September 27, 2012
As the Major League Baseball regular season winds down into its final days, there’s no better time to take a look at the train wreck that has been the 2012 campaign for the Chicago Cubs. The team had a complete overhaul at the top going into the season with the arrival of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer along with manager Dale Sveum. Gone were Jim Hendry and Mike Quade, with Epstein preaching patience while the Cubs worked on rebuilding the franchise from within instead of investing in overpriced free agents.
After Monday’s rain shortened road loss to the Colorado Rockies, the Cubs sit at 59-95 and in fifth place in the National League Central. The Cubs avoided the cellar in the division thanks to the ineptitude of the Houston Astros, who are 50-105 and clinched last place in their final year in the National League. The dismal performance moves the meter for consecutive seasons without a World Series championship to 104 on the North Side of Chicago, while the last World Series appearance was now 67 years ago. More importantly, the Cubs need to go 4-4 down the stretch to avoid their first 100 loss season since 1966.
We’ll take the next couple of days to talk about what went right, what went wrong and what to expect from the Cubs going forward in 2013. Obviously, there are more issues than positives at this stage of the game but that is something to be expected from a rebuilding franchise that was plagued by poor decisions and high dollar contracts for players no longer with the organization. Let’s take a look at some of the positives that have unfolded from the debacle known as Year One of the Epstein plan.
Alfonso Soriano: Soriano was coming off a 40-40 season with the Washington Nationals in 2006 when the Cubs inked him to an eight year, $136 million deal as a free agent to be a cornerstone in their lineup. He hit .277 with 41 doubles, 46 home runs, 95 runs batted in, 119 runs scored and 41 stolen bases for the Nationals that season and seemed poised to put up numbers as good, if not better, in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. That never really panned out: after hitting .299 with 97 runs scored and 33 home runs with 19 steals in 2007, Soriano’s numbers dropped off.
After a couple of down seasons, including last year’s .244 mark at the plate, Soriano has rebounded this season at the age of 36. He’s hitting .262 and is fifth in the National League in home runs with 31 and third in runs batted in with 105. He has been markedly better in the field as well: after committing 36 errors in his first five seasons with the team, he has just one this season while picking up a dozen outfield assists and being part of six double plays. Not bad for a guy that didn’t hit his first home run of the season until May 15.
The Cubs tried moving Soriano this season but were unable to find a partner willing to take on a fair share of what he’s owed. All things considered, it may be a blessing that he wasn’t moved as the Cubs would be even weaker in the lineup without him. He will be a candidate to be dealt next season or potentially in the offseason but he is a solid clubhouse presence and a consummate professional.
Anthony Rizzo: Epstein and Hoyer were high on Rizzo, as they knew of him as a prospect while both were with the Red Sox. They dealt Rizzo as one of the featured pieces in the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston from San Diego. Almost immediately after coming on board, the duo targeted Rizzo as a player that they wished to obtain for the franchise, giving them a bona fide corner infielder to stick squarely in the middle of the lineup.
As it turned out, that was precisely what happened. Chicago sent Andrew Cashner along with minor league outfielder Kyung-Min Na to the Padres in exchange for Rizzo and minor league pitcher Zach Cates. While neither of the minor leaguers have done much to write home about for their respective new clubs: Na has hit .155 in 132 plate appearances in three stops in the minors for San Diego, while Cates has gone a dismal 0-9 with a 7.16 earned run average in 17 starts for three minor league clubs.
Cashner went 3-4 with a 4.37 earned run average in 32 games for the Padres, five of which were starts. He did improve his strikeout rate, with 52 punchouts in 45.1 innings but was injured for a good portion of the season, which hampered his overall production. His season ended prematurely last week when the Padres shut him down due to continuing issues with his lat muscle.
Rizzo came up with the Cubs on June 26 and has been solid for the team since then. He currently boasts a .286 average with 12 doubles, 14 home runs and 45 runs batted in while playing solid defense in the field with four errors in 78 games. It’s safe to project him as the Cubs’ first baseman of the next decade and an anchor in the lineup for the team as well.
Jeff Samardzija: “The Shark”, as he’s known in the clubhouse, was expected to be the #3 starter in a rotation that had Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad in it. As the season wore on, Dempster and Maholm were traded, Garza was injured and Volstad was awful, spending a good chunk of the summer in the minor leagues. That left Samardzija to try and be the ace of a crumbling rotation.
Samardzija’s final numbers for the season may not look pretty: 9-13 with a 3.81 earned run average but looks can be deceiving. Samardzija had 17 quality starts in 28 outings and was plagued by poor run support throughout the season: the Cubs scored two runs or less eleven times with Samardzija on the mound and he was 1-9 in those games. His earned run average dropped more than two runs after the All Star Break (4.71 in 17 starts before the break, 2.58 in 11 starts afterwards) and he averaged more than a strikeout per inning (180 K’s in 174.1 innings of work.)
The Cubs shut Samardzija down following his complete game win over Pittsburgh on September 8. He threw more innings this season than he had in his first four big league campaigns combined, when he was working out of the bullpen primarily. With an overhauled rotation, expect Samardzija to be slotted as the #2 starter coming out of spring training next season provided Garza is not moved. If a trade does take place, then all bets would be off but the Shark would be at the front of the rotation once again.
Starlin Castro: Castro made an impact immediately after being called up two years ago, homering and hitting a triple while driving in six runs in his debut. He’s been solid at the plate since, leading the National League in hits a year ago with 207. He still needs to work on plate discipline (35 walks, 96 strikeouts this season) and to take pitches in order to work favorable counts instead of swinging at the first pitch, which he does far too often.
He was named to the All Star Game for the second consecutive season this year and continues to hit at a decent clip. Fielding does plague him at times, as his 25 errors attest to, though he does tend to get to a lot more balls than the average shortstop would during the course of a game. Castro is also known to make the spectacular play look routine on occasion, leaving you marveling at his talent.
Castro had a couple prolonged slumps this season but is still hitting .284 with 26 doubles, 12 triples, 14 home runs, 77 runs batted in and 25 steals this season. He has collected 175 hits, giving him 521 already in his young career. Castro will be around a while, as the Cubs recently agreed to a seven year deal worth $60 million with the shortstop that will keep him under contract through the 2020 season.
Darwin Barney: Barney may not be a major offensive force but he does more than enough in other facets of the game to be a valuable asset for the Cubs. He’s posted a .263 average through Tuesday’s game, with seven home runs and 44 runs batted in on the season. Barney is a decent contact hitter, with just 52 strikeouts in 524 at bats this season and he is capable of using the entire field as well as advancing runners.
Barney makes his living and major impact in the field, where he is 28 runs better than the average second baseman and he has posted a 4.8 wins above replacement (WAR) number, impressive for a team that is tooling along at a sub .400 clip. He leads the National League in defensive WAR with 3.5 wins above replacement, while leading all NL second basemen with 299 putouts and a .999 fielding percentage. That’s right, .999: Barney has committed just ONE error in 703 chances while playing second this season. He’ll battle with Brandon Phillips of the Reds for the National League Gold Glove at second base.
There is no shortage of teams that would love to have Barney’s slick glove in their infield so if the Cubs do look to trade him, expect there to be plenty of interest. Hopefully, Barney stays as Castro’s double play partner for the near future, if not the long term.
Next, we’ll look at some of the biggest disappointments of the Cubs this season and what to hope for in the future. Stay tuned.