Wrigley Field is known as a friendly park for hitters. When you have games that finish 26-23, 23-22, and 16-15 you tend to earn that sort of reputation. The power alleys are just 368 feet away and when the wind blows out, no lead is safe.
But that isn't necessarily the case in the cold spring months. The wind often blows in and anyone who has ever played baseball knows that getting a good fastball in on your hands isn't a pleasant experience when there's that nip in the air. The advantage goes to the pitchers.
Then add an early season schedule that includes the Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, Braves, Diamondbacks, and Yankees and you are likely to face some challenges scoring runs.
If they have any hopes of improving on their 2013 season, it's imperative that the Cubs get off to a good start before the ivy blooms and the sun soaked, beer drenched fans begin to fill up the bleachers. It's easy to forget after all the losses last year that the Cubs played pretty solid baseball for a good stretch last year. But their poor start was insurmountable. The Cubs were just 11-20 through May 5th last year. Then from that point until July 28th -- a couple days before the trade deadline (by which time which they had already traded Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, and Alfonso Soriano) -- the Cubs were 37-35. Predictably the team tailed off badly after dismantling their roster shortly before the deadline.
But what if they had gotten off to a better start? What if they started 16-15 instead of 11-20? Assuming the same pace after that date, the Cubs would have been 53-50 as they headed toward the deadline.
But we can't simply wish the Cubs to get off to a better start. Part of it was bad luck, but part of it was due to the things the Cubs should have been able to control. With that said, here are the keys to the Cubs getting off to a better start --which hopefully leads to a better season -- in 2014.
Assuming the Cubs won't be able to blast their way out of a slow start, the Cubs are going to need to be resourceful and creative...
1. Hit the ground....walking. Improving OBP
It all starts with getting on base and in the absence of top tier hitters, the Cubs are going to have to be more resourceful about find ways to do this. The Cubs want to change the culture of hit collecting and turn the focus to getting on base by any means necessary. Improving walk rates has been more difficult than they have hoped, but Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo have shown good improvement in this regard. Mike Olt and Ryan Sweeney also have shown a solid approach while Emilio Bonifacio seems to understand his role is to get on base. In the case of faster players like Bonifacio, bunting for a hit can be a good percentage play under the right circumstances. Junior Lake has also showed the ability to surprise with an occasional drag bunt. His ability to hit the ball hard and move infielders back combined with his good speed should make this a viable option for him in the absence of drawing walks. Bubble roster candidate Ryan Kalish has also shown a willingness to take walks.
2. The need for speed.
Assuming that the Cubs are getting on base, the next step is to make things happen once they get there. You cannot wait for the 3-run HR early in the season. While I'm not an advocate of small ball, the Cubs need to actively move runners around the bases. As I mentioned earlier, this has been one of new manager Rick Renteria's goals this season -- to improve their ability to create runs with their legs.
For that to happen you need more speed. I'm not necessarily talking about the stolen base. The Cubs only have one real threat to do that and that comes from projected reserve/role player Emilio Bonifacio, who I think needs to get some regular playing time one way or the other early on.
I'm also not a fan of the sacrifice bunt except with the pitcher or perhaps Darwin Barney. Outs are a precious commodity, particularly for a team that figures to make more than their share without having to make them on purpose.
What I'm really hoping to see is more aggressive base running. This could involve trying an occasional hit and run with a contact hitter at the plate or simply taking the extra base with greater frequency. Of course aggressive base running in it of itself doesn't work -- you have to do it intelligently or risk running into extra outs.
Aside from Bonifacio, Lake can create on the bases and though he lacks burst as a runner, Starlin Castro has better speed underway. Justin Ruggiano is a surprisingly good runner who has stolen 29 bases over the past two seasons. The Cubs should also seriously consider finding a way to add the faster than expected Ryan Kalish to the roster.
Since you aren't going to score a lot of runs, it's imperative that you do as much as possible to prevent them...
1. The Defense
This is the strongest argument for opening the season with Darwin Barney at 2B. He prevents runs -- more than any other player on the Cubs. The Cubs also need more consistent defensive play from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, both of whom have more ability than they showed last year. Welington Castillo took great strides last year as far as blocking pitches and throwing out base runners, but now must improve on nuances such as game management and pitch framing.
In the outfield, Junior Lake can outrun many of his mistakes and has a strong arm, but more importantly he has shown some improvement with his jumps and his reads this spring. He has the pure athleticism to be a very good defender in CF if he can master the fundamentals of the position. Ryan Sweeney is a capable outfielder at any position and Nate Schierholtz may have lost some speed over the years but has made up for it with a strong arm and veteran savvy. Justin Ruggiano is a very good corner outfielder who has enough skills to play CF when necessary. If Ryan Kalish makes the team, that gives the Cubs yet another strong-armed, athletic defensive player who can play all 3 spots well.
Even though it has been one of the teams few strengths, I really expect the Cubs defense to take another step forward this year with their all-around defensive play.
2. The Bullpen
We can say the pitchers in general but effective bullpen performance is key early in the season since starters aren't yet stretched out. We should expect to see more pitchers coming in the game in the 6th and 7th innings expecting to hold a lead. We don't need to rehash the carnage of last year's brutal start to know that poor bullpen performance was a major factor.
The Cubs have been actively trying to improve their bullpen and add depth. They brought in a second lefty in Wesley Wright and an experienced closer in Jose Veras. Holdovers James Russell and Carlos Villanueva are still around and the Cubs hope that Pedro Strop can maintain his strong finish last year over a full season.
Middle relievers and depth are also very important early in the season as relievers tend to be used more frequently. The Cubs got a good performance last year from Blake Parker but this year he is expected to be challenged by Justin Grimm for that role, though both pitchers could conceivably make the team. From the left side, Chris Rusin is vying for a roster spot. Both Grimm and Rusin are former starters who could double as long relievers if needed. Alberto Cabrera may have the inside track on the final bullpen spot given his lack of options, but while he hasn't pitched his way out of a job, he hasn't set the world on fire either. The fastball is down a bit and the command is still shaky. Cabrera does, however, have the talent to be a capable middle reliever so he'll get every chance to do so.
Likely headed for Iowa but available on a moments notice are fireballers Arodys Vizcaino, Hector Rondon, and Neil Ramirez. If they aren't ready, the Cubs have brought in some veteran stopgap candidates such as Tommy Hottovy, Jonathan Sanchez, and James McDonald while Kyuji Fujikawa may come back to provide a shot in the arm around May or June.
No matter who ultimately makes the team, the key to staying there is to throw strikes. The bullpen has no shortage of pitchers with good stuff, but just as Cubs hitters will be trying to get on base, the relief core has to be diligent about not allowing opponents to do the same. If they can limit the free passes, they're going to be tough to score on in what should be a less than friendly hitters environment early in the season.
It seems to me that none of these goals are unrealistic. They're small steps that, cumulatively, should lead to a better early season performance. Add a bit of good fortune (i.e. timely hitting) and the team could give us a reason to watch before prospects such as Javier Baez and the summer winds begin to heat up the offense.
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