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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.

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.

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.

Don't believe the anti-hype

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I saw something in one of the spring training reports the other day that suggested the Cubs were not attracting much national media coverage this spring. And, of course, the White Sox never do, and have lost the only character who would have attracted any.

The news about lack of news comes as Sports Illustrated, which has to pay at least a little attention, has picked the Sox to lose 95 games and the Cubs to lose 96.

If all was quiet on the Arizona front, that's fine by me. I don't think either of our teams will get anywhere near the postseason this year--even with the expanded format. However, I do think that both will at least manage not to suffer 90-loss seasons.

I guess that pins me as an optimist. In regard to the Cubs, I'm not crazy about that label because you get the sense there is still a lot of unfinished business, with at least three key players--Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza and Marlon Byrd (maybe Ryan Dempster, too?)--possibly ready to be moved once other teams start seeing the need for in-season trades.

As the Cubs stand now, there's the potential for slight improvement over last year, maybe up to 76 or 77 wins, maybe even 80. The best-case outlook depends a lot on whether or not the veterans mentioned above stay in place and do well. It also depends heavily on the performance of Carlos Marmol, who rebounded after starting the spring in terrible fashion.

With the line-up, the biggest questions are at the corners. At first, Bryan LaHair won the job based on last year's slugging between the minors and majors, but promptly went on to suffer a power outage during the spring. Instead, Jeff Baker, starts at first on Opening Day. Joe Mather, who can play third, was the Cubs' best hitter this spring, but recently-soft-hitting Ian Stewart gets the Opening Day start.

Beyond Dempster and Garza, the starting rotation is all new additions. The biggest surprise of the Cubs 2012 roster, of course, is the ascendance of Jeff Samardzija to become the No. 3 starter. I never would have thought we would see the day, but Spellcheck sure earned his spot. Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm join the rotation as well. I'm still a little surprised that the Cubs pushed former starters Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez down to the minors--or I should say, surprised that both of them went down. I thought either one could have played the role of long reliever and spot-starter (because you know the latter need while arise).

In any case, I can't say the Cubs aren't putting their best foot forward with the starting rotation, "best" being a relative term, though.

If the Cubs start making moves early in the season, I'll take most of what I've said back. With Theo & Co., we have already seen a change in attitude and many roster changes, but there is also a strong sense that the rebuilding is not even half over. If there are more trades to come, we'll have to be satisfied with watching Starlin Castro strive for another 200-hit season or predicting when Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo will debut.

When it comes to the Sox, I'll accept the optimist label. I didn't feel very optimistic when Sox GM Kenny Williams rushed to hire Robin Ventura as manager last fall, as if half the league might steal him first. I didn't feel any more optimistic when the Sox started spring training with atrocious pitching and confusion about where Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo would play. But, as the spring went on, starting pitching improved and a sharp, young bullpen began to take shape. Meanwhile, Adam Dunn looked like a new man, Paul Konerko looked like the same solid pro he's been for years, Brent Morel showed improvement at the plate, Chris Sale was very effective as a new starter and Ventura himself displayed a natural confidence in going about his job.

There are reasons to be concerned, of course. The Sox may surprise a lot of people if that bullpen is effective, but if guys like Addison Reed, Hector Santiago, Nate Jones and Zach Stewart don't adjust their major league workloads, the bullpen could be this team's undoing. I think most people would say the line-up, so horrible last year, is the main reason to be concerned. Viciedo showed flashes of power in the last week, but had a bad spring. I don't know about Rios or Gordon Beckham, either, but I've seen enough from Dunn, Morel, Konerko an even Brent Lillibridge, as well as some evidence that A.J. Pierzynski still has some life in his bat, to believe the line-up won't leave the starters hanging.

Among starters, I still question if Jake Peavy can get 30-plus starts, and if 20 of those can be quality starts, but with the addition of Sale to the rotation, this looks like yet another Sox team whose most obvious strength is its starting pitching.

What does this all add up to record-wise? I think 78 or 79 wins, for starters, which isn't great, but considering the changes--not only the loss of Guillen and Buehrle, but Carlos Quentin and to some extent Juan Pierre, plus the fact of a first-time manager--it's not bad. The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Sox squeeze by slightly over .500. The postseason really is out of the question, but this is one year when I'll accept a pleasantly average team working its way to better things next year.

What this all adds up to for GM Kenny Williams remains to be seen. A record around .500 might be enough for Sox fans to call for his head, but it's also probably enough for his boss to keep him in charge.

Despite all the new faces, a lot of the headlines out of Cubs' spring training camp in Arizona are about new manager Dale Sveum's bunting tournament. I already appreciate Sveum's focus on fundamentals, especially every time the image of Matt Garza trying to bunt comes to mind, and I have to admit I've been looking to Twitter for the daily update on the winners and losers.

However, the attention being paid to the bunting tourney also works in the favor of the new front office as a timely distraction from the rest of the facts: This team is made up of low-risk spare parts, promising but still-green youngsters and a few leftovers from the Jim Hendry Cubs. No one wants to call it a re-building, but that's what it is.

Consider what we know already just a few days into camp:

- Bryan LaHair is already the clear starter at first base. No platoon, no challenger. I know, Anthony Rizzo is in camp, but he'll have to lead the Cactus League in homers and hit about .750 to start the season anywhere besides Iowa. I like that LaHair's finally getting a chance, but he also has the look of a last resort.

- Ian Stewart appears to be the clear starter at third base. No platoon, no challenger. Stewart is an example of what Theo & Co. have collected a lot of: Very intriguing, mostly low-cost spare parts that may or may not pay off. If they don't, they certainly won't weigh on the Cubs' future with Alfonso Soriano-like contractual obligations.

- Ryan Dempster is the ace of the pitching staff. Garza is the better pitcher, of course, but he may end up spending half a season or less with the Cubs. Dempster is the anchor, and while I like him a lot, that's not a completely comforting thought (a common Cub fan conundrum at work).

- Jeff Samardzija is competing for a rotation spot. How can this still be possible? Well, that's how unimpressive the starting rotation is. New arrivals like Chris Volstad, Paul Maholm and Andy Sonnanstine certainly lend depth, experience and their own histories of minor flashes of brilliance to the competition, but none of them is any more of a sure thing than Samardzija.

With the exception of a few faces, the Cubs really do have a different look, but it's not hard to get the sense that a lot of them our placeholders. Take David DeJesus, for example. Could he really pay off in right field? Absolutely, but the 32-year-old would be bucking the odds if he has a career year. If he's still a starting outfielder for the Cubs around 2014, then it's a good bet that the new Cub Way will have stalled somewhere along the way.

I'm back after an extended off-season break. I spent more time away than I had planned, and a lot more happened with or White Sox and Cubs than I thought would happen this off-season--and there are still a few weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

During the last several weeks, as I've been consumed by holiday activities and a busier-than-usual freelance writing schedule, I've been silently amassing opinions on what has amounted to an off-season of rebuilding for both teams.

Over the next several posts, I'll try to take a look at just about everything that has happened since Thanksgiving, but I might as well start not with the biggest news, but the most recent news--the Cubs' trade of Andrew Cashner.

This trade is probably my favorite move by the new regime so far--and I say this as a fan of Cashner, who thinks he'll overcome last season's shoulder injury to become a solid starter with a long career. When the Cubs traded Carlos Zambrano (more on that in a later post) earlier in the week, Cashner's spot in the Cubs rotation looked extremely solid. He was almost guaranteed to be the No. 3 starter, and was a Matt Garza trade away from possibly being the No. 2 starter.

But, trading Cashner for 21-year-old slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo is a brilliantly aggressive move. Rizzo's future may be no more certain than Cashner's is, but at a time when Prince Fielder rumors were running rampant, Theo & Co. (or maybe I should start saying Jed Hoyer & Co.) rightly stuck to their rebuilding plan and their commitment to player development. This is something Jim Hendry never could accomplish, as he would always fall for a free agent first baseman rather than commit to a young promising one.

Pitching may win championships, and that is an area the front office will definitely have to start focusing on more, but having a first baseman he who hits for power AND average and is defensively sound is more important than having a good pitcher who plays only once every five days.

At best, Rizzo could turn out to be Rafael Palmeiro. (If so, let's hope he stays in Chicago says no to drugs). At worst, he could be Hee-Seop Choi. We just don't know yet, but I do like the fact that Epstein and Hoyer have been fairly obsessed with Rizzo.

Drafted by Boston, Rizzo was tone of the players Epstein had to trade (and supposedly really didn't want to trade, according to a recent Sports Illustrated story) to Hoyer in San Diego to get superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. When the Padres recently acquired another young first baseman, Hoyer saw the Padres could now be open to moving Rizzo.

Rizzo will start in AAA, but depending on how Bryan LaHair--the first baseman of the brief near future--does, he could be up by mid-summer. The Cubs should be interesting to watch this year, possibly in the same way my six-year-old nephew's baseball team is interesting to watch. Mistakes will be made, frustration will be expected, and possibly a good deal of fun could be had as we get a glimpse at the promising future. Rizzo was acquired not for 2012, but for the rest of the decade.

Some thoughts on recent Cubs news:

-Mike Quade will go down as particularly star-crossed Cubs manager, having been given the job in a no-win situation: He got a job everyone assumed Ryne Sandberg would get, was handed a team of unproven newbies combined with free agents who were either surly or bloated, sometimes both, and was left a dead man walking by the former GM's firing and the hiring of new executives. Quade had his chance, and he often had the right approach and mindset, but too often let the game within the game get away from him. His authority also was challenged one too many times by veterans, and if this speaks ill of the players, it also suggests Quade failed to inspire and motivate them.

-Billy Corgan thinks Ryne Sandberg should have gotten a chance to interview for the job left open by Quade's firing. I'm not sure how Ronnie Woo feels about it, but I would classify Corgan's view of the matter as having roughly the same weight as the Woo-man's. The indication that Sandberg will not be interviewed for the manager job is easily the most controversial decision of the Theo Epstein era thus far. Though, should it be much of a surprise?

Much was made of Epstein having interviewed Sandberg, and possibly having wanted to hire him, for the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox manager job last season. I'm not sure why the next logical conclusion would be that Sandberg would become the favorite for a major league job. Sandberg has the same amount of major league level coaching experience he had prior to the 2010 season--none. I'm betting Theo & Co. would be open to having Sandberg manage in the farm system, or coach at the major league level if the next manager wants him in the dugout (though Sandberg's notoriety almost guarantees that won't happen), but there is no reason for Sandberg to be considered to lead the Cubs. It was a nice idea once, when the Cubs needed a warm body to fill the job for half a season and audition for future work, but not anymore.

Hiring Sandberg would be the easy and obvious thing to do, and a wonderful way for a new regime to win fan support, but that is not the No. 1 thing Theo & Co. is trying to win.

-Ryan Theriot was roundly criticized for landing for saying he had landed on the right side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry when he signed with St. Louis before last season, even though he didn't leave the Cubs by choice the season before last. Apparently, Theriot was right--though in the darkest corner of your Cub fan sould you knew he was. He is now a World Series champion, and though he didn't hit well in the series--only 1 for 13--he did driven in two key runs for the Cards.

So, two of my favorite scrappy players from recent years--LSU products Theriot and Mike Fontenot (I liked to call them the French Connection, though no one else ever pick it up)--both have World Series rings. Yet, they weren't good enough for the Cubs, always on the hunt for the future HoF-er who could do everything and help them win it all.

--Carlos Zambrano is pitching in Venezuela. A lot of us hope he stays right there, though I wouldn't be surprised if Theo & Co find a way to smooth things over just enough and polish up his rough edges just enough to trade him.

--Aramis Ramirez is not in the Cubs' future plans. So says Theo. Is Bake DeWitt taking over, or is Bryan Lahair learning how to play third base as we speak? Or maybe Thepo has something different in mind.

Call it a Theo-cracy

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Finally, officially, Theo Epstein is joining the Cubs, not as GM, but president of baseball operations. It might be the ideal position for a proven winner with a proven system, but who might need others on his management team to balance his recent willingness to risk big deals on big free agents.

You see, the best part of this deal might be the deals to come--the likelihood that Epstein cohorts Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod could be joining the Cubs, too, as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

Hoyer would have been a good choice for Cubs GM with or without Theo, as he has recently overseen San Diego's emphasis on player development and getting top prospects in exchange for big names like Adrian Gonzalez Hoyer may have robbed his buddy in the A-Gon deal--we'll find it over the next few years, as the former Boston prospects rise in San Diego, and Gonzalez toils to help Boston return to prominence. In losing Gonzalez, San Diego had to live with a losing season this year, but the youth movement there is similar to what brought Arizona a division title this year.

In any case, having a three-headed Team Theo is the best possible outcome for the Cubs, and could help Ricketts make up for the debacle of Jim Hendry's departure--though of course Team Theo has to clean up the Hendry mess, which among other things includes a contract commitment to a feast-or-famine first baseman at a time when the two best first basemen of the current era becoming available on the free agent market.

I think Team Theo could bring a more balanced attack than Theo would alone, decisive and aggressive, willing to take selective risks and recognizing that player development is the biggest need before getting the Cubs back in post-season shape.

It's still not clear who the Cubs will have to give up for Theo, let alone for Hoyer and McLeod, but at least we know there is new sheriff in town.

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