish strong and stay with the team next year, or will he only finish strong enough to get traded--perhaps even before the end of the season?

Meanwhile, Lou Piniella is back, and Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez both hit homeruns today, something that doesn't happen as often as it used to. I have to admit I'm mad at all three of them. Piniella could never get the Cubs started this year, and responded by announcing his retirement. Sorry to hear he has had family issues recently that caused him to miss games, but I wonder if he will continue to check out the rest of the season. Lee turned down a trade, and probably guaranteed himself a ticket out of Chicago next season that will bring the Cubs nothing in exchange. Ramirez wasted the first half of the season, and has had some of his usual bouts of injuries in between a few solid stretches, but I wonder if he too will be leaving.

The Baby Cubs are sometimes fun to watch, and they are getting great experience for next season. But, unfortunately, were all still stuck in this season.

So much to talk about, so little time...

--The White Sox have a 10-game winning streak, reportedly their longest since 1976 (?!), and everything is clicking. Even Gordon Beckham homered yesterday in the Sox-Cubs crosstown clash at The Cell. Excellent pitching and just enough hitting allowed the Sox to sweep the first-place Atlanta Braves earlier this week, which should convince many that the streak is for real, and not just a hot run against cold teams (though playing the Cubs twice in two weeks really helps).

--Carlos Quentin is still punishing pitchers, homering yesterday off Carlos Zambrano, but it's even better to see him driving singles up the middle and to the opposite field. It's 2008 all over again.

--Jake Peavy had his third straight strong outing, though again, two of those have been against the Cubs and the third against another the National League foe, so it remains to be seen if he can deliver against the American League.

--The Zambrano tirade is all over the place, so I won't get into the details, but his most recent meltdown into Zammy the Clown has many people demanding and believing that Zambrano's days are over as a Cub. How that will happen remains to be seen. The Cubs once again have held onto damaged goods for far too long, and (as with Milton Bradley) are forced to try to move a player who is suspended. Who will want him? (Even the Mets have to be shaking their heads...)

I'm not saying Zambrano didn't deserve to be suspended. It was the only remaining option. It's unfortunate because it leaves the already sad-sack Cubs a man down. And, it only reminds us that GM Jim Hendry should have tried to move Zambrano long ago, when teams like the Mets were still interested and their praise could have convinced Zambrano to wave his no-trade option.

I don't think Zambrano's days as a Cub are over. I think he will apologize and will be allowed to come back to the team--but only long enough for Hendry to move the once-promising (always promising, it seems) pitcher to another team, probably for a couple of iffy minor leaguers.

There are further implications to consider after this episode: Lou Piniella, I fear, has lost his team. They are not just bad, and behaving badly--they are unresponsive. With the exception of Marlon Byrd, who is a true gamer, they are a lackluster group. Zambrano's tirade yesterday apparently was aimed partly at Derrek Lee for not diving at a ball hit down the line by Juan Pierre, and while Lee's resume is impeccable and Zambrano's criticism questionable, Lee has not been the same strong fielder lately that he was earlier in the season and throughout his career. You could say the same of the entire error-prone group, of course.

The Cubs, like it or not, may be headed for a rebuilding. That project should start with Piniella's dismissal.

Lights out

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It's been a couple days since a power outage made the lights go out at Wrigley Field, but Cubs pitchers seem intent on maintaining the theme, as Ted Lilly, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol combined Thursday for the Cubs' second 1-0 shutout in three games.

The Cubs have a problem, and it's a great one to have--too many good starting pitchers. Tom Gorzelanny has pitched as well as anybody, and certainly better than Carlos Zambrano, yet all it took was one bad outing (though really it was more like just two bad innings) for the lefty to probably lose his starting spot to Zambrano. It's not fair to Gorzelanny, but we must assume that the Cubs will be shopping him as trade bait--unless Zambrano waves his no-trade clause and the Cubs can convince another team that the now former set-up man can still be an effective starter.

In the pen, Sean Marshall, having one of his most effective stretches as a Cub, appears to have solidified the wobbly eighth inning strategy, which actually could give the team reason to keep Gorzelanny to have another lefty option for other relief scenarios. However, it's also been reported that Andrew Cashner, who has been lights-out himself as a starter in the minors, has now been assigned to the bullpen. That seems to suggest a bullpen assignment with the big league club may not be far off.

Carlos Marmol has been better closing of late after a shaky but ultimately impressive outing in Texas last weekend, so from top to bottom, the Cubs pitching options are looking better by the day. We'll know when things aren't working again if Jeff Samardzija gets the call.


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It's been 10 busy days or so since my last post. Since then, the future of both Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen has been questioned, Carlos Zambrano received a ticket back to the starting rotation, Sox GM Kenny Williams has been asked if he will rush to the trading table, the Cubs signed Bob Howry (!) to solve the bullpen problems and interleague play has begun.

--I don't see either the Cubs or White Sox managers getting fired before the season is done, though I'd revisit that opinion for Guillen if the Sox find themselves in last place for a long stretch. If the Cubs remain sub-par it will only become more obvious that Piniella is keeping the manager's office warm for Ryne Sandberg next season (not that Sandberg would be the best choice), and barring his own desire to be done with the Cubs, Piniella should be around until the end of season no matter what happens.

--Williams has denied the Sox will rush to trade players like Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, though there is definitely a market for both of them. Assuming the Sox don't get any better, I'll bet at least A.J. is gone by the trade deadline. Maybe Andruw Jones, too, if he manaages to retain any of the value he had the first month of the season. But, once Kenny starts trading, will he stop at just one or two deals?

--Zambrano's imminent return to the starting rotation will end a strange, interesting, but ultimately misguided experiment. I now wonder two things: 1) Will Zambrano com back refreshed and thankful to be a starter, or further damaged? and 2) Is his return as a starter contingent upon some agreement with Jim Hendry that he will wave his no-trade clause if asked?

--Finally, we have Bob Howry... again. Howry was terrible with the Diamondbacks this year until he was recently released, and certainly doesn't look like a viable candidate to lock down the 7th or 8th innings that have been so much trouble for the Cubs. The only thing Howry may have going for him is that he usually gets better and stronger as the season goes on. Still, I'm guessing there will be at least a few painful outings before we get a sense if that will happen.

--Oh, yeah, interleague play: I think its okay, and kind of introduces a little variety at a time when the baseball season might otherwise settle into a routine pace. I think seeing the Sox play Florida (and win last night) is better than seeing them play more games against Cleveland and Kansas City. I fear seeing the Cubs play the stacked line-up of American League teams, but it may be better than having to face the Cardinals more often.

Z plot thickens

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In a shocking development, the Cubs are moving Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen. Zambrano had a horrible Opening Day in Atlanta, but has been decent since then. He pitched well enough in a 4-0 loss last night to win--the reason why the Cubs didn't win is pretty obvious from the final score.

Zambrano's arsenal and talent suggest he could be dominating in short stints, but that's the same reason he's been looked to as a starter. His weakness--emotional imbalance--seems to have mitigated since Zambrano said recently that he would stay cool this year. The thing is, it is not too hard to envision close-game bullpen situations bringing that weakness to the forefront again.

One thing is for certain: The Cubs have been killed not only by a lame line-up, but also by an awful bullpen. This move is Lou Piniella's answer.

Weekend update

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After their first weekend of play for the 2010 season, both are teams are 2-4, with line-ups on both sides of town still struggling mightily. The White Sox actually did manage five runs Sunday, the most either team has managed since the Cubs scored five in a hopeless effort back on Opening Day.

The Sox got a nice surprise from Andruw Jones Sunday in the form of an eighth inning game-winning hit that kept them from losing their fifth in a row and getting swept by the Piranhas. Paul Konerko had a two-run homer to continue his tear, and the Sox got solo shots from Mark Kotsay (finally make Ozzie look good for sticking with him) and Gordon Beckham, but Jones' pinch-hit single may have been the brightest moment for this team since Game 1.

Mark Buehrle also was good enough in holding the Twins to four runs over eight innings, keeping a somewhat taxed bullpen off the field.

The win came after a frustrating 2-1 Saturday loss in which a gutsy performance by Freddy Garcia's was wasted. The Sox had a number of scoring chances, but couldn't manage timely hits, and all the recent talk of aggressive base-running backfired at one point when Alex Rios, after his lead-off double, was doubled off of second on a fly ball out.

The Sox head north for a series in Toronto early this week, and it seems unlikely they will find their hitting touch in a dome (damn domes...), but at least they won't have to face Roy Halladay anymore.

The Cubs really should have won all three games in Cincinnati, yet they leave losing two out of three, and when they don't get sabotaged by their own bullpen, they can always count on Alfonso Soriano's clumsy fielding to do the job. On Sunday, Soriano's fumbling of a catchable fly ball in the seventh inning--while not extending the inning, since it would only have been the second out--changed the karma of a game in which Tom Gorzelanny had pitched very well.

After Soriano's error, and with the bases now loaded, Lou Piniella decided to take his anger out on Gorzelanny, removing the lefty for... another lefty, Sean Marshall. Still, Marshall has been dominant this past week, and we've been hoping he'd get the call more often, so the change wasn't a complete surprise. In any case, the karma had changed for the Cubs, and what we got next was a pure bad luck play in which a possible double-play grounder deflected off Marshall's glove and brought in the tying run.

The Reds scored two runs an inning later, and three runs is just too much for this Cubs team. The Cubs didn't do much hitting against rookie starter Mike Leake, with Kosuke Fukudome collecting three of the Cubs' five hits, but they didn't need to, as Leake awarded them seven walks. Still, except for an RBI single by Derrek Lee, the Cubs did nothing with the free runners. The worst was a waste of a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the first inning. So maybe a little of the bad karma was there from the beginning.

Saturday featured the Cubs' second win of the season and a nicely modulated performance by Carlos Zambrano, who fell behind early 3-0, but didn't implode, and kept the Cubs in the game until homers by Soriano, Fukudome and Jeff Baker brought them a 4-3 lead. Carlos Marmol was at his unhittable best un the ninth for the save, but Zambrano was most impressive. With the obvious exception of his no-hitter in 2008, I've rarely seen get tougher to hit and more calm as a game has gone on. It was an especially nice recovery after his Opening Day horror show.

Home opener for the Cubs tomorrow against the Brew Crew.

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