Monday, April 20, 2009

Chicago Cubs Position Battle: Micah Hoffpauir or Derrek Lee?

It's early, but already there's been all kinds of press regarding Derrek Lee's slow start at first base.

Most Cubs fans know that Lee was at one point a very capable middle-of-the-order hitter. They fell in love in 2005, during a career year. Since then, the picture hasn't been nearly as pretty, as three-year declines in power are never a good sign.

To begin this season, Lee is hitting a paltry .217/.283/.348 through 11 games. Of course, this is an extremely small sample size. Furthermore, Lee's not alone in terms of slow-starting Cubs hitters. Free agent pick-up Milton Bradley and 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto have combined for only three hits so far.

But Bradley and Soto aren't as worrisome because they're aren't as high a risk to be in the declining portion of their professional careers. Bradley's numbers have continually been trending up over the past several years, and Soto is still a young dude. Neither of these hitters have three-year declines in power weighing them down at the plate.

Nor do they have 29-year old lefty sluggers breathing down their necks.

Lee's hold on the starting first base job is being threatened by Micah Hoffpauir. Micah is 5-for-14 against righties this season, with two doubles to boot. His success against righties might force Lou Piniella to give some of Lee's at-bats to Hoffpauir when the team is facing a right-hander.

It's interesting to look at what a Lee-Hoffpauir platoon might be able to produce. Adding Lee's appearances against lefties to Hoffpauir's stats against right-handers generates a slash-line of roughly .421/.450/.526, an excellent line indeed.

If Lee's role in the offense is diminished any time soon (either fewer at-bats, or a drop in the line-up), it will be interesting to see what Lou does with his line-ups. A team that used just one left-handed bat in last year's NLDS will now be able to use up to four in a given line-up. Against righties, Lou may use a line-up something like:


If Lee is dropped in the order against righties, it would seem to make sense for him to hit in the 5th spot, giving us a line-up of:


We'll see what happens, I guess.

Positional changes that must be made

We are two weeks into the season - it feels like a lot more than that because it's the 20th of April - and already snap judgments are being made. Players that busted their butts to make the roster are already on the bubble to get dropped. Guys that surprisingly won starting jobs are already on the brink of losing them. In other words, baseball is harsh and often unfair.

On the Cubs the lineup remains set, even though a few players are dramatically underperforming. Probably the one who is on the biggest bubble is Mike Fontenot. After two weeks he's batting in the low .200's. Luckily the biggest challenger to his job legitimately sucks - Aaron Miles. We're going to assume that Lou does in fact have the brains that God gave him and isn't entertaining the idea of abandoning Lil' Babe Ruth for the bench in favor of the Switch Hitting Sultan of Suck. But who on the Cubs is at the brink of prematurely losing their gig?

Neal Cotts - On GROTA I recently voiced my belief that Cotts knows exactly what Lou's shoutin' voice sounds like. The only thing saving his ass is the complete lack of alternatives. There's not even another lefty reliever on the Cubs 40 man roster according to In Triple A, there are two options - Jason Waddell (0.00 ERA in 4 IP) and J.R. Mathes (9.64 ERA in 4.2 IP of work)

Kevin Gregg - Gregg is not on the brink of getting ejected from the team, but he is on the bubble of losing his closer's role to Carlos Marmol. The one thing that leads me to believe Lou will give him some more time is the way Gregg stepped in to stop the bleeding on Saturday against the Cardinals.

Oddly enough, the "real" bubble guys - Joey Gathright and Dave Patton, who were respectively the 24th and 25th men on the roster - are probably safe, despite mediocre-so-far results. But the Cubs probably will need to find another lefty sometime soon, and they will especially need to re-evaluate how they back up Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Theriot. Another back-up type who can cover the left side of the infield may prove to be more valuable than speedy Joey Gathright.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ted Lilly Pitched Well Last Night

Considering Ted Lilly gave up four home runs last night, it's hard to categorize his start as a success. But putting Lilly's performance into context is crucial for understanding why the Bulldog's less-than-perfect stat line was exactly what the Cubs needed last night.

The Cubs pounded out an 11-6 win last night behind outstanding offensive performances from two left-handed hitters, Kosuke Fukudome and Mike Fontenot. Aramis Ramirez had an outstanding night as well. The balanced offensive attack was working at full capacity for at least one night.

While the offense certainly got the job done, it seems that many Cub fans are less impressed with the pitching of Ted Lilly.

Indeed, out of context, it wasn't a good start. Lilly gave up four home runs over five innings, and eight hits overall. He gave the Astros a good number of pitches to hit, and in some cases, they were able to knock the cover off the darned thing.

But you know what? That's exactly what Lilly was supposed to do.

Lilly used the large cushion afforded to him by his teammates to get through innings as quickly as possible. Although Lilly only pitched five innings, he needed just 73 pitches to do so. If that rate were to continue, Lilly would have been under 105 pitches through seven innings--a fine start indeed.

More importantly, of the 73 pitches Lilly threw, 50 were for strikes. Why is that number so crucial?

When you've got a big lead, the last thing you want to do is walk opposing hitters. Instead, a mindful pitcher will throw strikes, and force the opponent to put the ball in play. Sure, Lilly allowed four home runs, but because he didn't walk anyone, none of the home runs hurt him too badly individually; three were solo shots, and one was a two-run homer.

Of course, giving up four home runs is never in the game plan for a pitcher when he takes the mound; Lilly would have much rather won last night's game by a score of 11-0. Presumably, there are some adjustments Lilly needs to make going forward to limit the number of hits and long balls allowed. At the same time, Cubs fans need to recognize the context of Lilly's performance before completely throwing him under the bus.

It will be interesting to see how Lilly performs in his next start, which will almost certainly be closer than last night's game (although, who would complain about another 8-0 lead after two innings?). Because he's a fly ball pitcher, Ted will almost certainly give up another couple long fly balls, some of which may leave the yard. But a larger proportion of balls to strikes might force opponents to swing at more pitches out of the zone, increasing Lilly's strikeout numbers and keeping runs off the scoreboard.

Lilly's next start will likely come on April 13th, as the Cubs play their first game in Wrigley Field against the Colorado Rockies.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Blame the offense... or The Riot?

There goes the perfect season, I guess.

The Cubs really did seem to play pretty well. Limiting the opponent to two runs in nine innings is a good thing. Dempster was quite fine in his start, and Heilman and Cotts each had one good inning. The problem was, Lou asked each of them to pitch two. That gave Cotts a difficult situation when he came on in the ninth, and a similarly tough scenario for Gregg in the 10th.

Of course, Lou was forced to ask too much of his relievers because the offense had trouble getting going. While it is inevitable that the offense has a collective night off every so often, there was one play that stuck out as the "Doh!" moment of tonight's game.

Milton Bradley got himself into a good hitter's count in the 8th inning while Ryan Theriot was on first base. Ryan subsequently attempted to steal, and was caught. I personally would have liked to see MB get a chance to hit from the 2-0 count (furthermore, isn't 1-0 a bad count to run on? Expectin' fastball, aren't ya?). A well-struck ball might have given us the lead there. Oh well.

A close game tonight, well played on both sides. I'm not too worried about it, aside from Geo's shoulder. Let's go and get a series win Wednesday night.

Guess again!

I have to say, I got pretty close on last night's game without really even trying: Soriano and Ramirez HRs, and six good innings from Z.

Tonight, let's go with 5 innings with 2 hits, 3 walks and 5 strikeouts for Demp. Lee and Bradley back-to-back doubles, a Soto RBI single, and a base hit for Fukudome.

I'll be back after the game with some bench-related reaction.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gath gets in

I'm not surprised that Joey Gathright was used as a late-inning defensive replacement on Opening Day.

I am fairly surprised that Gath replaced Kosuke Fukudome, rather than Milton Bradley--even after Bradley rolled his ankle earlier in the game.

I know one game is one game, but didn't Kosuke look lost out there? It's impossible to quantify "lost," and hard to describe it. But think about the plays MB made in right--the catch-and-throw that kept Matsui at first, charging in on a soft fly ball.

Maybe Kosuke just needs some time. He'll probably get it if the Cubs continue to win. Even if Fukky stays in, though, it might be sooner rather than later when Lou switches him with Ryan Theriot in the batting order.

Bring it, Roy!

The spring training portion of the Cubs' position battles has concluded, and the 25-man roster is set. What now for BAM!?

Tonight, and throughout the first few games of the season, I'll be watching the performances of the bench players that fought their way on to this roster.

How's the new bullpen working out? Is Patton throwing strikes, or getting swings-and-misses on balls out of the zone? How soon will a 4th or 5th outfielder come into the game? Will the middle infield change once the starter is gone?

It'll be easy for anyone at ESPN or to talk up Soriano and Aramis for their monster HRs, or Zambrano for his seven shutout innings in 90 pitches (Knock. On. Wood.). Hopefully, you'll come to this site to get a little more perspective on the more subtle plays of the game.

Go Cubs!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

And like that he's gone

Gaudin is out, and the roster is set. I hope Guzman and Patton can earn their keep, and continue to succeed at the major league level throughout the year.

I suspect the final decision came down to an issue of philosophy. I've said it before and I'll say it again--Cubs' brass love Ks. Gaudin was not a strikeout guy (frankly, I don't really know how he made a living as a pitcher at all).

Guzman, Vizcaino and Patton all have the ability to get strikeouts. That's what kept them on this team. Let's hope they can do so this year.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Have we been wrong?

It'll be a tough decision after today.

Patton, Guzman, and Gaudin each threw a scoreless inning. Patton saw a bit of trouble in his; Guzman and Gaudin were perfect, with a strikeout each.

It makes you wonder. Certainly, Patton's been good, and Gaudin's been awful.

But who cares?

Spring games are meaningless tune-ups. Lilly and Harden each got destroyed in New York this weekend. Is it particularly encouraging? Not exactly. But do I think either pitcher will be absolutely worthless this year? No.

The fact is, David Patton has never pitched above A-ball. While Gaudin has been massively hittable, he's had success at the major league level. You can't ignore that, even though I have been doing so for the past month.

Today, after successful outings from both Guzman and Gaudin, I'm going to submit my final prediction before the roster is announced this weekend.

I think David Patton will be sent back to his team, and Guzman and Gaudin will be on the 25-man roster to start the season.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Last minute pick-ups

Opening day is near and the Cubs are pretty much set up the way they'll look when they take the field for the first time. But there are often surprises in the final days of Spring - like Detroit's release of Gary Sheffield.

Because Shef is a potential Hall of Famer nearing 500 homeruns, most fans (especially the marks) start drooling at the thought of acquiring him. Problem is, on a team like the Cubs it makes about as much sense as Kirstie Alley selling a diet product. The Cubs are already pretty loaded in the outfield - Micah Hoffpauir and Reed Johnson are both extremely talented, even if neither can really play good center field. Sheffield would just make the outfield situation awkward because unless - sorry, until - Milton Bradley gets hurt, he wouldn't be starting enough to feel satisfied.

But while Sheffield makes no sense for the Cubs, it wouldn't be shocking to see Jim Hendry make a last-minute pickup. He's still aching for another lefty reliever and the team is extremely thin on the left side of the infield.

One player who may be made available is Jays infielder Joe Inglett. The team doesn't have room for him and has demoted him to Triple A - all this despite Inglett's .297 AVG in 2008 and his ability to play pretty much every position in the field (he's never played an inning at catcher or first base, but he's played everywhere else). Hey, who knows -- the Jays are set in their 25-man-roster, but maybe they'd consider dealing Inglett. And while the Cubs aren't likely to grab Inglett specifically, he is the kind of player who may be available right now for next-to-nothing.

Either way, ESPN is projecting the Cubs to win the NL Central with 95 wins, 11 better than the 2nd place Brewers. It feels odd to follow the favorite.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Good god, Gaudin

Another day, another spring training game, another absolutely worthless performance by Chad Gaudin. It's just not looking good for this guy, which is a shame for the young pitcher. From the Cubs' perspective, it sucks that we probably won't be able to get much back for him, if anything.

After today, it's gotta be nearly certain that the Cubs will put Patton and Guzman on the 25-man roster, option Samardzija to Triple-A, and see what happens with Chad Gaudin on waivers. Given 1) his performance in late 2008, 2) his horrendous spring, and 3) the $2MM owed to him for 2009, there's a good chance he'll clear, and make his way down to Iowa with Samardzija and crew.

Gaudin gone?

Paul Sullivan has reiterated the Rockies' interest in Chad Gaudin. This, along with Hendry's determination to avoid waivers, leads me to believe that this is the deal that will happen.

Furthermore, it's always seemed like the Cubs really love Guzman. They've already invested so much in him up to now; couldn't see them getting rid of him just like that.

Lastly, I'd point out that Chad Gaudin is not a typical Cub pitcher. He doesn't get strikeouts. If you're a Cub fan, you have to know that Cub management makes a distinct point of getting lots of strikeouts from every pitcher. Along that line of thinking, if you haven't read this Fangraphs article, you should.

A Gaudin trade would finish up the 25-man roster for the Cubs. It'll be interesting to see how much money the Cubs will have to pay Gaudin, as well as the return they'll receive. Maybe it'll be another Rich Hill type deal, where the PTBNL the Cubs get back is contingent upon Gaudin's performance.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


(Note: Vote! In the poll over there, on the right!)

There's word across the interwebs that some teams might be interested in Gaudin (the Rockies have been prominently mentioned), but those teams also expect Gaudin to clear waivers because of his $2 million salary for 2009.

The fact that these discussions are even making it to the 'net indicate that Chad may be on his way out, one way or another.

David Patton's performance following Sean Marshall's meltdown has, in my mind, earned him his roster spot. He got Ks, he pitched more than one inning, he responded under pressure (he DID give up the two hits, but the papers make it sound like they were bloop singles both).

Beyond Gaudin and Patton, I am STILL waiting for a compelling reason to trust that Angel Guzman can EVER contribute to a team at the major league level. Where are the stats? How can you ignore his prior major league experience? To me, it just doesn't add up.

You can pretty much write Patton's name down on your at-home roster cards. We'll still have to wait and see on the kind of deal Jim Hendry can swing to get SOMETHING back for Gaudin and/or Guzman.