Monday, April 7, 2014
Week in review: Closer, lineup questions
By Jesse Rogers
Jose Veras hasn't provided much relief for the Cubs in two appearances this season.
CHICAGO -- The first day off for the Chicago Cubs on Monday gives us a chance to review the first week of the season.
No conclusions can be drawn from their 2-4 start, for the team or individual players. The most we can examine is whether there are any short- and long-term trends forming. In analyzing the Cubs, the long-term implications are always more important than the short term, at least for now.
With that in mind, let's review the first week:
Starting staff: Like early last season, they're doing their job. The lone so-so performance came from All-Star Travis Wood, but there is little to worry about with him. The Phillies' Chase Utley destroyed the Cubs over the weekend, and Wood made one costly mistake to him on a wind-aided home run Friday. Newcomer Jason Hammel was great in saving the bullpen Thursday in Pittsburgh in the Cubs' first victory of the year.
Jeff Samardzija has been very good through two starts, although he has no wins to show for it. With zero runs scored while he's been on the mound -- losing 1-0 and 2-0 -- the idea of a trade to a contender might sound better and better to him. It's simple. If Samardzija can keep his pitch count to a reasonable number and have success throughout the first half while staying healthy, that combination should bring a huge return for him in a trade by July 31. That is unless the Cubs change their minds and sign him. The starting staff produced a 1.93 ERA through the first week, good for fourth in baseball. Cold weather or not, that's impressive.
Could Ryan Kalish play his way into the Cubs' future plans?
The lineup: If you want to give manager Rick Renteria the benefit of the doubt for the first week of the season, go ahead. If you think Ryan Kalish deserves some starts, an argument can be made for it, and not just because of his two-hit, three-RBI performance Sunday. He was a rising prospect with Boston before injuries sidelined him, and he's young enough (26) that he could play his way into a larger role in Chicago. But there is no short- or long-term reason that outfielder Ryan Sweeney should be getting starts over Junior Lake. And Mike Olt needs to be playing more often as well.
Are the Cubs really going to rotate a platoon through basically four positions at third, second, left and center? That does no one any good. Renteria might be trying to win a game that day, but if the Cubs are interested in winning every game, they would have a better team on the field in the first place. Nothing against Sweeney, but he isn't going to be a starter on this team when it becomes a contender; neither will Luis Valbuena. The other players could be. The argument ends there.
As for Emilio Bonifacio, he's been amazing. What team wouldn't want a player with speed who can play as many positions as he can? In fact, how many players play center field, shortstop and second base in a season? It's not a long list. Bonifacio played all three in the first three games and hit .500 for the week. It's unclear what his long-term role on the Cubs could be, but any contender would like to have this version of Bonifacio somewhere on the field or bench. He made the first week fun to watch.
The closer: For the second spring in a row, the Cubs chose to ignore all the signs that their closer wasn't ready for that role to start the season. Even if we're supposed to look the other way at the results in spring, Carlos Marmol and now Jose Veras simply weren't moving in the right direction with their stuff as the Cactus League progressed. It's no surprise that Veras has blown one save and gave up runs in his second appearance of the season on Sunday against the Phillies in a nonsave situation.
Renteria has said he's not worried about Veras, but he might be the only one. Long term, it isn't a big deal because Veras won't be here, but at this point handing the job to Pedro Strop might be the way to go. Then again, Veras' trade value will plummet like Marmol's. But at least there will be fewer late-inning headaches along the way.
Overall analysis: It's no surprise the offense struggled through the first week. It's not very good, and Starlin Castro is just starting to look better after missing most of spring training. Their poor hitting (.170) with runners in scoring position is getting all the headlines, but getting on base is more important right now. Their .294 on-base percentage through one week -- which includes a seven-walk day against A.J. Burnett and the Phillies on Sunday -- pretty much mirrors their .307 figure this spring and .300 for all of last season. It's not nearly good enough.
When that improves, everything else on offense will as well. And the offense will improve over time if the best hitters and hitting prospects are in the lineup. Even if players struggle on a certain day, playing Olt and Lake -- and to a smaller extent Kalish -- should be the Cubs' No. 1 priority at the plate.