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May 5, 2010

On the Beat

Wednesday Update

by John Perrotto

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It would be hard to find a more well-liked person in baseball than Jim Hendry. The Cubs' general manager is personable, egoless, and friendly. Perhaps it is Hendry's pleasant nature that has put the Cubs in the predicament of holding some of the worst contracts in baseball. Maybe he just can't say no to agents. Perhaps because Hendry is such a good guy, his superiors in the Tribune Co., the Cubs' previous owners, did not have the heart to stop him from overpaying for players.

Regardless, the Cubs' new owners, the Ricketts family, most certainly would love to take a mulligan on some of those contracts inherited when they gained control of the franchise last fall. If Bud Selig suddenly invoked his best interests in baseball clause and allowed the Cubs to make two of those contracts disappear, the Ricketts family would surely pick those of right-hander Carlos Zambrano and left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

Zambrano is in the third year of a five-year, $91.5-million contract and is now the world's highest-paid set-up reliever with a $17.875-million salary. Manager Lou Piniella moved Zambrano to the bullpen two weeks ago to fill a void in front of closer Carlos Marmol and also because the Cubs had enough starting pitchers to fill out the rotation once left-hander Ted Lilly came off the disabled list to join Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Carlos Silva, and lefty Tom Gorzelanny.

Soriano is in the fourth year of an eight-year, $136-million contract. He is a shell of the player who hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases for the Nationals in 2006, the season that put him in position to land the huge contract the following winter as a free agent. Soriano's legs are shot after he underwent knee surgery last September, so he can no longer steals bases, and he has become so bad defensively that he is regularly replaced in the seventh inning when the Cubs have the lead. He is being paid $18 million this season to play two-thirds of many games.

The Cubs have almost no chance of unloading those contracts on an unsuspecting club. Zambrano is due $37.25 million in the last two years of his deal and Soriano is scheduled to be paid $72 million over the next four seasons. So, the Cubs are left to try to make lemonade out of a couple of guys with contracts that are lemons. And somehow, it is starting to look like it just might work for Hendry and Piniella.

While you can debate the merits of putting a guy making nearly $18 million in the bullpen, Zambrano has been working out well in that role. Soriano, meanwhile, is showing signs of renewed life, as he homered in a fourth consecutive game Tuesday night in the Cubs' 3-2 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park.

Zambrano has pitched just three times in relief, allowing one run in four innings. However, he has seemed to have a calming effect on the rest of the team. The Cubs are 8-5 since Piniella made the surprise move after beginning the season 5-9. They have also won all three games in which Zambrano has been utilized as a reliever.

"It's seemed to have given the whole club a little bit more confidence," Piniella said. "I know it was considered an unorthodox move by some people and I give credit to Carlos for agreeing to do this. A lot of guys might have fought it. Heck, Carlos probably would have fought it in the past. But he's done a real good job and it's helped us in a lot of different ways."

Among the ways the switch has aided the Cubs in Piniella's view is that Zambrano has given the Cubs some reliability in pitching the eighth inning after John Grabow and rookie right-hander Esmailan Caridad struggled in the set-up role in the season's early days. Piniella also likes that Zambrano gives him an alternative to Marmol to use as the closer when Marmol needs a rest and has allowed the Cubs' other two rookie relievers, left-hander James Russell and right-hander Justin Berg, to move into more low-leverage roles.

Zambrano reiterated Tuesday that he looks at his relief role as a temporary assignment until Hendry is able to trade for a proven set-up man. However, with few teams looking to make trades this early in the season, it would seem Zambrano will be needed in the bullpen for the indefinite future.

Soriano will continue to be the left fielder, though Piniella has been rotating five outfielders, liberally sprinkling reserves Xavier Nady and rookie Tyler Colvin into the starting lineup to spell Soriano, center fielder Marlon Byrd, and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. Soriano, though, has started to pick up the production in recent days, as he is 8-for-15 with five home runs, two doubles, and 11 RBI in the last four games after beginning the season by hitting .143/.143/.333 in his first six games.

While a half week's worth of games are a very small sample size, it has at least quieted the ceaseless rumors that the Cubs were going to release Soriano and eat around $85 million in the process. Piniella insists releasing Soriano was never discussed and that he sees signs of the seven-time All-Star showing his old form after extensive work with highly-regarded first-year hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

"He's being a lot more selective at the plate," Piniella said of the notoriously free-swinging Soriano. "Sometimes, the way a guy takes pitches can tell as much as about a hitter as the way he swings at pitches. He's putting himself in more hitter's counts and it's making a big different."

Soriano said he was never worried that he had lost his ability to hit at 34.

"I just started off slow," Soriano said. "It's a long season. You're going to have good times and bad times. I knew I would still produce. There was no reason to panic because a lot of things can happen during the baseball season."

Plenty has already happened with Zambrano and Soriano, the Cubs' highest-paid players, and the season is barely a month old.

"We've been playing better lately, though" said Piniella, whose 13-14 club is already five games behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central. "Hopefully, we're back on track. I think we're close to really putting everything together. There's a lot of season left and I think we're going to be fine."

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While the Cubs are under .500, things are worse on Chicago's South Side, as the White Sox are off to an 11-16 start in a season in which they have aspirations of winning the American League Central. However, GM Ken Williams says he has learned over the years not to panic when things are bad, or at least show that panic publicly.

"Whatever your issues are at a given time, whether it's your offense or certain pitchers or hitters, if I come out and make a pronouncement of some sort that we need to do this or that, it's headlines across the paper or on every radio or news station," Williams said. "Then it's a surefire way to make it worse and make the guys press a little bit more. I'm relegated to sitting back. We go up and down our lineup and these guys aren't career .150 hitters. They're not career .200 hitters. We got some pretty good guys out there that certainly are better than what they've shown. It's time for them to say, 'What the hell? Let it fly. Let it go.' Relax and have some fun with it and make May much better than April."

The White Sox are ninth in the AL in runs scored with an average of 4.12 a game. There has been talk about Williams making a major trade with rumors centering on Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. However, as is the case with the Cubs' search for a set-up reliever, teams aren't usually looking to make trades in May.

The White Sox' problem, though, is they could be blown out of the race by the time teams are ready to start dealing as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches. Considering they already trail the first-place Twins by seven games, the White Sox might be looking to be sellers rather than buyers in late July. Williams, understandably, would rather not entertain that thought.

"We haven't been in that position before," Williams said. "Even when we were, we were actively looking to get better, not just for now but for setting us up for the next year. Even if on the surface it's not going as well as we like, there's still that aggressive part of who we are at that stage that will probably prevent that. It's tough with the type of personalities around here. It's tough to dial it back."

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Jim Tracy pretty much had a magic carpet ride after replacing Clint Hurdle as the Rockies' manager last May, rallying a struggling team to the NL wild card. This season has not been as smooth as the Rockies are 13-14. Thus, Tracy held a team meeting last Sunday. The subjects were getting the starting pitching to throw more strikes and work deeper in the games and the hitters to do a better job of manufacturing runs, though the Rockies are fifth in the NL in runs scored with a 5.1 average.

The Rockies emphasized hitting to the big part of the field during spring training. They even placed lines of orange cones in the outfield gaps during batting practice that formed a V and gave the players a visual. However, Tracy feels his team has gotten away from that during the early stages of the season and become too pull-oriented while looking to hit home runs.

"I don't care if we never hit another home run the rest of the season as long as we score more runs," Tracy said. "If we barrel up the ball, we'll hit some home runs. Right now, our approach is not conducive to any kind of consistent success. Consistency wins, period."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: While the Royals optioned Alex Gordon to Triple-A Omaha so he could begin the conversion from third base to left field, some connected with the club expect he will wind up being the Opening Day first baseman next season, with Billy Butler shifting to designated hitter to replace Jose Guillen, who is eligible for free agency after the year. … Speaking of the Royals and conversion, former White Sox and Red Sox outfielder Brian Anderson is expected to make his professional pitching debut in the minor leagues next week, as his fastball has been clocked as high as 94 mph in extended spring training. … Those on the inside with the Red Sox downplay the idea that there is a clubhouse divide between the holdovers from the World Series championship team of 2007 and those who have since joined the team. … Another sign that David Ortiz's days with the Red Sox could be numbered is that he is now sitting out against all left-handed pitchers while Mike Lowell starts at designated hitter. … While struggling Mike Sweeney's days as a bench player with the Mariners could be numbered, Ken Griffey Jr. is in no danger of being released.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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