Coming off of a tough series loss to the Yankees over the weekend, the Mets travel out to Chicago to take on the Cubs and that means we've got another Five For Five series preview. The rebuilding Cubs, led by former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and former Padres GM (and Sox assistant) Jed Hoyer, currently sit in the NL Central basement with a 24-48 record. I sent a few questions over to Al Yellon of SB Nation's Cubs blog Bleed Cubbie Blue and Baseball Nation and he was kind enough to take the time to give us a look into the Cubbies' 2012 season.
Amazin' Avenue: Who or what has been the biggest success so far this season and conversely, the biggest disappointment. Any surprises?
Bleed Cubbie Blue: It's hard to think of someone who's been a "big success" on a team that is 24-48. I could say Jeff Samardzija, who made the transition from relieving to starting, but his ERA has ballooned to 4.34, so that's not right. I could say Bryan LaHair, who has an OPS+ of 145, but in 29 games since May 15 he's hitting ..198/.255/.330 and he doesn't play against LHP at all. I could say Ryan Dempster... I suppose that's right. Despite the three wins (and you know individual pitcher wins are pretty meaningless these days), his ERA and adjusted ERA+ rank third in the NL. So let's go with Dempster.
Disappointment? The entire team is a disappointment. Sure, I had few illusions of contention this year, but neither did I think the 2012 Cubs would be on pace to shatter the team record for losses. Collectively, the bullpen has been awful.
AA: 29-year old journeyman 1B Bryan LaHair has been one of the Cubs' best hitters this season. What do you make of his hot start and is there any room for him with top prospect Anthony Rizzo
waiting in the wings called up on Monday afternoon?
BCB: LaHair has recently been placed in the outfield, presumably so that he can get some playing time there when Rizzo is recalled. As noted above, he's being platooned (with Jeff Baker, and that's pretty scary, because Baker isn't hitting LHP like he used to). LaHair is 3-for-32 against LHP, a somewhat small sample size, but it appears the Cubs won't let him hit against them at all, possibly to protect his trade value. On the other hand, if he doesn't hit LHP and is seen as strictly a platoon player, doesn't that lower the trade value, too?
I could see him being traded. Long-term, at 29, he doesn't have much of a future with the Cubs.
AA: Righty Jeff Samardzija has taken big strides forward in his first season as a starter, tallying over a strikeout per inning and keeping his walks down. What have you seen from him so far and what do you think he can develop into?
BCB: Samardzija has started to wear down a bit late in games; this could be because this is his first full year as a starter. I agree with your question: one of the keys to his season is keeping the walks down. If he can continue to do that, he can definitely be a rotation starter for years to come. At what level, remains to be seen.
AA: With the Cubs in year one of a rebuilding phase, who are the players currently on this team/in the organization who you think can be around to help a Cubs' contender in the future and who do you see as some of the team's most valuable trade assets?
BCB: Obviously, Starlin Castro is a key player to the team's future. Many forget that he's still only 22 -- many players his age are still in Double-A. He's cut down on dumb errors and despite a mental lapse (forgetting how many outs there were in a game at San Francisco), he's starting to become a team leader. He's likely going to be the team's only All-Star again. I see him becoming a player in the Edgar Renteria mold -- not a superstar, but a solid contributor for many years.
Apart from that, the only player I see right now that could contribute to a future Cubs contender is Matt Garza. Garza is under team control for one more year before free agency. There's talk of trading him, but I think the Cubs should give him an extension. He's 28 -- could easily be around and still contributing in 3-4 years.
Other than that, the Cubs would clearly like to move Alfonso Soriano. It will require eating probably 90% of the (approximately) $45 million left on his deal. Soriano has actually had a decent first half; if he could go to an AL team where he could DH full-time and stay out of the field on those bad legs, he could contribute. In six games as a DH this year, Soriano hit .360/.407/.880. Granted, that's a small sample size of 27 PA, but he hit four home runs, walked twice and struck out only four times.
Another player the Cubs could move is Geovany Soto, but he'll have to start hitting first.
AA: How has the Cubs' fanbase reacted to the new direction taken by the team's first year front office thus far? Any opposition to the rebuilding plan or the sabermetric principles that Theo Epstein and Company have been known to utilize?
BCB: I'd say most of the fanbase is on board with the plan -- which I would not characterize as exclusively sabermetric. The Cubs have one of the best scouting VPs in the business in Jason McLeod and are hoping his expertise will help rebuild the organization.
The danger to keeping the fanbase involved is the losing. If the Cubs do set a team record for losses this year (current record: 103, set in 1962 and tied in 1966), and keep losing again next year, some fans could turn the team off.
A big thank you goes out once again to Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue for helping us preview this series! Tonight's game starts at 8:05 PM from Wrigley Field and pits a pair of lefties, Johan Santana and former Reds pitcher Travis Wood, against each other. Tuesday evening's game two will feature Dillon Gee on the mound, going up against righty Randy Wells. And finally, Wednesday is a 2:20 PM matinee, which will feature Jon Niese going up against Jeff Samardzija. All three games can be (thankfully) seen locally on SNY. Gary, Keith and Ron forever!