There haven’t been too many bright spots in Chicago Cubs baseball over the past few seasons. Apart from Darwin Barney’s spectacular defense at 2nd, the release of Carlos Marmol and some savvy trades that ultimately led to 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo, the bleacher bums haven’t had too much to cheer about since 2008. Starlin Castro was one of those bright spots.
Over the past 3 seasons the Cubs’ shortstop has managed to hit .298/.336/.425 with averages of 9 homers, 9 triples, and 32 doubles per year. That’s excellent production at the plate out of the shortstop position and all those hits netted Castro a pair of All-Star appearances. Castro’s defense at the position has never been up to snuff, but he made positive strides with both his glove and his arm a year ago, and at 23 the hope was that he still had room to improve.
That hasn’t exactly been the case though. Through the first half of the 2013 season Starlin Castro has seen a noticeable drop-off in every possible offensive and defensive category. He’s hitting more that 50 points below his career average, while simultaneously walking less and striking out more than ever before. His speed, which had been good enough to net 25 steals a year ago, has declined too and his defense is so bad it’s almost sad watching him stumble through routine grounders before failing to make the play. It was just two years ago that a then 21-year-old Castro led the National League in hits while posting a very solid 3.2 wins above replacement. Now he’s competing for the title of “Worst Player in Baseball” along with the likes of Ike Davis, Jeff Francouer, and Jeff Keppinger, so what gives?
For the better part of the past century the Chicago Cubs have been plagued by one mistake after another. After all, how else do you go 104 years without winning a championship? They’ve bumbled and stumbled their way through the better part of the last decade as well, thanks to a handful of poor management decisions like the time GM Jim Hendry thought it would be a good idea to center a team around the explosive talents of Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano.
But things have gotten better over the past couple of seasons. Theo Epstein was hired away from the Red Sox to oversee the rebuilding of the roster. Many of the bloated, unproductive contracts have been cleared away and some bright young talents have stepped in to take their place. Most of the Cubbies current lineup is under the age of 30 and many of the minor league system is chocked full of talent waiting to make the leap to the big leagues. Best of all, the Cubs now have bargain basement discount playing 1st base for the next 7 years in Anthony Rizzo.
Let’s just pretend for one moment that the advent of the modern bullpen never happened. There’s no such thing as a LOOGY, Jerome Holtman never invented the save, and starting pitchers are handed the ball at the start of the game with the expectation that they will work a minimum of 7 innings. Now, I’m fairly sure the Player’s Association and a majority of the big league managers would riot if this kind of thing ever happened, but I know one place where everybody would be happy: the National League Central.
You see, apart from Pittsburgh, none of the NL Central teams have been able to cobble together a solid bullpen.The Cardinals struggles have been well-documented this year and for good reason. St. Louis currently has an ERA north of 6.00 out of the bullpen, which is good for dead last in baseball. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee haven’t been much better ranking 20th, 18th, and 15th respectively in ERA.
But when a starting pitcher is on the mound? Look out, because each of these ball clubs has put together a quality rotation and most of them are running at full power right now. But which one of these star-studded starting staffs is the best?
From 2010 through 2011 John Axford and Carlos Marmol were two of the most effective closers the National League had to offer. Axford was a huge part of the Brewers 2011 run to the NLCS, leading the National League in saves while rocking the meanest foo-man-chu and one of the nastiest sliders in baseball. Despite struggling a bit with control issues, Carlos Marmol was also an extremely effective closer. He struck out a whopping 70 more hitters than any other NL closer between the 2010 and 2011 seasons and piled up a tidy 72 saves.
But since that high water mark in 2011 neither pitcher has been anywhere close to replicating that type of production. In Milwaukee a year ago the bullpen anchored by Axford was an absolute disaster and more than likely cost the team a shot at the playoffs. Marmol had similar struggles a year ago, walking a little over 7 batters per 9 innings of work during his roller coaster season. Both pitchers were up to their devious tricks again over the weekend. On Saturday night Carlos Marmol let both Upton bros. go deep, snatching another Cubbie defeat from the jaws of victory. Not to be outdone, on Sunday afternoon John Axford gave up a 2-run, 11th inning moonshot to Eric Hinske to put the Brewers down 8-6. Milwaukee tried their best to bail Axford out but they came up just short, losing 8-7 to complete the sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks.
We’ve already talked about the Ichiro trade, the early sales from South Beach, a pair of deals made by the Phillies to improve NL West contenders, and the Zach Greinke deal was covered perfectly by Jonah Keri, so now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the deals around the major leagues during this busy last week, beginning with a trade that has flown completely under the radar thus far.
With the season just over halfway complete, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look at some of the most pressing questions in baseball leading into what is sure to be an exciting push to October. With 21 teams in contention at the midway point, parity is at an all-time high in baseball. Teams from every sort of market and every sort of financial background are competing with each other, and the extra Wild Card spot has made contenders out of just about everybody excluding the Cubbies. Here we go:
It’s been an interesting, and somewhat difficult season at Miller Park this year, with the Brewers stuck in the mud at 38-45 heading toward the All-Star break. With injuries to expected key contributors Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Gonzalez, and Mat Gamel the Brewer offense has been drained of a good amount of its expected power. Ricky Weeks’ drastic decline in performance (.193/.312/.634 with 6 homers) and the fact that Cesar Izturis has been given 114 at-bats where he hit .209/.230/.297 with 4 total extra-base hits and 1 steal speak to the level of offensive desperation Roenicke must feel in the dugout. Because of this Roenicke has made the squeeze bunt his best friend, trying to muster all the runs he can around Ryan Braun and Corey Hart homers, using the tactic 7 times already this season. The squeeze bunt can be broken into two different categories, the safety squeeze, which means the base runner does not start running home until the bunt has been laid down, and the suicide squeeze, which means the man on the bases is barreling home as soon as he sees the opportunity to get a good jump. Let’s break down each of the Brewers squeeze bunts, and discuss why they were successful :