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July 18, 2011

On the Beat

Cubs in Crisis?

by John Perrotto

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Managers are almost always positive people. Even if positivity is not part of their nature, they have to force themselves to be upbeat and provide a positive atmosphere while their teams grind through the 162-game schedule. Otherwise, their players would be in for six months of hell.

Mike Quade's first full season as the Cubs' manager has been nothing to cheer about. The Cubs are 38-58, putting them in fifth place and squarely out of contention in the National League Central at 13 games back. Only the 31-64 Astros have a worse record.

That’s a far cry from Quade's debut last season, when he was promoted to interim manager from third-base coach when Lou Piniella retired with 37 games left and led the Cubs to a 24-13 finish. Yet, Quade remains optimistic that the Cubs can salvage something from 2011 before it becomes a totally lost year.

"I like the fight in our guys," Quade said. "They never give up. It's an old cliché, I know, but I never feel like we're out of a game."

The Cubs have indeed showed the ability to rally, as 23 of their 38 wins have been of the come-from-behind variety, the sixth-highest ratio in the major leagues. However, the Cubs' biggest problem has been that they have fallen behind too many times this season, as their starters have a majors-worst 5.23 ERA.

"If we're going to turn this thing around, then we've got to get the type of pitching that gives us a chance," Quade said. "We can't keep falling behind. At least we're not deterred when we do fall behind, but the better we get on the mound, the less we'll have to come from behind, and that can only be a good thing."

The Cubs' rotation problems started early, when right-handers Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner were forced to the disabled list after being injured in their first trip through the rotation as the fourth and fifth starters. The rotation has been in a state of flux ever since, with the Cubs hoping against hope that such retreads as Doug Davis, Rodrigo Lopez, and Ramon Ortiz could help after prospect Casey Coleman and reliever James Russell bombed. Refusing to give up on the idea that they can salvage a starter's career, the Cubs signed Dave Bush over the weekend following his release by the Rangers and assigned him to Triple-A Iowa. Matt Garza (3.58) is the only pitcher with a Fair Run Average under 4.00 who has started a game for the Cubs this season.

"We've been forced to use so many different starters and that's made it difficult," Quade said. "The facts don't lie, though. We've struggled in the four and five holes. Wells hasn't come back as sharp as we thought he would. It's hard when you never have all five starters together. It says a lot about our bullpen, though. Those guys have pitched a lot of innings and they've been great."

However, the bullpen has suffered a major crack at the back end, as closer Carlos Marmol lost his job over the weekend after struggling badly in July with a 16.62 ERA in seven games and 4 1/3 innings. Marmol blew his last save opportunity before the All-Star break, then squandered another in the first game after the break against the Marlins last Thursday night. Quade went back to Marmol on Friday afternoon, entrusting him to hold a 2-0 lead against the Marlins, but then pulled him with two outs after the lead was cut to 2-1. Left-hander Sean Marshall got the last out and was proclaimed the new co-closer with Kerry Wood.

The inconsistent pitching and a defense that is last in the majors with a .690 defensive efficiency has added up to the Cubs being 16th and last in the NL and 29th in the major leagues in runs allowed at 5.04 a game, ahead of only the Orioles (5.20). A middle-of-the-pack offense that is scoring 4.03 runs a game and ranks eighth in the NL and 17th in the majors hasn't been enough to compensate. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.291) is the only regular with a True Average above .278.

The most frustrating part for the Cubs is that they haven't come close to getting on any kind of a roll. They are the only team in the major leagues that has yet to win three straight games.

"I don't want a three-game winning streak, I want to win four in a row, five in a row, as many in a row as we can," Quade said. "As I like to say half-kiddingly, we can win two in a row and be happy the rest of the year if we never win three in row as long as we only lose one after winning two. You can make a lot of money by winning two and losing one. You can't put the cart in front of the horse, though. You've got to start playing good baseball in order to win games consistently, and we haven't done that often enough."

With the season past the halfway point, Quade is still searching for a way to draw that consistency out of his team.

"You think of a lot of things," he said. "Can we work better? Can we work differently? Is there a different drill, a different approach, anything different we can do? The time and effort is not the problem, but the execution is."

The Cubs seemingly have a roster ready to be blown up between now and the July 31 trade deadline, especially in light of their $127 million payroll. Ramirez would seem to be an attractive target, but he has a no-trade clause in his contract as well as an option for $16 million next season that would activate if he were dealt. Right-hander Carlos Zambrano is another name that would seemingly stir interest, but he has two years and $35. 8 million left beyond this year on his five-year, $91.5 million deal. First baseman Carlos Pena is an impending free agent and could be dealt, as could left-handed reliever John Grabow.

General manager Jim Hendry, though, doesn't talk like a man who expects to have his cell phone glued to his ear over the next two weeks.

"People think you'd just back up the truck and start moving bodies out," Hendry said. "It's not a question of having to move money. We will try to do things that make logical sense, and hopefully we do make some moves."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

Many teams are getting frustrated by the Astros' wait-and-see stance on making trades despite widespread interest in left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, right-hander Brett Myers, center fielder Michael Bourn, right fielder Hunter Pence, and even left fielder Carlos Lee if the Astros would eat a large part of his contract. The Astros, though, are in a state of inertia with the sale of the club to Jim Crane from Drayton McLane still awaiting the approval of major-league owners, who have been preoccupied with the Dodgers' bankruptcy… The Red Sox have stepped up their pursuit of a starting pitcher, since it now appears that Clay Buchholz's back problem could be a longer-term injury… The Phillies continue to say they will not make a major move before the trading deadline, but many in baseball doubt that will be the case. Said one front office type:  "(GM) Ruben Amaro says that every year, then pulls off a blockbuster."… After averaging 4.7 runs in the first 62 games with a .264/.329/.431 slash line, the Rangers have averaged 5.5 runs in 33 games and hit .288/.333/.476 since Scott Coolbaugh replaced Thad Bosley as hitting coach on June 8. Said Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler: "You give him feedback and you take feedback. He understands our lingo. I want a hitting coach who will slap me in the face, who will tell me the truth. He does that and you listen."

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Scouts' views:

Diamondbacks left-hander Zach Duke: "They had no choice but to take him out of the rotation if they want to stay in the pennant race. His stuff has really deteriorated over the last few years, and he's very hittable. I think his best bet to stick around in the major leagues much longer is to try to reinvent himself as a left-on-left reliever."

Indians reliever Chad Durbin: "He never gets much credit, but he’s had a good, long career. He doesn't dazzle you, he doesn't overpower anyone, but he's been a consistent reliever for a long time. He's not the best reliever in that bullpen by any stretch, but he's been valuable in the middle innings, and he's part of the reason the Indians have been such a surprise."

Mets right-hander Jason Isringhausen: "I don't think he's got the stuff to close anymore, but I do think the Mets are making the right decision by using him in that role while he mentors Pedro Beato and Bobby Parnell. Izzy is one of the most professional guys in the game, and he'll be good for those kids, like Billy Wagner was for Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters last year with the Braves."

Pirates right-hander Jeff Karstens: "Everyone has heard the expression about the pitcher who couldn't break a pane of glass with his fastball. Well, that's Karstens. Yet he is having a heckuva year. The bubble might burst on him at any time, but I'll say this for him: he's a competitor, and he locating his pitches like he's Greg Maddux, Jr."

Angels center fielder Mike Trout: "I know the Angels' plan is to send him back to the minor leagues as soon as Peter Bourjos comes off the disabled list, but I have a feeling it's not going to be such a cut-and-dried decision. Trout is starting to settle in and show why he has a chance to be a great player. I think he's going to make it hard on the Angels to send him down."

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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