Keys to the Cubs getting off to a less chilly start in 2014

Keys to the Cubs getting off to a less chilly start in 2014

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.

Run Creation

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.

Run Prevention

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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  • With the newer parks in MLB, I'm not sure if this is still true, but for years, Wrigley had the longest foul lines in baseball.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    They still do as far as I know, but the rest of the park plays pretty small, especially in the warm weather and when the wind blows out. Cubs need to score more runs when the conditions are less favorable.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Jim Murray onc e said about Wrigley, when the wind is blowing in, it can turn a home run into a popup, and vice versa if the wind was blowing out. The wind is what makes Wrigley uinque.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    That pretty much sums it up. It can play like two different parks.

    The Cubs need to be better prepared to play in the park that turns flyballs into pop-ups than they were last year.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yep. How many times did Marmol/ Camp/Fujikawa walk 2 or 3 hitters with a 2 run lead?

  • All of this would be great, but I'm probably not attending a game until July when the kids come up. But, What if?

  • In reply to plymkr:

    I'm not a fan of the cold, damp weather in the early months, so I don't go as often early in the year -- but better baseball might tempt me to bundle up and go more regularly.

  • To me "53-50" isn't that great. They still would have to pass the eye & smell tests. ( i.e.; guys just getting off on a hot start vs. coming into their own, ect...)

    And Yes, that's an above .500 record, but just barely. Not a real bonafide "contending" record. The right players would have to be made available by teams out of contention at or on the deadline, so who & at what price to actually put them over the top from a 53-50 tea, for the remainder 60 games. With the wild cards, teams aren't as willing to part with the players needed/wanted.

    With this current roster, I don't see 1 ace or a #2, plus 1 lineup guy making a real big difference at that time. Yes, it could sure help. If they were to have gotten 1 or 2 impact guys like that in the last 2 years, then I could see a couple trades putting them over the top so to speak. But that obviously was not their plan.

    Realistically, I see their plan this year, as calling the top 1 or 2 prospects up in the middle of this season (Baez probably, Bryant more of a stretch, & maybe one of the Ps performing well in AAA) & then maybe add to the "farm" for 1 more deadline period. After this season is when I think they go for more pieces such as the #2 or #1 starter after they've evaluated the readiness of their remaining farm products.

    Of course this is just conjecture on my part & anything can happen, but I'm going by how this front office has patterned themselves thus far.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    We're talking about progress -- not about greatness. One step at a time.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Well, okaaaay, "53-50 isn't that 'Good' of a record". I didn't mean "Greatness" when I said "isn't that great". 53-50 is very close to average & is very mediocre. That won't make me think (more importantly Jed & Theo think) that they will be playoff contenders with 1 or 2 more additions to this current club at the deadline. Again, I don't feel that's their plan. Now if they were more like 60-40, then all bets are off, lol.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    It's what you think -- you don't know what the Cubs front office thinks. But that's besides the point. What I'm saying is that they could have been 53-50 last year with a .500 start, which is to say they may have been better than we thought they were and that perhaps they made more progress than it appeared.

    One thing we do know about how the front office thinks is that they don't believe progress is linear and that they believe every opportunity to win is precious. They've repeated that many times. That's not to say that if the Cubs go into the end of July a little over .they're going to suddenly change course and build for the short term. That's not what I said at all.

    But if the Cubs go into July with that kind of record, then I think we can expect them to make improvements internally and hold off on a full-blown fire sale. And if they do trade a veteran, then they will seek to acquire MLB ready talent. We know this because they started trending that way last season with acquisitions like Olt, Grimm, Arrieta, and Strop. They aren't getting just class A guys like they did two years ago. The focus is shifting slightly toward players who can help sooner rather than later, though the general plan remains the same.

    If they're 53-50 or whatever and then have the opportunity to call up a Baez or an Alcantara or a Hendricks or Bryant, or whomever is ready, then the Cubs have the potential to take yet another step forward.

    One thing I know about baseball is that we don't know everything. As much as we can try to analyze based on past records, acquisitions, projections, and metrics, we still get it wrong sometimes. I've said many times that the Cubs will most likely struggle again in 2014, but that's not an absolute certainty by any means. if they see an opportunity to take that next step, then I expect that they will. 53-50 might sound mediocre to you, but that's a pace for 83-84 wins and depending on what happens to the rest of the league, that could put them on the doorstep to wildcard contention. That's right about the point when adding each additional win becomes that much more important and I expect the Cubs will act on that -- they will probably do that with internal moves that don't sacrifice the long term, but I don't think they'll pass it up if they see an opportunity to win.

  • As you put it John:
    " We don't need to rehash the carnage of last year's brutal start to know that poor bullpen performance was a major factor."

    I would argue that there were two big problems that first few weeks. #1 being the bullpen. #2 being in absence of Barney's defense while he recovered from his knee injury the infield defense was extremely erratic. Lillibridge was terrible, Castro was out of sinc and at his worst for the season, and the rotation at 3B was only average at best.

    Blown saves, and unforced errors ruined some otherwise good starts by Wood, Shark, Villanueva and Feldman that first month or so.

    The 2013 Cubs could indeed have been a near 0.500 club at the All-Star break if only half of the blown saves had been NOT blown.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Excellent point on Barney's early absence -- which I should have mentioned in the article. I can specifically remember at least one game where Lillibridge's defense cost them a game.

  • Why do pitchers, mostly bad ones, not waste a pitch or two with
    a count of 0-2

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    They either have a bad approach or bad command. So either they don't get it or they do get it and they are unable to execute it properly.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Pedro Martinez summed the issue up well. He said you get strike one, and strike two in the strike zone. You get strike three out of the zone BUT it looks like a strike coming.

    TOR pitchers or high leverage relievers have the stuff that makes hitters think strike three is on the way but the movement is so good by the time the ball gets there it is out of the zone or unhittable.

    We have all heard the term out pitches, and that is what we are talking about here.

    Mid range pitchers don't have those out pitches and it is hard to waste a pitch because it just doesn't fool the hitter. So they need to stay close to the zone, they are trying to expand the zone but their stuff leaves them less room. Sometimes they make the mistake over the plate having to stay close to it. Also, as John mentions control can be an issue, because there is less room for error. You will here John talk about that with Hendricks and it is true, he doesn't have a hammer, so he needs to walk a fine line. If anyone remembers a recent pitcher Kevin Slowey it is the same thing, his minor league numbers look like a future HOF pitcher but without a hammer he was a decent but unspectacular MLB'er. The difference in even AAA hitters and MLB'ers is incredible.

    The truth is very, very few hitters fall for wasted pitches unless they appear out of the pitchers hand as a strike but move away from the zone.

  • In reply to bleedblue:

    Good stuff. I will add that location of that first strike is important. Good hitters look for a pitch in a very small zone when they don't have any strikes on them and I think good pitchers can throw strikes outside of that small zone. However, I also think good hitters adapt to the pitcher as well. They may look at a smaller strike zone against a guy like Verlander than they do against a less overpowering pitcher like Hendricks.

  • Any teams having injury problems that the Cubs might be able to help?

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Always. That should come into focus in the next week or so and until the regular season starts.

  • Good read. I agree that the bullpen is a huge area for potential improvement over last year. MLB's second worst in FIP/xFIP (6th worst ERA) and issued 4BB's/9. That can't happen with any team that hopes to contend. I'd add baserunning as another area of improvement - bottom 5 in MLB for both Bases Taken and SB% which is something that can be improved on.

  • In reply to Da Ivy:

    Thank you -- and thanks for putting into context with those numbers.

  • I have been meaning to go over the first 30 games from last year and see how many of those losses were blown by late inning reliever failures.

    Change 4 of those around with better talent, and you are at 15-16 to start the year, not to far off of what you had mentioned.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    WIthout looking too far into it, I can tell you that the Cubs had 4 losses by their relievers in the first 30 games.

  • Here is an interesting article about suspects.

  • In reply to plymkr:

    Very relevant, though I'm not ready to count out Ryan Kalish. Odds are long, but natural talent and his drive give him a better shot than most.

  • seem like 2 were in that first series against the nats last year. those games made me sick

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    And I remember one against Pittsburgh as well.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Camp giving up a 2-0ut strike HR in the bottom of the 9th against Huntrer Pence. That one really stuck in the craw, the Cubs had battered Matt Cain and Ejax with his 4 wp in one inning trashed the lead, then Camp trashed it again in the bottom of the 9th. Cubs went on and lost in 10 innings. That entire series was blown saves, Cubs lost 3 out of 4 and none of the Giants starters had a victory.

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Agreed..I'd like to see a > .500 season but my personal interest is solid play, improvement, exciting prospects. Watching blown saves and errors offsets all the other improvements.

  • No surprise, but Samardzija named opening day starter.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Yeah, I didn't even consider that a controversy. Think that was mostly fabricated by the media.

  • Great article, John.

    A thought, not related directly to your post, but maybe on the same general subject. If I could wish one talent for all of the Cubs batters it would be hitting with runners in scoring position. We had no trouble hitting the homers, but the BA with RISP was terrible. I know that particular skill rare, but you can see how much it helped the Cardinals in manufacturing runs last year.

    Related to Chicago weather, I believe those cold first few months have helped us the past few years in creating and flipping pitchers. Both Dempster and Feldman pitched fantastic in those cold months, then finished the year with inflated ERAs. The same could be said for Garza last year, but I believe he was injured early and really came around in mid-May.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    Thanks KC!
    I believe RISP is a combo of luck and talent, so I didn't go into it to much. Some of it involves situational hitting but some is just plain luck -- as the Cardinals had until it ran out in the playoffs.

    And excellent point on the whether benefitting Cubs sign and flip strategy with pitchers.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    KC, I think you are onto something with the Cub pitchers early in the year. I never thought about it that way.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    Deep thoughts about the weather helping the Cubs flip pitchers. I think Villanueva might benefit from a cold spring and be gone as well. Especially if they think they still think they can sign Smard.

  • Each ballpark has unique dimensions or attributes that can lead a front office to target specific players or value certain skills out of line with the market. Whether it's turf vs. grass (and whether the grass is cut to play fast or slow). Petco's huge outfield gives them more interest in fly ball pitchers (wheres the Rangers probably disproportionately value groundball pitchers) and also was part of the reason they preferred gap-power Alonso over Rizzo. Yankees' park and Minutemaid favor pull hitters. Fenway is obviously unique and Boston's FO can target players who are a good fit which gives them a great home field advantage. Perhaps this has been previously discussed, but what types of players can or do Theo & Jed favor because Wrigley is where we play 1/2 of our games? I think having a unique ballpark can be an advantage because you can construct a team that's built to take advantage of it. I hope this makes sense.

  • In reply to Da Ivy:

    Wrigley is kind of a enigma because the wind blowing in and out. I think I once heard theo say they were looking at day/night splits.. since more games during the day. also in a video on Ruggiano I just saw. he said he loves playing day games. wonder if that played into anything about trading for him

  • In reply to Da Ivy:

    I think you're seeing it, whether it's verbalized or not. They are targeting and coaching the pitchers to get ground ball outs... they back that up by putting a premium on defense. Then offensively, they are playing the #'s by emphasizing OBP, and playing to Wrigley's uniqueness by targeting power hitters.

    What we have to do, and what Renteria seems to emphasizing (something Dale never seemed to grasp) is when we are struggling to score runs, use team speed and situational aggressiveness to manufacture runs. The guy held a bunting tournament in ST, but rarely ever called for a bunt from a non-pitcher. I can recall several sacrifice & squeeze opportunities that resulted in Barney, Castro, Hairston, etc swinging away... and we'd leave em stranded.

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    ... And I recall one particular afternoon game against the Dodgers where Barney came up TWICE in sacrifice situations and grounded into DPs both times...

  • In reply to Da Ivy:

    Definitely. We actually wrote about this subject a year ago on a couple of occasions and one of the things we harp on is the importance of making it a holistic plan. For example, in a park like Wrigley, you want to get pitchers with good 2 seamers who can pitch with plane and pound the lower part of the zone -- but if you get those kind of pitchers, then you need to support them with good defensive infielders.

  • . Nice read John! I'd like to rehash the carnage. Ha. I believe that blown saves suck the life out of a team more than anything. How many saves or ties were let slip away after the 7th before the sell off?
    Do you think Villanueva could be trade bait. What's left on his contract? Who on the current roster still has options?

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    Haha! You are a glutton for punishment. ;)

    That is a good point. Blow saves can be pretty demoralizing. I think a few good appearances early can start to build some confidence.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Sorry to say this but Veras worries me.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    I think you're right to be concerned. He (and Strop) remind me of Marmol, in that they can be dominant for stretches and look lost/over-matched at others.

    Either they'll get it figured out and get consistent with their command or they won't be here when it really matters. The FO has attacked this situation with the large numbers of power arms. Some will, some won't, who cares, who's next?... sorta mentality.

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    In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    I look for Vizcaino to eventually fill that role.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    He's no sure thing, I'd agree with that. I think he'll be okay though -- at least Kevin Gregg level.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Regarding the fast start we covet, I hope Veras proves me wrong. I liked Strop in that role. He looked good in his end of year cup of coffee.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    I agree, he did. Historically, he's inconsistent though. They did the right thing by signing a guy like Veras. This will sort itself out soon enough. You can't have too many...

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Seems Stropps not on the radar to close after Veras. Grimm seems just as inconsistent or more.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    Veras is the only one with meaningful experience in that role. Strop, Grimm, Parker, Rondon, Vizcaino, etc. all have the repertoire to close, if they can handle the mental aspect and command their stuff.

    I think Vizcaino is the favorite to lock that job down by seasons end. Still, we need 2-3 lock-down pitchers to go with the match-up guys for our BP to be legit.

  • does Kalish have any options left? If He doesn't then I cant see him not making the team, He has shown enough flashes this spring along with his potential to lose just to get a low ceiling bench guy on the roster. pretty sure He would never make it thru waivers.

  • In reply to Bryan Craven:

    He's on a minor league deal and isn't on the 40 man roster, so right now he can be sent down without any risk of losing him.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    that's awesome , great job Theo!!!

  • As I recall, last year's poor April record was caused by the implosion of our bullpen and the infield defense : Barney was injured, Castro was lost without him, and Rizzo had foresaken ST to play for Team Italy. Things vastly improved when Barney replaced the forgettable B. Lillibredge and Kevin Gregg became Save Bot.

    I haven't heard or read much of Veres this spring. How has he looked? Same question about Pedro Stropp. And do we still have Kevin Gregg on speed dial?

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    they've been okay I worry about Strop's control problems resurfacing. Veras is going to be solid, nothing special. He'll blow a couple but he should be steady overall and a great influence in the clubhouse.

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    Looks like Castro's going to be out a while longer.

  • I see Bonafacio leading off again today... this time in CF.

  • A little OT here, but one thing seldom mentioned about Wrigley is the lack of foul space. I always though C arney Lansfords winning a battle title in Oakland in 1989(.333) with that home park and its huge amount of foul ground had to be unbelievable. Im wondering how many points might be added to a BA because of the facxt that there are foul balls that go into the stands at Wrigley that get caught in other stadiums?

  • People forget how close all those games were. I believe the cubs went a ridiculous amount of games of being 3 runs or less deciding the game, or without a blowout. The pen was probably about 80% of the problem. Castro and clutch hitting was the other 20.

  • I think the first three batters in the order are very important. If Bonifacio can be a legit leadoff man, and if Castro can take a pitch when Bonifacio can steal, or go to right when he's on second, then if Rizzo can walk 100 times like the Sarge did in '84, so much can go right for the Cubs this season.

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    I look for them to figure out how to get Bonifacio in the lineup, even it it means a slight downgrade in defense at second. Getting the lead off man on is important to producing runs, and Bonifacio is probably the best guy to do that.

  • In reply to Julie Willson:

    Agreed. I think they're going to keep running him out there. He can play 6 positions so he can move around, but I think if the Cubs can find a taker for Barney they should consider it.

  • Athleticism. Youth. Mid to high 90's. A prolific defender. Versatility. Guy with potential 35-40 HR pop. Nasty sliders. Nasty splitters. Mega prospects (plural!).

    I'm excited. How about we get lucky and go 20-11 instead of 16-15?! One time.

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