I’ve been on this Earth for 33 years, and for the better part of my time here I have been a Cubs fan, so disappointment comes with the territory. With that disappointment comes hope that is usually misguided, and a catch phrase of “wait till next year” drives that misguided optimism year after year. The National narrative doesn’t help things with a constant “don’t worry, the Cubs will screw it up because they’re the Cubs” refrain. That repetitive opinion starts to creep into our subconscious; maybe all those experts are right, nothing good ever happens. It was even evident last year during what I can say was honestly the most enjoyable baseball season of my life, there was doubt. A daily rollercoaster of emotions based on whether or not the Cubs won. What did the Giants do? Look out for the Nationals, they’re getting hot. The Diamondbacks are making a run; did you see the schedule down the stretch? Its typical pennant race behavior which I totally get, but something about last year changed my views on hope, it made me realize something important and fun… it’s real.
I got into a number of discussions last year on the inter-webs about this very thing and it was startling how many people, good baseball people, hoped that other teams would take care of the Cubs’ business for them. In the past I would be right there with them, but the leadership group of this organization, the players, and their overall attitude towards winning, and competing made it very clear to me that I no longer had to worry about that. This Cubs team was going to leave everything on the field and for the most part the opponent couldn’t keep up. It was never more obvious than during that four game series against the Giants at home. We all thought that Hector Rondon and a rare bout of wildness was going to derail the game, and the season, it was over. Then it wasn’t, Rondon wiggled off the hook, and the Cubs pounded the Giants right out of the wild card lead into an October without playoff baseball.
A postseason of Cardinals’ devil magic followed. 2016 was full of horrible losses to the Cardinals, it was impossible to ignore those losses heading into the NLDS. The reason for most losses was the dreaded Cardinals’ devil magic because it was more fun to talk about that then talk about how the Cardinals made their own breaks or came up with a clutch hit or two. Things went wrong in Game One for the Cubs as worries of the unbreakable Cardinals, and the “too young to be here” Cubs were coming to fruition. Then Javier Baez massacred a mistake from John Lackey en route to Dingerpalooza 2015 taking place at Wrigley…. Hello NLCS!
I would say that a large number of people converted over to less fatalistic thinking as the season came to a close against the Mets. The Cubs were getting beat by the Mets because the Mets were a good team, and the Cubs couldn’t get out of their own way. I was pretty excited to see a lot of fans recognize what was going on; it wasn’t the Cubs blowing an opportunity as only the Cubs could do. It was the Cubs just losing a game and losing a series in the infancy of their window of opportunity to win a World Series.
So now the Cubs are on the brink of starting the 2016 season with the highest expectations possible. The organization identified needs heading into the off-season and sent a powerful message to this fan base and the rest of baseball that they are not going anywhere by bringing in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey. The players have clearly bought into what Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, and Jed Hoyer are selling. I suppose it’s okay that some fans are still overcome with worry when they see the Cubs as World Series favorites. I’m just glad that the players taking the field are embracing it, and ready to win a World Series, not because of any curse or because of the losing History, but because they expect to.
I’ve never been one to call for a managers head, or question a manager openly, unless their first name is Mike, and last name is Quade, that’s not what this is. I’ve played the game, nowhere near the MLB level, and I’ve never been a manager so I cannot relate to what Sveum goes through on a daily basis with one eye on his team, one eye on his future, and one eye on the organizations future, wait, that’s too many eyes, I digress. Sveum has been a popular target on social media, specifically twitter the last week, and really all the season when the Cubs flame out, but rarely receives any credit when he does make the right move and it pays off. Now, I understand that this is usually the case with managers, but it’s worth pointing out that Cubs fans are slowly turning their hate and ire towards Sveum. Last night didn’t help, and it added fuel to the fire of the keeping Shawn Camp decision, more on that later.
I don’t care what word you want to use, disaster, debacle, mismanaged, I think they all apply to last night. After Matt Garza made a successful return to the mound going five scoreless innings giving up one hit while walking three and striking out five he was lifted by Sveum, this was after 82 pitches, and it was the RIGHT move. Sveum screwed up last night, but one of the things he did right was lift Garza, Garza means more to the Cubs healthy with a no decision, then hurt again, and 1-0 on the season. The head scratching came after he lifted Garza. Shawn Camp was warming up in the pen during the fifth inning in case Garza couldn’t get out of some trouble, Garza did get out of the trouble, then Camp sat down. Hector Rondon got up instead and was slated to come in for the sixth, that was the first issue I had. Shawn Camp has been awful this year, Shawn Camp has shown signs of a dead arm this year, you don’t get him up to come in then sit him down, doesn’t work, usually doesn’t. Rondon struggled, which can happen, then Sveum reached a new level of second guessing by bringing in James Russell, arguably the best arm in the pen…. in the sixth. Sure, one could argue that this was a turning point in the game, but what happens after the sixth if Russell gets out of it? Who’s left out of the pen to work the seventh, Camp? The same Camp that just sat down an inning ago? Marmol would probably come in for the seventh, but as you will read Sveum had no intentions of letting Russell get out of the sixth.
Let’s stop there for a second to discuss something else. When Garza’s return to the rotation was announced, last week, Sveum said that Villanueva was going to go to the pen. Okay, given that Garza was on a strict pitch count last night, Sveum had a day or so to figure out what he wanted to do when Garza was lifted, and he was most likely going to be lifted early. So one would think that it would have made perfect sense to bring in Villanueva to not only get through the sixth, but piece together the game and have Villanueva get the ball to the ninth assuming he was effective. But Villanueva was nowhere to be found, and I do understand that he might not have been available, but for argument’s sake I figured I would at least bring it up as another possible option for Sveum in the sixth.
Okay, back to what actually happened last night. So in comes Russell in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and one out to face Pedro Alvarez. I get the lefty/lefty match up thing in a big spot but after Russell walked Alvarez Sveum removed him. The best arm in the pen faced one batter in the sixth and that was it. If you are going to bring Russel in for that situation let him get out of it, or at least attempt to. I don’t care if it’s a righty or lefty at the plate, Russell can get both out, instead he faces one guy, and leaves the game in the same situation as he entered it. Now comes the decision to bring in Shawn Camp with the bases loaded and one out, he gets the first guy, but then is left in to face a lefty in Travis Snider, why? If Russell is being lifted after one hitter because of matchup’s why is Camp being left in the game for an unfavorable matchup? Probably because he was the third pitcher of the inning already. But if this was the most important spot in the game, important enough to use Russell, why wasn’t Fujikawa brought in, or Marmol, both have been better than Camp, and that’s alarming given Marmol’s struggles. Dale completely botched this whole situation as he then was forced to stick with Camp the rest of the inning because no one was left out of the pen if he went to a fourth pitcher in the inning.
So, what could have been done differently? Garza had to come out, no question, I absolutely agree with that move. I’m indifferent on bringing in Rondon in that situation, but I would have went with Marmol, but have a quick hook ready if he can’t find the zone. Ideally, Marmol works the sixth inning, Russell works the seventh, Fujikawa works the eighth, and Gregg closes it out. I don’t see any reason why Rondon HAD to be used, when in the past Sveum has shied away from using him late with a lead, but my biggest complaint is Russell for one hitter, makes no sense. Now, this is the scenario if Villanueva was not available, if he was available then this game was the perfect spot for a former starter easing into the pen. Use him for as long as he is effective then go from there, we’ve already seen our fair share of bullpen disasters, but I think this one could have been avoided with better decision-making from Sveum.
That brings us to the other question, why was Camp still available to be used in the first place? To make room for Garza one pitcher had to be designated for assignment, and that pitcher was Michael Bowden. Bowden was having a solid season on the heels of having a really good finish to 2012, but now the Cubs risk losing him completely, and he’s only 26, why? I can’t really answer that question, and ultimately that decision comes down to the front office. Both Theo and Jed said that all decisions regarding the roster are made with a large input from Dale, so my guess is that he lobbied hard for Camp, and the front office showed faith in their manager and player by keeping Camp around. The Cubs had options here, they could have placed Rondon on the DL with a “middle body” injury to by some time before making a decision, or they could have released Camp who looks done, there is nothing telling me that he is going to bounce back in any way, shape or form. Let’s not forget the only reason the Cubs got him was that he was released by Seattle during spring training the year before. He’s also 37 years old, all of these things just don’t add up in regards to keeping him, so Sveum and the front office have to share the blame on that one, and if I had to guess Camp won’t be on the Cubs by the All-Star break. Been a while since I’ve been able to share my thoughts in this space, felt I needed to after last night, today’s another game, let’s get a win!
Every year around this time there is a name or two that shows up on the spring training roster that send the interwebs into a delirious state of being because THAT guy might make the team. This year I think it’s safe to say that guy is Javier Baez. Baez was highly touted last year, but after a stellar 2012 he is now considered a legit top twenty guy, not just in the Cubs system, but in all of baseball. Jonathan Mayo put that notion to paper, or internet web page, when he came out with his 2013 MLB prospect watch list, which has Baez sitting nicely at sixteen. That is seven full spots up from last year when he was at twenty-three, sure, seven spots might not seem like a major jump but when you crack the top twenty more people pay attention.
Before we get too far into what is expected of Baez in 2013, let’s recap what solicited that seven spot jump by remembering what he did last year. Baez destroyed Midwest League pitching, he hit .333 with 12 home runs, and 33 RBI’s in just 57 games, he also stole 20 bases. He made the jump to Daytona late in the season and struggled, part of that was due to the increase in talent on the mound, and part of it might have been playing once a week because apparently August and September is monsoon season in Florida. Baez capped off his 2012 season with a stint in the Arizona Fall League for the Mesa Solar Sox and he destroyed the ball when he made contact. A thumb injury ended his AFL season too soon, but Baez still managed to hit the second most home runs (4) in the league, and had 40 less at bats than the leaders (5). There was a lot of talk about his bat, and rightfully so, but the knock on Baez was his ability, or inability to stick at short-stop as he progresses through the Cubs system. A lot of people, including myself, think that a move to third base would make the most sense, but another thing Baez did during the 2012 season was show everyone that he can stick at short-stop if he has to, as evidenced by this Jonathan Mayo quote, “Many were ready to move Baez to third right away, but he showed some ability at shortstop, with a very good arm and good hands. His instincts allow his average speed to play up on both sides of the ball. Even if he has to move to third, his bat should profile just fine there.”
We made a few trips to see the Cubs farm system in action, obviously the guy who impressed us the most was Jorge Soler, but a close second was Javier Baez. Why you ask? I’ll tell you my inquisitive friend, he exudes confidence, some might call it cockiness, well most everyone will call it cockiness, because that’s what it is. Baez knows he belongs, and knows he is good (the tattoo on the MLB logo on the back of his neck should tell you everything you need to know), he is twenty years old, I really don’t expect much more from him, but that’s where this whole experience thing comes into play.
This camp isn’t about can Baez make the team, it’s about seeing how guys who will make the team go about their business, and for him to work on things at a different level. Jed Hoyer spoke to that, “He’s here to get a feel for what big league camp is all about, see how these guys go about their business,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of Baez. “It’s nice for fans to be able to see him, nice for us to be able to see him. But it’s not about making the major league team. This is about (getting) experience.” That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear out of Hoyer, there shouldn’t be unnecessary expectations for Baez, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get excited about seeing him in a spring game. Theo Epstein expanded on Hoyer’s comments by giving Cubs nation the following quote, he said that Baez “has a lot of work to do” before he gets called up. Most of that work will be learning how to work counts, because after all there is a Cubs way now, regardless, Baez needs to see more pitches to have his game translate to the big leagues successfully. So if you want to get excited about seeing Baez in a Spring game this year go for it, but don’t get excited because you think he will make the team, get excited because you are watching him take the next step towards making the team when he is ready, maybe that will be this year, you never know.
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In somewhat of a shocking move today, well depends on who you ask I guess, Oneri Fleita the Cubs VP of Player Personnel (former) has been given his walking papers. Just last September Fleita was given a contract extension by Tom Ricketts, keep in mind this was before Theo Epstein was brought in to take over. Fleita was outstanding when it came to dealing with the Latin American talent, and losing that could hurt, but I’m guessing the decision here might have been mutual. Fleita is going to be a hot commodity on the open market as he had over 15 years experience with the Cubs and a tremendous track record. The reason I say that it could be mutual is I wouldn’t be surprised if Fleita is on to bigger and better things, and he wouldn’t be able to do that unless he was fired because of said contract extension last year.
Up until this year Fleita was the head man overseeing everything having to do with the Cubs farm system. Enter Theo and Jed, they brought in Jason McLeod to assume that role before this season with Fleita acting as second in command. With the recent promotion of Tim Wilken to special assistant, and bringing in Jaron Madison to be the new scouting director, Theo is starting to make his mark on the Cubs organization as a whole and how he wants it run, and who he wants running it. Best of luck to Oneri, we will have more details if and when they emerge.
[UPDATE 1:24 PM] Theo means business today, according to Paul Sullivan, the Cubs have re-assigned Ari Kaplan from Manager of Statistical Analysis to a consulting position. Sullivan continues, letting us know that the Cubs have eliminated Chuck Wasserstrom’s position which was Manager of Baseball Information, Wasserstrom had been around forever, and per Toni Ginetti, the Cubs are looking to find a new position for Scott Nelson who was the director of player operations. The deck has officially been shuffled, we will be back with more.
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Earlier today Jorge Soler worked out for several teams. To no surprise one of those several teams to see him workout was the Chicago Cubs. Jed Hoyer who was in attendance today said, “We obviously scouted him extensively, a lot of teams have, and a lot of teams are involved. He went on to say, “He is really talented.”
Soler’s agent has asked teams interested in the 20-year old Cuban to make an offer by tomorrow, June 7. It would be nice to find out sooner than later if the Cubs in fact are able to sign the very talented outfielder, but just because offers will be coming in tomorrow it does not mean we will find that out anytime soon. Soler will have until July 2, before the new restrictions on international signing begins, so we should find out in the next few weeks at the worst. Here’s hoping the Cubs can sign Soler and continue to replenish the farm system. We will keep you posted as we find out more.
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The Cubs don’t want to wait until March 4th, and their first Spring Training game against the Athletics, so they are starting early. To finish off this week the Cubs will battle eachother in a set of intrasquad games. The games will take place on Friday and Saturday leading up to Sunday’s spring training opener. The intrasquad games with be open to the public (grandstand seating only) and will be free of charge. After 12 days of drills, workouts, and bunt tournaments, I’m sure the players and coaches are just itching to get started, and see what they have in real game situations.
It looked like the Cubs would try to trade Matt Garza this offseason, but now it appears the Cubs are going to start contract extension talks with him. This whole winter we heard Garza would give the Cubs the best opportunity to replenish the system. On the other hand the Cubs also expressed interest in keeping Garza long term and it now appears that may be the route they are headed.