Springtime Storylines: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: 102 years and counting…

The Big Question: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Since that victory, two World Wars have been fought, women have gained the right to vote, radio and television have both been invented, the NFL, NHL and NBA have been formed, and 18 U.S. presidents have been elected. You’ve probably heard all of this before. Point is, it’s been a long, long time.

Most professional sports franchises wouldn’t survive over 100 years without a championship, let alone be flourishing. But the Cubs have packed Wrigley Field on a daily (and nightly) basis since the ‘90s and they operate quite comfortably under one of the top total payrolls in the major leagues. Heck, the team sold for a whopping $845 million in the summer of 2009.

So what’s wrong? And will the 2011 edition of the Cubbies be able to finally shed that “lovable losers” label?

The 25-man roster this season is far from mediocre and actually borders on being pretty darn good. Aramis Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, but he still has some pop and most teams can’t claim a third baseman with his kind of power potential. Alfonso Soriano might be overpaid, but he’ll rake on the right days and was decently productive last season under renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Even outfielder Kosuke Fukudome carries value with his typically high on-base percentages.

The list of quality baseball players goes on, and it gets even better when you hit the pitching staff. Ryan Dempster drew Cy Young Award votes in 2008 and has averaged 189 strikeouts per year for the past three seasons. Carlos Zambrano looked like the Big Z of old at the end of 2010, Matt Garza should greatly enjoy his move from the ever-tough American League East to the far less demanding National League Central, and Randy Wells was better than your run-of-the-mill innings eater last year.

If 24-year-old starter Andrew Cashner pans out the way scouts think he might, that’s a solid five-man group in a league that has no designated hitter and most of the sport’s smaller payrolls.

The Cubs don’t lack talent and they have the money to make big moves at any turn. But Chicago has been fielding good teams off and on for a full century and the Northsiders have not been able to accomplish Major League Baseball’s ultimate goal in the modern era. For that to change now in 2011, the Cubs’ veterans must stay healthy and the Cubs’ youngsters must progress. That might sound simple, but it’s the exact sort of thing that the franchise has struggled with for the previous 102 years.

So what else is going on?

  • Mike Quade wasn’t a sexy manager pick for what is usually a high profile job. The former Triple-A Iowa skipper had his interim tag removed at the end of the 2010 season after leading the Cubs to a surprising 23-14 finish in the wake Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement. He’s off to a smooth start record-wise and all reports were good from camp this spring, but the Cubs always seem to attract drama and Quade is going to have to guide his first major league team through a suddenly more dangerous Central division.
  • The story of Starlin Castro is just beginning, and Chapter One was fantastic. The young Dominican shortstop had more hits than Ike Davis, Andres Torres, Justin Upton, Scott Rolen and Brett Gardner last season as a 20-year-old rookie. Castro is probably never going to hit for much power and he has miles to go as a base-stealer, but he has already opened many eyes around the league at a wildly young age.
  • Former Cubs starter Kerry Wood is back in town. The veteran right-hander gave new life to his career last season as a late-innings reliever in New York, fanning 31 batters and allowing only two runs in 26 pinstriped frames. He took an inexpensive contract to return to the organization that brought him up and should act as a reliable setup man behind closer Carlos Marmol, who made a bunch of noise of his own last year with a major league record 15.99 K/9.

So how are they gonna do?

The Reds won the division last year with a young offense and will be challenging for the top spot again. The Brewers added two potential aces in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and slugger Prince Fielder is entering a contract year. The rival Cardinals will also be heavily involved in what should be a summer-long race. If the Cubs are going to win the division crown or play themselves into the hunt for the wild card, it might take 90 wins. And they’re just barely capable of that.

Sandy Alderson: It’s “highly unlikely” the Mets will non-tender Matt Harvey

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As we noted the other day, Matt Harvey has been terrible since coming off the disabled list. In his last four starts he’s allowed 21 runs, all earned, on 32 hits in 14.2 innings, for an ERA of 13.19. In that time he’s struck out only eight batters while walking seven. It’s fair to ask whether his accumulation of injuries — Tommy John surgery, thoracic outlet syndrome and a stress injury to his shoulder — has rendered him ineffective for more than just the short term.

In light of that, many have speculated that the Mets may not tender the arbitration-eligible Harvey a contract for 2018, making him a free agent. The thinking being that, as he makes $5.125 million right now, he’s going to make at least that and likely a bit more next year via arbitration, even in his diminished state. While many times may accept that for a chance to see if Harvey could rebound, the Mets are not in the habit of spending money they aren’t obligated to spend.

Yesterday Mets Sandy Alderson called b.s. on that, however, telling the New York Post that “it’s highly unlikely that we’re not going to bring him back next year.” The Post story adds this, though it’s unclear if it’s the reporter’s sentiment or that of the Mets:

A significant factor for the Mets, not to be underestimated, is avoiding the potential embarrassment that would come if Harvey were non-tendered by the team and then regained his form pitching elsewhere next season.

The Mets have, in the past, cut off their nose to spite their face in similar fashion. Just this summer they reportedly declined to trade Jay Bruce to the Yankees, sending him to Cleveland instead, despite was claimed to be a substantially better offer from the Yankees. The suggestion was that Mets brass did not want to see their former player helping their cross-town rival, even if the trade would be better for the Mets.

If the Mets, as Sandy Alderson says, legitimately believe that Harvey will rebound, cool: take a $6-7 million chance on him for 2018. It’d be pretty pathetic, though, if they don’t think he’ll be effective again but are simply going to keep him around to keep anyone else from lucking out on an unlikely Harvey rebound.

Either way: I hope Harvey does rebound. When he was dominant he was a special pitcher to watch. Having him return to dominance would be a good thing. No matter who he’d do it for.

 

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 11, Twins 3: The Twins took a 3-0 lead, but after that it was all Yankees. Aaron Judge hit his AL-leading 45th home run and crossed the 100 RBI mark. Gary Sanchez went back-to-back with him in the third. Didi Gregorius hit a three-run shot. The Yankees are rolling at just the right time. Or at least that’s what I’m reading everywhere, despite the fact that momentum is a false construct. And despite the fact that, hey, the world is probably going to end on Saturday.

Athletics 3, Tigers 2: Daniel Mengden tossed seven scoreless innings and continued to test my theory that, if they wanted to, sports writers could totally make up names for Oakland A’s players and most of us would nod and say “hmm, OK . . . Mengden.” Marcus Semien homered and drove in three as the A’s swept the Tigers. Who, after a decade or so of being a team full of famous players, is about to enter a period when we could play the same game with their relatively anonymous players as we’ve played with teams like the A’s for so long.

Marlins 9, Mets 2: Giancarlo Stanton hit his 56th homer and drove in three. In keeping with the silly trend of people pretending that passing Roger Maris at 61 would somehow be a significant record as opposed to merely a neat accomplishment, I am going to officially proclaim that Stanton NOW has the home run record. Hey, if subjectivity matters for things like this, so too does my personal subjectivity. The rundown:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 twice, but he once used a Bed Bath and Beyond coupon that was expired, sullying it;
  • Luis Gonzalez and A-Rod at 57? They were Freemasons;
  • Four players hit 58 in a season once — Foxx, Greenberg, Howard and McGwire — but that sounds like a law firm, undermining the purity of the accomplishment;
  • Babe Ruth hit 59 and 60, but he purchased alcohol during prohibition, setting a terrible example for lack of temperance;
  • Roger Maris’ 61 was hit in front of a half-empty Yankee Stadium crowd. The Yankees were amazing in 1961 and everyone was talking about him passing Ruth, so something fishy was going on. I’m going to guess radiation contamination on site scared people away and, in turn, powered Maris artificially, like someone in a comic book;
  • That just leaves Sosa, McGwire and Bonds and they murdered all of those people so it’d be wrong to honor them.

Congratulations, Giancarlo Stanton: The Single Season Home Run Champ!

Giants 4, Rockies 0: The Rockies lose their third in a row. Thanks to the Brewers losing too they keep their one-game lead for the second Wild Card, but they really need to cut this out. Brandon Crawford hit a solo homer and Matt Moore and four relievers combined to shut Colorado out.

Red Sox 9, Orioles 0: Chris Sale tossed eight shutout innings and struck out 13. In so doing he became just the second pitcher to strikeout 300-plus batters in a season in the last 15 years, joining Clayton Kershaw. Before that Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson accomplished the feat in 2002 (Johnson also did it in 2001 and 2000 as well). Sale is just the second Red Sox pitcher to do it, following Pedro Martinez, who did it in 1999. Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero went deep for Boston. The Red Sox have clinched a playoff spot.

Phillies 7, Dodgers 5Aaron Altherr hit a tying, two-run homer in the seventh. The Dodgers added a run, so Altherr hit a tiebreaking, two-run single in the eighth. That’s three in a row over the Dodgers for Philly. They go for the sweep this afternoon. The Dodgers have lost four straight and 20 of 25. Their magic number for the NL West remains at two.

Pirates 6, Brewers 4Adam Frazier hit a two-out, two-run, walkoff homer off of Corey Knebel, averting extra innings and giving the game to the Buccos. Knebel’s streak of 21 consecutive save chances converted ended just before that when his own throwing error allowed the Pirates to tie it. We all have a bad day sometimes.

Royals 15, Blue Jays 5: Mike Moustakas broke the single-season home run record for the Royals. But, like I said above, this is all apparently subjective now, so I’m gonna stick with Steve Balboni’s 36 as the true mark, because this:

Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield also went deep as the Royals victimized Brett Anderson for eight runs on seven hits in an inning and a third and rattled off 18 hits on the night.

Cardinals 9, Reds 2Dexter Fowler homered for the third straight game. Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong also went deep, Tommy Pham had three hits and two RBI and Yadier Molina added a two-run double. Luke Weaver allowed two runs in five innings to win his seventh straight start, making him the current active leader in consecutive wins.

Rays 8, Cubs 1: The Cubs seven-game winning streak comes to an end thanks to Blake Snell‘s two-hit, seven shutout inning performance. The Cubs now open a four-game series in Milwaukee. They have a three and a half game lead over the Brewers and can either put them away or give us an exciting last week of the season. So, nothing personal Cubs fans, but let’s go Brewers.

Nationals 7, Braves 3: The Braves had a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth and then the Nats went and put up a six-spot. Three of those runs came on bases loaded walks from Arodys Vizcaino. Maybe Brandon Snitker is a fan of the movie “Tin Cup” or something. I don’t know. I’m just glad I wasn’t feeling well last night and took a NyQuil at 9:30 and missed it.

Astros 4, White Sox 3: That’s six straight wins for Houston. Yuli Gurriel had three hits, including a two-run double, Brad Peacock allowed two runs on only one hit in six innings.

Diamondbacks 13, Padres 7: Hunter Renfroe hit three homers. Wasn’t enough, though, as the Dbacks overcame a 6-2 deficit and scored 11 runs in the final four innings. J.D Martinez, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta and Jake Lamb all went deep for the Snakes.

Indians 6, Angels 5: Four wins in a row for Cleveland who is now 26-1 over their past 27 games. They haven’t lost a road game since August 20. This is just crazy stuff. Francisco Lindor snapped a seventh-inning tie with a two-run homer and  Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez added RBI singles. The Angels remain one and a half back of the Twins for the second Wild Card.

Rangers 8, Mariners 6Rougned Odor hit a grand slam to cap a seven-run fourth inning and the Rangers held off Seattle. Alex Claudio earned a six-out save. The Puerto Rican native was distracted and worried about his family and homeland in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria. I have no idea how anyone could concentrate under such circumstances, but he did.