Chicago Cubs: Donnie Murphy

Baker wins job; Olt should be next

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
1:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs named John Baker as the backup catcher and cleared two players from their 40-man roster by giving catcher George Kottaras his unconditional release and losing Donnie Murphy to the Texas Rangers in a waiver claim.

[+] EnlargeJohn Baker
AP Photo/Morry GashVeteran catcher John Baker will back up Welington Castillo.
Kottaras signed a one-year deal with the Cubs over the winter after being acquired in a trade with Kansas City but lost out in the battle to be Welington Castillo's backup as manager Rick Renteria announced Baker, a spring invitee, won the job.

"Baker really worked hard this spring and I kind of think he just earned a spot," Renteria said after the moves.

The loss of Murphy paves the way for prospect Mike Olt to make the team as he's rebounded nicely from vision problems of a season ago while the emergence of infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio made Murphy expendable as well. Olt is batting .270 with five home runs this spring while Bonifacio has been an igniter at the top of the lineup, hitting four triples in Cactus League games.

"We still have that third base spot working itself out," Renteria said. "We're going to continue to play out what we have in camp, hopefully being able to come to a conclusion here in the near future."

Rosters have to be set by Sunday, but Olt looks like a lock. At the very least he can take Murphy's role in a platoon situation at third base with lefty Luis Valbuena. He also played at first base this spring so he might be the backup for Anthony Rizzo considering Murphy was likely the man for that role previously.

The moves also could benefit non-roster outfielder Ryan Kalish. He's rebounded from injuries and also provided a spark with his speed with six stolen bases. With Bonifacio and possibly Kalish on the 25-man roster, the Cubs will be much more athletic than they have been in the recent past.

The moves also save the Cubs money as Wednesday was the last day players could be released without having to pay them their full salary for the season. Baker still needs to be added to the 40-man roster before Opening Day as would Kalish if he makes the team. Another spring invitee, veteran catcher Eli Whiteside will play in Triple-A Iowa.

Baker, 33, is a six-year veteran who played for the San Diego Padres the last two seasons when Renteria was the bench coach. He's a career .258 hitter. Kottaras hit .150 with eight strikeouts in 20 spring at-bats while Baker hit .292. Murphy was a late season call-up last year and hit 10 home runs in the final two months of the season.

Baez's power has teammates buzzing, too

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
1:07
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez said his Facebook page and Twitter account were busy with messages to go along with the texts he received after hitting yet another mammoth home run on Wednesday night in a Cactus League game against the Colorado Rockies.

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonJavier Baez leads the Cubs with five home runs this spring.
And it seems the buzz he's getting from the outside world is matching what he's getting from his own team.

"You don't see balls go that far," teammate Donnie Murphy said Thursday morning. "When you see a 21-year-old shortstop doing that, that's just completely different."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baez's home run off reliever Rob Scahill in the eighth inning Wednesday went 452 feet.

"My first year I played in fall league I hit a ball that far, too," Baez said casually. "That's the best ball I hit this spring training."

Baez has hit five home runs in Cactus League play and all have been blasts, with only one pulled to left field.

"I'm impressed with his bat speed," outfielder Justin Ruggiano said. "It seems like he can be behind on a ball and still catch up to it. That's the most impressive thing to me. And the fact that he hits to all fields, that's something as a young player you don't see as often. It's hard to teach that."

Baez has come a long way. He still strikes out a lot -- he has 12 this spring against no walks -- but what slugger doesn't? His ability to make adjustments and go to the opposite field has been the most impressive aspect of his spring ... besides the monster home runs, of course.

But will it change the Cubs' minds? Baez is slated to start the season at Triple-A Iowa. Manager Rick Renteria answered that question very simply and to the point on Thursday:

"We're looking to make sure whoever we take is not [going] back [to the minors]," he said.

Even Baez gets the question, from friends and family.

"They ask me pretty much every day," he said. "I don't know what to answer."

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So the Cubs want to be sure before starting his major league career. It doesn't hurt that it can save them some money down the road and that means fans are left with accolades from others.

"When we first saw him swing we thought pitchers would start figuring that out but they haven't," reliever James Russell said. "He's definitely forcing the issue for the guys up top. It's fun to watch. Hopefully he stays within himself.

"When you see him go the other way and hit off-speed pitches, that's when you realize this guy knows how to hit. It'll be fun to see him face the [Adam] Wainwrights and [Francisco] Lirianos. You want to see him face guys like that and see how he handles it."

Baez says he's not overly impressed with the balls he hits considering he's been doing it his whole life, but he doesn't deny it's a good feeling.

"You don't feel the ball hit bat, that's when you [know] you hit it good," he said.

A scary moment came later in the game when Baez fell awkwardly catching a popup in short left field. His wrist and knee were sore for a moment but he refused to come out of the game. Cubs brass breathed a sigh of relief.

"It's funny to watch him swing before the home run," third baseman Mike Olt said. "He's not even close. It's like he's begging the pitcher to throw it again ... He's got so many things going on in his swing. You think 'When are they going to catch up to him?' And they don't."

And the sound of the ball hitting bat is unique.

"Some people when they hit it, it sounds like a dud. His is like a smack," Murphy said.

Anthony Rizzo added: "He just doesn't miss the fastball. It's really key. The key to hitting a curveball is not missing the fastball. It's a great start."

It's more than fans who want to see Baez in a major league uniform. He can make a tangible difference in the Cubs' win-loss record, but most important is the signal it sends to the baseball world.

"He's starting a buzz," Russell said. "It's exciting to see the whole rebuilding thing show signs of life."

Halfway through spring, storylines emerge

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
6:39
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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About halfway through spring training a couple of storylines have developed for the Chicago Cubs. One affects 2014 while the other could have longer-range implications.

The addition of infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio is the short-term story to follow. How much will he play and at what positions?

He’s already given manager Rick Renteria some pause for thought when it comes to a leadoff man. Starlin Castro was Renteria’s early, offseason choice for that role, considering he’s had success there. And the Cubs want him as comfortable as possible going into what they hope is a rebound year. But Renteria noted Bonifacio is just as capable of getting on base from the one-hole and has more dangerous base-stealing speed. Two triples so far in spring games back up those thoughts.

(Read full post)

Cactus League: Five things to watch

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:29
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- The Cactus League schedule begins for the Chicago Cubs on Thursday when they play their debut game at new Cubs Park against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Here are five things to keep an eye on during spring games:

Third base: The baseball world is aware of what Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy can do at the hot corner and although they did a respectable job there in 2013, there is talent behind them in the form of high-ceiling prospects. Mike Olt, acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to Texas last season, says he's seeing the ball well after vision problems plagued him in 2013. Now he has to show that in games. If he takes the job -- and keeps it -- it could have long term ramifications at the position. If not, Murphy and Valbuena will keep the position warm until Kris Bryant or another prospect is ready.

[+] EnlargeEmilio Bonifacio
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriWill Emilio Bonifacio push Darwin Barney at second base?
Starting rotation: The usual names need to get ready for the season, possibly none more than Edwin Jackson. Spring results don't mean a lot, but for a pitcher coming off an 8-18 season, any kind of confidence boost can't be a bad thing. How serious is Jake Arrieta's shoulder injury? The rest of the spring will tell that story. If he's unable to pitch then James McDonald and Chris Rusin are next up. Rusin starts Friday and can make an immediate impression on his new manager. And then there is Kyle Hendricks. He's a longshot to make the team, but if he pitches as he did in the intrasquad game on Wednesday, going eight up and eight down, he could open some more eyes.

The outfield: On paper, the Cubs don't exactly have the strongest group heading into the regular season. Junior Lake will get his playing time but could the much-maligned Josh Vitters or Brett Jackson win a job? Without perennial All-Stars making big money out there someone could get pushed down the ladder. Right now Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney have a beat on starting jobs, but if Jackson or Vitters goes off in spring games, one of them could at least head north with the team. If there is a surprise in camp, it's most likely to come in the outfield. Lake is playing center and Ruggiano is in left for Thursday's opening game. It's still undecided where Lake's long-term future lies although he likes center better.

Second base: Is Darwin Barney on his way out or to the bench or does the late addition of Emilio Bonifacio just add depth? Bonifacio is getting the start ahead of Barney on Thursday but little can be deduced simply from that. Still, Bonifacio has skills the Cubs could use at the top of the order, but Barney has the skills to save runs at second base. One thing is for sure, the Cubs probably won't let Barney be the starter all season if his batting average hovers around .200 as it did last year. A good spring sets the tone but still might not stave off Javier Baez from playing there if he's called up this season.

Starlin Castro: Like Jackson, a rebound season is needed and he says he wants to be "locked in" from the beginning of spring games. It doesn't mean he has to hit .600 in February and March games, but with his newly added muscle and commitment to the game you'd like to see it pay off right away. Why wait until April? Castro never takes it easy once the games begin. He hates days off and so if he's going to play a lot it would be nice to see some production -- or at least an inkling that he's back to the old Castro.

Day 5 Notes: Renteria: Eliminate anxiety

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
5:15
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- New Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria will address his team for the first time Wednesday as full squad workouts are set to begin. He says his speech won’t be that different than the one he gave to pitchers and catchers last week: eliminate the distractions and do the work at hand.

“Many of the things that I’ll say, I’ll say over and over the course of the spring, over the course of the season,” Renteria said Tuesday. “It will be redundant but what we’re trying to do is change the way we think and do things.”

The bottom line is that without championship-ready talent, the Cubs have to rely on doing things the right way. If they can take care of the little things, when the talent catches up to the attitude, they might just have a winner.

“You shouldn’t fear having high expectations,” Renteria continued. “A lot of times guys worry about creating this ceiling because how are they going to feel if they don’t attain it.”

Creating false expectations probably isn’t the Cubs problem -- no player is promising anything for himself or the team right now. Still, Renteria wants nothing to stand in the Cubs way of playing the game the right way, not their record or what the date on the calendar is.

(Read full post)

Countdown to Camp: The bench

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
10:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Luis Valbuena Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesLuis Valbuena is the Cubs' lone returning bench player.
With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Feb. 14 in Mesa, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.

Major additions since Opening Day 2013: Donnie Murphy, Ryan Sweeney, Justin Ruggiano, George Kottaras

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro, Cody Ransom, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Scott Hairston, Dave Sappelt

Holdovers: Luis Valbuena

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Which Cubs bench player will have the best season?

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    28%
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Discuss (Total votes: 1,774)

Analysis: The problem with the Cubs bench is it’s intertwined with the starters. Murphy saw a lot of action last year in the final two months and could again this season. Same goes for Valbuena. On contending teams these are purely role players. In the outfield the left-handed Sweeney provides some versatility and can hit lefties and he will also get a good amount of starts. Ruggiano could come off the bench when a right-hander is on the mound and will spell Nate Schierholtz against tough lefties if manager Rick Renteria starts Sweeney alongside him.

If Mike Olt or Javier Baez eventually take a starting spot it will strengthen the Cubs bench by leaving the above players for pinch-hitting and spot duty. In all, Valbuena, Murphy and Sweeney were more productive than not in 2013 so the Cubs do have some decent role players. Based on last season, the biggest loss will be Navarro. He had a huge year at the plate and was a good mentor for starting catcher Welington Castillo.

Outlook: Kottaras has big shoes to fill after hitting just .180 in 100 at-bats last season for Kansas City. His career high in home runs is only nine while he’s never hit higher than .252, although he does take his share of walks. It probably won’t be enough to replace Navarro’s production. Expect him to get far less playing time than his predecessor. Besides that drop off, the bench doesn’t look bad for the Cubs, depending on who gets the majority of starts in the outfield and at third base. It’s unclear what new manager Renteria will do in terms of resting Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Dale Sveum didn’t believe in it until he was forced to as both players slumped in 2013. Will Renteria be more proactive and rest those players before the major slumps occur? Expect Murphy to spell both players at shortstop and first base.

Countdown to Camp: Infield

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
12:00
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Anthony RizzoJennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro regressed in 2013, creating two big question marks for 2014.
With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Feb. 14 in Mesa, Ariz., we’re taking an early look around the diamond.

Major additions since Opening Day 2013: Mike Olt, Donnie Murphy, Logan Watkins

Subtractions: Ian Stewart

Holdovers: Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Luis Valbuena

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Analysis: Barring a major trade, we know half of the infield will remain the same for many years. Castro needs to rebound from an off year in 2013, which saw him watching hittable fastballs go past him -- though he did improve in the field as the year went on. A successful final couple of months in the leadoff role gave hope for a better 2014; a change in managers could be the key for him. If Rizzo brings up his batting average he’ll turn into a very good all-around player. Second and third base are the places to watch, as prospects will push incumbents Barney and the combination of Murphy/Valbuena. Barney had a classic all-field, no-hit kind of season in 2013. He'll get a chance to improve at the plate -- and he'll need to take advantage. Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez are nearing completion of their minor league careers, while Olt, the newcomer from Texas, is a bit of an X factor.

Outlook: There is so much competition coming in the infield it can only be a good thing for the Cubs. Castro might be hearing Baez's name more and more, and Barney is certain to feel the heat from a few places. Valbuena and Murphy were more than admirable in their production, but Baez and even Olt -- if he recovers from eye issues -- have much higher ceilings. There’s a very good chance whoever starts on Opening Day at second and third won’t be the starter in the season finale. Half the infield is set with long-term deals; the other half is up for grabs.

Cubs 3B Olt hoping for a healthy 2014

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
6:20
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO – Chicago Cubs third base prospect Mike Olt knows there's a job opening at his position, but he isn't focused on winning it just yet.

[+] EnlargeMike Olt
Andrew Woolley/AP PhotoMike Olt was the centerpiece of the Matt Garza trade for the Cubs.
Getting healthy was his main goal in 2013 and now that vision problems that plagued him are in the past, Olt, 25, is ready to return to being the power hitter he showed he was in the minors with the Texas Rangers.

"I'm excited for spring training," Olt said Wednesday. "I've worked hard. ... I feel really good. A little break was something I needed. The body feels good. The mental break feels great."

The former No. 1 pick from 2010 struggled throughout 2013, hitting .213 at Triple-A Round Rock for the Rangers and then just .168 at Iowa after being traded to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal in July. Last spring training he began to suffer from vision problems in his right eye and it affected his season.

"It was a freak accident," Olt said. "It happens in baseball. Last year I had to deal with a couple of things from it."

Olt's eye wasn't producing enough fluids, causing him to blink as the ball was coming. He was given special eye drops and now he believes the struggles are behind him.

"I don't feel like I have anything to prove," he said. "Last year was good for me dealing with a lot of adversity making me a better player."

Olt hit 28 home runs in 2012 at Double-A, so the power is there. Last season he still hit 15 home runs despite all the struggles.

"I did have some problems with that," he said. "I think it's definitely in the past."

With only Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy standing in his way, Olt has a good chance to win the third base job out of spring training. But timing is crucial as top pick of 2013, third baseman Kris Bryant, isn't far off from the majors.

Tendering Barney was the right move

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
2:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs made the right choice in tendering second baseman Darwin Barney a contract for 2014. If there was any angst over the decision, there shouldn't have been, because Barney deserves another chance.

[+] EnlargeDarwin Barney
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Cubs have to hope Darwin Barney can regain his 2011 form when he batted .276.
Make no mistake, if No. 1 prospect Javier Baez was ready for the big leagues and the Cubs believed second base was where he needed to play, that would mean a different story for Barney. Same goes for rising prospect Arismendy Alcantara. Some may even think Logan Watkins deserves a real chance at second base. Watkins was an on-base machine in the minors before being recalled last season, but he barely got off the bench. And for all we know, he'll push Barney this spring or summer.

But until further notice, Barney gets another chance to rebound from a rough season at the plate in which he hit just .208 and got on base only 27 percent of the time. The simple reason is Dale Sveum and the old coaching staff. If Sveum and Co. are going to be blamed for the "regression" of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, then Barney fits into that category as well.

In fact, going back to last offseason, Sveum may have worked more closely with Barney than Rizzo or Castro. The bottom line is Barney hit .276 the season before Sveum arrived. He hit .254 and .208 in the two years under him. It would be way too simplistic to put that all on Sveum, but Barney deserves a fresh start with a new coaching staff just like Rizzo and Castro.

And even with some poor numbers, he has shown some signs. He'll battle an opposing pitcher with the best of them -- he was third in the league in foul ball percentage at 43.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information. With two strikes he fouled a pitch off 47.6 percent of the time, tops in the league. It's a good reason why he's only struck out an average of 63 times in three full seasons in the big leagues.

But those foul balls don't mean much -- other than driving up a pitch count -- if the at-bat ends in an unproductive out. And Barney actually fouls off more pitches (46 percent) outside the zone than inside (42 percent). Maybe that's where his upside lies or perhaps his deficiency. All players get hits off pitches outside the zone, or at least take more walks than Barney's 36 last season. So a few more balls that go forward instead of backward could make the difference for him as will laying off a few of those outside the zone. And Barney's seven home runs and 41 RBIs in 2013 aren't bad for a hitter who mostly bats in the eighth spot in the lineup. In fact, only Matt Dominguez of the Houston Astros had more runs driven in from that position in the order than Barney.

Of course, Barney doesn't get another chance at the plate without his work in the field. As bad as he was on offense, he was a Gold Glove winner as well as a finalist at second base in two years under Sveum. That counts for more than just a passing mention. If Sveum gets some blame for Barney's offense then his coaching staff gets some credit for mentally keeping him in the game on defense. FanGraphs basically has Barney as the best defensive second baseman in the game over the past two years. So for Barney to be an effective overall player he only has to return to respectability at the plate.

Unless something unexpected happens, expect the Cubs to sign him for 2014. After that, there are no guarantees. But he deserves another chance to improve at the plate.

At least for a while.

Roster shaping


There were no major surprises during Monday's tender deadline.

The Cubs signed their new backup catcher in George Kottaras after Dioner Navarro joined the Toronto Blue Jays. Navarro wanted a multiyear deal and the Cubs wouldn't give more than one. That has basically been their philosophy lately. If you're not part of the core for the future the Cubs aren't going to be locking you up.

Infielder Donnie Murphy fits into that category and between his signing and the Cubs tendering Luis Valbuena a contract, it made Mat Gamel expendable. According to sources, Murphy had a lucrative offer from Japan after hitting 11 home runs in less than two months last season. An arbitration hearing would have been unique considering his short but successful stay in the majors in 2013, so instead, both sides decided to lock him up. But again, it's for one year.

With prospects Baez, Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt and others getting ready to break into the majors, one-year deals is the norm right now. And that's the right thing to do.

2013 Cubs season review: Infield

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
3:43
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Jesse Rogers recaps the Cubs by position and looks at what changes might be in store for 2014.

Anthony RizzoJennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro regressed in 2013, creating two big question marks for 2014.
As expected the Chicago Cubs were solid on defense in the infield but a mixed bag at the plate in 2013. In a strange way, third base -- the biggest question mark coming into the season -- was the most reliable position. The Cubs have their first baseman -- Anthony Rizzo -- and shortstop – Starlin Castro -- of the present and future in place but they both went through growing pains although they might end up being good growing pains.

The good: It's not that Cody Ransom, Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy set the world on fire -- although Murphy was a pleasant surprise -- but each contributed more than anyone could have expected at third base, especially on offense. The hot corner ranked second in the National League with 30 home runs and a fielding percentage in the middle of the pack. Castro got better defensively as the season wore on while Darwin Barney and Rizzo are Gold Glove candidates. Barney actually showed some pop despite a low average, and he battled pitchers, even if the result wasn't always there. Castro's best days were toward the end of the season when he vowed to return to "being himself" at the plate while batting leadoff.

The bad: Not one player around the infield had a career year. Or anywhere close. Simply put, their batting averages stunk. And in most cases so did their on-base percentage. Barney regressed after offseason changes to his swing and Castro had the worst season of his career. At one point Castro, Rizzo and Barney were all in danger of hitting below .240 for the season.

Who's next: There's little doubt the Cubs are waiting for a couple of prospects to take over at third and possibly second base. the bat of Kris Bryant, the No. 2 pick in the June draft, might get him to the big leagues sooner rather than later, but not at the start of next season. Third baseman Mike Olt, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, might get a shot if he can return to the form that made him a top prospect in Texas. At second base, Javier Baez could make a position change or Double-A infielder Arismendy Alcantara might force the issue there. The Cubs could also look at Logan Watkins, who had a .365 on-base percentage over six minor league seasons. He'll play some winter ball to stay sharp because he didn't get enough plate appearances at the major league level to be judged.

2014 outlook: There's a good possibility that both Castro and Rizzo bottomed out in 2013, at least at the plate. If Castro's average and on-base percentage don't rise next season then there should be some real concerns. Even if Castro's power doesn't develop, he needs to get on base more, especially if he remains in the lead-off hole. Rizzo only struggled when he tried to do too much. He has to go to left more, using the entire field to bring up that average. Unless Olt wins the job in spring training, expect a platoon situation to start the season at third base, possibly with Murphy and Valbuena again. Barney is the question mark. His glove might let him keep his job, but he might not finish there if a prospect is ready to take over.

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 6, Cubs 2

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
6:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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ST. LOUIS -- Here’s a quick look at the Chicago Cubs' 6-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday:


How it Happened: Cubs starter Edwin Jackson was hit early and often as the Cardinals scored two in the first and four in the third. Matt Holliday hit a two-run home run to start the scoring before Yadier Molina and Pete Kozma produced run-scoring doubles. The final blow -- after an intentional walk to the No. 8 hitter -- was a run-scoring single by pitcher Adam Wainwright. Jackson left the game with lat discomfort on his right side after that hit. Anthony Rizzo hit a ninth-inning home run to ruin the shutout, and Donnie Murphy drove in another run, but the Cubs managed just three hits off Wainright and Cardinals’ relievers in the first eight innings.

What it Means: Jackson ended his season about the same way he began it: by getting hit hard. He gave up eight hits and six runs in just 2.2 innings to a team that celebrated a division title late into the night on Friday. Jackson has three more years left on his contract, so there’s plenty of time to rebound from his poor season, but as of this moment, he’s a candidate for one of the worst free-agent signings in Cubs history. He went 8-18 with a 4.98 ERA in 2013.

Outside the Box: Starlin Castro is quietly finishing the season on a high note. Since returning to the leadoff position after a one-day stint batting eighth in late August, he’s raised his batting average seven points and he’s hitting the ball with more authority. It’s also the time he said he would return to his roots as a hitter and not worry about how many pitches he sees. His finish could be a huge lift for him heading into 2014.

What’s Next: The Cubs season concludes on Sunday when Jeff Samardzija faces Jake Westbrook.

Rapid Reaction: Pirates 2, Cubs 1

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
9:51
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive

CHICAGO – Here’s a quick look at the Chicago Cubs' 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday:

How it happened: Starling Marte hit a two-out home run off of Kevin Gregg in the ninth inning after the Cubs tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth. The Cubs trailed 1-0 until the eighth inning, when pinch hitter Donnie Murphy drove in Brian Bogusevic with a base hit to left. A Neil Walker home run in the first inning nearly held up as the Cubs' offense couldn’t help starter Jeff Samardzija, who went six innings. Charlie Morton was on his game as he gave up only three hits and one walk over seven innings while striking out five. He struck out the side in the fifth and had to work out of only one jam over the course of the night. The Cubs had the leadoff man on in innings 6-8 before finally pushing across their lone run in the eighth.

What it means: Samardzija had a rough start, with the second batter of the game going deep, and though he gave up five hits and four walks, he battled through six innings. That’s significant because many times this year he hasn’t kept his team within striking distance. In his second-to-last start of the year, that’s exactly what he did, and now Samardzija has a chance to finish his year strong on Sunday in the season finale. The Pirates clinched at least a tie for a wild-card berth pending the outcome of the St. Louis Cardinals/Washington Nationals game.

Outside the box: Cubs catcher Welington Castillo had arthroscopic right knee surgery on Monday and is expected to be fully healed for next season. Before the game, manager Dale Sveum expressed interest in seeing reliever Hector Rondon pitch in back-to-back games. He had a 1-2-3 eighth inning, which featured a fastball that reach 98 mph. The speed of his fastball was something Sveum was interested in seeing on his second straight day on the mound.

What’s next: Game 2 of the series takes place on Tuesday night when Chris Rusin opposes Gerrit Cole.

Mailbag: Donnie Murphy

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
7:20
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MILWAUKEE -- The mailbag is full of questions for infielder Donnie Murphy as the August call-up from Triple-A Iowa has been on fire since his arrival, though he’s in a 0-for-11 slump currently.

He has 10 home runs and 20 RBI in 121 at-bats this season and has been the Cubs' best clutch hitter of late.


Is this year the pinnacle of your career? You're killing the ball and playing good defense. Could it get any better? Congratulations on a great year.
Larry (Konya, Turkey)

Donnie Murphy: I guess so. It’s been about opportunity more than anything. I think that’s made a huge difference. Getting four at-bats every day. That’s helped out putting up the numbers I have so far.

I loved it when [Anthony] Rizzo and [Darwin] Barney used the "Murphed" one out reference to home runs. To what do you attribute your recent power surge?
(Jim, San Antonio)

DM: Just getting good pitches to hit and not missing them. I think Wrigley has a little bit to do with it, even though sometimes it doesn’t always blow out there. I think it’s just about the good pitches.

Do you gravitate more towards the younger guys you played with at the start of the year in Triple-A or towards the veterans?
Jeremy (Israel)

DM: It’s not so much about that. I gravitate to guys that have similar personalities like mine. We have a lot on this team.

Do you like the nickname “Donnie Baseball”?
Peter (Peoria, Ariz.)

DM: There’s one other person (Don Mattingly) in this game with that nickname, and he had a great career, so of course I’m going to like it. It’s awesome.

If you get 500 at-bats next season with the Cubs what do you think you could do?
Tim (Daytona Beach, Fla.)

DM: I always tell people the numbers I put up in the minor leagues I feel like I could put in the majors. Similar numbers if I was given a full-time opportunity. I’m not going to go crazy and say 30 home runs because that’s just dreaming. I’d hold my own. Maybe .260-ish and in between 15 and 20 home runs. That’s what I think.

Who is the most-fun teammate to pull a prank on?
Jerry (Milan, Ill.)

DM: Really not sure who on this team, but in the minors this year, there is a guy named Tim Torres. He would believe anything. He was probably the most gullible person I’ve ever been around, so any little thing he would believe you no matter what. So, anyway, to mess with him and get a reaction of him, that was the most fun.”

What’s it like playing on a rebuilding team with so many young players?
Michael (West Lafayette, Ind.)

DM: It’s fun because I was once where they are in their career. To see how they develop, like Junior Lake, it’s fun to watch.

Bunt was a curious move by Sveum

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
10:54
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
If the Chicago Cubs were in a pennant race then manager Dale Sveum's decision to have Donnie Murphy bunt in the ninth inning of Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates would be dissected for days to come. Sports radio and Twitter would have blown up over it.

The outcome of the game may matter little, but the Cubs are in evaluation mode, for their players and their manager. It's been debated often among Cubs fans: Will Sveum be the manager when and if the Cubs turn the corner? That's uncertain, but the better question is, how exactly are the Cubs evaluating him considering he doesn't have a roster to be judged based on win and losses?

Inevitably, he'll probably be judged on two things: Are young players developing under his tutelage and does he have the respect of the clubhouse during a time that has seen the Cubs use a record amount of players in back-to-back seasons.

But what about in-game moves? They may not matter now but they will someday. Can't we get an insight into Sveum's abilities despite managing a bad team?

(Read full post)

Mailbag: Ask Donnie Murphy

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:00
AM CT
By ESPNChicago.com
ESPNChicago.com
Donnie Murphy has been a pleasant surprise for the Cubs this season, showing surprising power with 10 home runs in 30 games. He sits down with ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers to answer your questions in the Cubs mailbag. Click here to submit your questions and check back Monday for his answers.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Jason Hammel
WINS ERA SO IP
8 2.98 104 108
OTHER LEADERS
BAA. Rizzo .285
HRA. Rizzo 25
RBIA. Rizzo 59
RA. Rizzo 71
OPSA. Rizzo .907
ERAJ. Samardzija 2.83
SOT. Wood 108