The All-Star break is almost over and the malaise of another lost season has fully set in. The excitement for Cubs fans at this point of the year is the impending, inevitable dealing of Matt Garza which could be just another footnote in Cubs history or a franchise shifting moment depending on which expert you want to listen. I find myself taking stock of the 2013 campaign at virtual midpoint. This season has been surprising in every way except for the nature of the Cubs approach to the trade deadline. To highlight the ycpb-ness of the game I will list my biggest misses so far in what I thought would happen.
10. Ian Stewart
I liked the Ian Stewart trade at the time. The Cubs swapped flameout former first rounders and gave up a tweener infielder. I liked it because Ian Stewart had an approach at the plate that I longed for, and is part of my unnatural fondness for Mark Bellhorn. Ian Stewart filled a position of need and added that missing left handed power bat since Fred McGriff? Henry Rodriguez? Billy Williams? The trade of course did not work out like I hoped as Ian Stewart was bad and hurt or hurt and bad depending on your perspective. I did not understand last year the piling on of a player having a terrible season. I wrote extensively about my support for Ian Stewart. His time in the 2013 Cubs organization showed that he was worth fan’s derision and I was wrong to defend him.
9. Cubs Record
Now it isn’t a surprise that the team is currently fourth in the division. It is not surprising that the team is a seller at the deadline. But I thought the record would be better than it is. I, and many others, have pointed out all the statistical indicators that point to better performance in the future, but ultimately this team has fallen short of the expectations I had of a team that flirted with .500. Instead this team has flirted with the 10 games under .500 line since the middle of May.
I found myself confused at many points in the offseason and during the season for the outright derision for the concept of platoons. Earl Weaver was an early proponent of them, and many teams have used them effectively to maximize a roster. The Cubs roster was setup to have two platoons in the outfield and both right handed parts of those platoons were completely ineffective. Scott Hairston showed the expected power but that was it. Dave Sappelt was neither capable of hitting or playing defense in centerfield. The most effective platoon was one that wasn’t even possible at the start of the season. Cubs third baseman have put up a .773 OPS which is the fourth highest in the league. I still think the concept is sound based on historical evidence, but it did not work by and large for the 2013 Cubs.
7. Travis Wood
Travis Wood and Hippo Vaughn being mentioned in the same sentence is a huge shock to me. While I doubt this level of success is repeatable by Travis Wood, a half season of sub 3 ERA is something I didn’t predict. I was a fan of Travis Wood and felt he was a quality fifth starter with tons of team control. Travis Wood has instead edged into conversation about being part of the core and extensions. His rate stats are better this year but nowhere near the jump needed to make this level of performance sustainable. Still I was wrong in what I think Travis Wood would produce in 2013.
6. Jeff Samardzija’s June (plus) Swoon
I am a fan of Shark. I have never hidden that fact. I love that he wears number 29. I love that his wipeout pitch is a split finger fastball. I love Jeff Samardzija as much as a married man can legally love him. Jeff Samardzija has developed an annoying habit of being bad for long stretches of time. Samardzija was establishing himself as the number 2 I envisioned him possibly being the first two months of the season. After a complete game shutout on May 27th to lower his ERA to 2.85, his ERA has risen 4.06. Why this happened in 2012 is something I looked into in the offseason with MRubio. I have yet to delve into this season’s blip, but the pattern is something that prevents Shark from being anything more than a really good 3.
Edwin Jackson is inconsistent. He has amazing stuff, but lack of command causes him to struggle at times. I knew that the Cubs weren’t getting a guy that could be counted on as 2 or a 3, but Edwin Jackson has been bad. Perhaps the only starter worse than him has been Dan Haren. He has pitched better as of late and he might yet end the year as the roughly 4 ERA pitcher I expected. But the extreme blip in the wrong direction was not something I foresaw.
Starlin Castro fell off a steep cliff to begin 2013. He has played well during the recent hot streak of the Cubs heading into the All-Star break, but this is hardly the production expected from a player. I am reminded constantly by MRubio that baseball is both hard and that progress is not linear. However, I thought that there were a lot of signs pointing to a possible breakout for Starlin Castro in 2013. The approach he displayed after the changing of hitting coaches last year was remarkable, and the increase in power had been consistent. Instead 2013 Castro regressed statistically in every way. I am reminded a lot of Adrian Beltre’s career path (please, please do not think I am insinuating that I am suggesting in any way that they will be similar players). Beltre was never a consistent producer until age 31, and I am hopeful that Castro can earn his contract a lot sooner than that. Nevertheless just because we see the flashes of potential at such a young age does not mean that stardom will follow instantly, and that Starlin Castro still has plenty of time to figure it out despite the frustration that comes with it.
Bullpens are notoriously volatile and that is why I kept this prediction to myself for the most part. I thought that the bullpen would be a strength of the 2013 Cubs. I loved the addition of Kyuji Fujikawa. I thought that bringing back Dale Sveum’s MVP from last year, Shawn Camp, was a solid move. I bought into Carlos Marmol’s second half production. Instead Fujikawa fell to Tommy John surgery, Marmol followed the career path of other slider dominant relivers, and Shawn Camp never recovered from leading the league in appearances at age 36. The Cubs bullpen is probably the biggest reason, not sole reason, why the Cubs record is below what I expected in 2013.
2. Kevin Gregg
If I dug long enough I could find the places I wrote this down because I said it multiple times, but I said that the waiver pickup of Kameron Loe was more important than the minor league free agent deal for Kevin Gregg. I didn’t believe that Kevin Gregg would be inserted immediately in the bullpen much less earn the closer spot. Kevin Gregg has pitched at a level that he has never managed prior to his age 35 season. This might be the ultimate ycpb aspect of the 2013 Cubs. Unfortunately that magic might have been the power of SSS (Small Sample Size) as his last ten outings has seen him pitch 10 innings with an 8.10 ERA and 6 walks.
The Cubs offense was supposed to be the Achilles heel of the club, and it has hardly been a juggernaut this season. The Cubs are 13th in one of the most important offensive categories: OBP. However, in the most important team offensive statistic the Cubs are actually above average. The Cubs are averaging 4.13 runs per game and the average in the NL is 4.07. That might not seem like much, but the Cubs were dreadful last season averaging 3.78 runs per game when the league average was 4.22. Add on top of that the fact the Cubs opening day 2-3-4 hitters have a .631, .770 OPS, and .760 OPS respectively, and this feat becomes a lot more impressive. I thought that the Cubs at best might move to slightly below average and that would be on the strength of break out years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Instead the surprising production has come from Nate Schierholtz, Dioner Navarro and Cody Ransom. That production looms large in an overall power surge in the lineup that has moved from being below average in the power categories last year to 3rd in homeruns in the league and 4th in slugging percentage.