Looking at the Cubs in red, white, and blue
It's May 26th. The Cubs are 21-22, 5 games out of first, looking lost. People are freaking out. Players are under-performing. While cautious people like me are saying things like "steady, steady" and "relax, guy" I'd have to be living in Dumb-ass Canyon to not recognize how bad the Cubs are right now.
Recently -- hell, a lot longer than that -- I've butted heads with cliff jumpers, ledge walkers, Cubbie Downers, and quitters. But I think that even those who get riled up by my rhetoric would agree with the following statements:
1. The Cubs are a mess and need some work.
2. If the Cubs players actively quit on the team right now, we'd all be furious.
3. If Jim Hendry started a fire sale right now it would be labeled "white flag" and he would be scorned for it.
So, if you would be disappointed with the team for quitting today, then you are a hypocrite if you also have quit already on this team. There's no denying it, there's no rhetoric to counter that, it's a simple fact. Since nobody wants to be called a hypocrite, then let's all agree that nobody in their right mind feels the season is lost on May 26th with the Cubs 5 games out of first place. And I'm sure that we're all in our right minds here. Therefore, let's work together to identify the team's weaknesses, needs, and flaws.
You must be wondering what it would take for me to give up on the Cubs. After all, I have lovingly bashed, trashed, and something-else-that-ends-in-ashed everybody who's displayed the appearance of surrender. I have two very simple Pre-September conditions for "giving up."
The team needs to be 10 games under .500 or 10 games out of a playoff spot.
Even then, we've seen evidence in the past of teams reaching those points and still making the post season, but the 2007 Cubs are an ideal example of why surrendering before the Cubs meet that criteria is just plain stoopid. In '07, on June 2nd the Cubs were 22-31, 9 games under .500 and 6 games in the loss column behind the 31-25 Milwaukee Brewers. Things looked hopeless, we were dejected and prepared to surrender ... and then they took off like a rocket ship. Just wanted to remind you.
Bullpen? What bullpen?
With all due respect to Dave Patton, Aaron Heilman, Kevin Gregg, and especially Neal Cotts, you guys suck. Fortunately, Hendry has options. Why he hasn't tried any of those options is beyond me.
First, cut Neal Cotts. The guy isn't a tin can, he's not a punching bag, he's a tin-can-shaped punching bag. He is the destroyer of worlds. He is not, however, a LOOGY. Never has been, never will be.
Second, send away Dave Patton. The experiment hasn't worked and this team isn't playing well enough to justify such an experiment regardless.
Third, turn Aaron Heilman into the long-reliever. He should not be pitching in close games either way. Fourth, demote Gregg to set-up, promote Marmol to close.
That gives the Cubs a bullpen of:
If the Cubs go with 6 men, I would probably convert Randy Wells to the bullpen at first chance (guy's a stud) and I would use Guzman as my LOOGY. Lefties are batting .226 against him. I've made this point before but I will make it again.
Conventional baseball wisdom dictates the following scenario: Team A's lefty walks up to the plate, Team B calls on a lefty pitcher. Team A responds by bringing in a righty batter. And so-on. If Guzman dominates lefty hitters -- as he does -- then it's a huge advantage for the Cubs to have him be their stealth LOOGY. Managers trapped in the conventional way of thinking would trot out lefty batter after lefty batter to burn Guzman, failing to understand that Guzman is like ice against lefties. He can't be burnt.
If the Cubs go with 7 men then I would promote one of the following to try out as a reliever: J.R. Mathes - he's a lefty with a 3.40 ERA in Iowa. His strikeout numbers aren't good, but he'd be worth trying. Greg Reinhard - he's a righty with a 2.22 ERA in Iowa. He has tallied 36 strikeouts in 28.1 innings of work. Jeff Stevens has a 1.74 ERA in 20.2 innings, although he's walking too many batters for my comfort.
If and when all of those guys fail, Hendry needs to swing a trade. Until then, he's got options.
A month ago, people were lamenting the slow start of the Questionable Quartet. In a scolding fashion I said "let's talk again at the end of May." Well...
Derrek Lee - He's batting .248 on the season with 5 homers, 19 RBI, and a .730 OPS. For whatever reason Lee is the poster child of the Cub player fans want gone. Back on April 30th, Lee was batting .189 with 1 homer, 10 RBI, and an OPS of .537. In May he's batting .333 with 4 homers, only 9 RBI, and an OPS 1.011. Can we agree that while his neck problem is a concern he's not washed up just yet?
Milton Bradley - He was 1 for his first 23 at bats. Since that time, he's missed games due to nagging injuries, a suspension, he's slammed umpires in the press (repeatedly) and he's getting on everybody's nerves. Actually I totally understand him. If you ever get a new job in which there are expectations, you will probably start out nervous and feeling terribly insecure. To me, that's exactly how he's acting right now ... insecure. But since his 1 for 23 start, he's batting .244 (not great, but not as ugly as it looks) and he's got 3 homeruns, 11 RBI, and an OPS of .719 in May. He has a ways to go but he's better than he's looked. I'm not worried, except for the injury concerns.
Geovany Soto - at the end of April he was batting .109 with an OPS of .398. In the month of May he's batted .288 with an OPS of .755. That's a big improvement. Again, he could do better but if he bats .288 from now until October, then he'd finish the year with an AVG of .266. Not heroic, but better than we've seen. The only concern I have about Soto is his lack of power but I think he'll come around.
Mike Fontenot - For a while there, he looked like he was going to turn it around. On May 3rd, he was batting .266 with 5 homeruns, 14 RBI, and an OPS of .853. Since then he's been in a horrible slump and he looks like he should be starting perhaps in Iowa. No excuses - Fontenot needs to wake up NOW or get out of the way for somebody who'll perform. Hendry needs to start looking for a new second baseman.
The biggest complaint I had against the Cubs earlier this year was their poorly constructed support players. They were all outfield and no third base. Then, Aramis Ramirez got hurt. At the moment the bench consists of the following:
IF - Aaron Miles, Bobby Scales, Ryan Freel, Micah Hoffpauir
OF - Reed Johnson, Ryan Freel, Micah Hoffpauir
C - Three Finger Hill
I honestly don't have a big problem with any of these guys. Miles is not a fire-starter, but he's not supposed to be. Scales is a feel-good story who felt worse after an 0 for 10 drought. Freel is probably better than his .158 AVG as a Cub, although he may not have time to show it. And the Hoff looks like what he is... a backup with no real position and booming power.
The problem is that with Ramirez hurt, Fontenot lagging, and Lee unreliable -- not to mention Bradley's bouts with insanity -- the Cubs probably could use another bat to hold them over. They need a guy who can passably play third base until Ramirez gets back who can also beat the cover off the ball. They need a guy who can swing over to first base and cover for Derrek Lee on those pesky days when he needs a neckbrace. They need a guy who can swoop in and play right field for Milton Bradley when Don't Wake Daddy is having one of his "special moments."
They need Aubrey Huff.
Huff, who is in a contract year, is currently on pace to hit 25 homeruns and has an AVG of .267 and an OPS of .812. He is not great defensively but fangraphs has me thinking that he's not a black hole either.
Huff can play first base, where his UZR is below average but not beyond forgiveness. Huff can play third base, where his career UZR is terrible but was actually in the plus in 2008 and will probably be acceptable as a short-term solution. Huff can also play right field, although he hasn't since 2006, where he'd probably as servicable if he threw his glove at the ball as he would be if he tried to catch it. Still, he's another option.
So, what do the Cubs need to do to fix their ship? Simple steps:
1. purge themselves of their bullpen problems, shuffle around those that remain, and try out a handful of in-house solutions
2. Trade for Aubrey Huff
3. Maybe re-shuffle the lineup a bit since it's obviously not working just now.
With all due respect to the nay-sayers, I swear to you that this team isn't as bad as they look. There is no way they play as poorly as they have been for the rest of the year. It's impossible. Maybe they'll figure it out on their own, but a few kick-start moves wouldn't hurt either. That said, whether Hendry trades for another bat or not, the bullpen needs fixing. NOW.
And once that happens, maybe -- just maybe -- the Cubs will start to win again. Or maybe they'll lose every game the rest of this season. Either way.