Most of the people in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse will claim that they are keeping their focus on the final 21 games of 2011. It’s likely that everyone else is wondering how a team that currently sits 19 games below .500 can get back to respectability next season.
The first thing any team needs is a standout pitcher to anchors its rotation. Manager Mike Quade believes that Matt Garza can be that ace.
“We’re gonna need that guy,” Quade said. “We want that guy to give us eight (innings) once in a while, maybe nine. I think he’s a horse, I really do. I think he’s capable of better, I think we’ll see better.”
Garza's 8-10 record hardly reflects how good he’s been this season, pitching 166 innings and compiling a 3.52 ERA while striking out 167 and walking 62. Garza was brilliant once again on Monday afternoon, allowing only one earned run in 7 2/3 innings in a 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
The Cubs defense, an area they’ll surely have to shore up in 2012 if they hope to improve, didn’t do Garza any favors. Two errors led to two unearned runs, but Garza wasn’t about to throw his teammates under the bus.
“I’m not going to worry about anybody else, I gotta control me,” Garza said. “Yeah it can (tick) me off; if it (ticks) me off and I don’t control (my emotions) then I’m just going to let it get out of hand. That’s not what I need to do. Physical errors are going to happen. (Shoot), I have some of my own. I just got to keep going, keep controlling myself and the situation.”
While Garza and Ryan Dempster are likely to be a big part of next season’s rotation, there are plenty of question marks behind them. Andrew Cashner's development over the coming month will be crucial in trying to fill one of those holes.
Cashner (shoulder) returned from the 60-day disabled list prior to Monday’s game after making a short rehab stint in the Cubs’ minor league system. In his five appearances, Cashner pitched a combined 4 2/3 innings, striking out eight and walking none.
“Velocity was there. I was really pleased with the way everything’s gone,” Cashner said Monday. “No pain. I feel like I’m 100 percent and ready to roll.”
Cashner (who pitched Sunday in Triple-A) said he’d be available to pitch in relief tomorrow, but it’s believed that the Cubs don’t want to use him on less than two days rest, meaning he won’t pitch until Wednesday at the earliest.
An exact plan has yet to be laid out for Cashner’s future, though he did say he expects to return to starting when he pitches in the Arizona Fall League this October. One would assume that the Cubs will build up his pitch count slowly and hope that he’s ready to contribute at full strength as a starter by next April.
One role the Cubs thought they had locked in for the next few years was at closer. However, Carlos Marmol has blown a league-leading nine saves this season and has struggled through easily his most rocky season. On Saturday, Marmol turned a 5-3 lead into a 7-5 deficit when he gave up a ninth-inning grand slam to Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman Derrek Lee; an outing that only added to the mounting questions as to if Marmol would remain the closer for this season and beyond. With a 1-2-3 ninth on Monday to preserve the Cubs’ victory, Marmol was able to at least temporarily quiet some of those rumblings.
“Figuring out how to get back to where he was, figuring out how to deal with the frustration of not saving some games that he’s accustomed to saving, it’s all still a learning process,” Quade said. “He’s still very young, I wish he hadn’t had this adversity, for sure, but I do believe he’ll be better for it. The response today was exactly what you’re looking for.”
Though it’s uncertain what direction the next GM will want to go, Marmol said he wants to remain the closer for as long as he’s with the Cubs. He has at least one ardent supporter in Garza.
“You don’t want a closer who’s afraid to grab the ball, and he’s not,” Garza said. “He wants the ball every chance he gets. It’s a rough year, what are you going to do? Next year he’ll learn from what he did. (The) last three or four seasons he’s been unbelievable. It’s just a rough patch.”
Rough patch or not, the fact is, a once rock-solid option to close a game has now turned into a major question mark. While Garza gives the Cubs a little bit of clarity for next year, both Cashner and Marmol just add to what’s already a very murky future.