Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cubs Preview Part 4: Prospects

This is the fourth and final installment of my preview and it's on the players that are to come in the near future, as the team is getting older and older.  For the first time in what seems like years, the Cubs farm system has players that are going to be able to come up and help them either in the near future or in a couple years down the road. The system was somewhat depleted in the trade for Garza, but the cupboard isn't bare.

Brett Jackson is probably the most well-known of the Cubs prospects.  He is an outfield prospect that was the Cubs first round draft pick two years ago and he might be a staple in the Cubs lineup next year, if not even the end of this year.  He played in his first full season last year and split time between Single A and Double A.  He isn't one to hit for power, but he hits for a decent average and has some speed, swiping 30 bags last year.

With the trade of Chris Archer, Trey McNutt is the teams' top pitching prospect.  Like Jackson, McNutt went through Single and Double A last season.  In 25 starts between the two levels, he went 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA and held hitters to a .2217 average.  He has an impressive K/BB numbers in 132/37.

Josh Vitters has been talked about for what seems like a decade as a replacement for third baseman Aramis Ramirez.  One thing that has been a knock on Vitters is his fielding, as he is known for committing errors.  His power may not be there yet, but he can hit for average and drives in runs fairly easily.  He is coming off of a season-ending broken finger so how he comes back from that could be key.

After McNutt, three other pitchers look like they might be ready to make an impact on the major league level soon: Chris Carpenter, Jay Jackson and Hayden Simpson.  While Carpenter has been used mainly as a starter, many think his place in the majors will be in the bullpen.  What's nice about Carpenter is that he has about a 2:1 K/BB ratio.  Jackson struggled in his first full year at Triple-A, but he has shown that he has the stuff to pitch at a high level.  Like many of the Cubs pitchers, he has an impressive K:BB ratio.  Simpson was a bit of a shock when the Cubs took him in the first round last year, especially since he was an unknown while pitching at Division-II Southern Arkansas.  If he can put up numbers like he did there last year (13-1, 1.81 ERA, 131 K, 35 BB), the pick might not look so bad.

The last two are a couple more outfield prospects the team drafted last season, Reggie Golden and Matt Szczur.  Golden finished his high school career with 36 home runs, 156 RBIs and 146 runs.  Szczur was persuaded by the Cubs to forego an NFL career and play baseball.

Cubs Preview Part 3: Pitchers

Now this is where the post gets a little long.  I'll of course break it up into starters and bullpen guys to make it easier for everybody.  Some of the guys might be fluctuating between the two so let's do this!

The Cubs have a solid top three in Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano.  After a club-record six consecutive Opening Day starts, Zambrano is not slated to be the Opening Day starter, Dempster is.  And with his performance over the last three years, he has earned it.  Three years ago, the Cubs made Dempster a starting pitcher for the second time in his career.  Between the 2004-2007 seasons, Dempster was used primarily as a reliever, saving over 24 games three years in a row.  Despite his 15-12 record a season ago, it is easy to say that he was the most consistent pitcher the team had the entire season.  His 208 strikeouts were good for seventh overall in the National League.  If the Cubs can continue to get 4.8 runs or more per game in Dempster's games, that win total can climb even higher.

The Cubs are hoping that Carlos Zambrano's days of angry tirades are behind him.  If that is true, that has yet to be seen, but if he resembles the player that came back from a suspension at the end of last season, he may be the 'Big Z' Cubs fans have been looking for these past couple years.  Over the last month and a half of the 2010 season, Zambrano went 8-0, giving up two runs or less in all 11 starts he made.  The talent has always been there with Big Z.  What has driven everyone crazy though, has been Zambrano's personality.  If he is able to control himself, he is capable of great things.  But until he can do that for an entire season, he will just be another player who never fulfilled his potential.

Matt Garza came over in a trade with the Rays on January 8th.  Garza is a player who has pitched against some of the best players in the game, while in the AL East.  In fact, he earned ALCS MVP honors in 2008, a year the Rays went to the World Series.  Last season saw Garza put up some of the best numbers of his career, picking up a career-best 15 wins.  His 3.91 ERA was the second-lowest in his career (of starting at least 20 games).  He also struck out 150 batters.  What can be troubling for the Cubs is that he gave up the most home runs in his career, 28, in 2010.

Despite what the incumbent fourth and fifth starters Randy Wells and Carlos Silva may think, they are not guaranteed spots in the 2011 rotation.  They are fighting at least three others, Braden Looper, Andrew Cashner and James Russell, for those last two spots.  Wells regressed in his sophomore campaign by going 8-14, compared to his 12-10 record his rookie campaign.  His ERA went up almost a run and a half too.  The Cubs hope that a third-year bounce back is in place.  Silva started out the season amazingly. Starting the season 5-0, it looked as if Silva could be a diamond in the rough.  Unfortunately, he went 5-6 the rest of the season. He is another hot-head and has already had an incident in the third spring training game where he had an argument with a teammate in the dugout.

Cashner, Looper and Russell are each good enough to be used as swingmen between the lineup and the bullpen.  Looper was a life-long reliever until the Cardinals converted him into a starter in 2007 and he has started at least 30 games every year since.  He didn't play last season, however.  Cashner made his name as a closer in college at TCU, but was drafted to be as a starter by the Cubs.  However, when he made his debut with the team last season, he was sent to the bullpen.  Because of his power arm, he has the ability to be a top of the rotation guy or a closer.


The 2011 bullpen is highlighted by Carlos Marmol and the return of Kerry Wood.  In his first season as a full-time closer, Marmol racked up 38 saves in 43 opportunities. He has some of the nastiest stuff people have seen in the sport and that is something that he has used to his advantage.  His 16 K/9 IP is a ridiculous stat.  Last season he had 138 strikeouts and also finished with a league-high 70 games finished.

Kerry Wood returns to the Cubs two years years after leaving as a free agent.  He split last season, playing with both the Yankees and Indians at some points of the year.  Wood returns to a city he has loved since day one and that was highlighted by the lesser deal he took to come back.  He comes back as a setup man and the role seems to suit him as he gets older.  The Cubs just need him to be a stable force at the back of their bullpen and who knows, if Marmol gets injured or starts to struggle, the team knows they have a player who has excelled in the closer role in the past.

For the first three or four years of Sean Marshall's career, the Cubs saw him as a starter.  Unfortunately, he never panned out in that role and has been a key member of the bullpen the last two years.  Last year, he was the main setup man for Marmol and that role fit him perfectly.  2010 saw him put up the best numbers of his career, as he had career-lows in ERA (2.65), strikeouts (90), batting average against (.210) and held left-handers to a .196 average.

The rest of the bullpen will be made up of those who don't make the rotation and youngsters.  So the bullpen might also include Russell, Cashner, Silva, Wells and Casey Coleman.  This is essentially a make it or break it year for Jeff Samardzija, who the Cubs gave a big contract to get him from going to the NFL.  He hasn't lived up to expectations thus far.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cubs Preview Part 2: Outfield

   The Cubs bring back four outfielders from last year's squad that saw extensive playing time.  The fifth outfielder spot is still up for grabs and it looks like it will be a tossup between two or three players, unless Mike Quade keeps six outfielders.

   It'd be very easy to say that Alfonso Soriano hasn't lived up to the eight-year $136 million contract he signed in November of 2006.  And those people would be right.  It seems like he has had more struggles and more injuries than humanly possible.  But unfortunately for Cubs fans, he is still around for three more years.  If he is not injured and not struggling at the plate, he has the opportunity to be one of the most feared hitters in the game.  Now fielding, that's another issue...The crazy part about Soriano is no matter how many home runs he hits, he struggles to put up big RBI numbers.  In fact in all his seasons in the majors, he has gone over 100 RBI just once, in 2005.  Not even when he hit a career-high 46 home runs did he get to 100 runs batted in.  He has come close numerous times, but hasn't been able to get over the hump.

   Unlike Soriano, who has not played up to his contract, Marlon Byrd, last year's big signee, arguably did more than that last year in his first season as a Cub.  While his power numbers dropped slightly, his average rose 10 points.  In fact, really the only big difference was the drop in power numbers.  Byrd, however, is not looked upon to be one of the teams' big boppers and that will continue so even more this season with Carlos Pena's arrival.  What will be interesting to see is if he can build on a year that saw him earn his first All-Star nod.  How will working with Victor Conte effect him?

   Kosuke Fukudome enters the fourth and final year of yet another ridiculous contract GM Jim Hendry has handed out.  He has had an up-and-down three years so far and that is what has bothered Cubs fans.  With such a big contract (4 yrs/$48 mil.) and a great track record in Japan, Fukudome's game suits a player well for a lead-off spot, but his .193 average in that spot has caused managers to flip flop him around.  While he had the most home runs he has had a major leaguer (13), his hit, RBI and walk totals were the lowest of his career.  And while he doesn't strike out TOO much, he has yet to have a season where he has walked more than he has struck out.

   Fukudome better watch out tho, because if he even starts to struggle, he will lose his starting spot to youngster Tyler Colvin, who can play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base.  Colvin had a heck of a rookie season last year, slugging 20 home runs and having a .500 slugging percentage in 358 at-bats.  If he doesn't steal the job this year, it is easy to see Colvin grabbing the right field job for the foreseeable future and being a fixture in the Cubs lineup for years to come.  He will also most likely serve as a backup to Carlos Pena at first, a position Colvin played in college at Clemson.

   Reed Johnson, a former Cub and Fernando Perez, a player who came over in the Matt Garza trade, will compete for the fifth outfielder spot.  This would essentially be Perez's rookie season, as he only played in 41 games with the Rays.  Quade has said that Perez is the fastest player in camp.  Johnson played for the Cubs in the 2008 and 2009 seasons.  He was with the Dodgers last year, where he saw action in 102 games.  While never a power hitter, he brings stability to the lineup and the locker room.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cubs Preview Part 1: Infield

Well, it's that time of year again ladies and gentlemen.  Baseball season is just around the corner and you can just feel spring coming up (well outside of the cold of course).  So that means one thing...let's check out how our favorite teams are going to do!  For this preview I'm going to break it up into four separate ones: infield, outfield, pitching and prospects.

Catcher: Geovany Soto broke out onto the scene three years ago, when he was named NL Rookie of the Year after having a monster first season as a major league starter.  While he hasn't put up those ridiculous numbers since, last season was a step back in that direction after a tough sophomore campaign.  He got his average back up to .280 last year.  Although his power numbers (17 HR, 53 RBI) haven't gotten back to the levels of his rookie year, the power bats the team has put around him doesn't put the pressure on him to put up huge numbers again.  The Cubs have multiple possibilities for Soto's backup, as they added Max Ramirez off waivers this winter.  He is added to the already full stable of backstops including Wellington Castillo and Koyie Hill.

First Base: The Cubs signed Carlos Pena to a one-year $10 million contract in the offseason.  The team is hoping that Pena has a bounce back year after hitting for only a .196 average last year.  Now while Pena has never been one to hit for a great average, his power is something that intrigues teams.  In the last four years he has hit 28 or more home runs, including three consecutive years between 31-46.  One thing that could scare the team is the lack of a true backup.  Tyler Colvin, who is now an outfielder, will be one of the backups, having played the position in college.

Second Base: Second base might be one of the weaker spots on the team, as neither of the candidates for the position (Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt) jump out at you as a star player.  DeWitt looks like he will be the starter and Baker a utility guy who can play three of four infield positions.  DeWitt came over in a trade-deadline deal last season and hit .250 in 184 at bats with the Cubs.

Shortstop: With the emergence of Starlin Castro, the shortstop position is set for years to come.  Yes, his defense needs some work (27 errors last season), but the possibility to improve is so great, the team is willing to put up with his growing pains. It's so easy to forget that Castro turns just 21 years old this spring.  In his first season, 125 games played, he hit .300 with three home runs, 41 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases, all while fluctuating between where he was slotted in the lineup.  With his speed, he is more suited to be a top of the lineup type of guy, but what manager Mike Quade does with him should be interesting. 

Third base: A familiar face returns to man the hot corner: Aramis Ramirez.  He will be hoping to get over injuries that have bugged him in the past and use his strong second half of last season to propel him to a normal Aramis Ramirez season.  When healthy, Ramirez has been a feared hitter, who can hit around 30 home runs and well over 100 runs batted in.  And outside of last season, his average has hovered around .300 as a Cub.  He is the perfect middle of the order player who also can provide some verteran leadership for some of the younger players.  However, if the Cubs are to be successful, he is going to have to avoid injuries.  If he does, watch out NL.

As you can see, there is quite a lot of talent in the infield this year.  Injuries will play a big role, especially with Ramirez.  If everyone can stay healthy and Castro doesn't experience a sophomore slump, could be good times.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ohio State-Penn State

Ohio State at Penn State

   The Buckeyes can secure at least a share of the conference crown with a 15th straight win over the Nittany Lions on Tuesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.  Although the Buckeyes have won five straight on the road over Penn State and 14 consecutive overall matchups, they have lost their last two games outside of Columbus. Penn State has also knocked off three ranked teams at home this season and if it wasn't for a Jared Sullinger three-point play with 13 seconds left, they would have defeated the Buckeyes in their first meeting.

   After setting the college basketball world afire, Sullinger has slowed down in the past four games, scoring 12 or fewer points in three of the past four.  Those 12 points are five below his season average of 17.4.  He failed to make a field goal for the first time in his collegiate career Sunday against Indiana.  Luckily for Ohio State, Sullinger is not the only big contributor on the team.  William Buford (14 ppg, 4 rpg), David Lighty (13 ppg, 4 rpg), Jon Dielbler (11 ppg) and Aaron Craft (7 ppg, 4.6 apg) all play huge roles for the Buckeyes.

    Penn State is looking for a way to build its NCAA Tournament resume and a win against the top-ranked team in the nation would do wonders.  The team is led by sensational senior guard Talor Battle, who is putting up 20.5 ppg, 4 rpg and three apg.  He has been outstanding at home recently, averaging 24.8 points and shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range in his last six at the Bryce Jordan Center.

   But like Ohio State and Sullinger, Penn State has multiple options.  Jeff Brooks is averaging 13.6 ppg and  a team high 6.6 rpg, while David Jackson is putting up 10 ppg and nearly five rpg.  Prediction: Penn State keeps it close, but Ohio State wins 70-67


Illinois at Purdue

   Once again, this game could be crucial for the Illini's NCAA hopes.  A win here over a team that has won six straight and is still in the Big Ten title hunt would be HUGE for Illinois' stock.  After coming up with a win over lowly Iowa, Illinois (18-11, 8-8) is looking to win consecutive games for the first time since winning its first three conference games. The Illini win over Iowa on Saturday, snapped a two-game losing streak.

   Demetri McCamey is finally starting to play like the player all Illini fans were envisioning at the beginning of the year.  After a disappointing stretch, McCamey has been playing much better recently, averaging 16.5 points the last four games. Over the previous six games, he averaged 8.7 points while shooting 29.3 percent.

   The Boilermakers, on the other hand, have been one of the nation's hottest teams.  In that six-game winning streak, some of their wins have been over this Illini squad, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

    JaJuan Johnson had 20 points, a career-high 17 rebounds and seven blocks in their win over the Spartans.  Johnson's double-double was his second in four games. He's averaging 20.4 points and 8.1 rebounds this season.  As he has been all season, E'Twaun Moore has been his sidekick, pouring in nearly 19 ppg. 

   Illinois has lost four straight to Purdue and three of its last four visits to West Lafayette.  Purdue is trying to sweep the season series against the Illini for a second straight year.  Prediction: Sorry Illini fans, Purdue is just too good.  80-70

Monday, February 28, 2011


Villanova at Notre Dame

Notre Dame (23-5, 12-4) has won nine of its last 10, all of which were Big East games. With a victory Monday, it would secure a double-bye in the conference tournament while staying in the thick of the race for the league title.

The ninth-ranked Irish will try to do so as they look to go undefeated at home for the first time in three years.

Ben Hansbrough leads the Irish in scoring with 18 ppg and averages a team-high foour apg as well.  Tim Abromitas is averaging 15 ppg and six rpg.  The third Notre Dame in double figures, Carleton Scott, is pouring in 11 ppg and a team-high seven rpg.

Villanova is doing the opposite of what Notre Dame has done.  The Wildcats have lost four of their past six games and stumbled down the Big East standings after a strong start, just as it did last season. The Wildcats opened 2009-10 by winning 20 of 21 but lost five of their final nine regular-season games.

Leading scorer Corey Fisher has struggled badly over the past two games, totaling 10 points and shooting 4 of 26. Fisher is averaging 15.5 points, but has been held to 12 or fewer in four of the last five contests.  Prediction: Notre Dame 86-77