CHICAGO -- As the Chicago Cubs return home for the second half of their 20 games in 20 days stretch of baseball their opposition will slowly rise back-up the competitive ladder.
First the San Diego Padres come to town for a four-game series beginning Monday and sport the identical record (9-15) as the Cubs, although they've won four in a row. The Cincinnati Reds are here this weekend followed by a make-up game with the Texas Rangers. Finally the homestand concludes with a two-game set against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 7-8.
Before we look forward, let's take a look back at five things we learned during the first 10 games of this stretch, all coming on the just completed road trip:
Gregg emerging as closer: Manager Dale Sveum joked several times with reporters that his bullpen has been at its best lately when no one really knows their job -- especially at the closer position. He stands by his current closer-by-committee description but in reality it's "closer-by-committee among those that have done it before." Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg have had the most recent chances, and Gregg has to be emerging as the guy for now, or even when injured pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa returns. Gregg had back-to-back, 1-2-3 ninth innings to earn saves on Friday and Saturday which has been rare this season for the Cubs. Why walk the Marmol tightrope every other night if Gregg is having easier innings? Whether by name or not, Gregg is the closer for the moment. But let's not forget, it means little long-term. Neither Gregg nor Marmol or probably anyone else on the roster will be the closer if/when the Cubs are ready to contend.
Rizzo is fine: If someone told you Anthony Rizzo had eight home runs and 19 runs batted in with two days left in April you'd say he's picking up where he left off last season. It's about run production. That's why Rizzo's .211 batting average can't be too concerning. Weighted Runs Created (wRC) quantifies a player's total offensive value and measures it by runs. According to FanGraphs.com, Rizzo has been worth 15 runs this season, which leads all Cubs and is tied for 19th in the NL and 45th in MLB. Sure, if he was on-base more than just 30 percent of the time he might score more runs and those behind him might get better pitches to hit. But when a player is on pace for 128 runs batted in, you don't question much of anything else. And does anyone really believe Rizzo is going to only hit .211 for the season? Even if his power numbers inevitably come down (his eight homers are tied for eighth most in March-April since 1920 for players age 23 or younger) he'll still be very effective in the long run. Enjoy the process of watching Rizzo grow. He's still an infant as a player.
Villanueva is human: He missed a quality start on Sunday by one run, but Carlos Villanueva still kept his team in the game despite giving up a lead in the sixth inning to the Miami Marlins in a 6-4 loss. His placement on a few pitches wasn't good and he got beat. That's going to happen considering he doesn't have overpowering stuff. The test for Villanueva will be over the long haul. His preparation takes more of a mental toll than any physical stress causes his arm. Can he prepare every five days to pitch effectively for six months and then go out and execute it? He's still trade bait, but if the Cubs were ready to contend he would be a perfect No. 5 starter even though he's thrown better than that over the first month. Plus, he's enjoyable to watch because he's a pitcher and not just a thrower.
Close is actually good: The 10-game road trip confirmed what we thought we knew about this Cubs team previously: They like to play 'em close. Their 24 straight games to start the season decided by four runs or less is tied for second longest in baseball history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The major league record of 33 is in sight now. With the sample size growing, there is some meaning here. It's a complement to the pitching staff. With the Cubs tied for second to last in baseball in runs scored, the only way they are staying in games is with their staff and that even includes their bullpen of late. That's significant because of how important pitching is to winning. If the Cubs led the league in the stolen bases, for example, who would really care? But this is pitching and the implications past this season are big. It's not a reach to believe a good portion of the staff will be here when the Cubs are ready to win, especially among the starters. If April is any indication, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson (by default more than anything) and Travis Wood are mainstays and Villanueva might have a place at only 29 years old. That's not a bad start. Bottom line: With a roller coaster bullpen (early), a poor defense and an anemic offense, it's a miracle the Cubs haven't been blown out even once. That's where the starting staff comes in. They've been great.
Sveum facing more scrutiny: With all the close games, Sveum is getting scrutinized more than ever. It might be meaningless right now since the Cubs aren't ready to win, even if they did pull out a few more close games. But is it telling about how he will manage when all these little moves matter? His lineup with lefties on the mound is worth questioning as is his use of the bullpen, specifically Marmol coming off a poor spring. Some late decisions in the close games have come under scrutiny including taking out his starter prematurely. Every manager goes through these questions but with an inordinate amount of tight games, it's provided even more insight into Sveum. Imagine the scrutiny if these games were meaningful in the way Cubs fans hope they are soon? Either it's a learning process for Sveum -- just like his young players -- or it's a testing ground for him as the long-term manager. Either way, it's been easy to second guess because there have been so many opportunities.