Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Monthly archives: May 2005


Enjoy It While It Lasts
2005-05-31 14:00
by Derek Smart

This is going to be terribly transparent, but I still think it's fun. Here's a statistical comparison of two players to date:

AL Shortstop201.287.333.41511.4
NL Shortstop186.292.323.43511.4

Pretty comparable, right? Except, the AL shortstop is getting paid eight times what the NL shortstop will make, and is due a bunch more over the next few years. If you haven't guessed by now, that's a comparison of our very own Neifi! and former Cardinal, former red-hot free agent, current Red Sock, Edgar Renteria.

I fully expect these two to diverge over the remainder of the season, and for our boy Neifi! to make out badly in the deal, but it's still fun to think in this year of bad breaks that, at least for the time being, we're actually catching a good one.

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 8
2005-05-31 12:10
by Derek Smart

Do me a favor: pretend it's Monday. That way, all this stuff is up to date.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record32-17
    Week's Record5-1
    Games Back--

    The end of May is too early to declare most division races over, but this one's getting awfully close. A few more weeks like this one from the Cards and you can put a fork in the thing.

  2. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record24-25
    Week's Record4-2
    Games Back8.0

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about this team is that fact that they've allowed the third fewest runs in the National League. Fun fact: with a run differential of +28 The Crew is one game under .500, and with a run differential of +39 the White Sox are sixteen games over. It's all in the timing, folks.

  3. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record21-27
    Week's Record2-5
    Games Back10.5

    Hello, and welcome to the only team in the division with a record below .500 for the period. Last week saw them within three games of being even, and if a subsequent Monday finds them closer than that in 2005, I'll plotz.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record20-30
    Week's Record5-2
    Games Back12.5

    Offense powered by....Felipe Lopez? The Reds' shortstop hit .310/.389/.690 for the week with 2 doubles, 3 homers, 7 RBIs, and 9 runs scored. He's not that good, but he's the best man the Reds have for the job, and if there's any justice in the world, he won't be forced to sit in favor of recently activated oldster, Rich Aurilia.

  5. Houston Astros

    Season Record18-31
    Week's Record3-3
    Games Back14.0

    For the first time since the inaugural week of the season, the Astros finished a Monday to Sunday span without losing more than they won, also taking their first road series, beating the Brewers in two out of three. That's bad news masquerading as good, if I've ever seen it.

Four...That's the Magic Number
2005-05-31 08:07
by Derek Smart

It's indicative of the way a season's been going when having your first win streak of four or more games comes at the end of May and sparks rampant gleeful giggles. Still, that was the cumulative effect of the last four days on me, and I imagine, many of you.

I'd prefer that runs of success this long were so commonplace as to elicit little more than a smirking yawn, but that's not the way things are breaking this year, so I'll happily take this tiny bit of glee in an otherwise disturbing season, enjoy that the club has pulled itself out of its self-dug hole for the time being, and hope that this is only the beginning of something even better.

As I buzz along on the high that victory brings, some random notes from the extra long weekend, in no particular order:

  • I got my first look at Joe Borowski on Sunday, and while he managed to get through his inning only giving up one hit and striking out two, I didn't much care for what I saw. Without the velocity he once had on his fastball, an effective slider is extra important to JoBo's future success, and the one I witnessed was flat and up in the zone a lot, begging to get creamed.

    The fact that nothing he threw got hit particularly hard looked like it had more to do with surprise and incompetence on the part of the Rockies' batsmen than any great display of skill on Joe's part. They appeared to be genuinely shocked that certain pitches stayed strikes, and that others were thrown at all, the best example being the 3-2 pitch that struck out Desi Relaford swinging - a slider so flat, so high, that Relaford likely didn't realize what it was until he had swung through it.

    On Sunday, Borowski got by on being so bad that he was deceptive, and while I don't know if this outing was similar to what he's been doing thus far, this is the sort of work that will only be effective until enough folks get a look at him. Once that happens, he's going to get pounded, and unless he figures out how to get that bite back, and fast, he's going to get lit up like a gasoline soaked Christmas tree.

  • Very scary moment in the fifth inning of last night's game, particularly in light of recent events, when Cesar Izturis ripped a ball right up the middle that nearly drilled Greg Maddux in the face. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that there are a lot of pitchers who wouldn't have made it out of the way of that screamer.

    I can think of no pitcher in recent memory who comes out of their delivery more ready to move than Maddux, and it was precisely that readiness that saved him from some instant plastic surgery. Of course, few pitchers come out of their delivery so centrally located on the mound, so one could make the argument that the aspect of his motion that saved him also put him more conspicuously in harm's way on that play.

    Still, I'd rather be in way of a ball like that but ready to move than be off balance when a differently placed ball is coming to rearrange my nose.

  • Had I gotten around to writing after the Cubs' loss on Thursday, I would have likely had something to say about the recent struggles of The Savior, Mr. Lee. Maybe I would have mentioned that he'd been 4 for 25 over the last 8 games. I might have even said that all four of those hits were singles, and that despite his 4 walks over that span, that he'd shown a distinct lack of discipline, swinging very early in at bats, seemingly pressing to get the team out of its offensive doldrums single-handedly.

    Well, apparently even thinking about such blasphemous scribblings gets The Savior riled, as he blew up during the final three games of the Colorado series, going 8 for 10 with 4 walks, 4 home runs, 7 RBIs, and 8 runs scored. It was as if he simply willed himself to get locked back in, and once he'd done that, off he went, saving helpless Cubs where e'r he wandered.

    I don't think I've had this much fun watching a Cub player do his thing since the long past days of Good Sammy, and for my sake and that of the Cubs, I hope we don't see the end anytime soon.

  • Another thing I might have mentioned were I not so lazy and perturbed, was that Aramis looked about ready to break out of his slump. I know, it's easy to say that now that he's had a single, double, and home run in each of the last two games, but the signs were there, just like they were with Michael Barrett earlier in the year.

    When Ramirez was struggling early, not only wasn't he getting hits, but nearly any contact he made was weak. When he did hit the ball hard, it seemed more like an accident than anything else. But lately, the ball has been jumping off his bat, and even though they weren't falling for hits until the last few days, he was doing a better job of getting solid wood on the ball than at any other time of the season. What we're seeing is a natural evolution from struggle, to success, and it's success the Cubs need badly to have any chance of making a similar success out of this season.

  • In his last two starts against the Cubs, Wilson Alvarez had held them scoreless over 14.2 innings, while allowing only nine hits, one walk, and striking out fourteen. He's precisely the type of "crafty" pitcher this team tends to have problems with, which is why it was so encouraging to see the Cubs get those same nine hits in only 5 innings, while scoring five runs in the process.

    I'm not foolish enough to think the Cubs have figured out how to beat this type of pitcher - Alvarez was obviously off his game, getting a lot of balls in hitters' yummy zones - but I can't help but enjoy seeing them capitalize on his mistakes. It's a sign that the gents are clicking - when they aren't, those mistakes get fouled off or even swung through - and with everything that's gone wrong of late, it's pleasant to think that something may be going right.

  • While the offense has certainly come of life of late, I think it's also important to note, in light of all the handwringing about the state of the bullpen, that the last four games have seen the relief corps allow only 3 runs over 14.1 innings. That's a 1.88 ERA for those of you scoring at home, and I'll take that any time.

It's Big Z and Brad Penny, toe to toe in a battle of heavyweights. A victory in this game means a guarantee that the Cubs are over .500 when they get to San Diego, and with the way the Padres are playing of late, that's an important thing to have in your pocket.

Who Shall We Boo Now?
2005-05-28 13:02
by Derek Smart

Rumors of the Cubs shopping LaTroy Hawkins have been going around for a while now, and they finally came to fruition today as he was dealt to the Giants in exchange for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma.

I've been asked already if I think this is a salary dump or a sign of the team punting the season, and while it's a legitimate question, I believe the answer is an emphatic, "No."

The Cubs are getting generally solid work from the young guns in the pen, and with the fan base completely turning on Hawkins, making his life a living hell every time he came to the mound at Wrigley - even in the meaningless situations he was used in at the end - the team was left with little choice than to try to get what they could for him.

Jim Hendry did well getting what he did, especially in light of recent events. Assuming that Williams isn't injured (his extremely rough start in AAA has folks like John Sickels speculating about injury, but he also got a late start to the year due to family illness, so pick one that makes you feel good and go with that for now), and he can get himself throwing well again, he could help the Cubs get through some of their current issues in the starting rotation. If not, he's nice to have around to compete for a fifth starter's job down the line, or act as the sixth starter waiting his turn in Iowa.

Aardsma not only has the distinction of displacing Hank Aaron at the top of the alphabetical list of Major League players, he's also a legitimate closing prospect, having spent a good deal of his time at Rice finishing ballgames. He has control issues, but he strikes guys out and doesn't give up the long ball, so with a little more minor league time, he could turn into a very useful part of a future Cub pen.

I'm both happy and sad for LaTroy, sad that he was treated with such disdain by Cub fans (booing is for slackers and jagoffs, not for players who work hard but struggle), but happy that the team could find a way to get him to a place where he had a chance to succeed, and do so while getting a decent return.

* * * * *

The pendulum that is the storyline on Mark Prior's elbow injury has swung back to the more positive side. Apparently, Prior has a compression fracture, not a hairline fracture, which basically means that while there's no real timetable for recovery, rather than waiting for bone to mend Prior will only have to wait until he's pain free.

He'll still likely be out for a while, but this news means that he could be back sooner than the 2 months that was being tossed around, and at this point, I'll take any good news I can get.

The Hits Keep On Coming
2005-05-27 18:58
by Derek Smart

I'd like to revel in today's 10-3 victory over the Rockies, where the bats which had so long been silent decided to make a joyful noise, but as you likely are well aware by now, Mark Prior went down after taking a rifle shot off his right elbow, forcing him out of the game in the fourth, and I just can't celebrate much while yet another injury casts its ugly shadow over the proceedings.

Initial news has been encouraging, saying that x-rays came back negative. However, as I had the Yankees/Red Sox tilt on in the background this evening, a report interrepted the broadcast on ESPN (which also appears in written form here) to relate that a team source said the MRI revealed a "slight" fracture.

I don't know about you, but to me saying that someone has a "slight" fracture is tantamount to being "a little bit" pregnant or "mostly" dead. Of course, that's the alarmist in me, as there are certainly various degrees of severity that a fracture can present, and what the source likely meant was that it appeared from the MRI to be of a type less severe. I can only hope this is the case.

Still, a crack's a crack, and whatever the size and depth of the one in Mark Prior's elbow, the one below the Cubs' season seems to widen by the minute, and if a way isn't found to fill it soon, it will swallow this club whole, if it hasn't already.

The Rockies
2005-05-26 06:48
by Alex Ciepley

After a disappointing series finale with Houston, in which the Cubbie bats decided to skip school and hang out with the bad kids, the Cubs get ready for a four-game set with the Colorado Rockies.

In order to get to know our mile-high brethren a bit better, Derek and I asked a few questions of Brandi "Rox Grrl" Griffin, who pens Purple Row.

Alex: Smarty-pants like Dayn Perry over at Baseball Prospectus have been saying for a while now that the Rockies need to stop obsessing about playing at home in Colorado (where they are 134-120 since 2002) and start worrying about winning on the road (where they've been 84-180 since '02). What's your take on the thin air conundrum?

Rox: Gee, will you look at that. You know, after watching the Rockies for all of these years I never really noticed that they've sucked on the road while performing decently at home. Wow. What a revelation! I bet Dan O'Dowd hasn't noticed that either. Somebody better go tell him, this could really save us.

Okay, sarcasm aside, first, I hope yours isn't one of those sites that takes a look at a Rockies player's home/road splits and says, "Well, obviously he's benefiting from playing in Coors," without also saying, "Well, obviously his road stats are hurt because he plays half his games in Coors," because even smarty-pants like Dayn Perry should know that there is usually a discernible negative discrepancy of what should be expected by said player.

Why? There are a couple of theories such as being unable to reacclimate to the sharper breaks of sea level pitches in time, or one that blames fatigue from playing at altitude creating a nasty effect physiologically similar to jet-lag, but regardless of which theory is correct there will always have to be an assumption that the Rockies hitters will play with an extra handicap whenever they go on the road. Is this fair? Probably not, but they can tweak even bigger unfair advantages for our team out of Coors Field if they do one thing: shorten the fences.

You heard me right. They need to create a pitchers' nightmare such as has never been seen before or will be hereafter and they need to make flatlanders cringe whenever they hear that their team will visit the Hell in the Sky stadium that we should have. In fact, I think I will form a huge corporation, Hell in the Sky Tea Cozies, just so I can get dibs on naming rights next time they're up for bid. Ha-ha, just look at all those flatlander fans crying then. "That isn't baseball!" they will lament, and we will laugh in devilish glee. The fences don't have to be shortened by much, but right now with the vast outfield spaces Coors is actually keeping some of our long drives in the park, clogging our basepaths and making us waste time with the Aaron Mileses and Desi Relafords of the world. Regardless of what happens to the field however, we need big sluggers at every position and we have some coming up, but I'll get to that later.

Why is it so important that the Rockies have power at every spot? Going back to the question of how to win on the road, once we're away from home these players won't need to hit as well as non-slugging players to keep us competitive. They can suffer from the same road-lapse and see their average and OBP drop like rocks but as long as they hit it out occasionally (Vinny Castilla was always way too maligned by the smart set--since what he brought to the club, even last year, good defense and that one dimension on O works very well with our team) we should pick up more wins afield than we are now (like that's going to be a hard bar to cross) and while at home we'll just outgun everybody. If we're within a few games of .500 on the road, then the home advantage should take care of the rest to put us in a spot for a postseason run.

Yes, that's similar to the Blake Street Bomber game of yesteryear, but I also think we need to be a little smarter about the pitching staff this time around. The starting rotation should be made up of five young and cheap pitchers who we don't expect to stay after their arbitration days, because let's face it, what pitcher would? But the key to our success will be having a bullpen made up mostly of the same type of pitcher, with two or three premium power relievers thrown in as mainstays and as the true stars of the staff. We can't waste roster spaces on LOOGy's. We need the endurance of swing men or fifth starters because frequently at home starters will need to be pulled early because of the shellacking they take. Plus, while we're on the road we can sneak them into the rotation to prevent fatigue.

If you look at our lone playoff year in 1995, in a strike shortened season we had eight pitchers with nine starts or more and eleven with five or more and only one (Kevin Ritz) had more than twenty, something like seventeen had more than 30 IP. This sharing of the load is rarely credited with aiding our success that year but I think it's vital for any successful Colorado team, by using a lot of young pitchers with options wisely, the team might be able to utilize the minors as a de facto R&R camp and then as they approach free agency, spin them off for more prospects like those that are coming up.

Derek: Cub fans have had experience recently with feeling insecure when their team's bullpen gets involved. What's it like knowing during every game, no matter how good your pitching staff might be, that there's practically no safe lead to be had in your club's home park?

Rox: The insecurity of which you speak creates extra tension late in games where at most sane places there would be none. This, in turn, makes the Rockies an exciting and unusual product in MLB. I live for this insecurity, I love it. It's great. Now if you can excuse me for a moment while I reach into my purse for my nerve medication, I'll get back to your next question.

Alex: What do you think of newbie Clint Barmes so far?

Rox: Clint Barmes got off to a hot start certainly, better than we could have expected. Pitchers have caught up to him though, and they're throwing him a lot of junk high in the strike zone with the first pitch, taking advantage of two of the qualities that led him to that start, one an excellent batting eye that you won't see strikeout a lot with a judicious approach in selecting which pitches to hit early, and two, a strange cautiousness when he's behind in the count that leads him to make less effective swings than when he's ahead, trying to avoid striking out. So as pitchers get strike one, he gets defensive and is more likely to make an out when he makes contact. Since they figured it out about two weeks ago, he's slumping mildly. He's also smart though, and a remarkably effective learner at the plate who should make the necessary adjustments soon. He's clearly the BEST SHORTSTOP IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE AND SHOULD BE VOTED FOR THE ALL STAR GAME FREQUENTLY AND OFTEN! STOP THE NEIFI INSANITY! VOTE FOR BARMES! VOTE FOR BARMES!

Derek: Your boys are off to a very rough start this year. Despite that, what reasons do you see to be hopeful, if not for this year, for the next few years to come?

Rox: Cubs fans are fond of the saying, "Wait 'til next year," but go up to a Rockies fan and you will hear "Wait 'til two... er, maybe make that even three years from now" as a more apt expression of when we feel our team will be competitive again. As far as our hopes for the future, we actually like this plan a lot better than the last 58 or so we tried in the Dan O'Dowd tenure as it finally seems we're focusing on building a franchise that can maintain its viability for a long time rather than a shoot for the moon (and miss) sort of set up where we lack flexibility or direction.

Our confidence lies in the drafting and grooming of prospects able to hit it for yard both home and away, and in endurance cogs in the pen and the rotation who can eat up innings with pitches that try to minimize the damage that could be caused by opposing lineups. Our farm system has strong power hitting prospects at every position save catcher at the moment, and some of these have the potential to be among the best players in baseball (Ian Stewart, Chris Nelson) while others may turn out to be two-dimensional Vinny Castilla types, but like I said, on our team that type plays very well.

Right now, we're watching the first wave of our future team come in to shape and of the players you'll see over the weekend the ones we're highest on who we'll keep for the next wave are Barmes, Brad Hawpe, and Sunday's starting pitcher, Jeff Francis. However, also watch out for Cory Sullivan, who should play some games in the outfield and Garrett Atkins at third. The only disappointing rookie of our massive youth infusion has been our catcher, JD
Closser who might not make it to Chicago before being sent back to AAA to "regain his confidence."

Cub Town: What's your prediction for the Cubs-Rox series?

Rox: Cubs win, Cubs win, Cubs win...

Rockies win! Yaaayyyy!!!

Seriously, I think our best chances are on the bookends and especially the Sunday game when our young phenom Francis takes the hill. Although, as you can see from his home (24.2 IP,1.30 WHIP)/road (27.0 IP, 1.89 WHIP) splits, he definitely benefits by playing at Coors. :)

Saturn's Return
2005-05-25 11:55
by Alex Ciepley

I'm not really an astrology nerd, though I'll amuse myself with the occasional horoscope, and am prone to describing myself as a classic Cancer--in both the good ways (I'm a caring friend, I take pretty photographs, and I cook a mean Thai curry) and the bad (I'm a moody bastard, I'm still bitter about third grade playground insults, and I've cried during Field of Dreams). My Moon is in Martha Stewart, and my Second House is inhabited by Oscar the Grouch.

I'm currently in the middle of something known in astrological circles as my "Saturn's Return"--it's basically a three-or-so year period in your life, usually in your late twenties, when your world gets turned upside down and as a result you, cheesy as it sounds, fundamentally change as a person. Maybe you change careers (I haven't, though I've had several false starts), homes (buh-bye Brooklyn, hello Upper West Side), or you simply become a different sort of fellow than you've been to this point. So say the wizened Internet experts:

The Saturn Return has been likened by some astrologers to our "cosmic report card" -- a time during which we are forced to examine and evaluate our progress up until this point in our lives and determine what needs to change in order for us to continue to grow. Often this assessment compels us to release some of the attitudes, possessions, and even people that no longer serve a meaningful purpose in our lives. By being able to jettison these unneeded parts of our lives, we make room for new beliefs, things, and people to come our way.

The Cubs aren't in their late 20s, though maybe baseball years--like those of the canine--are measured differently than our human ones. This is a team, though, that has seen its identity shift dramatically over the course of the past three years. For most of my life, the Cubs have been a team defined by two things: a star player, and a losing history. They had Ryno and Dawson and Gracie and Sammy. They had unexpected winning seasons, always followed with a miserable fall into awfulness. The Cubs had a good ballpark, and it didn't always matter that they were in the cellar, as long as Sandberg was leading the league in All-Star votes.

These two attributes--the Star and the Losing--no longer define the Cubs. The team has changed.

The Cubs have posted the first back-to-back winning seasons in my lifetime, and expectations are that they'll win again this year. Fans anticipate victories, and when they don't happen, the fans boo.

Gone also is the Sammy Era, the Ryno Epoch, the Dawson Years. Is there a player that defines the current Cubs? The closest you could come to finding a figurehead would be in the starting pitching staff, but there are too many mixed emotions surrounding the Big Three of Wood, Prior, and Zambrano to latch onto them as emblems. Can Wood ever stay healthy and effective? When will we stop gnashing our teeth regarding our Prior Expectations? Can Zambrano stop going postal, and--apparently more important--stop writing emails?

Derrek Lee has been heroic this season, but he's not Mister Cub. Not now, and likely not ever. Aramis Ramirez might have the most potential to fill this role, but it's still early for him, and he has yet to make a leap forward that would cement him as an icon.

But the question of who could fill the role of Star might be irrelevant. Perhaps there is no longer a need for a single player to define the Cubs. People don't necessarily come out of their Saturn's Return better, but they always come out different. It can take some getting used to. It's befuddling to follow this Cubs team with its rosy outlook and unclear identity, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it all. But if these changes in the team's nature mean that I'll have to get used to a winner, and will end up identifying with a team and not one player, then I'm pretty sure I'll come around.

All's Well That Ends Well
2005-05-25 08:21
by Derek Smart

My evening was looking less than stellar: I was exhausted from a longer than usual day, our daughter was in a state of high dudgeon whose main symptom was a refusal to go to sleep, and the Cubs were unable to do anything offensively against Roger Clemens.

Sergio Mitre was having a fine outing giving up a mere two runs over his seven innings of work, but with the team's inability to get anything going against The Rocket, and their even more frustrating work in the two innings after he left with a groin strain (when Chad Qualls got the first two outs of the seventh on two pitches, my television nearly met its maker), things were looking bleak.

That was before the wild and crazy eighth that saw Brad Lidge do nearly all the damage himself, walking and dirtballing his way to a blown save and a loss in front of a now orgasmic crowd at Wrigley. Sometimes bad things happen to good relievers, and last night the Cubs were beneficiaries of the Lidge largesse. They had a lot of help, but congratulations to the Cubs on not giving up when the NL equivalent of Darth Vader took the bump. Some quick thoughts in their usual form:

  • Neifi! has apparently perfected his bunting. Of course, what he's honed to an art is the bunt that's just good enough to allow the opposing pitcher to make a great looking play, but not so good that he'll actually reach base. For the second night in a row Neifi! got one down that nearly got by the Astro's hurler, but with some effort and a little dirt on the uniform, still resulted in an out. A little to the right, Neifi!, just a little to the right.

  • It's always the way: say something nice about a guy, especially about a particular aspect of his game, then off he goes contradicting you at his earliest convenience. Such was the case with yesterday's lauding of Jason Dubois' defensive efforts, which he promptly thanked me for by thoroughly muffing a ball in the fourth.

    I'll cut him some slack, since he's been very good of late, and having to determine the exact location of the wall when the ball is hit around the general vicinity of the bend that creates The Well is tough for anyone. However, it's still a play he should have made had he not succumbed to a degree of tentativeness, and one that could have cost the game if it weren't for the team's late inning heroics (of which, Dubois was certainly a part). Let's all hope he's learned from his adventure so I needn't mention this again.

  • I've been searching for a way to describe the swing of Jeromy Burnitz for a while now, and for some reason his two-run single in the eighth last night made it all clear to me. Think back to movie westerns of the fifties, or better yet, to the introductory sequence of an old television show:

    A cowboy riding toward unknown innocents in need; a shot rings out; our hero's spine arches to avoid a bullet that already hit it's mark, his head thrown back in agony; toppled from his horse, he lies still and left for dead; then comes help from an unexpected source, a man who nurses him to health to fight injustice another day.

    And so, with swinging bat and arched back, saved from certain career death by Jim Hendry, Jeromy Burnitz fights on for justice in the NL Central, our very own hero, our very own cowboy, our very own Lone Ranger.

  • Finally, the Cubs needed to make a move to create room for Sergio Mitre, and so they demoted...Ben Grieve? This left the Cubs carrying 147 pitchers on their roster, and with Corey Patterson's apparent inability to swing the bat due to a sore left wrist, left the bench even shorter than usual last night.

    I understand the team is having trouble deciding which pitcher should head back to Iowa or to the "DL", but this is ridiculous, especially since Todd Walker is likely to return to the club any day now, and the inability to make a call put the team at a distinct tactical disadvantage last night. Add in that Grieve can't return for (I believe, but correct me if I'm wrong) ten days, and the move looks even sillier.

It's The Professor versus Brandon Backe tonight, and an opportunity for the Cubs to reach a couple of milestones, specifically, getting back to .500, their first series sweep, and their first four game winning streak. All three sound delicious, so I hope the kitchen's open late.

In It
2005-05-24 11:11
by Alex Ciepley

During the bottom of the seventh in last night's game, Pat Hughes, fresh from a warbling of "Take Me Out...", mentioned in the broadcast booth that the Cubs have "been in" almost every game this year. Maybe I've become immune to the dull pain of bleeding therapy that comes with watching a team lose its fair share of close games, but I hadn't particularly noticed this trend.

Taking a rather liberal approach to being "in" a game, it appears that Hughes is pretty much right. There are only three games I can find in which the Cubs entered the late innings without a realistic chance of coming back and winning.

  • April 13th: Padres 8, Cubs 3
    A Wood stinker, Kerry allowed 4 runs in the first, a home to Brian Giles in the second, and a couple more in the 7th before exiting.
  • April 6th: D'Backs 8, Cubs 3
    Ryan Dempster's first start as a Cub wasn't pretty. He gave up seven runs in fewer than four innings, and the Cubs didn't muster much all night.
  • May 1st: Astros 9, Cubs 3
    The Cubs actually were in this game, until a Priortastic Meltdown in the fifth, when Houston tagged Prior for seven runs in what seemed like a few seconds. As an aside, Prior's ERA for the season, minus that one hellish inning, is 1.80.

Having only had a couple games that have gotten out of hand isn't particularly unusual; both the Cardinals and Brewers, for example, have only been "out" of games a handful of times this season. Still, it brought up a couple thoughts that I wanted to take a glance at, since one might think that a team that was in most of its games would probably have a better record than the Cubs' 20-22.

Random Thought: The Cubs' starters have been better than advertised, keeping the games close early.

Random Response: The starters' ERA is above average, at 4.07, but not spectacular--the starting corps rank 6th in the National League in ERA.

Random Thought: Despite being "in" most games, the Cubs have a losing record because the bullpen has been as bad as advertised.

Random Response: The Cubs relievers rank higher in the league than their starting pitching does with a 3.92 ERA, good for 5th in the league. The 'pen is, however, a horrendous 9-for-17 in save opportunities.

Random Thought: The Cubs score most of their runs early, and the offense hasn't been able to tack on runs late.

Random Response: Maybe there is some truth to this. The Cubs have scored 133 runs in innings 1-6 (8th in the league), but only 50 runs from the seventh inning on (14th in the league). Think a bench which features Jose Macias as a key player might have something to do with that?

Random Thought: The Cubs are gluttons for punishment, and simply love being "in" games that they will, often enough, go on to lose. It's the team's cosmic fate, its lot in life, its Greater Meaning.

Random Response: Naw.

Pat Hughes' instinct seems correct; the Cubs have been "in" most games this year. But despite a handful of dandy wins in the recent week, it sure hasn't felt like the Cubs have been "in" much of anything this year. They're already seven games back in the division, and at times seems like a team that's misplaced its mission statement. Can they get back "in" it, not just in the games here or there, but within their own division?

Shadow Boxing
2005-05-24 07:56
by Derek Smart

It's always a pleasure defeating the Astros, but there was something less exhilarating about last night's victory. I think it's the feeling of kicking someone while they're down that made the experience less than I'd hope for. The joy in beating past Astro clubs was the feeling of accomplishment, that one had seen a bully go down in his prime.

Now the bully is in his forties with a paunch, and while he's still dangerous on occasion, more often than not you'll be catching him fresh from the bar when his eyes are as shot as his reflexes. Not that it completely takes the fun out of the exercise, but since the expectations have changed, so have the emotions of the moment - boxing a man is riskier than taking on his shadow. But enough maudlin remembrances, let's get the lead out!

  • Finally, we got to see the Glendon Rusch we were treated to for so much of last year. A great deal of 2005 has been a struggle to find the plate for Glendon, but last night he was spot on, putting his fastball right on the outside corner when he wanted to, and mixing in his offspeed stuff like a master.

    Three of his six strikeouts were of the spectating variety, and there's no stronger indication that Rusch is sharp than when the opposition just stands and stares.

  • I called out Derrek Lee on his baserunning yesterday, so I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to issue a verbal spanking to Corey Patterson for his blunder in the second. In Patterson's case, the error was twofold: first, he misread Wandy Rodriguez and took off for second before he made his move to the plate; second, and worst, instead of keeping his head down and barrelling toward his destination, he pulled up short and opted for the rundown.

    As was noted during the broadcast, had Patterson simply continued on to second he might have stolen the base, as Rodriguez took his time getting the ball to Berkman, and the throw from first to second can be awfully tough with a runner in the way, particularly if you haven't done it much, as Berkman has not.

    In fact, this is a trend for Patterson, this pulling up when the throw goes behind him on a stolen base attempt, and it needs to stop. You're going, then go. Make the first baseman get the ball cleanly to second, and if he does, then congratulations, but don't make the job easier by volunteering for a rundown.

  • Since I've spent a little time noting the outfield play of Jason Dubois and the unspeakable brutality that lies therein - really, there was a period where I was afraid the Geneva Convention would be invoked - it's important that I mention that since his insertion into the starting lineup, Dubois has been very solid out there in the pasture.

    We saw a sterling example of his recent turnaround in the fourth, when Morgan Ensberg hit a ball up the left field line that died in the grass about halfway between third base and the wall. Noting the positions of ball and fielder, Ensberg saw an opportunity to stretch his hit to a double, and hightailed it toward the keystone.

    Dubois hustled all the way, and after reaching down with his bare hand to retrieve the ball - which had completely stopped by this point - quickly set himself, and among a blizzard of freshly ripped grass, threw perfectly to Jerry Hairston who turned and made the tag on Ensberg. How perfect was the throw?

    Think about the mechanics of making the tag that Hairston made: he had set up on the third base side of the bag, crouched both so that he could move to get the ball, and move once he got the ball, yet stay low enough to shorten the distance his glove would have to travel once the ball was received.

    Hairston is also right handed, which means his glove was on the infield side. An ideal throw would come in low and on the infield side of second, allowing Hairston to simply receive without moving and pivot to the tag, moving with the energy of the throw.

    Not only was the throw from Dubois in that exact spot, but had Hairston's glove been attached to a second base scarecrow with a weathervane-style spinning action, the momentum from the throw's receipt would have carried the dumb-glove directly into Ensberg's path. That's how an infielder wants to get a ball from the outfield, and while I wouldn't expect such excellence on a regular basis, it's reassuring to see Dubois is at least capable of it on occasion.

  • The homer by Burnitz was one of those that I needed a second look at via replay. Initially, I'd thought he hit the ball off the thin part of the bat, as the pitch was in on his hands, the ball didn't appear to have much jump, and I heard little sound on contact.

    However, on seeing it a second time, and much slower, it was apparent that Jeromy just did a fantastic job of getting his hands in so that the fat part of the bat could make contact with the ball, and stay fair in the process. I've seen him do something similar on lower inside balls, but this one was higher up, making the power more impressive since he couldn't get his arms out as far.

    Not that the pitch wasn't a mistake - it was - but Jeromy did a nice job of capitalizing fully on a ball that could as easily have been a lesser hit, or even a popout.

  • This isn't really relevant to anything, but there was a moment I thought was hilarious in the bottom of the eighth, and one of those things you only get on TV. During Neifi!'s at bat, Brad Ausmus was signalling something to the dugout by extending his right arm and making some gesture with his fingers.

    No one in the ballpark would think anything of it, but when viewed through the centerfield camera, it looked for all the world like Ausmus was tickling Neifi! in the bellybutton. It was funny enough on it's own, but I half expected Neifi! to giggle like the Pillsbury Doughboy, a sight which would have made my season, even if the resulting spit-take caused several thousand dollars worth of water damage in my living room.

  • During the commercial break between the bottom of the eighth and top of the ninth, I left the room for a quick conversation with my wife. I wasn't gone for long at all, but by the time I returned, the game was over and the Cubs had won, thanks to Ryan Dempster's four-pitch door slamming.

    I'll admit a bit of disappointment that the Cubs didn't take the opportunity of a three-run lead to give Joe Borowski a quick induction into what could be his job in the near future, but then again, the only potent part of the Astro lineup was due, and I have an awfully hard time arguing with three consecutive ground balls. I'll need to see a lot more of that type of work from Dempster before I'm convinced that he's a useful man in this role, but if he's willing to show me, I'm willing to watch.

It's a tougher bill tonight, as the Cubs must face Roger Clemens while countering with Sergio Mitre. There will almost certainly be some deeper bullpen involvement for the Cubs this evening, so let's hope that they can scrape together a couple of runs against the Ancient Firework, while getting some better work from the relief corps.

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 7
2005-05-23 12:26
by Derek Smart

Despite this weekend's travails, the Cubs were the only team in the NL Central to post a winning record for the week, going 3-2 in great part due to the largesse of Jose Mesa. What's really odd, though, is that all of the remaining five teams lost or gained ground at exactly the same rate as they had last week. That was good news for only one team, and as these things often go, it happened to be the squad at the top.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record27-16
    Week's Record3-3
    Games Back--

    Since taking over most of the third base duties from the injured Scott Rolen, John Mabry has put up a .343/.382/.625 line in 34 PAs. My God, what's the rest of the division to do when even this team's tough breaks turn to gold?

  2. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record20-23
    Week's Record2-5
    Games Back7.0

    For those of us Cub fans who complain about our team's institutional impatience at the plate, we may now have some empathy from Brewers fans, who suffered through a game on Friday where their boys saw a mere 74 pitches from Carlos Silva over the entire nine innings. Just for kicks, here are some lowlights:

    • Only two Milwaukee at bats went as deep as five pitches.
    • Nine at bats ended on one pitch.
    • Six at bats ended on two pitches.
    • The sixth inning ended with only three pitches thrown, and that was after a leadoff single.

    That's a rough spell at the office, kids, and it wasn't even getaway day!

  3. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record19-22
    Week's Record2-3
    Games Back7.0

    While the series win against the Rockies that followed might have helped salve their wounds, losing two consecutive games to the Cubs during their final at bat couldn't have been pleasant. Meanwhile, the Pirates' front office has to be hoping that they didn't wait two games too long to shop Jose Mesa.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record15-28
    Week's Record1-5
    Games Back12.0

    All hail Aaron Harang, whose 3.32 ERA makes him the only Reds pitcher who has started a game and still has an ERA under 4.71, and for a mere $440K to boot. Counter that with Eric Milton's 7.16 for $5.33M (with oodles more to come), and one can see at least one reason why this team is having issues staying above the .350 mark.

  5. Houston Astros

    Season Record15-28
    Week's Record1-5
    Games Back12.0

    The week began with their third victory in a row on the strength of eight innings of Roy Oswalt shutout, and ended five losses later on another fine outing by Oswalt, this one wasted by the team's inability to score on Chan Ho Park (aka, the Ranger's real Worst Contract Ever). May the circle be unbroken.

A Nearly Lost Weekend
2005-05-23 08:57
by Derek Smart

It was a long weekend, but it's over now, and thankfully it ended on a positive note. I haven't got a long intro in me this morning, so let's just head right to the lead pointed tidbits.

  • I was at Saturday's game, due to a friend of mine who happens to be a White Sox fan thinking to call me when he stumbled across two tickets. I mention this because I had an excellent view of the play that, for all intents and purposes, determined the outcome of the game - Paul Konerko's eighth inning single off the glove of Corey Patterson.

    Were I a dispassionate observer, I would have been intrigued by the see-saw nature of the crowd's reaction, as there was a moment when it looked as if the play was made and the inning saved for the Cubs. But just as quickly as the Cub fans' shouts of glee went up, they were stifled and replaced by the shouts of their opposites, as the White Sox took the lead.

    I felt bad for Patterson, as the effort was there, but he just couldn't make the play. It was, in a way, a microcosm of the season thus far. A difficult but makable play presented itself, a moment on which the fate of the game turned, and try as they might, the Cubs couldn't get it done, despite trying as hard as they could. I won't say the ball was fated to drop - I don't believe in such things - but it's sure beginning to seem like Destiny has it out for the North Side.

  • Speaking of Saturday's tilt, let me say that I am not someone who is going to question the removal of Carlos Zambrano after the seventh. Managers, and Dusty Baker in particular, always seem to use the "damned if I do damned if I don't" excuse when it comes to their bullpen usage, claiming that the press and fans would crucify them no matter what, especially if the game goes badly.

    I am not one of those people. I believe in consistent philosophies consistently applied, and in the case of Saturday's game, Dusty made all the right moves with respect to the use of Z and the relief corps. It was time for Carlos to go, and I think Dusty turned to the appropriate people, they just didn't get the job done.

    It happens sometimes, and I think it's nearly as important to acknowledge cases like this where the right moves were made but didn't work, as it is to point out instances of poor strategy. Saturday, Dusty pushed all the right buttons, the machine just blew up in his face.

  • Anyone wondering how badly Michael Barrett's shoulder is bothering him need only look at the ninth inning on Saturday, when with two out and two on, Henry Blanco hit for himself. A healthy, or even moderately healthy Barrett is up and swinging in that situation. That he wasn't speaks volumes, so say your prayers for the man, because seeing Blanco at the plate for any extended period just might sear my corneas.

  • Derrek Lee had himself a rough weekend. Not only was he a mortal 2 for 8 at the plate without either hit being for extra bases, but he committed an error in the first game that led directly to a White Sox run, and made two extremely bad and potentially costly baserunning errors over the next two contests.

    Both gaffes on the paths were uncharacteristically thoughtless, the first being one of somnambulance, as Damaso Marte caught Lee navel-gazing off of first base with two out in the eighth, Jeromy Burnitz at the plate, and the Cubs down a skinny run. Certainly, it may have cost the Cubs nothing but opportunity, but the lovely beast raised it's head so little on Saturday that squandering an appearance was shoddy work, indeed.

    The second mistake, occurring on Sunday, was worse for two reasons: first, it actually cost the Cubs a run, and second, rather than simply being unconscious, Lee actually believed something the opposition told him. Really, the issue was less with Derrek buying the stuff that Juan Uribe was selling about foul balls, bad as that was, and more about the sin of not picking up his third base coach as he approached second.

    Every little leaguer has this drummed into his head, and by the time you're up with the big boys you'd think that it would be reflex. Fortunately, despite the mistake, the Cubs didn't need the extra run (although, I'd have sold my soul for it after Paul Konerko found the street in the ninth), and the fact is, everyone's due to have a bad stretch - especially when you've been as special as Lee has been thus far. So there you go, Derrek, that was your run of foolishness for the year. See that it doesn't happen again.

  • As for Mark Prior's very good, but long, effort on Sunday, it's an excellent example of how the results of previous contests affect today's managerial decisions. I guarantee you, had the Cubs won the first two games of the series, Prior comes out after eight and Ryan Dempster is allowed the chance to do his dirty work.

    That wasn't the case, however, and as is the wont of many a Major League skipper, Dusty hung onto his best pitcher and prayed he could take him home. Prior did, and that's good, and as far as abusive outings go, 126 pitches isn't assault with intent. However, I'd feel so much better if the Cubs had a bullpen that inspired confidence. That could have as much to do with any damage the Cubbie troika of young hurlers have and will experience as Dusty's proclivity for horses, and that fault for that falls squarely on Jim Hendry's shoulders.

Out from the clutches of one rival, directly to another, as the Astros are coming to town tonight. The very good news is that Houston is thus far 2-19 on the road. The bad news is that trend has to reverse itself at some point, even if the Astros don't get much better. Here's to hoping it doesn't do so for at least the next three days.

Da White Sox
2005-05-20 06:40
by Alex Ciepley

The Cubs shoot for their third win in a row, a "feat" they've only accomplished once this season so far. It won't be easy. Up next are the white hot White Sox, recipient of scorn for many Cubs fans--and perhaps some jealousy this year, as the Sox hold the best record in baseball. If you could have predicted that one Chicago team would be 29-12 at this point in the season, you'd likely be swimming in the bling if you'd picked the Sox over the Cubs.

In an effort to get to know this year's southern neighbors a bit better, Derek and I asked a few questions of The Cheat from South Side Sox.

Derek: I'm not a native Chicagoan, so I don't have the preternatural enmity toward the Sox that other Cub fans might, and I see a city and local media that in many ways give the South Side short shrift. So here's your chance to help rectify things by answering a simple question: Why should I, and the rest of Chicago for that matter, follow the White Sox more closely?

The Cheat: You shouldn't. As a Cubs fan, all you have to care about is your team. The Sox are only on the schedule for 6 games a year, and no matter how many games they win, they can't keep the Cubs from going to the playoffs... that's Dusty's job.

As for the rest of Chicago, the White Sox are, at the very least, entertaining. They play sound fundamental baseball, They're in every game, (The only loss by more than 3 runs was the Shingo meltdown during the opening series.) and they don't beat themselves. At the very most, they have an opportunity to be the type of team that Chicago hasn't had in 46 years, maybe even 88.

Alex: Continuing with the unappreciated-White-Sox theme, I've always been mystified that Frank Thomas isn't accorded the respect he deserves. Is it too simple to think that it's because his repertoire doesn't include hops, chest thumps, and two-fingered kisses at the camera?

The Cheat: I think there's more to it than just a show for the camera. He's actually proven that he can put on a facade for the camera in the last few years. His real problem lies in his relationship with the media. Like it or not, as a ball player, they represent you to the vast majority of fans. What they have to say and write about you is going to be hard to escape, good or bad. Look at Michael Jordan. That guy was Teflon, nothing stuck to him. Most of the media wouldn't let it.

Frank may not be the most affable guy, but I can say two things for certain. 1. In this era of supplements and more, there's no doubt in my mind that Frank has always been clean. 2. He's one helluva hitter. He's tailed off largely because of injuries the last few seasons, but for much of the '90s he was the most feared hitter in baseball.

Derek: The team's two biggest power threats are each hitting under .200, and not a single regular has an OPS over .800, yet the Sox are right in the middle of the pack in runs. How are they doing it?

The Cheat: Balance. The top of the order is getting on base at a very good clip, and the bottom of the order has produced about as well as any team in baseball. The middle of the order may not be hitting like they can yet, but for the most part, they've made the hits count. In the last few seasons, you'd often see the Sox win one game by 10+ runs only to struggle to scrape together one or two runs the next game. That just hasn't been the case this year. They've been very good at putting runs on the board early, and then playing with the lead.

Alex: Hey, want Matt Karchner back? What's up with Jon Garland these days, and do you think his early success is going to continue throughout the season?

The Cheat: I didn't want Karchner back in August of 1998. That trade was a win for the White Sox as soon as Garland cracked the bigs as the youngest player in baseball back in 2000.

Garland's been amazing this season. He's a completely different pitcher. His change up is baffling lefties. His fastball and sinker have more life. He's not afraid to pound the zone. I could go on and on. Can he continue this performance? He's not going to go 33-0, that's for sure. However, his last two outings have told me that he really has turned a corner. In both cases, late in the game with just a 1-run lead and the tying runner on third, Garland went to his best stuff off the inside of the plate and got Tejada, Blalock, and Soriano to strikeout. The old Garland would have pissed down his leg in both instances.

Cub Town: What's your prediction for the series?

The Cheat: Ugh. I'm an optimist at heart, but I could never bet on the White Sox. Every series this year, I take a look at the pitching match ups and I say to myself, "I don't like the way this stacks up." Interestingly, the two series where I really liked our match ups (Oakland and Tampa Bay) have been the only series we've lost.

That being said, Dusty has juggled his order, and Ozzie's sending two guys out there (Garcia and El Duque) who just got rocked last time out. The third Sox hurler is your typical Jeckle & Hyde head case. I certainly won't be placing any money on the Sox walking away with a series victory this weekend. Take that for what it's worth.

Turning The Table
2005-05-18 07:07
by Derek Smart

After notching wins in his first three starts of the year, Mark Prior has become the team's hard luck case of late, throwing very well in his last three contests only to be deprived of the necessary run support to call the victory his.

Lucky for the Cubs, the team still got the win because Derrek Lee refused once again to let his mates go down. It was both satisfying and frustrating to see the Cubs pull it out the way other teams have done against them, but a win's a win, and you won't see me complaining about it, so on to the lead-based idea markers:

  • I feel lucky that I was unable to focus on the game until Jason Bay's sixth inning at bat (although, that sequence and the one that followed to Rob Mackowiack were certainly unpalatable), because the Cubs' consistent ability to get two-out rallies started married with their consistent inability to have anything come of them might have given me an aneurism.

    However, the fact that wasted opportunities littered the field like hot dog wrappers on a windy day somehow made the eventual victory sweeter. These are the games you're supposed to lose, and with the Cubs spending the better part of this season dropping ones they were supposed to win like they were bread crumbs for pigeons, it felt great to be the recipient of the freebie for a change.

  • I was trying to imagine what Spin Williams was saying to Mike Gonzalez when Jose Macias stepped to the dish as a pinch-hitter in the eighth. You always hear the broadcasters say that the coach is going over the scouting report on a rarely-used player with his pitcher in that sort of situation, but what's to be said about Macias? Aim for the plate? Aim for his bat? Stifle your laughter?

    The sad part was, the state of the bench is such that with Gonzalez in the game, Macias was unquestionably the best option the Cubs had available to them, as the only men on the pine that could hit were Hollandsworth and Grieve, both of whom would have been in lefty hell had they the misfortune to face Mighty Mike. When Jose Macias is your best available right-handed reserve option...ugh, I've run out of different ways to say how bad that is.

  • Even when he's not inhabited by aliens, there is one discernible offensive skill Neifi! possesses: the ability to lay down the sacrifice bunt, and he laid down a beut in the top of the ninth. I talked a bit about my irrational fear of bunting men over to third the other day, but that's only in situations where first is also occupied, thus not allowing the man at second a chance to decide if it's safe to proceed. I just hate that trapped feeling (you should see me in a crowd surging toward a moving escalator).

    It's odd, even in this post-sarcastic-exclamation-point era (an era quickly ending, by the way, if one notices his .167/.211/.259 line in May), to feel good when Neifi! strides to the plate at any point, let alone late in a game. But with a man at second, no one out, down by one in the top of the ninth, there's not another player on the team I'd rather see taking their turn, ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

  • Of course, Neifi!'s bunting was rendered entirely moot when Derrek Lee stepped up and absolutely launched some scraps from The Table to the deepest part of the park. I've simply run out of adjectives or phrases of praise for this man and his work thus far, and all I can say at this point is that I have no idea where this team would be without Derrek Lee, but I do know that this club sans Rodan would be a sad sight indeed.

  • What a relief (no pun intended) to witness the other team's closer blow the job, while seeing someone come out of the Cub bullpen and get three easy outs in the ninth. Ryan Dempster looked solid, and the Pirate hitters impatient, which is exactly the sort of thing a walk-prone pitcher like Dempster likes to see.

    Still, despite Dempster's success last night, I'm very pleased to see that one Mr. Joe Borowski had another nice outing in Iowa yesterday, going two innings, giving up no hits, with one walk and one strikeout. He may not be a savior, but I think getting a healthy, effective JoBo back is the first step toward solidifying the Cubs' bullpen, and I couldn't be looking forward to it more.

It's an daytime tilt today, with Glendon Rusch facing Kip Wells. I'll be scoreboard watching, as my afternoon will be spent witnessing Mark Buehrle ply his trade at The Cell in the company of some of my bestest internet buddies. Here's to live baseball, and here's to two in a row for our boys.

Ewww, Just.....Ewww
2005-05-17 14:21
by Derek Smart

As if concrete elbows and lead gloves weren't enough to get you down, Ronny Cedeno, who has played admirably when given the chance, was sent down today to make room for...Enrique Wilson?!?

Leave it to the Cubs to sign one of the few infielders out there who deserves to be a back up to Neifi! Don't get me wrong, if Cedeno isn't going to start every day, finding a way to get him down to Iowa where he could play was critical to his development, but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about the team managing to find a guy who makes Jose Macias look like a viable Major Leaguer.

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 6
2005-05-16 09:06
by Derek Smart

By week's end the Cubs had done it again, going 3-3 during a week when they had an opportunity to do so much more. Save last week's disastrous 1-5 stint, this game of even up has been the team's way in 2005. It may only be mid-May, but fourth place in a division with only one team over .500 is ignominious at best. But enough wallowing - on to the Enemy!

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record24-13
    Week's Record5-2
    Games Back--

    When is a week when you're three games over .500 a lousy one? Why, when you also lose Scott Rolen to a shoulder injury, of course. If there's good news to be found, it's that the time off may give them a chance to fix his balky knee as well, thus allowing him to come back at full strength when he does return. That, and the fact that there's no team in the division even close to being in a position to make a run while Rolen's on the shelf.

  2. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record18-18
    Week's Record3-3
    Games Back5.5

    Proving once again that Closers aren't born, or even made, but rather, found between the cushions of the corner booth at Denny's, Derrick Turnbow is quietly mowing down the National League in his newfound role, sporting a 1.63 ERA while giving up 5 hits and 3 walks over 11 IP, while striking out 13. Not bad for an October waiver claim.

  3. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record17-19
    Week's Record4-2
    Games Back6.5

    Since when is a 17-19 team resurgent? When they go 9-3 over their last twelve games while outscoring their opponents 64-33, that's when. Don't misunderstand, this is still a bad team, but they just might not be the worst in the division when all's said and done, and unfortunately for Pirate fans, that's an accomplishment in itself.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record14-23
    Week's Record3-4
    Games Back10.0

    Give up 13 one day, score 11 the next. Allow 12 another day, return the favor on the morrow. Such is the life of a team leading the league in extra base hits, but with propane tanks for pitchers. Their R/G is only slightly lower than the one posted by Denver's anti-gravity squad, and that's a recipe for disaster in climes that don't require oxygen tanks.

  5. Houston Astros

    Season Record14-23
    Week's Record3-4
    Games Back10.0

    Boy, things sure change fast. Thirteen days ago, this was a club with a fine pitching staff, on the cusp of .500, with their best offensive player due back any day. Lance Berkman has returned, sure, but now Jeff Bagwell is getting shoulder surgery, and the team has fallen 10 games back at the Ides of May. Most expected the Astros to fall off, but this far? This fast?

You're Riding What, Now?
2005-05-16 08:23
by Derek Smart

I'm a little slow on the uptake this morning, but thankfully, the good folks over at Goat Riders of the Apocalypse got me off my duff to pen a piece on Jim Hendry. Head over here to get a look.

Mr. Lee Goes to Washington
2005-05-13 07:27
by Alex Ciepley

If only Dwight Smith had developed into a star (and were still playing for the Cubs)... then that headline coulda really been sumpin'. As it stands, the Cubs bring their mighty two-game winning streak and mightier slugging first sacker to Washington, DC for a weekend series with the reborn Nats.

I know nuttin' about nuttin' about these Nationals, although I know I swoon for Vidro and Wilkerson. In order to get a bit more up-to-date on the Washingtonians, Cub Town turned to Baseball Prospectus author Chris Kahrl. Chris is a devout A's fan living in the DC area, and has an uncanny talent for knowing a whole lot of somethin' about most everything. But who knew that at this point in the season it would be less painful for Chris to watch the hometown Nats than the Oakland squad?

Alex: How would you characterize the way in which DC has embraced the Nationals so far?

Chris: Extremely positively. I think the Nats can reasonably expect attendance of 2.5 million. I guess I remain nonplussed about the way in which the franchise has failed to try to integrate itself into a predominantly African-American city, but a pragmatist would take from that the knowledge that the Nats know where their money has been made: Northern Virginia, especially in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, areas the Orioles could never really tap all that well (and especially not on weeknights, through a Beltway rush hour).

I can't help but wonder if clubs will learn something from the Nats' success despite their weak PR effort. It really can be all about having a quality product, or in this case, baseball. And Cristian Guzman aside, they haven't embarrassed themselves, which helps get things off on the right foot.

Alex: Has John Patterson emerged? He's the right age for this kind of thing (27), his strikeout and homerun rates are great, and while he's never been on a path to superstardom, he's not exactly unheralded, either. It seems with Patterson, Loiza, and Livan, the Nats don't have such a bad threesome at the front of the rotation...

Chris: Well, Patterson was one of my preseason touts, so I'm biased. I guess between his stuff (still good), his recovery from his various problems, a friendly sea-level ballpark instead of the BOB... he's somebody who can look forward to making $3 million per if he doesn't scrag his shoulder. With all of these factors in his favor, he could easily move into the $6-9 million per annum range on the free market, and not just because the wrong Yankee exec on lithium is answering the phones that day.

Derek: Vinny Castilla is ruining my Hacking Mass team. Is there any chance he'll continue to do so, or will he revert to form worthy of a sarcastic exclamation point (Vinny!)? How much to they need him to keep up his warmer ways to keep their offense humming?

Chris: Cousin Vinny will get back to his hack-tastic ways soon enough. As Cubs fans, you guys already know everything about June swoons, right? And no, I don't mean the city-wide case of the flabbergasteds that comes when a Cubs fan like Dennis Franz goes pants-optional during sweeps weeks.

But the Nats don't need him all that much, not with a healthy Nick Johnson getting on base, and Brad Wilkerson slowly growing into one of the game's most underrated stars. Losing Jose Vidro will hurt more than Castilla's going cold will.

Alex: Speaking of exclamation points, think the Cubs can convince Nats GM Jim Bowden to take, say, Neifi! and a bottle of Sun-In in exchange for Brad Wilkerson? How much do we love Brad Wilkerson?

Chris: We really love Brad Wilkerson, who should be a lock to be this town's Rusty Staub and Jeff Conine all rolled into one, and my odds-on favorite to be the original 'Mr. Nat.' Meanwhile, I think Cubs fans will have to learn to love life with Neifi. Every honeymoon ends, of course, which you could take to mean that Britney Spears is at heart a Cubs fan, and you're all similarly sensible about ditching this new stiff fast, before the sun climbs too high and things start to rot.

Cub Town: What's your prediction for the series?

Chris: Nats take two out of three, with the Cubs avoiding the sweep on Sunday. Rusch has a decent start, but Loaiza has a better one; Zambrano isn't at his best after a heavy workload, and Maddux puts up another good start while my tout gets smacked around a bit. And people complain about the shortage of restrooms and concessions at RFK. Andy MacPhail will say something cautiously optimistic about DC as a market, contradicting his comments at the Cubs convention in January.

Help is on the Way?
2005-05-12 16:58
by Alex Ciepley

While the Cubs get ready for a tour of the nation's capital, here's a quick stroll through a few AAA pitchers and AA hitters:

Bobby Brownlie

IP   ERA   HR  BB  K
34.3 5.77 5 15 20

That's no good. Brownlie entered the season as a potential Mid-Season Helper (aka Wood-Prior Replacement), but his tater-happiness, iffy control, and strikeout-aversion aren't going to help the Cubs anytime soon--while there've been plenty of bombs and walks issued by the major league staff, at least they're striking guys out, too.

As for the other potential Rotation Saviour, Angel Guzman, he has yet to pitch, sidelined with an arm injury. Carrie Muskat reports:

Guzman has been slowed by a strained right forearm that has been described as something similar to a hamstring injury. Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita says they decided to add an additional 10 days to Guzman's rehab time in Mesa, Ariz., and if he shows improvement, he could join a minor league team in mid-June. If healthy, Guzman might have been considered for a spot in the rotation now.

At a level lower, the Cubs' AA team, the Diamond Jaxx, have been throwing out the following first seven batters every day.

Felix Pie OF

118 9 26 .364 .409 .627

Adam Greenberg OF

91 17 25 .308 .418 .407

Matt Murton OF

118 16 13 .407 .485 .602

Matt Craig 3B

60 6 11 .317 .377 .550

Brandon Sing 1B

89 19 26 .337 .459 .685

Buck Coats SS

100 13 20 .320 .395 .430

Ryan Theriot 2B

103 16 10 .330 .413 .427

Are you kidding me? The Jaxx currently stand at 25-8, and it is no wonder with a lineup producing at that rate. Take a look at those on-base percentages: .409, .418, .485, .377, .459, .395, .413. Derrek Lee may be the only Cubs on the big league roster that will end up with an OBP that even matches the lowest of those numbers.

Of course, not all these Jaxxers are considered hot prospects, but the doings of youngster Pie and Nomar-caddy Murton are especially encouraging. And this from a minor league system that for years has been known as pitching-heavy. Keep on keepin' on, D-Jaxx.

Sloppy Seconds
2005-05-12 09:19
by Derek Smart

I'm not complaining about the ugliness of the Cubs' second win in a row, as whining about the aesthetics of victory is unbecoming in those starved for the manna of triumph. But just because I greatly enjoyed the destination doesn't mean I liked the journey.

In any case, since beggars can't be choosers, I'll just revel in conquest's warm glowing warming glow, while I shoot you all some bullet points.

  • I feel so bad for Jerry Hairston. He's not playing horribly - in fact, he went 4 for 10 in this series - and with his solid OBP and lack of power, he's a good candidate for the first or second spot in the order. Yet, there he was yesterday, batting seventh.

    This may seem like a lesser insult than his stint in the eighth spot on Tuesday, but that was in a lineup with Michael Barrett and Aramis Ramirez. Yesterday, while he was deemed worthy of more potential at bats than Henry Blanco - a decision on par for difficulty with the one I make to breathe every few seconds - he was hitting behind none other than Cub Town whipping boy, Jose Macias.

    I'll pass on overstaying my welcome in the land of Macias-bashing and simply hope that Jerry can overcome the grievous wound to his pride.

  • I truly hate bunting with men on first and second. Not that having Holly attempting to do just that in the bottom of the ninth yesterday wasn't the right play - it most certainly was - it's just one of those plays that is so rarely executed well, at least by the Cubs, that I always cringe seeing it applied.

    In fact, had his first bunt attempt been a little less foul, the pop-up could have easily resulted in a double-play, as Jerry Hairston had a huge jump off of second in an effort to avoid the thing that I usually see happen - a force-out at third.

    Thankfully, when Hollandsworth was unable to keep his second try out of the air, Hairston was sufficiently close to the bag that even if Heath Bell hadn't dropped the ball on the transfer he would have made it back. Still, it illustrates why I dislike the play so, even when it's the right thing to do, when I can feel relief at its failure resulting in only one out.

  • A little advice for anyone who might be offered the Cubs closer job over the coming weeks: don't take it! First JoBo's wrist, next LaTroy's psyche, then Foxy's elbow, and now Dempster's forearm. It's like they're re-re-making the Amityville Horror, only this time it's about an occupation that's out to destroy anyone attempting it.

    It's like being a general under Stalin in the late thirties, except they died for failing less. I beg of you Dusty, if you want the carnage to end, don't name anyone else as your closer! Unless, of course, it's Jose Macias.

  • It's just so obvious, but it bears repeating - Derrek Lee can play ball.

It's an off day, so rest and hope for the best when the Cubs go east for their first series in DC. In the meantime, if you haven't heard or didn't get around to it, let me remind you that I'll be at The Cell this coming Wednesday with Scott Long and Will Carroll of the Toaster's own, The Juice, for a 1:05 game featuring the Texas Rangers and some other team from Chicago. Go here for details, as Scott is the one being kind enough to play herdmaster, and I hope to see you there!

Second Verse...
2005-05-11 14:40
by Derek Smart
Free At Last?
2005-05-11 07:46
by Derek Smart

It may not be for longer than a night, but how lovely was it to see The Prisoner finally given a chance to start against a right-hander? And how much lovelier to see him respond with a homer and two RBI on the night, while managing to not make a fool of himself with the glove? Of course, it helps when not a single ball gets out to your field all game, but I'll ignore that detail for now and revel in the fact that my favorite jailbird did little to jeopardize his shot at a job. Word is, he'll be given the chance to win it, so here's hoping he can get it done, because alternative options are as plentiful as ivy leaves in January.

The happy turn in the continuing saga of Mr. Dubois wasn't the only event last night - the best one, of course, being the victory - so as is my way, here I come with a hail of bullets.

  • The Professor was up to his old tricks last night - or was he? I suppose it depends on your definition of the phrase. If it means that Maddux shut down the opponents offense en route to a shutout victory, then by gum, the shoe fits, as the Mets could manage only three each of hits and walks during Mad Dog's 6.2 innings of work.

    However, if your idea of "old tricks" deals more with method than results, then we saw an entirely different version of Maddux on the bump last night. Normally a groundball machine who, while getting his share of strikeouts, rarely registers whiffs that match or even approach his innings pitched, yesterday's game saw our boy Greg get half of his outs via the K, and half of his non-K outs via fly balls.

    In fact, until much later in the game, he was getting a lot of his pitches up in the zone, which is generally a cause for concern - in recent years, those pitches tend to get deposited in bleacher seats more often than not - but there was great movement on all of his stuff last night, so even when he didn't get the ball in the spot he might have liked, the pitch was still good enough to fool the hitter, and in the end, that'll do every time.

  • I know he's the greatest hitter at the position for all time, but seeing Mike Piazza trying to throw out Neifi! as he stole second made me extra happy that we have the new and improved Michael Barrett behind the dish.

    Piazza's now thrown out only 4 of 30 would-be base stealers, and Neifi!'s swipe was a good example of why: he got a good but not great jump, doesn't run very fast in the first place, and Piazza made what looked like the strongest, most accurate throw he could - but Neifi! still made it with ease. It's something the Mets simply have to live with when Piazza dons the mask, because as we saw, even when everything goes right, there's a decent chance it's all wasted effort anyway.

  • Truth be told, he's not having a good season, particularly if there's to be any traction for the notion of him as a leadoff man, but that doesn't take away the fun of seeing Corey Patterson get his jacks. The problem is, despite the minor change to his swing, he's essentially the same player he was last year, minus some walks - like he could afford to let those slip.

    The homers themselves - solo shots - also brought into stark relief one of the main issues with batting him at the top in the first place: if his main strength at this point is his power, why hit him in the spot where he'll see the fewest men on base? The hope, of course, is that by hitting there he'll learn better discipline and grow into the role, but the medicine's not taking, and I'm not sure it ever will.

    Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching Corey play, but his lack of any sort of cohesive approach at the dish is a major source of frustration. There were moments last year where he seemed to be getting it, but I have yet to witness any such thing this season. I hope we get to see some lasting improvement soon, because this offense needs Corey to get it figured out.

  • I just might have to rescind my declaration of the Jeromageddon. True, Burnitz isn't getting on base at the rate I'd ideally like to see, but his .295/.331/.541 line is certainly above what I expected, and perhaps more importantly to Cubs fans, he's actually outplaying the guy he replaced.

We'll see if there's a ballgame today, as the skies look to be dark for the day's duration. However, on a quick side note, if you're in the Chicago area and aren't afeared of the town's other team, come on out to The Cell next Wednesday and hang out with some Toastmasters and other Toaster readers! Scott Long from The Juice is organizing the outing, and he'll be there along with Will and me to hang out, talk some ball, and watch a game. Check here for details, and hope to see you there!

Watching For Once
2005-05-10 08:14
by Alex Ciepley

15 hours or so into the Cubs game last night, I fell asleep. Actually, I think I fainted, just around the time Doug Spellcheck hit a shot off LaTroy, sealing the fate of the Cubs once again. I've got some nasty cold, so instead of feeling the usual wave of depression following another late-inning Cubs collapse, the game felt like a commiseration of my current misery.

For the first time in weeks, I actually watched the Cubs on TV. I didn't Gamecast them, or play catchup on, or receive random emails and phone calls from friends telling me about the latest screwed up bullpen maneuverings. Even this night almost didn't happen, as just yesterday Cablevision and Time Warner dropped their little feud, allowing New Yorkers to see their Mets broadcasts.

My bullets aren't as insightful as Derek's, but I bullet nonetheless.

  • Jon Leicester has such pretty blond hair. I, too, once had pretty blond hair, shoulder length--now I have a fugly shaved head. These days I tell my friends it's just in honor of the current Cubs trend, but considering I've had nary a hair on my scalp for several years running, no one's buying my load of garbage.
  • So much for Jason Dubois being the starter beginning Monday, as Hollandsworthless-thus-far got the start. The Cubs are apparently all worried about Dubois' defense in left field, but I'd be a little more worried about the .197/.251/.363 line the team put up last week. Libérer Dubois!
  • Corey Patterson entered the game with one stolen base on the season. He stole second twice in the first inning, but Neifi! both times fouled off pitches he coulda-shoulda taken, sending Patterson back to first. Then came the rain. Then came a double play. Thanks, Neifi!
  • Neifi! kinda makes up for it with a 13-pitch AB in the bottom of the third, drawing a walk (!) on the final pitch. It's the highlight of the game for the Cubs.
  • As I watch Aramis Ramirez turn a single into an ill-fated attempt at a double, I think: can Rickey retire already so the Cubs can hire him as a first base coach?
  • I have Michael Barrett on almost all my fantasy teams, and have been patient in not dropping him. He's been hitting the ball hard all season, with a good dose of bad luck making his season look below-average (an unlucky 24% hit rate on balls in play--29% or so is normal). There was no luck, good or bad, about the three-run homer he hit in the bottom of the sixth to tie up the game.
  • Poor LaTroy. Poor Dempster. Sad Clowns all.

Game two features a more favorable matchup for the Cubs (Maddux-Benson), though Benson has pitched well so far this season. Hopefully the offense can wake up before I fall asleep, again.

Prepare to be Amazed!
2005-05-09 11:33
by Derek Smart

New York hates to wait. So, four non-playoff/doormat years later, the National League's Big Apple entry spent the offseason...well...spending, and with great flair to boot. Now they find themselves in the thick of what could be the best race in the NL this year - being a fourth place team that's only 3.5 games back usually signals big fun ahead.

These new-look Metropolitans begin their only Wrigley Field appearance tonight, so it seemed like a good time to call in the reinforcements. Thankfully, Eric Simon of Amazin' Avenue and answered the call. We tossed him a few questions about his friends from Flushing, and he responded thusly:

Derek: Mike Piazza is in the final year of his contract. Do you see the Mets re-signing him? Why?

Eric: I think it really depends on what kind of year he has, production-wise and health-wise. After a terrible start to the season Piazza has been hitting much better for the past week or so. If he can catch 120 games this season with above-average offensive production for the position, I can see the Mets bringing Mike back next year. Another factor will be the availability of any reasonable replacement for Piazza. Jim Duquette traded away the Mets best Minor League option in Justin Huber last July and Omar Minaya traded away Jason Phillips this offseason, so at this point there's really no in-house option ready to step in.

Derek: With Mike Cameron off the DL, and the emergence of Victor Diaz in his absence (a man Cubs fans are all too familiar with), how do you see the Mets handling the resulting logjam? If part of the resolution includes a trade, what do you see the Mets getting/asking for in return?

Eric: The Mets are in the enviable position of having four Major League quality outfielders who are all pluses (or better) offensively. Based on Willie Randolph's handling thus far, it looks like Floyd/Beltran/Cameron will be the Big Three, with Victor Diaz getting one-or-two starts a week as the other three guys are occasionally rested. Whichever player isn't in the lineup on a given day provides an attractive option off the bench late in games. GM Omar Minaya is a huge fan of Victor Diaz, so he will have to be blown away with an offer for him at this point.

Cameron is a more likely trade option, but the Mets should be hesitant to deal him in my opinion. Despite his historically low batting averages, top-flight defensive outfielders who put up 20-20 (or 30-20) seasons and draw a good number of walks don't exactly grow on trees. Plus he's signed through 2006 (with an option for 2007) and is making a very reasonable $6.5 million.

Alex: The Mets were widely acclaimed for their offseason maneuverings, snatching both the best starting pitcher available and the best position player. How have you liked watching Pedro and Beltran so far this year?

Eric: Pedro has been as advertised: a dominant #1 stopper-type pitcher. As Cubs fans know from watching Mark Prior (at least Mark Prior circa 2003), a true ace like Pedro is a joy to watch every time he goes out there, and he makes every one of his starts a must-see. He has also shown a great happy-go-lucky attitude, which has run contrary to his reputation as a diva.

Carlos Beltran has yet to really hit his stride has a Met, but he's done reasonably well considering the two batters in front of him (Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui) have done an abominable job of getting on base. Many fans were expecting him to pick up right where he left off in the playoffs last season, which hasn't really happened yet. He's struggled with consistency a bit early on, but there aren't any real worries about what he'll do for this franchise.

Alex: I've been living in NYC for six years now, and the entire time I've been here it's been all about the Yankees. Some of my friends, though, remember the '80s as a time when the city was squarely behind the Mets. Do you think the tide is shifting once again, and that the Mets are winning their way back into the casual New York fans' hearts?

Eric: It's funny you should ask that, because I really do sense that a bit. It may have more to do with Pedro and Beltran than anything that has happened yet this season, but there has definitely been a noticeable shift in support amongst fans in the metro area. I've seen a lot more Mets hats, shirts, and jerseys than I have in recent years. In the late nineties, a lot of casual fans jumped on the Yankees bandwagon, in large part because the Yankees were a likeable team. They hadn't won anything in a while, they were sporting a lot of homegrown talent and character guys that were acquired via trade or free agency. More recently the Yankees have lost much (or all) of that likeability, as the casual fan has found less to admire in the overpriced, aging, and rapidly-declining Yankee team that takes the field today.

The Mets are now that very likeable team, with emerging homegrown talent like David Wright, Victor Diaz, and Jose Reyes, as well as marquee free agents like Beltran, Pedro, etc. The Mets have become a very easy team to root for, and the Yankees have become quite the opposite.

Cub Town: What's your prediction for the series?

Eric: With the Mets playing well and the Cubbies struggling of late, I'm going to pick the Mets to win 2-of-3. I'll take Heilman over Leicester and Benson over Maddux, with Prior/Zambrano perhaps the mismatch of the season to this point.

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 5
2005-05-09 10:04
by Derek Smart

Intro, shmintro.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record19-11
    Week's Record4-3
    Games Back--

    They began the week with the comeback of the year - a stunning seven-run top of the ninth in Cincinnati - and ended it with an eleven-run first inning to fend off a four-game series sweep at the hands of the Padres. The offense may not be consistent yet, but it's mighty explosive just the same.

  2. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record15-15
    Week's Record4-2
    Games Back4.0

    The Brewers' seven-game win streak was ended by Zambrano. Victor, that is. In other news, Lyle Overbay became human again, only hitting .333/.545/.667 for the week. What a fraud.

  3. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record13-17
    Week's Record5-2
    Games Back6.0

    Pitching is still the relative strength of this team, but weeks where a club like this scores 46 runs simply cannot be ignored. Of course, the five games they won were the ones in which their opponent scored four runs or fewer, so while the offense had a party, the arms still did most of the work.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record11-19
    Week's Record1-5
    Games Back8.0

    While the Monday night implosion brought the point home in the most painful way possible for Reds fans, what was true before that game is still true today - this team has no pitching, and until they fix that glaring issue, this team has no chance.

  5. Houston Astros

    Season Record11-19
    Week's Record1-6
    Games Back8.0

    They beat the Cubs handily in the final two games of last week, and carried the offensive burst through to the first game of this week, an 11-4 thumping of the Pirates. Then the hitters' plug was pulled, and the pitchers opened the floodgates, as the Astros spent the last six games getting outscored 51-16. Not even the return of Lance Berkman can help staunch that kind of bleeding.

A Team Barely Alive
2005-05-09 08:11
by Derek Smart

Looking for a reason why the Cubs had such a lousy week? To pervert a phrase from politics, it's the offense, stupid.

True, three losses in a row came in the ninth inning as the Cub bullpen was unable to hold ties or skinny leads in place, and I'll openly admit that's a problem, but the bigger issue lies in the fact that over the six games they played this past week, the Cubs scored more than three runs only once, and more than two only twice.

The opposition only scored 22 runs in those games - a 3.66 runs allowed per game that would be the envy of any NL team not playing in the southeast - so despite how one might feel about the unpleasant way many of those contests ended, the fact that the Cubs mustered only 14 runs during those tilts made the results themselves, if not the route to them, practically inevitable.

Unfortunately, yesterday's victory was not the result of more robust run support, but rather, a huge performance from Carlos Zambrano. This would normally be the spot where I cry me a river about Z going for 136 pitches, but you know what? I don't have the energy for it, and not only that, I'm not sure occasional outings like these are such a big deal for Carlos.

I'm not much on spotting players' natural pitching mechanics, let alone changes in them, so if anyone out there sees anything different and therefore worrisome from Z when he gets that far in a game, let me know. Alterations to his motion due to fatigue would be my primary concern, and with as hard as he was throwing at the end, I wouldn't be shocked if there was an increase in effort and resulting shift in mechanics that could eventually be problematic. I'm just not good enough to spot it, so if you are, clue me in.

Even so, I just wanted the Cubs to put up a 'W' more than anything else, and since I've rarely seen negative effects when Carlos goes that deep, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and enjoy the win until someone sets me straight.

A couple more things:

  • The team hit .197/.251/.363 for the week. Sounds like that's the root of the issue to me.

  • I was ready to write about how Neifi! had finally won his bout with amnesia - realizing that he was, indeed, that Neifi! - and normally anytime someone goes 1 for 20 you can officially declare their hot streak over. But when that one hit is a solo homer that constitutes half of your team's offensive output during a win that ends a seven-game losing streak, I suppose some slack is in order.

    But watch yourself, Neifi! I've got my eye on you.

  • Speaking of Neifi!, there was an interesting juxtaposition of defensive ability in Saturday's game, with Neifi! at second, and Ronnie Cedeno over at shortstop. It's not often one gets to see both sides of the middle infield get tested by essentially identical plays, but that's what happened on two consecutive bloops to both foul lines.

    First came the pop-up to left, and with Cedeno playing close to the middle, he had a lot of territory to cover. He made it though, and with relative ease, nearly having time to set up underneath the ball before he caught it. Compare this with the mirror image play that saw Neifi! set up in the same spot on the other side, having to dive for a ball hit to the near exact opposite spot on the diamond, and still unable to even touch it.

    Don't get me wrong, Neifi! is still a fine defender, but it looks to me like we've got an even better option with the glove in Cedeno. I hope he gets some time to develop in AAA this year, because getting a young, cheap option at short who can hit his weight and pick it clean would be something I'd enjoy immensely.

It's the Mets tonight, and our first look at arch-nemsis, Carlos Beltran, in his new uni. We'll have one of our question and answer sessions later today with Mets blogger, Eric Simon of Amazin' Avenue and, so stay tuned!

Let's Not Discuss...
2005-05-07 10:56
by Alex Ciepley

...last night. The score was 2-1, top of the ninth, and I had my Gamecast thingy up at work, showing Hawkins on the mound. The first two batters reached base, and I didn't even need to wait around to see how the game was going to end. I turned off the computer before the freak error and the two runs came in, plugged my iPod headphones into my ears, and took a stroll to a local watering hole.

Glendon Rusch takes the hill today as a Wood-replacement, taking on former Cub sensation Jon Lieber. Expect a quick game.

Phreaky Phils
2005-05-06 07:02
by Alex Ciepley

Hey, even good teams lose five in a row. Last year's Red Sox began May 2004 the same way the Cubs have begun this year's May: five games down. Of course, the Red Sox were actually a really good team, and even their losing streak left them at 15-11. The Cubs, right now, are 12-15. Suckity Suck Suck.

The Phils are in town, so in an effort to get to know our kinda-sorta Brotherly neighbors, Derek and I asked a few questions of Tom from Shallow Center. Be sure to check out his site, too, where Derek and I offer up a couple opinions on things Cubwise.

Derek: Has all the unfulfilled potential on the Phils left you suicidal, or merely filled with soul-crushing ennui?

Tom: What you see out of the Phillies over the first 29 games of 2005 is frighteningly similar to what they did in 2003 and 2004, so by now I'm rather used to it. Inconsistent starting pitching, a dreadful inability to hit with men on base, and a bullpen that uses gasoline to douse fires--who knew baseball had reruns?

The players checked out on Larry Bowa pretty early last year, but instead of cashiering him in June or July, when they should have, the Phillies let him ride out the season. Good 'ol boy Charlie Manuel has the reins now, and what has become depressingly clear is that it wasn't the manager that held this team back. Had the front office given Manuel a few months last season, it would have seen that, and been in a much better position to address critical roster questions in the off-season.

But creative thinking has never been a Phillies hallmark -- you might remember that Ryne Sandberg, after all, was a throw-in in the Bowa-for-Ivan DeJesus trade.

Derek: Which of these things is likely to happen first and why?

a) The Chicago Cubs win the World Series
b) Peace reigns in the Middle East
c) Bobby Abreu gets the recognition he deserves

Tom: Ah, the eternal "Why don't you guys like Bobby Abreu?" question.

Bobby is the perfect player to watch via boxscore. Good average, hits for power, steals bases, drives in and scores runs--what's not to like? Then you talk to a Phillies fan who actually sees him in "action" in Citizens Bank Park, loafing after shallow flies, approaching the right-field wall as if it's electrified, tagging the meaningless solo shot in a 10-1 game. Abreu is a gifted offensive player, but his lackadaisical approach to the finer points of the game is easily noticed by the smart, restless fan base that constitutes Philadelphia. Frankly, he'd be an absolutely perfect designated hitter, which is both a compliment and an insult.

So I guess the answer to your question is, uh, (b).

Alex: When Jim Thome became a free agent, he wooed the Cubs, who took a pass. Fast-forward a couple years, and that "pass" isn't looking too shabby. What do you expect from Thome for the remainder of his contract?

Tom: Wow, you guys sound like the clowns who like to pose as baseball experts on Philadelphia's all-sports radio station! I mean, the guy did slam 89 dingers and knock in 236 in his first two full seasons with the Phils. Granted, Thome has been simply awful in 2005 thus far; his trip to the disabled list suggests that a career-long back problem was more serious this spring than he let on.

Indeed, this is the second straight season which will see the big guy miss some significant time with injuries. He's getting older--hey, aren't we all?--and the worry around here is that the nicks will only get more and more frequent. Most of us accepted that by the end of Thome's lengthy contract, he'd be a roster liability. We figured it was worth it to get those power numbers--unseen in Philadelphia since Mike Schmidt retired--for several years up front, including, certainly, a couple of years beyond this one. Lots and lots of us are crossing our fingers and hoping that remains true, but we're much less certain than we used to be.

Alex: Jon Lieber! Which is shorter, this sentence, or the time he takes between pitches? How psyched are you to have him on the team? How dumb are the Yankees?

Tom: I'll be the first to admit that the Lieber signing looks a hell of a lot better than I figured it would be. His numbers, of course, speak for themselves, but what really impresses me is his mound presence. As you note, Lieber works quickly, which I so love--the guy just looks as if he wants the ball. He keeps his fielders in the game, he hits the corners, and he pitches like a professional. He's the Bizarro World version of Kevin Millwood. If memory serves, Joe Torre publicly expressed disappointment when he heard that the Yanks had let Lieber walk, and the more I see him pitch, the more I understand why.

Cub Town: What's your prediction for this series?

Tom: This is a lost baseball team you're going to see in Wrigley. The Phillies haven't won consecutive games in three weeks, and they appear to have no clue how to fix things. All of the previous two seasons' problems have reappeared, and no one can blame the manager now.

On the plus side, the Phils will send their two best pitchers, Lieber and comeback kid Brett Myers, to the hill this series. Both have sparkled this season. I look for Cory Lidle to lose Friday, for Lieber to do what a stopper is supposed to do Saturday, and for Myers to come up strong Sunday. Call it two of three for the Phillies.

For Want of a Waffle Cone
2005-05-05 13:45
by Derek Smart
What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill'd from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!

- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 119

My faith in this team has been deeply shaken. I know this because when Jerry Hairston was picked off in the top of the first inning for the initial out of the frame today, my reaction wasn't an annoyed but measured, "Geez, Jerry, you can't let that sort of thing happen. Now, tighten it up and go get 'em next time," but rather one of hands tossed in the air and a forlorn and resigned, "Well, there goes the ballgame."

Of course, the worst part of making any statement like that is being right, or if not right (surely, one bad out at the start of the game doesn't forever ruin the possibility inherent in the next twenty-six outs) at the very least, prophetic.

Turns out I was exactly that, and despite some clutch work by some of the Cubs' hitters, every tied score - three of them - was answered by the Brewers reclaiming a one-run lead in the following half-inning, and the Crew being the home team with the final at bat, that practically doomed the Cubs to lose in the fashion they did - a bottom of the ninth walk-off hit.

It was that struggle to break free from the chains of Fate, to escape the well-laid plans of Destiny - both of which, chains and plans, having been won in a fixed poker game with Mystique and Aura - that made the eventual loss exponentially more pathetic.

We frown on laying down, even when the fight is hopeless, but it's times like these that the ease of use presented by abject failure has appeal when compared to a valiant battle against ordained results. Failure doesn't hurt as much when success was never an option.

Don't get me wrong, I admire the way the Cubs have continued to fight back in these last couple of games, and that spark of competitive fire bodes well for times when the club as a whole is playing better ball, but I must admit, there's a part of me that's simply tired of being taken to the ice cream shop every day, anticipating the cool, sweetness of the creamy confection, only to find, time and again, that I've arrived just as the day's supply ran out.

I have no solution to the issues that face the club, because I have no way to make the players perform up to their potential - something the majority of them are light-years from doing at the present time - and I have no way to keep the team as a whole from consistently snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - the one thing they're doing with aplomb at the moment.

I'm also still rational enough to understand that being three games under .500 after a mere 27 contests is far from a cause for panic. But you'll pardon me my feelings of hopelessness for the time being, as there's no ice cream to be found, and I so longed for a taste.

Missing In The Action
2005-05-05 08:08
by Derek Smart

When I do recaps, I don't like to rehash the events of the day or even "tell the story of the game," as I figure if you're obsessed enough to read this little ditty you've likely either seen the contest in question or already perused what the fishwrap beat writers penned.

I prefer to do the things that mainstream writers lack the space or mandate to tackle - detailed observations of key plays, breakdowns of tactical brilliance/idiocy, or simply mentioning something that caught my eye and either linking it to a bigger idea, or making an unfortunate joke.

There's an obvious freedom in this, but it also comes with certain restrictions - the main one being lack of access both to the team and to the games themselves beyond that afforded any other fan. This was brought home with force last night as I attempted to find the game on my television, only to be confronted with the twin horrors of NBA Basketball and White Sox Baseball.

It seems that last night was one where Comcast SportsNet had the rights to both of the evening's local baseball games - both with approximately 7:00 CDT start times - and this is normally not an issue since the network uses the Chicago cable news channel (CLTV) to broadcast overflow games like these.

However, last night was also Game 5 of the Bulls playoff series versus the Wizards - a series which Comcast SportsNet has been broadcasting no matter what other coverage was offered by alternate outlets. True to form, the main Comcast SportsNet station on the dial carried the Bulls game - which was also being covered by TNT - and the secondary Comcast SportsNet station took on the White Sox tilt.

I won't argue about what should have been shown and what shouldn't have (although, my vote for what should have been shunted aside is pretty obviously with the inferior sport whose contest was readily available on another network), but the end result explains why I have so little to say about what the Cubs did last night. Observation based comments suffer unimaginably when confronted with a lack of observable material.

Of course, the bit that the television gods deemed proper for me to view consisted almost entirely of the Cubs being thoroughly handcuffed by Derrick Turnbow (by the way, Der(r)[i]ek's of the world, can we all get together and decide on one freakin' spelling, here? Mothers the world over making placecards for their children's birthday parties are going insane, I tell you!), followed by the incredibly predictable result of Roberto Novoa's wild and crazy outing.

It's become clear to me during his short stint in Cubland that Novoa is a younger version of Kyle Farnsworth, sans painted-on pants and legions of Trixie groupies. He has the same heat, the same odd fascination with his slider, and the same inability to locate either one of them consistently.

I'd rather have Novoa at this point, but that has more to do with his youth and my inability to handle one more moment of Farnsworth's hair than any real confidence that he'll become something more than the man he was traded for.

This afternoon features Greg Maddux against Gary Glover, and with both of these gentlemen's tendency to send balls to uncertain fates over the fences that loom behind them, we could see some fireworks out of this matchup. That is, if the Cubs manage to leave their ass-bats at home.

Dumberer and Dumbestest
2005-05-04 11:02
by Alex Ciepley

Gary Gillette of has a column up today regarding the most overrated players in the game. Unfortunately, it's an Insider piece, so you gotta pay to read. Fortunately, you can probably do a few better things with your saved change.

To no surprise, Gillette picks on Kerry Wood as his starting pitcher de hype. His reasoning includes these gems:

The Cubs right-hander has won an average of less than 10 games per year since making his big-league debut despite average run support. He has led the NL only once in strikeout, in 2003; he's logged 175 innings or more only twice. Wood's fabled 20K one-hitter in 1998 was due as much to a strike zone as wide as a Hummer as it was due to his electrifying stuff.

Hey, remember that phrase being thrown around a few years back... fuzzy math? The definition over at Mirriam-Webster's just got a new entry. Wood has won "an average of less than 10 games per year"? Yeah, maybe if you count the year in which he didn't pitch. Wood entered the season with 67 career victories compiled over six seasons. Um, 67 divided by 6 is... 11.16. Yeah, it's not an overwhelming number, but where in the world do you get "less than 10" from the number 11?

So he's only led the NL in strikeouts once in his six years. But he's finished third twice, and fourth once. Gimme a break, dude.

The 175 innings point is pretty convenient, too, buddy. It must've been nice to eliminate that 174.3 innings he pitched in 2001, or the 166.7 innings he threw his rookie season. If you wanna say he isn't durable, no problem and no arguments, but don't pick an arbitrary cutoff number just to make your article look a little shinier.

Fuzzy Math.

Say it with me!

Fuzzy Math.

Of course, most of the rest of Gillette's list is pretty much hogwash. Most overrated first baseman? Rafael Palmeiro. Most overrated second bagger? Craig Biggio. Most overrated right fielder? Larry Walker.

You can't make these things up. And Kerry has nothing to hang his head about here. Stick him on any list that includes Biggio, Palmeiro, and Walker--two of whom are going to the Hall of Fame--and I'm sure you'll see plenty of smiles all around.

Proficiently Deficient
2005-05-04 07:46
by Derek Smart

That's two games in a row where the Cubs' starter is humming along only to meet with a 'disaster inning'. Alright, so three runs in a frame is about as far from disaster as I am from handsome, particularly when they're the only three tallies your pitcher allows over seven innings, but it's a deadly serious problem on a night when your primary offensive weapon is Henry Blanco.

There wasn't much to be happy about last night, so let's put ourselves out of our misery with some appropriately glum and gloomy bullets.

  • I enjoy stolen bases as much as the next guy, and as far as such plays go, steals of third are as exciting as things get these days. Yet, despite my appreciation of them as an art form, that doesn't mean that steals of third are anything but a tactically bankrupt strategy in most cases.

    This was illustrated with extraordinary clarity last night when Jerry Hairston was thrown out attempting to steal third with one out and Aramis Ramirez at the plate. Allow me to break it down:

    1. Ramirez was hitting third last night, ahead of the blistering hot Derrek Lee. While not a solid idea when allocating playing time, it makes some sense to arrange things that way in order to force pitchers to come after Ramirez in hitters counts - something they haven't done all year, and that Ramirez has had trouble adjusting to.
    2. Hairston was already in scoring position, and when he ran, Ramirez was up in the count 1-0.
    3. When Hairston was caught, he greatly reduced the opposing pitcher's need to go after Ramirez, as the worst case scenario if he refused to give in to Aramis was now Lee at the plate with two outs and a man at first, rather than Lee up with one out and men at first and second.

    I think it's important for the entire team to be on board with the moves their manager makes, and do things on the field that enhance rather than sabotage the goals espoused by said moves - their manager may be insane, but I'd rather see a bad strategy well executed than a bad strategy thoroughly botched (of course, I prefer good strategy, but what are the chances of seeing that?).

    With Ramirez in the three hole hitting in front of Lee, an obvious goal of Dusty Baker's was to get Ramirez some pitches to hit. Hairston risking, and eventually being, taken off the basepaths was a strategy with very little reward that, in turn, made one of his manager's goals much more difficult to accomplish.

    Besides, what's the harm in being at second with Ramirez at the dish? Even if he makes an out, Lee is waiting behind him, and risking opportunities for men hitting over .400 to come to the plate with a man at second in order to secure an extra base is sillier than Charles Nelson Reilly on the X-Files.

  • Speaking of keeping your head in the game, I don't care if you were called out after standing on first for a full five minutes before the ball got to the bag, frustrating as missed calls may be, as a player, your job in that situation is to stay in the contest while your manager does the talking. Corey Patterson forgot that aspect of his occupation last night and got tossed after making a toss of his own - ie, his helmet in the general direction of the offending umpire.

    I understand frustration, but the score was still 1-0 at that point, and doing something that will so obviously get you thrown out late in a tight game is a mistake the Cubs can't afford. While this team appears to be light-years ahead of last year's version in terms of temperament, it still can't afford these kind of stupid and avoidable incidents.

  • There's no doubt that he's a more potent bat than Todd Hollandsworth and likely deserves the bulk of the playing time in left because of it, but the 'Free Jason Dubois' movement lost some momentum last night, as The Prisoner not only went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, but managed to transform Bill Hall's eighth inning hit from a single to a triple with as bad a misplay as you're likely to see from a Major League outfielder.

    In the end, if Dubois never gets to be a regular on this ballclub, or any ballclub, it will be his truly deficient defense rather than a perceived need to protect him from the big bad right-handers of the league (against whom he's 3 for 6 with two doubles and a homer this year) that will render him a mere potent part-timer instead of the very useful regular he deserves to be.

Tonight, it's the Human Yo-Yo, Ryan Dempster, against The Man The Cubs Couldn't Hit, Victor Santos. The Cubs have yet to lose four in a row this season, but I've got a bad feeling about this one. Here's to hoping I'm more wrong than usual.

Kerry Wood
2005-05-02 20:19
by Alex Ciepley

The best case scenario would be to have a healthy, effective Kerry Wood taking the mound every five turns. A Kerry Wood that, in September 2003, came into his own, helping carry the Cubs to a division title by throwing 36 innings with a 1.00 ERA.

Maybe it isn't terribly uncommon for a pitcher to have a month with those numbers, but it was a span of days--and a postseason--that seemed to solidify Wood's status as an ace in many Cubs fans' minds. The verdict has since become a bit cloudy, with a regular refrain, Wood's not really a number one, he's just paid like one.

Still... since breaking into the NL in 1998, he ranks 10th in the league in career ERA (700 innings pitched minimum), first in lowest hits per nine innings, third in strikeouts, and best in show at the Craig Wilson lookalike pageant. He's a mean cookie, frustrating for sure, but worthy of the moniker "ace."

So far in 2005, Kerry Wood is not right. The 6.15 ERA in April looks especially bad because it comes in the first month of the season--as opposed to occuring in, say, July of 2003 (5.63 ERA) or June of 2002 (6.75 ERA)--but his shoulder woes are holding him back, limiting his innings and effectiveness. And now he's out for at least 3 weeks with a muscle strain in his right shoulder.

Can the Cubs win without Wood? Sure, but they'll need Glendon Rusch to step in, rediscover his control (10 walks in 15.3 innings, ouch), and do his best rendition of... Glendon Rusch, v.2004. You might consider it a reauditioning of the fifth starter role on the team--while Wood is out, Rusch and Dempster can go mano a mano through the month of May, with the loser to the 'pen when Kerry comes back. Here's hoping they make the decision difficult, each tossing 36 innings of 1.00 ERA ball...

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 4
2005-05-02 08:48
by Derek Smart

I don't comment on the Cubs' week in these pieces because they're supposed to be about the other teams in the division, but after this week I have to make note of something: the Cubs have been the most consistent team in the Central from week to week - always finding a way so far to go 3-3 - and the way the schedule is structured they could continue this trend for the next two weeks before the placement of off-days makes such a feat impossible.

I don't know about any of you, but I, for one, am sick of consistency of this type, and look forward to the day when I can refrain from commenting on an extended and consistent string of Cub victories. But enough wallowing in my own crapitude. On to the enemy!

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record15-8
    Week's Record3-3
    Games Back--

    A less than stellar week from the Redbirds in what has been a less than stellar season thus far, despite the fine record. That's what's scary: a .652 winning percentage is tough enough to overcome without the team sporting it being a long way from playing its best ball.

  2. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record11-13
    Week's Record4-2
    Games Back4.5

    Lyle Overbay may get stitches on his chin every week. You would too if your hitting line directly afterwards was .818/.857/1.909/2.766! Granted, that's only 14 PA's, but getting nine hits, including 3 doubles, 3 homers, and 3 walks would be dandy work in double the chances.

  3. Houston Astros

    Season Record10-13
    Week's Record2-3
    Games Back5.0

    The problem isn't so much that they scored 17.2% of their tallies on the season in the last two games against the Cubs, it's that the percentage represents a mere 16 runs. Houston fans are hoping that the Astros' ability to capitalize on the meatballs their rivals' so generously served carries beyond this past weekend's festivities.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record10-14
    Week's Record1-5
    Games Back5.5

    Live by the sword, die by the sword. The Reds came into the week 6-2 in one-run games, and then managed to kick three of them in a row. Funny how those things even out.

  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record6-12
    Week's Record2-3
    Games Back7.0

    Saved from having the worst record in the NL by the Rockies stunning ineptitude, they remain bad, and their offense is worse. Just to put their hitting woes in perspective: give this club the Marlins pitching staff, and they're still only a .500 team.