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May 30, 2013

On the Beat

Unbearable Miscues

by John Perrotto

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On the surface, it seems like this is nothing more than another miserable season for the Cubs. They are 21-30 and fourth in the National League Central, 13 ½ games behind the Cardinals. Just three major-league teams have worse records: the Marlins (13-40), Astros (16-37), and Brewers (19-32).

While it would be incorrect to say the Cubs are an optimistic bunch after having already been blown out of the division race, it would also be incorrect to say that doom and gloom pervades their clubhouse. They believe they are not far away from being a pretty decent team.

“If you look at it, we’re not playing bad baseball,” right-hander Jeff Samardzija said. “It just seems like one thing happens in every game that makes the difference between a win and a loss. A hit here or a hit there, a play here or a play there and we could have won a lot more games this season. There has been a fine line. We’re not as bad as our record indicates.”

That, of course, flies in the face of what football sage Bill Parcells famed “you are what you’re record says you are” line. In this modern era of sabermetrics, though, we have come to know that a team is more what its run differential says it is.

No wonder Cubs manager Dale Sveum, in a moment of reflection after a recent loss, said, “Look at our run differential and then try to explain our record to me.”

The Cubs have scored 206 runs and allowed 205 for a run differential of +1. Thus, their record should be right around .500 instead of nine games below.

Sveum believes the two biggest things holding his team back are its inability of the hitters to deliver in the clutch and a shaky bullpen that suffered a loss Wednesday when the Cubs announced that right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa, whom they signed as a free from Japan in the offseason, will undergo season-ending Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. The Cubs are hitting just .222/.303/.356 with runners in scoring position while their relievers’ ERA (3.96) is higher than their starters’ ERA (3.57).

“We’ve wasted so much good starting pitching this season that it’s unbelievable,” Sveum said. “You can’t help but wonder where we’d be, what our record would be, if we could drive in more runs and hold more leads.”

Sveum stops short of saying the Cubs’ season has been frustrating. When Sveum, club president Theo Epstein, and general manager Jed Hoyer took over last season, they made it clear that the Cubs were going to be more interested in reversing the long-term fortunes of a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908 rather than looking for quick fixes.

With such talented hitters as first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starling Castro already under long-term contracts and shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora in the minor leagues, the long-term future looks bright. It should get even brighter June 6, when the Cubs will have a shot to add a big-time pitching prospect, either Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray or Stanford’s Mark Appel, with the second overall selection in the amateur draft.

Sveum understands it’s more about tomorrow for the Cubs than today. Still, he’s a competitive person, and it’s tough to suffer so many losses.

“The hardest part for me is we’re losing games we shouldn’t be losing,” Sveum said. “We’re so close in so many games, and it hurts everyone in this clubhouse when you let them slip in like we have.”

---

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb on Opening Day, an injury he was able to hide from the media until this week. Pedroia has still been able to hit .332/.419/.432 while playing in 50 of his team’s first 53 games. He also has contributed 1.8 WARP, almost matching his season total of 2.1 from a year ago.

It certainly seems like Pedroia has put forth a superhuman effort this season. However, it doesn’t come as a surprise to those who know him.

“He’s the most competitive guys in the world,” said one of Pedroia’s former teammates. “The only way (Red Sox manager) John Farrell will be able to get him out of the lineup is if they have to amputate his thumb.”

---

The Mariners’ rebuilding plan has hit a pretty big pothole with the demotion of catcher Jesus Montero and second baseman Dustin Ackley to Triple-A Tacoma in recent days. Both were supposed to be franchise cornerstones; Montero was acquired from the Yankees in a trade for right-hander Michael Pineda in the 2011-12 offseason, and Ackley was the second overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft from the University of North Carolina. That has left many front-office types to wonder how much more time Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has left to turn around a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001.

“I really thought Jack was a great hire for them, and I’ll still think he’s a very good baseball man,” said one FOT, “but for all the hype he got as the Brewers’ scouting director for being to identify hitting talent, he had some hits and misses. Everyone pretty much knew Ryan Braun could be a superstar, but Jack did hit on Prince Fielder when a lot of teams were scared off by his weight when he was in high school. However, Rickie Weeks never turned out to be a superstar and Matt LaPorta was a bust, though he wound up being Cleveland’s bust after they got him in the (CC Sabathia) trade. Missing on Montero and Ackley are pretty big misses, though. You’re not going to hit on everyone, but it puts you in a bad spot when two guys you are counting on so heavily fail.”

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Diamondbacks right-hander Ian Kennedy was scratched from his scheduled start on Monday against the Rangers because of a spliced right index finger. Kennedy suffered the injury while washing dishes, which led to one pretty common sense idea from a FOT.

“Why doesn’t he just buy a dishwasher?” the FOT asked. “They’re not that expensive.”

---

Scouts’ takes:

Rangers left-hander Neal Cotts: “I give him all the credit in the world for hanging in there and coming back from a lot of injuries. He’s reinvented himself, too. He used to try to blow everybody away, but he now he throws a lot more sliders and cutters, and he just eats up left-handed hitters with them.”

Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels: “He looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders when he’s on the mound. He’s trying to justify the big contract he got last season, and he knows he has to be perfect because that team can’t score any runs.”

Indians left fielder Michael “Dr. Smooth” Brantley: “I think he’s going to win a batting title some year. He’s got a really nice, compact swing, and he’s becoming a very smart hitter as he gets older. He has become a tough out.”

Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez: “I wouldn’t necessarily say he is a building block for that team, but he is someone who can definitely help them as they move forward. He’s got some pop, and he’s getting better as a hitter. He’ll burn you if you’re not careful with him.”

Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman: “You can see he has great talent, but he’s been overmatched by major-league hitters so far. It will be interesting to see what the Orioles do. Do they let him learn at the major-league level, or do they send him back down for fear he loses a bunch of games in a row and loses his confidence? It’s a tough call, especially for an organization that’s a contender now.”

Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko: “This kid has some serious pop. He’s rough around the edges, especially at second base, but he can hit the ball a mile when he connects. I like him a lot.”

Royals left fielder Alex Gordon: “If the Royals didn’t have him, they might get shut out every night. People don’t appreciate how good he is because he doesn’t get any national exposure. Put him in a big market and he’s a star.”

Rockies left-handed reliever Rex Brothers: “He’s starting to develop into a first-rate relief pitcher. He’s always had the stuff, but now you can see his confidence is growing and he believes he can get big-league hitters out.”

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria: “He’s playing as well as I’ve ever seen him play, both offensively and defensively. He’s playing at an MVP level.”

Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero: “I’ve never seen him struggle like he has at the plate this season. He looks tentative, he’s getting caught in between on a lot of pitches. He’s been so steady over the years that it seems odds to see him struggle.”

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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