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June 2, 2010

On the Beat

Wednesday Update

by John Perrotto

Lou Piniella had spent the better part of 10 minutes answering questions from the media about the return of Carlos Zambrano to the Cubs' starting rotation and his team's offensive woes when it was jokingly suggested to the veteran manager that perhaps the Big Z's return to the bottom of the batting order might spark a hitting renaissance. After all, Zambrano has a .233/.239/.391 career batting line, which would make him look downright ferocious in a Cubs offense that ranks 13th in the National League with an average of 4.2 runs a game.

Piniella laughed then said, "Look, let's just let him get back into the rotation and settle in. Let's just let him solve one problem at a time."

Zambrano will step back into the rotation tonight when he faces the Pirates at PNC Park after spending six weeks as the highest-paid set-up reliever in baseball with an $18.875 million salary. However, the starting rotation isn't the Cubs' problem. In fact, left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who is being bumped to the bullpen in favor of Zambrano has 1.0 SNLVAR.

The only reason the Cubs moved Zambrano to the bullpen is because they did not have a reliable pitcher to work the eighth inning in front of closer Carlos Marmol. However, the Cubs feel top prospect Andrew Cashner, recalled from Triple-A Iowa on Monday, is ready to ready to assume the primary set-up role. Thus, Zambrano goes back to the rotation, where he has pitched since midway through his rookie season of 2002.

Zambrano wasn't willing to give his thoughts on his return to starting on Tuesday night as he declined all interview request before the Cubs' 3-2 loss to the Pirates. However, it is safe to say to assume that he is "happy happy" again since at the time he was sent to the bullpen he said that he was "happy but not happy happy." He seemed doubly happy as he sat in a clubhouse sofa and continually cracked up while watching a television show that featured sports bloopers.

Even when Zambrano is "happy happy," he always seems to be on the brink of an emotional eruption. That Zambrano got through more than a month of relieving without blowing a gasket had to make the Cubs happy as he posted 0.365 WXRL in 13 appearances.

"I thought Carlos threw the ball really well out of the bullpen, for the most part," Piniella said. "Now we're looking for him to do the same in the rotation. Ideally, I'd love to see him go out and pitch six innings with 90 pitches (tonight), have a nice, sharp outing, and go from there. I know he's capable of doing it, especially with the way he's been throwing lately. Hopefully, he'll pitch well and get on a nice little roll."

The Cubs have yet to gather much momentum this season beyond a pair of four-game winning streaks. They are 24-29 and seven games behind the first-place Reds in the National League Central.

The Cubs' biggest problem has been offense, and the main culprits have been first baseman Derrek Lee (.255) and third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.173). Neither has come close to being his usual productive self in the middle of the lineup. Second baseman and leadoff hitter Ryan Theriot (.232) has compounded matters by failing to provide a spark at the top of the lineup.

Piniella put out a starting lineup on Tuesday night that was something straight out of the early days of the Cactus League season. Lee, Theriot, and Ramirez were all on the bench as Xavier Nady started at first, Mike Fontenot was at second, and Jeff Baker played third. Furthermore, rookie Tyler Colvin took over in center field for Marlon Byrd and Koyie Hill started at catcher in place of Geovany Soto. Despite all the changes, the Cubs managed just two runs off the nondescript Jeff Karstens and three relievers.

"Look, it's June and we still haven't started hitting," Piniella said. "I believe we're going to start hitting, I believe it with all my heart. Still, it's not April and it's not May; it's June, and at some point you've to get the job done. I look for a winning lottery every day, too, but I've got to work to have the money to buy that lottery ticket. We're in a situation now where anyone who's hot is going to be in the lineup, regardless of how it is. We need to find a way to start scoring runs. Patience is a virtue, I know, but too much patience is stupidity."

Tonight, though, the spotlight will shift from the batter's box to the mound for the Cubs with the return of Zambrano. "Maybe getting him into the rotation will be just the thing to get us going," Piniella said. "Let's hope so."

---

The Blue Jays have been one of the major leagues' biggest surprises this season with a 31-23 record that is the fourth-best in the American League. Much of the Blue Jays' success can be attributed to the long ball, as they lead the major leagues with 91 home runs.

Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells is as surprised as anyone with his team's power production. He also says the power surge has been fun and that more home runs could be on the way when first baseman Lyle Overbay, second baseman Aaron Hill, and designated hitter Adam Lind fully hit their strides.

"You don't expect it, but the guys are having fun with it," Wells said. "Guys are having a great time with it and hopefully it will keep coming.  I still don't expect it (home runs), I still don't think it's going to happen and all of a sudden in situations where we need them, guys have come up with great swings. It's just getting a pitch and not missing it."

Utilityman Jose Bautista leads the major leagues with 16 home runs and tied the club record for homers in a month with 12 in May, matching the mark set by Carlos Delgado in August 1999 and equaled by Jose Cruz Jr. in August 2001. Manager Cito Gaston says he saw Bautista's breakthrough coming after extensive work with former hitting coach Gene Tenace last season and current hitting coach Dwayne Murphy this year.

"They've done a great job, which is why I'm not surprised by what Jose has done," Gaston said. "I hope he hits 40. Bautista's a great guy, a good person and will play anywhere for you. I'm just so happy for him and I'm happy that he's still here."

Bautista's explanation for being the top home-run hitter through the first two months of this season is hard work and the natural progression he has made as a hitter in his seventh season.

"I think it's the combination of being a better hitter, getting consistent playing time, and also getting ready earlier," Bautista said. "That's the major change I made to my swing/approach. Mechanically I'm doing everything the same, just a tad earlier. So I think it's more of an approach and mentally an awareness that I have to be ready on time a little earlier than I used to in the past."

---

The Pirates don't have a whole lot to celebrate as they are 22-31 with seemingly little chance of breaking their streak of 17 consecutive losing seasons, a record for a major North American professional sports team. However, Friday will mark the one-year anniversary since center fielder Andrew McCutchen was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, his promotion coming a day after Nate McLouth was traded to the Braves. It is a milestone worth noting.

McCutchen is hitting .310/.385/.462 with a. 305 TAv in 52 games this season and .295/.370/.470 with a .301 TAv in 160 career games. He also has 185 hits, and the only two Pirates who have had more in the first 162 games of their career was Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan with 193 and Dave Cash with 187. No wonder one veteran major-leaguer recently said this about the 23-year-old McCutchen: "He's the only position player on the Pirates who could start for even half the other teams in the major leagues."

The Pirates feel they have another potential superstar in the pipeline in Indianapolis third baseman Pedro Alvarez. However, it is clear that the Pirates are looking for McCutchen to be the player who leads them out of the wilderness.

"I like to use the word dynamic to describe him," Pirates manager John Russell said. "He's dynamic in everything he does."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners are telling teams that left-hander Cliff Lee is not available because they feel they can get back into the AL West race. … The Angels are considering trying to trade for the White Sox' Paul Konerko or the Astros' Lance Berkman as a replacement for injured first baseman Kendry Morales but, for now, will get by with a combination of Mike Napoli, Michael Ryan, Robb Quinlan, and Howie Kendrick, picking a starter based on the opposing pitcher. … Dioner Navarro, who has ceded the starting catching job to John Jaso, could be designated for assignment by the Rays next week when Kelly Shoppach is activated from the disabled list. … Mets management is privately furious that left-hander Oliver Perez has declined multiple requests to accept an assignment to Triple-A Buffalo, but have decided to bury him in mop-up relief for fear he might resurrect his career if he was released and signed with another club. … The Indians plan to stay with Trevor Crowe in center field while Grady Sizemore undergoes knee surgery because they feel Michael Brantley needs more developmental time at Triple-A Columbus. … The Brewers plan to stick with rookie John Axford as their closer for the foreseeable future, though they would like to find a way to get Trevor Hoffman the four saves he needs to reach 600 in his career.

---

Three series to watch (all times Eastern:

Braves (30-22) at Dodgers (30-22), Thursday-Sunday June 3-6
Kris Medlen vs. Hiroki Kuroda, 10:10 p.m.; Kenshin Kawakami vs. Clayton Kershaw, 10:10 p.m.; Tommy Hanson vs. Chad Billingsley, 10:10 p.m.; Tim Hudson vs. John Ely, 4:10 p.m.

Yankees (32-20) at Blue Jays (31-23), Friday-Sunday June 4-6
A.J. Burnett vs. Brett Cecil, 7:07 p.m.; Andy Pettitte vs. Ricky Romero, 1:07 p.m.; Javier Vazquez vs. Brandon Morrow, 1:07 p.m.

Rays (35-18) at Rangers (27-24), Friday-Sunday June 4-6
Wade Davis vs. C.J. Wilson, 8:05 p.m.; James Shields vs. Tommy Hunter, 4:10 p.m.; Matt Garza vs. Rich Harden, 3:05 p.m.

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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