A Portrait of Cubbieness

Ricketts and Hendry reflect on the Piniella era: it’s not success, but it ain’t that bad.

Now that we know Lou Piniella’s days as manager of the Chicago Cubs have a definitive number (while Jim Hendry’s do not) and we’ve all endured the initial explosive reaction from media both social and mainstream, it’s time to take a deep breath of whatever gaseous substance you wish to inhale and look at where the Cubs really stand. Between the lines of yesterday’s press conference is a rather clear portrait of what the near future of the Cubs is going to look like.

While I can’t argue too fiercely with interpretations to the contrary, I don’t think it’s that bad. Let’s strip down yesterday’s off-the-field developments to bare facts.

Lou Piniella is retiring after this season. I always thought this was the plan, but until yesterday Lou had discussed his longterm outlook with a certain je-ne-sais-Favre. Speculation swirls as to why Lou’s agent let the news slip at this point in the season, and I can answer that question with resounding certainty: I don’t care. I mean, really, between the trades that aren’t happening and the NL Central deficit that isn’t shrinking, there isn’t much left to distract from. The reasons behind the news leak or Lou’s decision to retire construct a thoroughly boring mystery. I trust Lou when he says he’s retiring because he wants to retire and not because of the product on the field. No one really cares about the why, it’s the what next that’s generating real buzz. And Lou’s replacement is far less important than the matter of Hendry’s job security.

Jim Hendry still has a job. A lot of Cub fans are angry about this because of how awful they think Jim Hendry is. While I think most fans have given Hendry an unfair and ill-informed job evaluation, I’ll save that argument for another day (or for smarter people). What’s even more baffling to me is how urgently people want Hendry gone. Tom Ricketts’ vote of confidence in Hendry midway through a horrendously disappointing season in which injuries can’t be used as an excuse at all strikes many fans as a betrayal of his initial promise as owner to hold his front office accountable. I call bull drama. Let’s look at what Ricketts said:

Jim is our general manager full-stop. He will be leading the effort to find our new manager for next year and will be our general manager going into next year.

I’ll tell you exactly what that means:

A) Tom Ricketts uses expressions like “full-stop,” and that’s kind of weird.

B) Ricketts viewed 2010 as a transition year. After buying the team in a process that took longer than he expected in an economy that sucked harder than he had predicted, the opportunity for Hendry to adequately build a champion just wasn’t there, in Tom’s opinion. He at least figured that it wasn’t enough of a slam dunk to expect a 2010 World Series crown. This season was Jim Hendry’s grace period. You can throw Piniella in that mix as well, but his retirement makes their plan toward Lou a nondecision. Firing Lou this year would just force them to pay someone else to babysit the failure.

C) Jim Hendry has one last chance to build a winner. If the Cubs don’t legitimately compete and succeed in 2011, Hendry will be out of a job. If they’re under .500 by the time June 2011 rolls around, Jim will be gone. If they haven’t sniffed first place by July, he’s fired. If the Cubs reach the postseason and put up a bagel, Hendry will have eaten his last donut as the Cubs’ GM.

D) There will be no fire sale. Not this year, anyway. Jim Hendry will manage this team, generally speaking, like a man fighting for his job, not a man building for the future. He won’t be allowed to mortgage the future entirely—don’t expect any Soriano-type free-agent deals that completely restrict Hendry’s successor (although, Hendry likely had very little to do with the terms of Soriano’s contract). But Hendry’s mindset will be win-now all the way. I’m not saying the Cubs will compete, but Hendry will be fired if they don’t.

E) The next Cubs manager will be the guy Hendry thinks gives the team the best chance to win. He won’t hire Ryne Sandberg if he’s not satisfied he can win now, nor will he do so if there’s even the remotest possibility he can sign Joe Torre. Jim Hendry knows he’s in no position to give anybody a chance to prove themselves because this is his last chance to do the same. So, if Jim Hendry has anything to say about it (as Ricketts has emphasized that he does), you can forget the marketing-driven decisions and the goodwill gestures. Hendry will be desperate to win, not to coddle the fan base.

F) (It seems fitting that this list end in F) Success for the rest of this season will be measured in expiring salary that can be dumped. There’s a slight chance Hendry would trade for a significant impact player on the block provided they can negotiate a contract extension (with a complimentary No-Trade-Clause). Then the off-season will be a mad rush to trade whatever remaining baggage Hendry has no more use for and to sign his next free-agent man crush.

My 2011 prediction: Joe Torre is the next manager of the Chicago Cubs, which will improve the team by exactly half a win. Hendry’s assorted trades and signings will improve the team by 4 wins. The Cubs’ luck will improve by 3 games. The Cubs will win the wild card, get swept again in the first round by the Giants, and Jim Hendry will be fired. It will be the last time the Cubs make the playoffs until 2017.

Meh. Could be worse.

Second-Half Survival Strategies for Cubs Fans

The goal is to capture the flag. When that fails, try to avoid looking like a total idiot (unless idiocy is your strategy).

The Cubs begin play today 10 games under .500 and 10 games behind the Central Division’s new leaders, the St. Louis Cardinals. They’re 4th in the Central and 9th (9.5 GB) in the Wild Card standings. None of those circumstances fill me with joy, but the state of the 2010 Cubs season makes me feel a lot like Miracle Max overlooking the Man in Black’s mostly dead body: I’ve seen worse.

Aside from going through the team’s pockets to look for loose change, the prevailing opinion among pessimists, realists, and guarded optimists has been that the Cubs should hold a fire sale. Toss the bulky expiring contracts overboard like so much ballast from the sinking ship and try to sail again next year (or the year after that {or the year after that}). Other more delightedly delusional fans think it’s not too late for the Cubs (yes, the Chicago Cubs) to make a run at the postseason. These fans seem open to a trade or two, but the only white flags they want to see waving at Wrigley are the ones of the rarely used W variety.

I don’t know what the Cubs should (or even can) do, but I want to help you, my fellow Cubs fan, understand what your options are as our team finishes out the remaining 70 games in this seemingly interminable season. Is it too late to hope, and what should we be hoping for? Let’s survey the landscape and see what mindset will result in the fewest headaches and/or heartbreaks.

The division-leading Cardinals have a .554 winning percentage, which puts them on pace for a 90-win season. For the Cubs to win 90 games, they need to go 49-21 the rest of the way. That’s a .700 winning percentage. A lot of people reference the resurgent White Sox as the standard of improbable turnarounds, but even before their three-game skid against the Twins, the White Sox previous 70-game stretch was an impressive 43-27, a .614 win percentage.

The Cards and Reds may both fall short of 90 wins, but not by much. I highly doubt the Cubs could win the division with 84 wins, and that’s exactly what a Sox-esque turnaround would leave them with. The Wild Card race is on almost the same track, so there’s no need for further exploration. The Cubs need about three miracles to reach the postseason. So here are your options:

Keep Hope Alive
This is the big risk/big reward tactic. There’s almost no chance you’ll be right, and everyone will label you the village idiot for as long as you hold the opinion and a turncoat the moment you give up. If you wind up being right, you can brag and rejoice in the integrity of your faith, but . . . yeah, it ain’t happening.

Keep Quiet
This approach requires you to become the cliché. Take it one game at a time. Stay within yourself. Don’t try to do more than you can do. As a fan, it’s not a bad place to be, especially if the Cubs play half decent and the front office does nothing especially inspiring. You don’t get carried away in positive or negative emotion and you don’t get burned. People might call you a bandwagon rider or fair-weather fan, but it’s better than idiot.

Burn Hope Alive
You want the fire sale. You want the number 1 pick in the 2011 draft. You want every player gone and every staff member fired. Except Larry Rothschild. He’s a lifer now like Yosh Kawano. But everyone else can go. Your target for victory is 2013 at the earliest because the entire Cubs organization will consist of rookies and prospects by the time the fire sale is over. The emotional benefit is that Cubs wins are still nice and Cubs losses are even better. On the downside, though, your dependence shifts from the product on the field to the quality of the off-the-field decisions. If you thought Ryan Theriot swinging at the first pitch was infuriating, good luck putting up with Jim Hendry’s inactivity. You’ll also be labeled “not a real fan,” which, I’m guessing, you’ve learned to live with.

Wait for Heaven to Come in 2011
If you’re in this group, Jim Hendry will welcome you with open arms. When Lou says the team is more seller than buyer, he’s not speaking on a hunch. But Hendry has tempered any fan dreams of a fire sale by saying that any move the Cubs make will be to help the team for next year. It could happen, I guess. The upside is, you can enjoy making fun of how bad the team is now while still reveling in the occasional win. The rub is that the offseason becomes a hot stove headache. You probably won’t agree with a single move Jim Hendry (or his possible replacement) makes the entire time even though you approve of his general approach to stay competitive. You’ll still be regarded as a fan, but you probably won’t enjoy yourself.

Cheer for a Good Team
Sorry, but none of these options smell like survival to me. If you’re looking to enjoy baseball, you might be better off picking a team with a better prognosis. You’ll be branded a traitor, but, like LeBron James, your chances at celebrating a championship will go way up.

I wish the outlook was cheerier, folks, but being a Cub fan and winning don’t exactly go hand in hand. If you enjoy this Way of [L]ife (which I do, for whatever reason) just bear it. Grinning is optional.

Z, Interrupted

Z angry! Z smash!!!

Carlos Zambrano’s rampage of terror has finally been stopped. After storming through the Cub dugout, terrorizing a camera crew outside of U.S. Cellular Field, and ravaging a Brazilian steakhouse with Ozzie Guillen, Zambrano finally succumbed to Cubs staff armed with tranquilizer cannons and electromagnetically powered titanium restraining belts. It took a few days to gain approval for his ultimate confinement while the ACLU and PETA wrangled to determine which group should be defending his rights.

Finally the dust has settled, freeing Jim Hendry to inform the public about the protective measures in place to minimize the damage Zambrano can inflict upon society. Long story short, we can breathe easy until after the All-Star Break. Big Z won’t be around to hurt any of us for quite some time. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Hendry’s statement, point by reassuring point:

Beginning Wednesday, Carlos will undergo a treatment program . . .

This is where a lot of the mainstream media have begun to water down the severity of the issue, referring to the prescribed course of action as “anger management” or “counseling.” Make no mistake: this is treatment. You don’t often hear people say Carlos Zambrano has an “anger problem.”  The term you hear thrown around almost universally is nut job.

So don’t leave this happy press conference thinking Carlos is going to be attending a few classes, some private sessions, and some group therapy. This is a serious medical issue that will require the utmost in clinical expertise.

. . . with mutually agreed upon doctors from the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball.

Now wait a second, here. Are these doctors selected from the ranks of the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball, or are they selected and agreed upon by those two parties? Doc Halladay is a hell of a pitcher, but he’s not qualified to take on a head case like Big Z. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the MLBPA and MLB will together avail themselves of the best psychiatric minds in the world.

Whatever crack military analysts have been  predicting the movements of Osama bin Laden, pull them off that cold case and put them on Zambrano. We need to know what strain of inhuman pathology has sent him down this path of self-destruction and what we can expect him to try next.

Basically, he will have to follow the treatment for his issues and be evaluated properly . . .

I’m sure the Zambrano family and both of his fans appreciate Hendry glossing over Carlos’s soulless predilection for torture as “his issues,” but the bottom line is that drastic experimental procedures need to be administered swiftly and relentlessly to ensure some semblance of public safety when Zambrano ventures back into society. Godzilla had issues. Zambrano has serious problems.

. . . and if the program is acted on properly in accordance to what the doctors they signify he needs to work on and improve on, and follow their directives, Carlos will not be reinstated any time until after the All-Star break.

Wait . . . what? If the weapons-grade lithium injections and shock treatment is properly executed and Zambrano stays conscious throughout the sensory deprivation and neural reprogramming, Zambrano won’t be reinstated until after the ASB? So what happens if one of those pillars of personal transformation should crumble? Euthanasia? Siberian exile? Trade to the White Sox? I guess we’ll cross that chasm into the eternal abyss when we come to it.

We’ve obviously had a lot of transgressions with Carlos in the past . . .

I hope Jim was just being polite with that first-person plural. If  Hendry, Lou, et al. have had transgressions with Carlos, I’d hate to see what scarlet letters emblazon their breasts. BP, maybe? But since the punishment is being prescribed to just Carlos, I can only assume that Zambrano alone has transgressed while Hendry, Piniella, the Ricketts family, and all of society have been mere victims of (not participators in) his tumultuous binges of iniquity.

. . . so I think we all agreed that it was time to go and get help, then address the apologies later.

Yes, we need to call in the authorities on this one. There’s plenty of time for tear-filled remorse in between sodium pentothal injections. That’s why they let you watch.

It’s an unfortunate situation.

Yes, it was completely a function of luck. The powers of fortune and fate transpired to bring Carlos’s demons to the surface. This “situation” had nothing to do with Hendry and Piniella moving Zambrano to the bullpen (which Hendry had stocked with rookies, pet projects, washed-up veterans, and injuries in waiting) just long enough for him to adjust to the move and then to draw him back into the rotation. The incessant criticism of Zambrano’s better-than-average 2009 (in which the Cub offense behind him scored an average of .0002 runs per month, hence the single-digit win total) wasn’t meant to make Z angry. The repetitive trade rumors leaked by the front office (despite Zambrano’s insistence that he loved Chicago and would never leave) were immaterial to Zambrano’s psychological condition. Oh no, Z has a medical problem brought on by the fickle middle finger of fortune.

. . . and His actions were certainly inappropriate and as I said on Friday, those actions toward his teammates and staff will not be tolerated.

Of course. This organization does not tolerate furious yelling. They just incite it.

That’s why we tried to work to a conclusion as efficiently and as quickly as we could.

Had they the budget to hire a sniper on short notice, the conclusion would have been much quicker and more efficient. But in a world of backloaded contracts and suffocating debt relief, a suspension and a marathon date with the league shrink will have to do.

It’s really pretty amazing how Hendry has managed to make Zambrano’s outburst look like the mad confession of a serial killer. The past few days just gave Hendry’s office time to find the bodies. A lot of people have criticized Hendry, Lou, and Zambrano’s teammates for berating Z so openly, but it’s really genius PR work. The excessive complaints, the drama, the mystery of Zambrano’s whereabouts, and the complete absence of any definitive statement from Carlos himself have all created this grand illusion that Zambrano is criminally insane.

Hendry didn’t have the slightest difficulty getting approval for intensive “treatment” for Zambrano because he made it so clear to the world that Zambrano is a sick, sick man. Lou seemed pretty calm in the dugout when the incident happened. After the game he was cool and collected but, admittedly, embarrassed. By the time evening fell, the shock of it all came crashing down and Lou was suddenly unable to eat.

Jim Hendry was likewise furious. Beside himself . . . with glee. Hendry has been looking to get rid of Zambrano for awhile now. He didn’t want him in the rotation. He couldn’t put him in the bullpen. He couldn’t trade him, release him, or send him down to the minors. What’s left? Thank DeRosa for the restricted list!

But didn’t all this diminish Zambrano’s trade value? Not at all! Don’t you see the evil genius at work? This isn’t a character flaw in Zambrano. This is a medical issue. He’s getting treatment. Zambrano’s temper is about to undergo Tommy John surgery, and the recovery time, apparently, is about three weeks. Whoever gets Zambrano at the end of July won’t be getting a moody, ineffective reliever, they’ll be getting the finest Carlos modern medicine can buy, one with the confidence, sensitivity, and electric fastball that can make him the ace of any staff.

It’s too bad. I liked angry Z. He made me laugh and, unlike almost everyone else on this team, he didn’t make me yawn until I wanted to pass out. I’m not defending what Zambrano did. Truth be told, I don’t even know what Zambrano did. Whatever it was he did or said, and whatever fractured reasoning was behind it, I highly doubt it calls for a lobotomy.

Just Deserts

My wife and I took the boys to see Toy Story 3 today. It’s a fine movie, but it reminded me why I don’t go to movies very often anymore. I told my youngest you eat popcorn when you go to the theater, but I didn’t tell him it cost $6.00 for a bucket of stale, burnt-toast flavored not-goodness.

And as I shelled out good money for something I knew would make a negative contribution to the cinematic experience (yet fulfill my popcorn promises), I thought about what a terrible business practice it is to so blatantly screw over your customers. But then I inwardly scolded myself. I can’t be that critical of a business practice if I’m stupid enough to fall prey to it (and I’m standing in line with my fellow intellectual paralytics). I shouldn’t have told my son it’s tradition to eat popcorn at the movies. I should have told him that movie theaters treat ticket holders with contempt and that any smart person would refuse to accept it.

But I didn’t, and I got what I deserved. And everyone in the Cubs universe gets their just deserts*, too.

Carlos Zambrano invented his own personal brand of crazy and will be punitively sent to the bullpen upon his indefinite return from suspension. Does he deserve it? Why not. You act like that in front of people who don’t like you and have the power to make you pay for it, you know there will be consequences.

Cubs’ management showed with this bullpen shift that Zambrano’s initial stint as a reliever had nothing to do with baseball. Hendry and Lou wanted Z in his place even though they knew he didn’t belong in the bullpen—he belonged in the doghouse. So they got what they deserved, an angry, ineffective, jerked-around anti-ace. They should have seen this blow-up coming, because Z isn’t exactly an easy-going flower of a man. Doing something so stupid as giving their $91-million pitcher the Samardzija treatment makes much less sense than signing either of those guys in the first place.

Zambrano, meanwhile, deserves both his money (he pitched very well in his early career and would have commanded an even larger contract on the free agent market) and the foul treatment. He gave the Cubs a hometown discount (yeah, believe it or not, a discount), but he should have known it came at a higher price than just a few million dollars. He signed with a team he should have predicted would screw him over. Shame on you, Carlos. You and the Cubs are each other’s just deserts.

Jim Hendry, you’ve created something of a trend with your indefinite suspensions, ironic since you were responsible for signing the players you suspended. Why you would make someone a mega-millionaire and then ground him is up to you, but when the message you send fails to result in winning baseball, the dizzying mess of bleating, whining, and winless chemistry will be well deserved.

Lou will walk away from the Cubs at the end of this season with a lot of extra millions, a couple of extra headaches, a slightly higher blood pressure reading, and only the slightest hint of regret. He knew what he was walking into when he took the helm in Wrigleyville, and he knew the glory and the criticism that would pour down upon him with every win and loss.

Derrek Lee and his fellow teammates, all of whom received a vicious tongue-lashing from Zambrano, fully deserved to be criticized publicly by a crazy man.

Kevin Millar deserves to be working TV with the opportunity to laugh at the misfortunes of his former spring-training team.

The Ricketts family profess to have been fans of this team and yet still saw fit to pay nearly a billion dollars to make it their own. They got what they paid for. They’re the proud owners of a one-of-a-kind masterpiece of awful. Congrats. Your just deserts just happen to be plunging in value at the moment. Go ahead and raise ticket prices again, why don’tcha?

I mustn’t forget my favorite group of friends, the fans. We cheer for a team we know won’t win. Some of us, myself included, are willing to pay upwards of $60 to sit in the blazing hot sun and bask in the glow of a 12-0 suckfest. I deserved what I got, a good time with friends, an uber-fast lopsided loss, and the freakiest farmer’s tan I’ve ever seen.  Should I be upset that the Cubs are now running a promotion to dispense those same tickets at a $10 rate (which is nearly doubled by fees) or that other fans can buy scalped tickets for even less, sans convenience fees but with twice as much convenience?

No, I should be just a bit more aware of the idiocy I’ve allowed to run my life. This feeling of anger and apathy swirling together in a delicious angst-ridden suckcicle is my just desert and I must suck it.

*No, I didn’t spell it wrong. Look it up.

Zut Alors!

Video clip certainly to be taken down by MLB in 5…4…3…2…

Carlos Zambrano got into a fight with Derrek Lee, probably because Derrek was the first one to respond to the tirade Z directed at the entire dugout after a rocky 4-run 1st inning against the White Sox. I guess you could say he overreacted.

Overreaction is contagious. Twitter exploded. Paul Sullivan called for Z’s immediate fine and suspension. Gordon Wittenmyer said the Cubs couldn’t win with Zambrano and that no team would want him. Sox fans all rushed to the obituary section to make sure they hadn’t died, because yesterday felt a whole lot like heaven. Steve Stone took the chance to call Zambrano a coward who years ago had “sucker punched” a helpless Michael Barrett. A few Cubs bloggers woke from dormant apathy to comment on the matter. It has been pretty much overreactions galore since Z stamped the base for the final out of the 1st.

Lou Piniella, the man Cubs fans have been begging to overreact, actually took a pretty even-tempered approach to the whole thing.Then Jim Hendry suspended him . . . indefinitely. Overreaction? Eh.

To borrow a word from His Level-Headedness, Look . . . Zambrano was over the edge in his tirade. But tirade is just a way to subtly and verbally overreact to someone who is talking loud. Hendry called it savage, and maybe it looked that way. Okay, it looked that way. But what harm did it do?

Lou called it embarrassing. Well, guess what, Lou? The Cubs as an organization being embarrassed is a net change in status of zero point zero, zero. Losing is embarrassing, and that’s been the Cubs’ trademark this season. The only difference between Z’s tantrum and the reactions exhibited by the team in the 72 previous games is that Zambrano went down kicking and screaming.

I suppose a suspension is in order as a political gesture, but in reality, of the small percentage of Cub fans, players, and staff who still care about what the Cubs do, how many of us haven’t at some point felt the urge to yell at the lot of them like Zambrano did? I know I have. That doesn’t justify what Zambrano did . . . but I understand.

To those who want to trade or release Zambrano after the shortest start of his career (a record he seems to break with regularity) and maybe his career’s loudest hissy fit, I really hope you aren’t in charge. Let’s just stop the overreactions. Carlos Zambrano is 29 years old, and he can still pitch. He is erratic in every sense of the word, but he is not done. To trade him or release him now would be a plan designed to get the very smallest return (or rather the largest resulting debt) out of a guy who still, yesterday’s lowlight reel to the contrary, has a lot to offer a major league ball club.

Based on what? Oh, I don’t know, his career numbers. The obvious fact that he still gives a crap. The Lifetime movie of the week, Not Without My Gatorade Cooler, where a hotheaded Venezuelan starter finds love, hope, and absolution in the arms of a gruff, oft misunderstood Hobbit with questionable journalistic integrity but a heart that just won’t quit.

Alright, overreact if you must, but please feel free to do so in the comments below.

Curse of Cubs Fans pt. 3: No Pressure

Yesterday I suggested that pressure from Cubs fans is having a detrimental effect on the players’ ability to perform. Today I’m here to tell you that I was 100% out of my gourd. That’s not the problem with Cubs fans. For the past few years we’ve played the part of a fan base with great expectations, but let’s be real: all the “this is the year” talk was just our dreams talking. Deep down we all knew the Cubs have no intentions of winning, but we don’t let that dissuade us from cheering for the team. This song is our motto: I will always love you.

What’s causing the Cubs downfall this year and every year is the genuine and firmly entrenched belief in the hearts and minds of all Cub players and coaches: We don’t have to win. We’ll still get paid. We’ll still have each other. The fans will still love us.

The Cubs don’t have to win. They don’t even have to put a good team on the field. All the organization has to do to keep the turnstiles spinning is toss us a few Dora giveaways, a beanie baby here and there, and trot Denise Richards into the press booth for a rousing rendition of “Pay No Attention To My Voice, Please.” Win and we’ll buy everything you’re selling. Lose, and we’ll complain. But our numbers won’t ever decrease, not really.

Organizationally, the front office merely has to create the illusion of trying. As long as there’s at least one player who can hit 40 or so homers or one pitcher who can strike out a dozen guys (or draw Chuck-Norris style worship of him manliness) the club’s cult following will remain intact. And if you don’t touch the ivy or the scoreboard, the house of worship that is Wrigley Field will never lack parishioners.

Psychologically, the players know perfectly well that if they give their 75% best, the fans will cheer as though they’re seeing Babe Ruth outperform his prime. If Derrek Lee can play like Bill Buckner, we’ll applaud him like he’s Lou Gehrig. Every now and then we’ll boo to preserve the illusion, but come on . . . we love these guys through thick and thin. Not that we can remember what thick is like.

What incentive does any player or team have to succeed in Chicago? The best ever celebration if they do win it all? Big deal! Why go the extra mile of winning a World Series when they’re lauded like kings if they win the Pirates series?

If we really want the Cubs to win it all, we’ve got to stop going to games altogether. Stop watching games. Don’t even check the box scores until the division is clinched.

And when we do go, boo them mercilessly unless they win. By seven runs. Even then, mild applause is sufficient. We’ve got to stop being the Generation X parent who praises the simplest accomplishment. Do you really want the Cubs to carry around that sense of entitlement and inflated esteem? No! We’ve got to become the old-school parents of baby boomers who reward Nobel-worthy feats with brief respites from corporeal punishment.

Grand slam, Theriot? Congratulations. No belt to the back of the legs until tomorrow. You made it to the World Series? Okay, I’ll disallow comments on my “Embalm Lou Piniella” post until you lose again.

The cheering, the love, the loyalty? It’s ruining this team.

Issue One: Suck or Cynic?

No, seriously, get off my lawn.

I hated it when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to love The McLaughlin Group. Led by curmudgeonly debating dictator John McLaughlin, this talking-head free-for-all might carry the blame for the parade of political punditry running through television around the clock, but that’s only because they do it right. They step on each other’s sentences and stumble their way through a bipartisan spectrum (composed of drastically slanted extremes). It’s entertaining, informative, and everything a political talk show should be.

Be that as it may, Johnny has drawn lighthearted criticism for his less-than-subtle manner of implying his cynical opinions are superior to all others, a caricature made famous by Dana Carvey and imitated by Cub fans everywhere.

I’m probably just as guilty as anyone of dismissing dissenting opinions, so don’t read this as a personal attack just because you know I know you’re wrong. But there’s something I find so irritating about the cynicism that follows a Cubs loss, bad inning, John Grabow run given up, Aramis Ramirez strikeout, Lou Piniella managerial decision/quote/shaving holiday . . . you name it. And, yes, I even get irritated at myself for succumbing to it. It’s the attitude that I can draw sound conclusions about this team or this player based on the last game, at bat, series, or even two weeks of play. 
We all know that’s not true, but when a small sample agrees with our general conclusions, it’s oh so tempting to set our opinions in stone. And then laminate them.
The first week of the season, everyone jokes about it. Samardzija’s ERA is infinity. Marlon Byrd is on pace to hit 456 homers. The Cubs will go 0-162. But after the first month of the season, and especially after the first two, fans tend to forget how unreliable small samples are, especially the fans who don’t know what constitutes a significant sample.
The Cubs are 1-7 against the Pirates. What does that tell us? It tells us that the Cubs have a woeful record against the Pirates this year. Are the Pirates better than the Cubs? Let’s entertain the thought. Here are some other imaginary conclusions we can draw from the Cubs/Pirates season series: 
  • The Cubs are 23-22 against the rest of baseball, so the Pirates must be the best team the Cubs have played this year. 
  • The Pirates are 15-30 against non-Cubs teams, so the Cubs must be the worst team the Pirates have played, including the Astros who have yet to lose to the Bucs and have lost just one to the Cubs.
  • Somehow the Cubs are an otherwise above-.500 team that is also the worst opponent the Pirates have faced, so the Pirates must have the toughest schedule in all of baseball. Ever.
  • Xavier Nady is an unstoppable force, he and his 1.065 OPS against the untouchable Pirate pitching staff.
  • Marlon Byrd doesn’t hustle nearly as hard as Alfonso Soriano.
I won’t go on. No one believes those conclusions, but for some reason, “The Cubs suck” is the most obvious fact ever presented before the public eye because of the Cubs’ 8 games against the Pirates, even though it doesn’t really agree with what the other games have told us. The Pirates have the second worst pitching staff in the National League (Milwaukee is the worst). Although the Cubs have absolutely pounded on Brewer pitching, the Pirate hurlers have been tougher on the Cubs than have all but three opposing staffs. It doesn’t make sense. And, in small samples, neither does baseball.
To be fair, the optimists who get overly excited when the Cubs are on a hot streak (read: me) are just as deceived by recency and selective sampling as the cynics who proclaim doom every time the L flag flies over Wrigley. But cynicism especially irritates me because it’s the cop-out attitude. It’s safe. It’s the defense mechanism of every fan.
Anyone quick to judge the Cubs as uber-sucky, other than opposing fans who frame their identities around criticizing the very team they hate (and really, this has to be the most pathetic segment of sporting society), is happy to be proved wrong. Generally, Cubs fans aren’t happy to see their team fail, so the doubters take solace in the fact that they saw the collapse coming. If the Cubs lose: “I knew it, and you’re an idiot if you’re surprised by this.” Cubs win: “Yay, I was wrong! This won’t last.”
See how that works? Call the desired outcome impossible, and you’ll never be disappointed. The only problem is, it doesn’t mean you’re a good prognosticator, it just means you’re skilled at covering your butt.
The people calling for Lou’s head because he leaves starting pitchers in too long are the same ones who get irate when he brings in the wrong reliever. The people saying Lou was a fool for starting the all-bench lineup are the same ones who, 24 hours earlier, were begging him to shake things up. They have to blame unexpected results on someone, and the unpredictability of baseball isn’t an option. It’s this: Lou sucks. The Cubs suck. If I can’t get the outcome I want, at least I can feel better blaming it on the people stupid enough not to be as cynical as I am right now.
Well, that sucks. I’m not saying everyone has to predict the Cubs to win or to bounce back. I’m not saying the optimists are right and the pessimists are wrong. I’m just saying the cynics, in this case and in life in general, are taking the easiest path, especially when it’s based on only the most recent or selective observations. If you think the Cubs suck (and their record agrees with you) I’d hope you’d form that opinion from something more than the final score to one game or even eight.
I’ll leave you with two things: 1) MLB’s collection of highlights carrying the Starlin Castro tag; 2) Exit question: on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the suckiest team in the history of spheroidal suction and 10 being the metaphysical pinnacle of baseball existence, how good do you think the Cubs are?

Zambrano to the Bullpen: Please Tell Me We’ve Been Punk’d

Z-Ro. This move has no chance of working.

I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence by explaining that moving Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen is a bad idea, but I’ve heard enough support for the decision to warrant an official dissent. So hear it is:

This is stupid.

To reduntify what I’ve already said on Twitter, I’d love to play golf with Lou Piniella (and Jim Hendry and Tom Ricketts and whoever else thinks this is a good idea) just so I can observe that moment when he walks on to the green, eyes up the slope on a 15-foot putt, and busts out his driver in full swing. That is what putting one of your best starters (if not definitively the best) into the bullpen. Lou putting Zambrano in the bullpen is the equivalent of Maverick saying, “I’m too close for guns, I’m switching to missiles.” Yes, I’m just blogging my tweets now, deal with it.

I don’t care if he becomes the closer (he won’t). I don’t care if he’s the 7th/8th-inning setup man. I don’t care how many lefties are in the pen or how many of them are capable of getting outs on a semi-regular basis. Carlos Zambrano is most definitely one of the Cubs’ three best starting pitchers, and putting him in the bullpen is a waste.

Let’s look at the best probable outcome of this move. Zambrano becomes the 8th-inning setup guy for Marmol and pitches brilliantly. Zambrano records 35 holds for the Cubbies in 2010 (and yes, that’s a lot, the most you’ll ever see from any reliever). Zambrano pitches 80 innings from the bullpen. 80 freaking innings. He gets about 10 at bats. He’s great because you remember all of his appearances in all those late-inning, high-pressure situations. But he’s doing a job that’s not that valuable. Yes, it’s a job you want done, but it doesn’t take a pitcher of Z’s caliber to do it.

And you know what else you’ll remember? All of those mountains of innings racked up in the first 2/3 of games by pitchers inferior to Zambrano. What, you don’t think you’ll notice when Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva and (yeah, I love him to death, but it’s true) Randy Wells rack up sample sizes large enough to reflect the pitchers they really are? Trust me, you will. At that point, the fraction of innings Zambrano will have compiled will tell you very little about his value as a relief pitcher other than the fact that relief pitchers aren’t very valuable! 

This is having your CEO fold the laundry. This is buying a Slurpee with a $100 bill. This is playing your highest trump card to beat a deuce. It’s paying a lot for this muffler. It’s using a sledge hammer on a penny nail. It’s putting on your tux before you enter a chat room.

If Carlos Zambrano pitches as well as is humanly possible out of the bullpen, it still won’t amount to half the value of his contribution as a starter if he had a poor season. And if Silva and Gorzelanny will have to seriously outperform their projections to come anywhere close to a mediocre season for Zambrano. If those guys pitch well as starters and Z pitches well in relief, it will still prove that this move was stupid. It will show that either one of those guys would have almost certainly done well in relief and that the Cubs willingly shelved 75% of Zambrano’s value.

The only sliver of slack I’ll give Lou is the possibility that this is an extremely short term arrangement as Hendry tries to acquire another right-handed reliever who isn’t good enough to start but is good enough to excel in the bullpen. It won’t make this move any less stupid, but it will make it less damaging.

In the meantime, I really hope Ashton Kutcher has just Punk’d us, because this seems too overtly awkward and obscenely shocking to be true.

Down with Castro?

Starlin Castro looks like Rudy. That is all.

Pepin le Bref is once again stirring up rumors about players who aren’t on the Cubs roster, only this time it’s a guy with a solid chance to work his way onto it. Starlin Castro was a non-roster invitee to the Cubs’ spring training festivities, but he has looked like a guy you wouldn’t mind having on the big-league club.

In 15 plate appearances.

Pepin would have you believe the Cubs brass is conflicted about what to do with the phenom sporting the 1.600 OPS (in 15 PA): start him in AAA or give him a shot on the opening-day roster. As previously reported by his Bref-ness, Lou wouldn’t want Starlin to be a bench player; the kid needs to play:

Cubs manager Lou Piniella ended any speculation Sunday that Andres Blanco’s knee injury would open up a job for 19-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro. 

“No, no,” he said. “Starlin is going to start the season in Triple-A (Iowa) and play. The only way Starlin would come into this equation, and I’ve said this before, is if he shows he’s ready to play here and there’s a problem physically with Theriot.

“Now, we don’t want that. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve been very impressed with Starlin. He’s smooth up there, got a nice throwing arm, good hands. He gives you a nice at-bat. But no, we’re going to go with Theriot at shortstop, and certainly (Castro) wouldn’t be up here backing up under any circumstances. We want this kid to play.”

Less than a week after collecting that gem from Lou, le Bref suggests the decision isn’t so clear cut, even though Lou hasn’t changed one iota of his story:

Manager Lou Piniella continues to insist Ryan Theriot is his shortstop and he’s not interested in moving him to second to make room for Castro at short.

Prospects headed to the minors typically get sent to minor league camp midway through Cactus League games. Will the Cubs give Castro a longer look?

“That’s going to be up to (general manager) Jim Hendry and (assistant GM Randy Bush),” Piniella said. “Unless the kid is going to start here, their preference in the past has been to send these kids out to get them familiar with where they are going to play.”

But few Cubs prospects have performed as well as Castro has early in the games. When he smacked a first-pitch home run to left in the fifth inning, Piniella looked at bench coach Alan Trammell with a wild-eyed grin on his face.

So why manufacture a story that goes against every quote from the people who matter and is supported by nothing but 15 plate appearances and a post-homer smile?

Well, to give Pepi some credit, Castro is an exciting player. He’s bigger and faster than Theriot, but he’s also a full 10 years younger. Meanwhile, Theriot is having just as much success as Castro this spring (not to mention how ridiculous it is to base any significant decisions on a handful of spring at-bats against a bunch of guys with sub-Silva type stuff . . . oh, crap, I just mentioned it; but it was in parentheses, so it doesn’t really count).

But I don’t think Piniella, Hendry, or Bush will be making a decision based on Castro’s numbers. Frankly, they probably won’t be basing that decision on anything other than what they’ve already said. Their decision is all but made, and if they do change their minds it will be because of what they see of him in person, not on paper. They won’t gamble the fate of this season or, more importantly, the future of a could-be superstar, when they’re perfectly content with Ryan Theriot at short.

Except that Ryan Theriot isn’t really the guy to compare to Castro, because he wouldn’t be the one to get bumped out of the lineup. It’s the Fontenot/Baker platoon that would get replaced as Castro stepped in at short and Theriot moseyed on to the other side of second base.

That’s the question of the moment: would the Cubs rather have a middle infield of Theriot/Bakenot or Castro/Theriot? And would they rather have a batting order featuring Castro’s sizzling speed and a font of potential or . . . just Fontebaker? I understand those who think either one of those guys could be solid, but I don’t know how often anyone will actually utter the words, “Oh good, Fontenot is up,” or “Sweet, it’s Baker time!”

Look, I’m excited to see what Starlin Castro can do as the Cubs’ everyday shortstop, but I can wait. I’m not setting myself up to become incensed by the impending news of Castro’s assignment to AAA Iowa. But I’m certainly not begging the front office to indulge their sense of patience. I think there’s a decent chance that Starlin Castro would outperform Theriot in the field, that he’d outperform Bakenot at the plate, and that Theriot would improve the defense at second.

But I also don’t know jack, and I trust Lou’s judgment. And Jim’s. And Randy’s. I’m just glad to see Castro pass yet another test on the way to Wrigley.

Cubs and I Are Wishing on a Starlin

Starlin Castro has soared through the minor league ranks; is he ready to stretch his wings at the major league level? Photo by Amandy Rykoff (who has an amazing collection on flickr that I recommend you devote an hour or two to perusing)
I trust you’ve heard, read, talked, or written about 19-year-old Starlin Castro’s arrival at Spring Training and his potential for being a legitimate force at shortstop in the not-so-distant future. How distant (and how legitimate) is still pretty fuzzy. Lou thinks he looks a little Renteria-ish and could even fill in right away for an injured Ryan Theriot if the need presented itself.
But I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how the previous installments of this film series turned out. Corey Patterson. Felix Pie. The Hills both Rich and Bobby. We know the gap between highly touted prospect and holy-crap-is-this-guy-for-real All-Star vote getter is a deep and treacherous canyon through which the river of our disappointment flows freely. So how do we know what to expect? I ask because I don’t like getting burned by failed expectations any more than you do. So should I risk the excitement or just dismiss this kid until he proves me wrong?
But the truth is, we don’t know. We can listen to the scouting reports, but you can usually find a scout who will support whichever conclusion you’re predisposed to believe. You can look to the minor league stats, which Bill James says are just as trustworthy as major league stats for their predictive powers. There’s an interesting discussion in the comments at this Castro post at ACB about Castro’s stats, what they tell us, how different experts interpret them, and what we should believe. (Indulge your curiosity and read through the comments, because there’s great food for thought there.)
If you lack faith in the prophetic powers of stats, you can always just watch Castro play this spring and judge for yourself. I know I can’t wait. But I do want to call your attention to just one thing: the kid is 19. Nineteen year olds are, as a group, not entirely dependable. They’re just unpredictable creatures, those teenagers. As baseball players, the rate of development is pretty drastic. As people . . . same thing.
The reliability of the scouting reports is at the mercy of Castro’s youth. They can be impressed by a kid’s “makeup,” but they can’t know if he can handle the challenge of major league baseball in Chicago or anywhere else. And while I do agree that minor league stats can tell us a lot, I think they’re really shaky when it comes to teenagers. Let me give you a non-saber stat line for a 19-year-old shortstop who played a full season at the A level:
Player X: 128 Games, 71 RBI, 5 HR, .295 BA, .376 OBP, .394 SLG, 56 Errors
The hitting looks decent, the error total is atrocious, and the overall product doesn’t exactly scream future MVP. Keep in mind, these are single-A numbers we’re talking about. Here’s Castro’s line from A+ Daytona and AA Tennessee:
Castro: 127 Games, 49 RBI, 3 HR, .299 BA, .342 OBP, .392 SLG, 39 Errors
I’d call those numbers comparable, no? Neither guy jumps out at you, and the defense suggests both players are actually Jake Fox. But Player X is actually a 19-year-old Derek Jeter.
Now, I know that these stats aren’t the best predictors of future performance, but if you’re familiar with the ones that are, you have already looked at Castro’s. I’m not saying we should expect or even hope Castro will look like the guy who wears the #2 on his Yankee jersey. I can’t even guarantee he’ll be good enough to replace the guy who wears the #2 on his Cub jersey. 
But I will say that Starlin Castro is only going to get better. Stupid as I’m inclined to be, I’m expecting good things from the kid if he can impress Sweet Lou and ascend through the minors so quickly. I’ll be watching with great interest when he plays semi-real games this spring, and something tells me I’ll be easily impressed.
Consider my hopes officially raised.