Thursday, April 27, 2006

problem spot roundup

on an off day like today, there's usually not too much to talk about. the only relevant piece of cubs news this writer can find is through cubosphere denizen grota, which notes that espn is reporting the cubs to be hot after former first-rounder carlos pena in the aftermath of derrek lee's injury. massive power offset by high strikeouts/low obp -- sounds like he'd fit right into dusty's master plan and would certainly do something to address this page's concerns. you can follow along with his travails with the columbus clippers. he's reputedly got a clause in his contract with demands his release if he hasn't been called up by may 1 -- of course, the yanks very well may do so with current backup 1b andy phillips hitting 150/227/150 in 20 ab. there's also this bit floating around about tony clark -- maybe there's hope for him too.

anyway, today might be a good day to take a look back at the litany of the concerns evinced hereabouts regarding this cub team and see how they're coming along.

one of the most discussed of these has been ronny cedeno, whose ability to hit, field and throw have by turns been disparaged here. many would have found the analyses that led to such conclusions easy to laugh off not long ago, with cedeno starting hot -- his batting average on april 9 climbing to .556 -- and subsequently even managing a couple walks.

however, even as dusty baker has seen fit to move cedeno up to second in the order as a consequence of the injury to lee and todd walker's move to the third slot, the kid has struggled to hit. since april 9, cedeno is now 10 for his last 47, posting a 213/275/298 line with four walks and seven strikeouts. he's dragged the bottom in pitches per plate appearance all season, and it might be starting to tell. perhaps ominously, cedeno struck out four times in ten at-bats over the just-concluded florida series, going without a hit and drawing two walks. florida seemed to approach cedeno with a new plan -- use his impatience to allow him to get himself out -- and cedeno has obliged by frequently chasing pitches out of the zone. perhaps it's too early to tell, and with his recent struggles masked somewhat by his start -- cedeno's season line still stands at 308/348/462 -- it may be some time before the hue and cry arise, but this page sees the possible onset of some very difficult sailing for the youngster as he attempts to keep his major league job. with neifi perez on the cub bench, his play in the field -- thusfar unspectacular with a 4.22 range factor despite some melodramatic diving about and .950 fielding percentage -- and performance with the bat over the next two weeks will be critical for him.

another topic recently covered was the travails of carlos zambrano and the related workload issues of the bullpen. first zambrano: in his subsequent start at wrigley, his fastball reached into the low 90s on a night during which david aardsma lit the gun for 98. that's about right for aardsma, so it seems that the gun at dodger stadium was perhaps reading zambrano a bit slow. zambrano's exploding movement took advantage of the impatient double-a florida club to force 12 strikeouts over seven innings -- zambrano's longest outing of the year -- but three walks and just 69 strikes in 114 pitches still give this page pause. call this one unresolved; this page will continue to monitor zambrano's starts closely.

the cub bullpen has been bolstered in recent days by a few seven-inning starts, pulling it down the list of the most worked bullpens in the nl to 8th as measured by innings per game. this is good news -- but the pen is still on pace to pitch 529 innings this season, a far higher number than most recent seasons in which the cub bullpen was one of the most lightly thrown. while early season workloads can generally be expected to subside following april, this will remain an issue to watch with the cub rotation being comprised mainly of short starters, at least for the first half.

it was further contended here that the cub pen was not sufficiently improved from last season to merit the praise that was coming in for it following the acquisitions of bob howry and scott eyre. as recently as a week ago, however, this writer noted that the bullpen had been nothing short of spectacular to date.

the core of the relief corps, despite being roughly worked by a starting staff managing just 5.6 innings per game -- particularly closer ryan dempster, who has now appeared in 9 of the team's 14 games, including five non-save situations -- has simply sparkled, with dempster, bob howry, scott williamson and scott eyre all placing in the top 50 in obpa.

the shine has come off a bit in the last week, as the cub bullpen has allowed 11 runs on 18 hits and 10 walks in its last 20 innings. this is notably as a result of walk-prone scott williamson's rough outings, but also includes contributions from roberto novoa, david aardsma and ryan dempster -- whose cub-record successful save streak is still intact despite being touched up in saint louis. with the best arms in the pen having seen so much work early, and now with so few off days like these to come, pitchers like aardsma and novoa are going to see more work with short starts -- exposing the back of the bullpen to major league hitters. time will tell what effect that will have as the cubs try to improve upon last year's mediocre performance in relief.

matt murton had converted this page from nervous hope to open praise even before the season started -- and he hasn't looked back. despite some acceptable inconsistency, his 294/377/456 line is a joyful thing to see for cub fans. it's becoming clear that murton will probably not hit 30 homers -- just two in 68 ab so far -- but he is a capable doubles hitter who has come to rank second on the club in rbi with 15 despite hitting seventh most of the time. if this production continues as would be hoped, a move up in the order would certainly be warranted.

conversely, this page at once saw the signing of jacque jones as a white flag over 2006 run up the pole by jim hendry and andy macfail. he has since done precious little to dissuade. jones has hit .188 in 48 at-bats early this year, but the full scale of the debacle can't really be captured by that statistic. his defense has been erratic at best -- his dive yesterday for a flyball fully five feet beyond his reach played a double into a triple, and he later participated in some miscommunication with juan pierre that let a can of corn drop between them -- and his throws back into the infield have had the air of a riverboat gambler, much as this page suspected they would. and jones further took his one big positive contribution thusfar as a stage to stupidly rip the chicago fans, who will surely be kinder to him now that he's questioned their loyalty. jones has been such a disaster so far that he's become one of dusty's favored double-switch candidates, a move which led to john mabry -- a "defensive substitution", ostensibly -- to help to lose yesterday's game with an eighth inning gaffe. it surely can't stay this bad for long, but jacque's rough start has served to highlight what a burden his unreasonable $16mm/three-year contract will be.

lastly, the decision to install sean marshall in the rotation came in for criticism here as a symptom of an irrational euphoria of spring. while the kid's talent wasn't (and isn't) questioned, his readiness for the bright lights was -- and is. the cubs have gamely won all four of his starts, but not always with marshall's help. his 2-0 record brightens an unspectacular 4.42 era and hides three of four starts in which he failed to pitch into the sixth.

there are good things to say, though -- his latest outing, his best, assisted by that accomodating florida lineup and a howling wind that kept at least two home runs in the park, was downright fun to watch. he's allowed just 21 baserunners in 21.1 innings. he's gotten plenty of groundball outs. on the whole, marshall's been a pretty servicable back-of-the-rotation starter. how long that may last is anyone's guess -- it pays to remember that rich hill and sergio mitre (twice) managed to look about as good for about as long -- and so this is still rather touch-and-go. but the marshall experiment at least has not been in fact the immediate implosion that was risked.

so there's the lengthy roundup as this cub club sits as 12-8 and, almost paradoxically, fourth place behind hot starters houston, cincinnati and saint louis, leading fifth-place milwaukee by only a game. much of it boils down to waiting for more data, but you can be assured, dear reader, that this page will continue to monitor the progress of its prognostications.

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