2013 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is Theo Epstein pushing the Cubs any closer to contention?

He most definitely is, but it’s doubtful to show up in the standings this year because the other teams in the National League Central are — on paper — quite clearly superior. Epstein has helped breath life into the Cubs’ minor league system since taking over as team president in October 2011 and he has been making incremental roster improvements in free agency with the help of talented general manager Jed Hoyer. But the lovable losers are not built for championships yet.

Starlin Castro is entering his age-23 season and has already tallied 529 hits in 445 career major league games, but he had a .323 on-base percentage in 2012 and his defense rates poorly at shortstop. He may become a superstar one of these years, but he’s not there now. Though you probably don’t want to tell him that. Castro will bat second in the Cubs’ lineup this year behind 33-year-old center fielder David DeJesus, who registered an underwhelming .263/.350/.403 batting line last season. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo does pretty much everything well and should hit third for Chicago for many years to come, but he still has some developing to do. Alfonso Soriano is the Cubs’ cleanup man and made plenty of noise in 2012 with his 32 home runs and 108 RBI. But he’s a liability in the outfield and he turned 37 years old this winter.

And the batting order takes a sharp dive from there. Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston will share time in right field. Luis Valbuena will start at third base until Ian Stewart recovers from a quad injury. Welington Castillo will start behind the plate, and Darwin Barney and his .654 career OPS will man second base.

This is not a good offense, and it looks especially poor when stacked against the lineups of the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates. With the Astros gone, the National League Central is no longer a breeze.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The rotation is fine right now and could actually be pretty good once all the pieces are in place. Jeff Samardzija, who will serve as this year’s Opening Day starter, posted a cool 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 180/56 K/BB ratio across 174 2/3 innings in 2012. It was his first full season in the starting rotation and he absolutely flourished. Edwin Jackson was signed to a four-year, $52 million free agent contract this winter and Scott Feldman was brought in on what could be a bargain one-year, $6 million deal. Matt Garza should return from his lat strain by early May and Scott Baker should be recovered from Tommy John surgery by the end of April. Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are solid fill-ins.
  • The Cubs have been trying to trade closer Carlos Marmol since last summer but have been unable to work anything out. The wild 30-year-old right-hander had a 1.54 WHIP in 2012, yielding 45 walks in 55 1/3 innings. If the Cubs do figure out a way to part with Marmol this season, newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa will likely slide into the ninth-inning role. The 32-year-old from Kochi, Japan had a 1.77 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in 12 years of Nippon Professional Baseball before deciding to head overseas this offseason.
  • About that rejuventated minor league system. The Cubs signed Cuban defector Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract last June and then watched the 21-year-old outfielder bat .338/.398/.513 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 20 games at Low-A Peoria. Albert Almora was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and carries high upside as a center fielder. Javier Baez, the ninth overall pick in 2011, hit .294 with an .888 OPS, 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases last year between two different classifications of Single-A. The 20-year-old shortstop could eventually push Castro to third base.
  • There’s no better atmosphere for a midsummer baseball game than Wrigley Field, but the structure needs some care. Which is why the new Cubs ownership group — led by chairman Tom Ricketts — is hoping to break ground on a massive $300 million renovation as soon as the 2013 regular season comes to a close. All of the logistics are still being worked out, but the plans look really great.

Prediction: Last place in the new-look, five-team National League Central.

Homer Simpson was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame

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Twenty-five years ago, “Homer at the Bat” became one of the most iconic Simpsons episodes of all time. Legendary talents like Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Mike Scioscia, Steve Sax, Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey, Jr. lent their talents to the episode while their cartoon doppelgängers were put through the ringer, leaving only Homer Simpson and Darryl Strawberry to clinch the city softball championship for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant squad. On Saturday, the show’s creators were recognized when Homer Simpson was awarded a long-overdue membership in the Hall of Fame.

The full text from Homer’s honorary plaque is below:

Inept safety inspector turned city-wide softball hero. Right fielder led Springfield nuclear plant to city championship game, then sacrificed his body to win it all. Nearly supplanted by lineup of all-world superstar ringers, came through in a pinch — and came to in time for the next episode. Girthy right-handed hitter powered many a mighty wallop during celebrated 1992 season with “Wonderbat” — his secret weapon. Lack of mobility in the field was no match for moves atop the dugout. Found fame as bush league mascot phenom, parlaying his “elephant walk” into a taste of the majors. Unacquainted with scientific concepts, only isotopes of which he was aware played at Duff Stadium, where uncanny knowledge of southwestern palate exposed team’s impending move to Albuquerque.

“Homer at the Bat” will be enshrined in Cooperstown with a special display, featuring the plaque alongside some of the more memorable moments of the episode.

And That Happened: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Friday’s scores and highlights:

Reds 5, Phillies 2: Tim Adleman tapped into some kind of magic on Friday, redeeming his 6.19 ERA with eight innings of one-hit ball against the Phillies. Any hint of a no-hitter was erased in the first inning, when the right-hander served up a 1-2 base hit to Andres Blanco and plunked Aaron Altherr in the next at-bat. He undid the Phillies’ damage with an inning-ending double play and proceeded to retire the next 16 consecutive batters, finally breaking his streak on a pair of walks in the seventh and eighth.

Granted, Adleman’s breakout came against the fifth-worst offense in the National League — but a win is a win, and the Reds will take any leg up in the standings they can get.

Athletics 4, Yankees 1: After seven fierce innings of a pitcher’s duel, including Masahiro Tanaka‘s career-high 13 strikeouts and Sean Manaea‘s first seven-inning outing since 2016, the Yankees’ bullpen proved to be their undoing. Tyler Clippard advanced Adam Rosales to third base on an errant pickoff throw, then allowed a stolen base, walk, and back-to-back singles to give the A’s a two-run lead in the eighth inning. Jonathan Holder fared little better, losing a 2-0 battle with Stephen Vogt in the ninth and giving up the two-run homer that would seal the A’s 22nd win of the season.

Nationals 5, Padres 1: The Nationals still have a comfortable lead atop the NL East division, and they appear to have made a full recovery from their slump last week, going 4-1 on the road against the Braves and Mariners. There’s no bad time for a Max Scherzer shutdown performance, however, and that’s just what they got during Friday’s win. Scherzer laid out 13 strikeouts in a season-best performance, holding the Padres to three hits and extending his all-time record to 53 double-strikeout appearances.

Mets 8, Pirates 1: Jacob deGrom is finally getting his groove back. Following a seven-inning shutout against the Angels last week, the right-hander delivered 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Pirates, whiffing 10 of 32 batters for his fifth double-strikeout performance of the year.

Unsurprisingly, deGrom’s near-complete game was the longest outing by a Mets’ starter in 2017.

Blue Jays 7, Rangers 6: Only two weeks ago, Devon Travis had yet to crest the Mendoza line. Now, he appears to be making steady progress toward another .300 average after hitting his second career grand slam in the Blue Jay’s 7-6 win on Friday night.

The knock preceded Travis’ one-out double in the fourth inning, his 15th of the month and the most by any Blue Jays hitter in the month of May. That might not be enough to dig the Blue Jays out of last place in the AL East, but they’ve now won four consecutive games and have started to close in on the fourth-place Rays.

Royals 6, Indians 4: The Royals technically edged out the Indians on Friday, but the Indians were treated to a repeat visit from the Rally Squirrel, so who’s to say who the real winner is here?

Marlins 8, Angels 5: Giancarlo Stanton is made of the stuff superheroes dreamed of. Who else would hit a leadoff home run and manage, through no extraordinary effort, to physically damage the wall in center field?

The Angels, meanwhile, have now taken three losses in a row. Albert Pujols went 2-for-4 with a single and a double, but is still stuck at No. 597 in his quest for 600 career home runs.

Red Sox 3, Mariners 0: The Red Sox are fast closing in on first place in the AL East, and nothing is going to stand in their way now — not Dustin Pedroia‘s temporary absence, not the last-place Mariners, and certainly not a couple hours of rain. Eduardo Rodriguez dominated in his fourth start of the year, holding the Mariners at arm’s length through six scoreless innings and striking out four of 24 batters. Not a single run was scored via a hit, from Josh Rutledge‘s RBI groundout in the second inning to a run-scoring wild pitch by Yovani Gallardo and a passed ball by Mike Zunino in the sixth.

Diamondbacks 4, Brewers 2 (10 innings): There’s never a good time for a blown save, but snapping a scoreless streak of 13 1/3 innings with a blown save in the ninth inning, with two outs and a 404-foot game-tying home run by the .235-average Chris Iannetta is far from ideal.

The Brewers couldn’t get back on track after Corey Knebel‘s mistake, and lost in the 10th after Wily Peralta allowed a run on a wild pitch and Jake Lamb clobbered an RBI double to secure the win.

Astros 2, Orioles 0: Don’t worry, the Astros are still the best team in baseball. They padded an impressive nine-game lead on Friday night, taking their fourth win of the week with seven sterling innings from Joe MusgroveKen Giles‘ 14th save of the season and a modest two home runs from Jake Marisnick and Carlos Beltran.

White Sox 8, Tigers 2: It was a long and rainy night for the Tigers, who were rained out during Game 1 of a doubleheader, sat through a one-hour, 25-minute rain delay in Game 2, and still lost poorly to the White Sox. Matt Boyd continued to look shaky on the mound, delivering nine hits and three runs over 4 2/3 innings, and striking out just three of 23 batters. Alex Avila pulled the Tigers within a run of tying the game, smashing a 419-foot home run to center field in the fifth inning, but the Tigers were left clueless at the plate against the White Sox’ ever-revolving carousel of relievers.

Rays 5, Twins 2: The best part of the Rays’ win wasn’t the way they extended their win streak to three games, nor was it Logan Morrison‘s home run, Kevin Kiermaier‘s blast or Steven Souza Jr.’s eighth-inning homer. It was the reminder that sometimes, baseball is little more than pure, glorious entertainment:

Souza Jr. took to Twitter following the game to find out just how far off the mark he was:

Rockies 10, Cardinals 0: The Diamondbacks and Dodgers are going to have a difficult time catching the Rockies in the NL West if Colorado keeps turning out wins like this one. They were dominant in every aspect of Friday’s game, flummoxing the Cardinals at the plate with eight scoreless frames from Antonio Senzatela and returning in the ninth with a flawless 12-pitch inning by Jordan Lyles.

The Rockies’ offense was no less formidable at the plate, putting up an eight-spot in the eighth inning that featured, among other things, two home runs from Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds and Nolan Arenado‘s 17th double of the season. Blackmon went 4-for-4 for the first time since 2016, recording an RBI triple, home run and single to come one double shy of hitting for the cycle.

Dodgers 4, Cubs 0: All the hope that Jake Arrieta gave the Cubs during his last start was erased on Friday. Instead of building on the six-inning shutout he delivered against the Brewers, Arrieta found himself mired in a nine-hit, four-run performance against the Dodgers, striking out nine of 23 batters and allowing two home runs for the fourth time this season. The Cubs’ offense couldn’t catch a break against Alex Wood, or Pedro Baez, or Chris Hatcher, failing to produce a single run and eventually taking their third shutout of the month.

Braves 2, Giants 0: It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Cain was a workhorse, consistently turning in 200+ innings and 3.0+ fWAR from season to season. While his glory days are well behind him now, Cain flashed a little of that dominance on Friday, going seven innings with two runs, a walk and three strikeouts against the Braves. Alas, it wasn’t enough to carry the Giants to a much-needed win: opposing starter Jaime Garcia‘s two-run single was all the team needed to edge out the Giants for their 21st win of the year.