Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Panic? No. Hope? Not that, either.

Posted by dannmckeegan on June 27, 2010

The 2010 Chicago Cubs season appears to have passed the boundaries of hope and panic, the two major steps involved in accepting a bad season as a baseball fan.  Now, an atrocious team out of the gate that remains unwatchably bad – think Pirates or Orioles – doesn’t ever reach panic levels. Panic for these teams arises only when the glimmers of hope – developing prospects – are slow to do the whole developing thing.

For teams with higher immediate aspirations, like the Cubs this season, slower starts involving major stars playing very poorly leads to panic.  The team is hamstrung financially when big money underperforms.  Those players can’t just be sent packing.  But at the same time, there is no hourglass that shows time slipping away on the season.  When does that hourglass run out?  When is the season done?  At what point does poor performance of a player go from underperforming to being simply bad?The Chicago Cubs quite uniquely managed to hit “Panic” on opening day.  Carlos Zambrano’s colossal implosion and Jeff Samardzija’s complete inability to pitch at a major league level beget day after day of drama as the offense failed to score runs and the entire youth movement in the bullpen turned out to be weak.  The pleasant surprises of Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva, Sean Marshall’s development into elite lefty setup man, the emergence of Tyler Colvin, the overall resurgence and improvement of Alfonso Soriano, and the solid performance of Marlon Byrd have all been potential sources of hope, but they have been just as stressful to fans as pleasant.

Take Colvin’s emergence, for example.  Initially, fans clamored for him simply to replace Soriano in left field.  But then Soriano turned in a Soriano hot streak, which turned the fans’ derision toward Xavier Nady and Kosuke Fukudome.  And, of course, all of this was directed at Lou Piniella’s day-to-day lineup decisions.  His admitted loyalty to veterans and a commitment to using his rookies in positions where they might succeed with little pressure did not go over well with fans.

But Cubs fans either have forgotten or were never aware of how Piniella handled Randy Wells in 2009.  If we look back to Wells’ performance last year, we’ll see that Piniella was hesitant to let the rookie pass 100 pitches or go back for an extra inning of work.  Basically, he wanted to keep him from being overworked.  He also wanted to make sure that Wells was not giving games away late out of exhaustion.  This translates into putting the player into an advantageous situation.

Such was the Colvin expectation coming out of camp.  He’d spell all three starters a few days each week and serve as a LF defensive replacement, while Xavier Nady would be Fukudome’s platoon partner against lefties and occasionally spell Derrek Lee at 1B.  The problem was not Colvin’s or Nady’s or even Piniella’s.  Rather, the plan fell by the wayside when all three starting outfielders were the only reliable hitters over the season’s first six weeks.  Lou couldn’t risk sitting a hot player when Lee and Ramirez were hitting absolutely nothing.

The call-up of Starlin Castro, the continued performance of the starting staff (less Wells), and the continued play of Soto and the outfield left some room for hope.  And maybe Ramirez’ thumb had been the problem.  But as the Cubs worried themselves with bullpen roulette, the 6-starter/5-slot problem, the 5 outfielder/3 position problem, and everything else; the Cardinals and Reds put themselves ahead.  This made hope an amusing concept more than anything.  Sure, if EVERYTHING went right, they could climb back into it.

But…

This is predicated on the thesis that neither Cincinnati nor St. Louis are that great.  The fact that Jeff Suppan is in the Cardinals’ rotation helps the case, as does the fun info that the Cards’ three middle infielders are hitting .204, .227, and .256.  Likewise in Cincinnati, Drew Stubbs and Orlando Cabrera are hitting below .250.  But both teams are generally solid, otherwise.  Even Milwaukee has brought itself back to the Cubs’ level, and both are closer to the ‘Stros and Pirates than first place.

The Cubs’ bullpen has improved dramatically since the start of the season.  While still a heart attack-inducer, Marmol is electric in the closer role.  Sean Marshall, as mentioned earlier, has emerged as a late inning stud.  And rookie Andrew Cashner looks damn good with three quality pitches (fastball, slider, and change) and good control.  Bob Howry has been, well, less than horrendous since coming over to Chicago after a disastrous stint in Arizona.  Jeff Stevens was quite good for a dozen outings, and was only sent down because the team needed a fresh long man with Zambrano on the suspended list.

And if we were looking for any reason to see why both panic and hope have been encountered and dispatched, that last issue is all we need to focus on.  Zambrano finally crossed the big line.  There’s no quick fix to this, and there’s no quick fix to a Cubs team that is weighted down by contracts such as his.  Since there’s no panic and no hope, I think it’s only fitting that I don’t bother providing any conclusion.  Just like this Cubs season, the tail end is not likely going to matter.

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