Thursday, April 06, 2006

the first two games

having watched the cubs and reds split the abbreviated opening series, what can we claim to have learned about this chicago club? two games is too small a sample to claim much discovery about new team trends -- if anything, all that could be confirmed are old trends and facts that have apparently not dissipated or changed. so what, if anything, are some of the things we might confirm?

  • the cubs are going to walk more than their share of batters: the cubs have charged out to an early lead in major league walks issued with 16 in just 17 innings pitched. while the strike zone was not kind this weekend, neither was the control of most any cub pitcher, with six of the eight pitchers issuing at least one free pass. the cubs as a team over the last three years have issued the second most walks in the national league; early returns would indicate that this trend has not dissipated.

  • jacque jones doesn't look like he's experiencing a renaissance: much was made of jones, one of hendry's biggest and most criticized offseason signings. optimists hoped for a return to a .300 batting average after two years in which jones hit .254 and .249. but the early returns are nothing short of frightening. jacque is 0-for-6 with two strikeouts -- but more importantly than his hits has been the quality of his plate appearances. having seen just 21 pitches in seven trips, jones has been one of the most impatient hitters on the club -- and has looked bad, even lost in doing so. if jones is to be successful in replacing jeromy burnitz -- a player who hit fourth and fifth for this club last year to the tune of 439 at-bats -- much more will be required. but it seems hard to say that any sort of return to better days is underway for him.

  • matt murton is going to hit: murton's strong spring served as a needed point of confirmation following on a brilliant second half of 2005, and his first two games in 2006 have done nothing to contradict. he appears to be on his way to overjoying this page, which had dared not hope for more than a match to the cub left field aggregate of last season. but murton has demonstrated patience and power early. while it would be foolish not to expect him to struggle at times as major league pitching gets to know his weaknesses, murton looks strong.

  • the cub outfield defense is going to be a liability: this page had already noted the potential for the cub outfield to be particularly weak defensively, and that indeed seems to be coming to pass. murton's wonderful catch in the season opener notwithstanding, his speed in left looks to be substandard and his arm just adequate. pierre confirmed what has long been known about his yesterday when ryan freel turned a first-inning single into a double by challenging the weakness of his arm, subsequently scoring on a rich aurilia single. and jacque jones -- one of the more inconsistent and frustrating rightfielders in the game -- misplayed a tony womack single into a double in the opener and has returned more than one ball to the infield either sailing high or dribbling along the grass. his frequent inaccuracy looks to continue to cause teams to challenge him going from first to third and turning singles into doubles.

  • at least this much, it seems to this page, has not deviated from expectation thusfar in the nascent 2006 season. but this writer, despite his own admonitions to the contrary in the opening lines, feels compelled to use the experience of the last two games to point out what may be a new trend developing in cub pitching.

  • a propensity to short starts may make the cub bullpen one of the hardest-worked in baseball: with both rusch and (uncharacteristically) zambrano failing to go five innings, the spotlight has been turned on what may be a deeper problem with the cub rotation. maddux, williams, marshall and rusch all figure to be short-start pitchers. marshall has never pitched more than 94 innings in a minor league year and, of course, most minor league starts are typically capped at six innings or so. in 16 starts in 2005, marshall went an average of 5.9 innings. rusch averaged 5.8 innings per start last year; williams, the likely fifth starter, averaged 6.1. and maddux, of course, remains a very efficient pitcher but has lost the ability to consistently run deep into games with age: he averaged just 88 pitches a start last season, which only because of his efficiency carried out to 6.4 innings a start. (for context, league average over the last three seasons is 5.9; the best third of staffs in era averaged 6.1; all cub starters 2003-5 averaged 6.23.)

    dusty baker has long been a believer in running starters out for as long as possible; since 2003, no national league bullpen has pitched fewer innings. the utility of that strategy, despite the considerable risk for long-term injury negatives which seem very much to be affecting this team now, was justifiable in the shorter term by the quality and capacity of the starting staff, which has been the best in the nl over that time. but things have clearly changed in this regard, at least for the first half of 2006. and there seems a certain denial of reality in dusty's thoughts in today's tribune:

    "I don't want to use [the set-up men] every day," Baker said. "The bullpen is shored up, but we have to do what we can until our big boys get back."

    Those big boys are Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who currently are rehabbing in Arizona with unknown return dates.

    the problem with this reasoning is that wood, prior and wade miller will all be rehabilitating injuries for significant lengths of time even after they are cleared to return to the mound. they will in every likelihood be accelerated back into service and tire early for their first few weeks at least. this problem of short starts could be severe for the entire first half, it seems to this page, by which time the bullpen may already be much more heavily used than in seasons past. given the depth-of-quality issues that confront this bullpen, the impact on the cubs' fortunes could be large.

    this is something to keep an eye on in coming weeks. if cub starters have trouble getting out of the sixth consistently despite dusty's tendency to leave a starter in, the cub offense may very well not be potent enough to compensate for the runs allowed.
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