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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.

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.




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.

Sox out of it, Cubs still alive

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A few days ago, I wouldn't have believed you if you told me the White Sox would be mathematically eliminated from winning the A.L. Central Division before the Cubs would be mathematically eliminated from winning the N.L. Central Division. (I know they have both essentialy been out of it for a while, but indulge me.)

A lot of us were looking ahead to 6 remaining games against Detroit for the Sox, with the assumption they first would take at least 2 of 3 from the visiting Twins (who of course would be haunted by their late-season failure against the Sox last year) and Detroit would continue to stumble their way into the Windy City this weekend.

Instead, the Sox were swept by Minnesota and Detroit kept winning through last night, officially eliminating the Sox from contention (With 9 games left, they are also listed as 18 games out of the Wild Card, so...). Now, the Sox have to win all of their remaining games just to have a winning record this year. Ouch.

The Cubs, despite all their troubles and distractions, somehow still survive for at least one more day after posting an unlikely 3-2 win in San Francisco last night. How unlikely? They were down to their last strike, losing 2-1 (which of course means the Cardinals magic number of 1 was a strike away from dropping to 0), but Jeff Baker hit a 2-run homer to give them the lead and Carlos Marmol survived a shaky 9th inning (Get used to those last seven words, as you're likely to hear them a lot next year).

The Cubs also are 6.5 out of the Wild Card with 10 games left. If the Rockies go 2-7 in their own remaining 9 games, the still-contending Braves go 6-4 in their own remaining 10 games, and the still-contending Giants and Marlins each go 6-3 in their own remaining 9 games, well, the Cubs could have a shot at the Wild Card--they would only have to avoid losing for the rest of the season, finishing with an 11-game winning streak and 15 of 16 run. Do you believe in miracles?

Tired arms

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Maybe Jose Contreras has the same problem as Kevin Gregg--a tired arm--and maybe like Gregg, he is not telling anyone about it, until it's too late. Contreras hasn't pitched many innings this year, but perhaps his age, whatever it might be, is finally getting to him.

Contreras didn't even make it to the 4th inning last night, walking 5 guys and hitting 1. The Sox won anyway, as thet eventually beat the tough LA Angels 5-4 in last-inning heroics by Scott Podsednik, who drove in Jayson Nix, who had doubled with 2 outs. But, Contreras' recent problems show Jake Peavy can't get well soon enough.

Meanwhile, the Cubs' solution for Gregg's tired arm, which cost them a win Sunday in Florida, is to use either Carlos Marmol, who got in trouble and then out of it (as is his way) on Monday when the Cubs beat the Reds 4-2, or Angel Guzman, who has shown mostly good stuff all year but gave up a 2-run homer in the 9th inning last night before closing out the Reds in a 6-3 victory.

I'm a bit worried about the whole Gregg situation because he is not a stranger to the DL. He is on a pace to give up more hits this year than in previous years, so he has been working hard for his saves, and he has shockingly given up 10 homers, the most of any NL reliever (though 3 of those came in his last 2 fated outings). Both Marmol and Guzman are too wild and emotional to close games on a regular basis, which leaves... newly-acquired John Grabow? Tom Gorzelanny, who pitched so well as a starter Tuesday? Sean Marshall? All 3 are lefties, but the Cubs suddenly have a surplus of southpaws that will only increase when Ted Lilly returns.

What about Ryan Dempster in a pinch?

B.J. and the baby bears

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The Cubs have signed one-time superstar closer B.J. Ryan, according to the Chicago Tribune. More recently, Ryan has been a huge bust in Toronto, and was recently released. But, this looks like a low-risk move by the Cubs, landing a lefty with credentials who has only pitched in the American League thus far and could potentially do well against National Leaguers who haven't seen him.

Ryan is being sent to the Iowa Cubs, but I'll bet he gets to Wrigley before too long.

The Cubs have needed another southpaw and true bullpen-type pitcher (unlike Sean Marshall, whose good stuff and durable arm often goes to waste in short outings out of the pen). Signing Ryan also gives them some late-inning flexibility, particularly at a time when Carlos Marmol continues to amble along his strike-'em-out-or-walk-'em-in path.

Wells swell, but still winless

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"I think I need to throw more strikes. The balls are killing me."--Carlos Marmol, in today's Chicago Tribune.

Carlos Marmol's balls may be killing him, but Randy Wells is the one in real pain.

Things were going all too well for Wells, even after he lost his no-hit bid in the 7th inning and gave up a solo homer to start the 8th. The Cubs were still ahead 5-1, and Wells was only around the 80-pitch mark. It was his game to win, it seemed.

Then, however, a Cubbie moment: Derrek Lee blew an easy catch at first base, allowing a runner aboard on an error. True Cubs fans had to know this uncharacteristic sort of blunder means things are about to go very, very wrong. The next thing to go wrong was ou Piniella yanking Wells after just 83 pitches right after the error.

This, of course, seems like a safe thing to do with a four-run lead in the 8th inning, but I'm still baffled, if only because Wells had made only one real mistake the whole game with the solo homer. The hit he gave up in the 7th was to Chipper Jones, one of the best in the business. He did not record an out after facing two batters in the 8th, but that wasn't his fault. Besides, Wells has done a great job in at least two recent starts pitching himself out of big jams with men on base, most recently against the Dodgers last week. And, he was really on last night. At least give him one more batter after Lee's botched play, to give him the chance to show whether or not he's had enough.

The only thing worse than yanking Wells too early is putting Carlos Marmol in with a man already on base. See, when, given his own inning to start, the wild, jittery Marmol likes to load the bases before settling down and working out it. If he starts with a man on base--well, you do the math. Marmol was a mess, walking in a run, hitting a guy--the usual. He left with the Cubs up 5-3 and less margin for error by cloer Kevin Gregg the following inning.

The next Cubbie moment was a dropped third strike. With one out in the bottom of the 9th and Gregg looking aggressive and effective, Garrett Anderson swung and missed a ball in the dirt. Geovany Soto missed it, too, and Anderson was on. One out later, Gregg faced hometown Atlanta boy Jeff Francouer, the Braves guy I would least like to see in that situation. I would have even rather seen Chipper, who is less likely to hurt you with a homerun. The hometown boy made good, leaving it 5-5 for three innings, during which the Cubs mostly waited for the Braves to figure out how to win.

In the end, it was Chipper driving a man home from second with one out and first base open. I believe the manager's handbook says to walk the career .311 hitter in that situation. That would have brought up another good hitter, catcher Brian McCann, but it also would have set up an easy inning-ended double play on almost any ground ball. Lou would have none of it, and that was that.

This game did have other bright spots besides Wells; swell and ultimately wasted effort. Alfonso Soriano ledd off the game with a homerun, and is now in second place for career homers leading off a game. D-Lee hit a rare homer, and had an all-around good day except for the untimely error.

Just another game at the beginning of June, I know and nothing to fret too much about. Just another lost opportunity, and hopefully, the Cubs won't finish one lost opportunity out of the postseason.

The-Riot delivers some chaos

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"You can't quiet The-Riot."--Slogan on T-Shirt seen outside of Wrigley Field.

Other than the resurgence of Kosuke Fukudome and the more patient hitting of Alfonso Soriano, the one thing a slumping Cubs offense has been able to count on this year is Ryan Theriot, who always manages to get a hit or two.

Well, today he had the unexpectedly big hit, a grand slam that rallied the Cubs from a 5-2 deficit against the Marlins, and that re-awakened Wrigley fans from their grumpy drunkeness. It was Theriot's first career grand slam, and it could happen to a more deserving guy, who even when he's not hitting manages to force pitchers to burn their arms by going deep into counts.

The Cubs eventually won 8-6 in a game in which Rich Harden started poorly and only got worse, lasting 3.2 IP with 5 ERs and only 2 Ks against 4 BBs. There were a couple signs of resurgent offense in this one (though we thought that was the case the other night in Arizona, too--we'll see if it sticks). Most notably, beyond Theriot's blast and a couple of timely walks drawn by the Cubs, two slumping Cubs came alive, Derrek Lee was 2-4 and Geovany Soto was 2-3 with an RBI.

The bullpen was sufficient in this one, with closer Kevin Gregg yielding the only Marlins run after Harden left the game. Still, Carlos Marmol was shaky for the second straight game, walking 2 to open the 8th inning, but battling back to strikeout the side. Neal Cotts was pleasantly unsucky, giving up a walk but striking out 2 in his scoreless inning on the mound. Still, the bullpen walked 5 men total, which ain't good even if only one run scored in 5-1/3 of work.

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