But the problem with that notion is what to do when a left-handed starter is on the mound for the opposition. Could the Cubs be too left-handed?
They went down to defeat yet again against a southpaw on Wednesday, just as they did on Tuesday. This time it was Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano who shut them down in a 1-0 final.
“We just can’t seem to do absolutely anything against a left-handed starter,” a frustrated Sveum said after the game.
The Cubs dropped to 4-10 in games against left-handed starters, and in most of those affairs -- win or lose -- they’ve done little at the plate.
“Today you have to tip your cap to Liriano,” Darwin Barney said. “He kept you off-balance.”
We’ve heard that from Cubs before, especially Sveum. How many great left-handers are there anyway?
He applauded Wandy Rodriguez both on Tuesday and in the team’s second game of the season when he shut them down. Then there was Derek Holland of the Texas Rangers and Madison Baumgarten of the San Francisco Giants. The list goes on and on. Sveum worried about his right-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers this spring, but it’s been the lefties that have killed them.
The Cubs did have one threat -- a bases-loaded, no-one out situation in the third inning, with the top of the order coming up.
“That’s the song and dance,” Sveum said after seeing three straight outs. “We get people on and we just can’t get them in.”
Julio Borbon has not looked good in the leadoff spot the last two nights. He was 1-for-8, with the hit coming on a dribbler to first that he beat out. Then there was the at-bat Wednesday with the bases loaded when he again dribbled one to first.
“When you have a guy like Liriano doing what he was doing, you have to make the most out of that,” Borbon said after the force out at home on the play.
But what is Borbon doing leading off two nights in a row against lefty starters anyway? The Cubs only have two right-handed outfielders, Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston, the latter of which is hitting below .100 against left-handed pitching. The mix just doesn’t feel right.
“Whenever you don’t do the job, you want the at-bats to be better,” Sveum said. “We were ahead in the count in all three cases and let the bat get away from us.”
The last four Cubs losses have been by one run. Clutch hitting has escaped them against lefties and righties all season, and a .287 on-base percentage against lefties is as mediocre as it gets. Starlin Castro had one of those at-bats with the bases loaded and failed. Anthony Rizzo had the tying run on base several times Wednesday but couldn’t get it done against a lefty either.
At some point there has to be a breaking point for the starting staff that has pitched so well.
“Take it with a grain of salt,” Jeff Samardzija said. “You can only control what you can control.”
Against lefties this year, the Cubs haven’t controlled much.
“That’s the problem. We’re relying on our pitchers to drive runs in.” -- Sveum, only half-kidding about the Cubs offense.
“It’s just the way the game goes sometimes. Other times you get a win and give up five runs.” Samardzija, on tough-luck losses.
Here’s a quick look at the Chicago Cubs’ 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday:
How it happened: The Pirates scored their lone run in the first on back-to-back hits with two outs by Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones. But Jeff Samardzija shut down the Bucs down for the next six innings. Francisco Liriano did one better, going seven without giving up a run for Pittsburgh. The Cubs really threatened just once after an error in the third inning loaded the bases with none out. Julio Borbon hit into a fielder’s choice, Starlin Castro struck out and Anthony Rizzo flew out. Rizzo struck out with the tying run on third in the eighth. Then Darwin Barney popped up with the tying and lead runs on base in the ninth inning. Liriano retired nine in a row in the middle innings and gave up just two hits while striking out nine.
What it means: It’s another tough-luck loss for a Cubs starter. Unlike Tuesday, the bullpen didn’t blow this game; the offense did. The missed chances in the third inning are a microcosm of Chicago’s season on offense: no clutch hitting. Even a fly ball would have sufficed, but seeing Castro strike out in that situation is all too familiar.
Outside the box: The Cubs dropped to 6-12 in one-run games this year, after playing their 39th of 45 games decided by four runs or fewer. ... Castro’s average with the bases loaded in his career dropped to .225.
What’s next: The Cubs try to avoid the sweep on Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh when Edwin Jackson opposes Jeanmar Gomez.
Cubs pitchers are No. 1 in the National League in slugging (.307) and OPS (.496) and rank fourth in batting (.177) and third in on-base percentage (.189). And they’re doing things in May that haven’t happened in a long time.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, their eight extra-base hits and 13 runs batted in through Wednesday are the most in any one month since, get this, the Cubs in September 1971, when they knocked in 14 and had 10 extra-base hits. There’s a good chance that record will be broken before June comes around.
“You’re always surprised when these guys are able to hit, but you forget they work hard at it and they’re good athletes along with it,” closer Kevin Gregg said Wednesday about his pitching teammates.
Second baseman Darwin Barney agreed.
“It’s fun to watch them help their cause,” he said. “They get excited about it. It’s everyone’s dream to be a pitcher and hit. [Pitchers are] expected to get out, so you can go up there hacking.”
To put their month at the plate in further perspective, 19 pitchers in the National League have at least two runs batted in, and the Cubs employ five of them, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information. Their OPS for May is a whopping .947; next are the Los Angeles Dodgers hurlers at .500. Cubs pitchers have nine more RBIs than the San Francisco Giants pitchers, who rank second this month.
“I was joking around the other day: We should just let them hit the whole game for themselves,” outfielder Ryan Sweeney said.
Players were shaking their heads in the clubhouse Wednesday after seeing Matt Garza hit a two-run double the night before -- in his first at-bat in 10 months.
“I couldn’t fall behind,” Garza joked. “These other five guys, man ... it was a lot of time in the cage. Just want to be a complete player.”
So the question arose, who’s the best hitting pitcher on the team?
“[Jeff] Samardzija is fun to watch, because he’s got power and what kind of athlete he is,” Gregg said. “I expect a lot out of him. He actually is thinking about it as he goes up there and how he’s going to approach it.”
Several players concurred about Samardzija, but not all.
“That’s a tough question because [Travis] Wood is swinging the back good and [Scott] Feldman, too,” catcher Welington Castillo said.
For the record, after Garza’s 1-for-2 night, it is Wood whose batting average (.263) is the most respectable. But Feldman’s four RBIs lead all pitchers.
Still, it’s Wood who got the most votes.
“He’s the best hitting pitcher,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He’s the most consistent, always has been.”
What do the pitchers say? Not much. They don’t want to jinx it. Even when pushed, they were noncommittal.
“I would say either Samardzija, Edwin Jackson or Woody,” Feldman said.
“I don’t know. It might be a coin toss,” Jackson added.
Maybe the best authority on the subject is hitting coach James Rowson. He’s had a front-row seat for all the raking.
“Right now, take your pick,” Rowson said, laughing. “They’re fun to watch right now.
“In all honesty, probably Travis Wood. He’s a hitter that pitches.”
It might not be straight jealousy, but the position players are starting to envy the pitchers, who don’t mind hearing it from their teammates. It means they’re impressing guys who hit for a living.
“They’re yelling at us, saying, ‘It’s that easy, huh?’” Jackson said. “It’s not like we’re getting pointless hits, either. We’re getting big hits.”
Maybe Barney summed it up best. You don’t want to be shown up by a pitcher at the plate. He should know; they hit right behind him in the order.
“It’s kind of funny when you’re hitting eighth and they’re hitting behind you and you’re struggling,” Barney said, laughing. “Sometimes it’s like, maybe I should bunt guys over for them.”
"I guess it's been bothering him for about a month," manager Dale Sveum said before the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night. "He got treatment on Sunday to start the process, re-aggravated it and the inflammation got too bad. It was getting tough to push off the mound."
Sveum said the Cubs would have considered putting him on the disabled list before designating reliever Michael Bowden for assignment in order to activate Matt Garza from the disabled list. But the team didn't know the seriousness of the problem until it was too late.
"He came for treatment and we didn't know it was that extensive," Sveum said. "But that would have been the obvious move."
Bowden has to clear waivers before he can be reassigned. The Cubs recalled pitcher Rafael Dolis from Triple-A Iowa to take Camp's place. Camp gave up a grand slam to pinch-hitter Travis Snider in the Cubs' 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday.
He appeared in 20 games with a 7.56 ERA after leading the league in appearances last season with 80. Sveum was asked if the injury could be a reason for his struggles this season.
"When you can't push off and it's that painful, you're going to lose something in your legs," Sveum said. "We have to get it calmed down."
Dolis has appeared in two games this season for the Cubs, pitching a scoreless 1 2/3 innings.
Camp elected to go back to Chicago to rest his toe while the Cubs continue on their road trip.
Coming off a 5-4 loss to the Pirates and left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, the Cubs will face southpaw Francisco Liriano on Wednesday night.
That means Julio Borbon gets the nod in centerfield over Ryan Sweeney and David DeJesus while Scott Hairston starts in right for Nate Schierholtz. Borbon was 0 for 4 with a walk on Tuesday and is 1 for 7 against left-handed pitching this season while Sweeney is 3 for 8. Hairston is hitting .095 against left-handed pitching this season.
The Cubs rank 13th in the National League with a .296 on-base percentage against left-handed pitching, but their power numbers are mid-pack. Here is the entire lineup:
1. Borbon, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Hairston, RF
6. Welington Castillo, C
7. Cody Ransom, 3B
8. Darwin Barney, 2B
9. Jeff Samardzija, P
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMatt Garza threw five scoreless innings in his season debut on Tuesday.
If Chicago Cubs pitcher Matt Garza continues to pitch as he did on Tuesday night in his first outing in 10 months, then the Cubs will have a good, but tough decision on their hands. Garza was lights out for five innings in the Cubs' 5-4 defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Garza was really, really good,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said after his one-hit, shutout performance.
The only issue was taking him out of the game. Garza threw 82 pitches and wanted to stay in despite it being his first game back after a long layoff caused by an elbow problem last season and a lat strain this spring. The Cubs want to take it slow with him.
Camp’s ERA is 7.56 after blowing his third save of the season.
“The ball was just up,” Camp said afterwards. “It was just up, that’s what happens. Gotta work down. That’s it.”
Here’s a quick look at the Chicago Cubs' 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday at PNC Park.
How it happened: Anthony Rizzo struck out with the tying run on third base in the ninth inning after Starlin Castro singled home Darwin Barney to pull the Cubs within one. After a great performance by Matt Garza in his season debut, the Cubs' 3-0 lead quickly evaporated due to the bullpen combination of Hector Rondon, James Russell and Shawn Camp. The latter of the three gave up a grand slam to pinch-hitter Travis Snider in the sixth inning after Russell walked in a run. The Cubs jumped on starter Wandy Rodriguez, plating their runs in the second inning. Darwin Barney had an RBI single, followed by a two-run double by Garza, but that’s all the offense they would muster until the ninth. Barney went 4-for-4 on the night. Garza threw five shutout innings, giving up just one hit while walking three.
Garza’s debut: Garza's stuff looked great. He threw 82 pitches: 47 fastballs, 26 sliders, seven curveballs and two change-ups.Though he went to full counts on seven hitters, it didn’t come back to bite him despite the three walks. He pitched, not just threw, and was rewarded with five strikeouts and just one hit given up. No one knows if Garza is a Cub long-term or how he’ll pitch once the adrenaline of his comeback wears off, but for the moment he seems to have returned as a top-of-the-rotation guy.
What it means: Despite another bullpen meltdown, it’s great news for the Cubs and Garza. His average fastball registered at 93.5 mph, exactly the same as last year before his injury. He’ll go longer than 82 pitches next time out and that can only be a good thing considering the bullpen woes this year. To make room for Garza, Michael Bowden was designated for assignment before the game. Shouldn’t he be wondering why him and not Camp?
Outside the box: Cubs pitchers have 13 RBIs this month and eight extra-base hits for the season. That’s four more than any other pitching staff in the majors. ... The Cubs' 2012 first-round pick, Albert Almora, will report to Class-A Kane County on Wednesday to begin his season. He’s been sidelined with a wrist injury since the end of spring training.
What’s next: The series continues on Wednesday when Jeff Samardzija (2-5, 3.49 ERA) takes on Francisco Liriano (2-0, 1.64) in a 6:05 CT start.
“It has been a fun journey,” Dempster said before the Red Sox’s game against the Chicago White Sox. “Texas was a really good place to go and I was really lucky. It has been awesome being over here. It has been a blast and we have gotten off to a really good start.”
Carlos Villanueva has been trending the wrong way. Incidentally I wonder if Villanueva can be a 30-game starter in this league anyway. The mental toll it could take on him seems more intense than the physical. He knows he's overmatched in terms of pure talent so he relies on film study and mental preparation. I see him relaxing some in the bullpen, then if called upon to start again, he might be refreshed. I could be wrong but I think it's a good break for Villanueva. Anyway, Garza's value to the team will be felt later rather than sooner. I just don't see him being dominant right away, but if he does progress then two things happen: Just when some Cubs' arms might be tiring he should be fresh enough -- and perhaps peaking -- to make a difference and his trade value will skyrocket. But the first question is, will we see the old Garza -- the one who has never had an ERA above 4.00 since breaking in -- and if so how long do you think it will take?
BL: Jesse, there are numerous positives coming out of a Garza return. First and foremost he should take a tremendous amount of pressure off Jeff Samardzjia and Edwin Jackson. Although Garza has true No. 1 starter stuff, he has not pitched deep enough into games to be looked at as a No. 1 on a playoff-contending club. I believe if he stays healthy the Cubs will offer him a short-term extension that could be a plus for both sides. Garza could rebuild his resume and at the same time help the Cubs retain some quality innings-eating starters. Holding onto 200 inning-plus starters without breaking the bank is a key for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer while they build the farm system.
A few things to remember when reading this piece: This is not a top-10 list or even a ranking of any sort. It's just a quick glimpse at some players who range from superstar potential to role player. Trying to judge a minor league player on his statistics is a highly imperfect way of analyzing prospects. Minor league stats never tell the whole story. That's why, as always, much of the information provided here is gathered from discussions with scouts and front office members from around the league.
All statistics are updated through Sunday's games.
AP Photo/Morry GashJavier Baez is batting .256 with six home runs and 19 errors at Single-A Daytona.
Position: SS Age: 20 Current level: High-A Daytona
Baez came into the season as arguably the Cubs' top prospect and among the 25 best prospects in all of the minors. When it comes to power, Baez is near the top, with only Twins prospect Miguel Sano clearly ahead of him on the list. Scouts have also begun to come around on Baez's defense at short. Despite the fact that Baez has 19 errors early on this season, the number of people who believe he can stick at the position in the big leagues continues to grow. There are those who feel that when it's all said and done, he'll be a better option at the position than current Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro.
However, Baez doesn't come without his issues. While a very exciting prospect, it's his aggressive, almost out-of-control style of play that is a concern. This is currently being displayed with his .256/.293/.475 line and most glaringly his 46 strikeouts and only seven walks in 174 plate appearances.
Baez has to learn how to slow the game down and develop an approach. Right now, the book on him is that a pitcher doesn't have to throw him a strike to get him out. To reach his potential, Baez must make adjustments, and the fact is that that process may take some time. The Cubs have the luxury of being able to be patient with Baez since they're not competing, and they already have an All Star-caliber player manning short on the big league roster.
The fact that Baez's early struggles were not unexpected, at 20 he's still young for the league and the Florida State League is known to be pitcher-friendly all make Baez's problems at the plate a little easier to swallow. As one AL scouting director said prior to the season, "It's OK if we see him putting up bad numbers at Daytona -- it's all part of the process." Baez's disappointing start isn't something to get riled up about, but how he reacts and adjusts to these issues in the coming months will tell us a lot about his future.