The Cubs are a quarter of the way through their exhibition season and the first round of cuts and reassignments are expected soon. But have they had a good first week of games? Some of the performances thus far are noteworthy….Felix Pie, Matt Murton, Derrek Lee and Michael Barrett on the offensive side and Jason Marquis, Rocky Cherry, Carmen Pignatiello, Ted Lilly and Jeff Samardzija have been the standouts from the mound.
The Cubs defense has been concerning one day and outstanding the next. The pitching staff has carried over the bad habit of not throwing strikes, running up their pitch counts and giving up too many free passes to the opposition. Throw out the record, it does not matter (4-3-1), some of the worst teams in the league during the regular season have looked ‘lights out’ in spring training. Lou Piniella has already had ‘the talk’ with the team and while he should not have had to ‘motivate’ his team after just four games, at least the Cubs now have a manager that will not put up with poor play….regardless if the games count or not. Piniella has a lot of talent he has to figure out how to mold into a team and when you are dealing with a bunch of millionaires that play a child’s game that cannot be the easiest job in the world. Piniella has done a fine job and there appears to be truth to his reputation.
Last weekend when the Cubs were playing the A’s, Piniella was….well the ‘Sweet Lou’ we have all read so much about. After Carlos Marmol blew the lead against the A’s this writer witnessed Piniella telling one of coaches, “I do not want to hear it. I said I do not want to (blank) hear it.” And that was just the 3rd game of the spring, how will he react once the games actually count? Make no mistake, this is Lou Piniella’s team….the inmates are no longer running the asylum.
The free passes have to stop, the staff has to throw strikes and give the defense a chance to make plays. To put it another way, they have to pitch to contact. What is the line from Bull Durham? “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.” Maybe Ron Shelton should give a pep talk as well….26 walks and 52 strikeouts in the first 8 games.
The Cubs defense has been sporadic. As mentioned, one day they look great and the next day is more like a comedy of errors. This should improve as some of the players are reassigned and the players are able to develop some chemistry. Mark DeRosa has performed well at 2nd and he and Cesar Izturis have looked good turning the double play. Aramis Ramirez has played a solid 3rd base despite the throwing error on Tuesday. The defense in the outfield has been as expected. Jacque Jones has made a couple of great catches, Alfonso Soriano has made the routine plays and that goes for Matt Murton as well. The pitching staff will look a lot better on paper once the outfield is able to gain some continuity. The three players battling for a roster spot have played extremely well in the field and their offense has not been to shabby either.
Felix Pie has been as advertised in the field but what is different this year has been his offense and base running. Lou Piniella has been working on flattening his swing and it has paid off. Pie is hitting .421 with a .450 OBP in 7 games (8-19, 2 runs, 4 RBI’s, 1 walk, 2 strike outs and 2 stolen bases). The next 7-10 days are very important for Pie as he started off strong last spring before leveling off and eventually being sent to the minor league camp.
Buck Coats has been one of the surprises thus far this spring. After a brief stint in the majors last season, Coats has stepped it up and performed well in the field and at the plate. Coats was drafted as a shortstop and can play all three outfield positions. He has shown off his strong arm and actually cut down the tying run at the plate on Wednesday to preserve the win for Bobby Howry. Coats stole a base on Thursday and for the spring he is hitting .438 with a .471 OBP….the 4th highest on the team (7-16, 2 runs, 1 RBI, 2 doubles, 1 strikeout, 1 walk in 8 games).
Angel Pagan has played a solid right field when he has been in the lineup and his strong arm would be beneficial off of the bench but his offense has not been anywhere near either Pie or Coats (.231/.375/3-13, 1 run, 3 walks and 3 stolen bases).
Jason Marquis has been a surprise of the spring with two solid outings as well. His sinker is working and the result has been ground ball outs. His 1.20 WHIP is not bad (Zambrano’s WHIP is 1.20) and teams are hitting .278 against him. He has allowed 1 run in 5 innings of work, 5 hits, 2 strikeouts and 1 walk.
Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre both had rough outings their last time out but Carmen Pignatiello and Rocky Cherry have been outstanding. Pignatiello has allowed just two base runners in 4 innings of work (both walks) and Rocky Cherry has not allowed a run in 4 1/3 innings while picking up 2 saves and striking out 6 (second highest on the staff behind Zambrano’s 7). Cherry has a 0.69 WHIP and Pignatiello’s is tied with Rich Hill and Ted Lilly for the lowest on the staff (0.50). Both are long shots, at best, to make the roster out of spring training but if they continue to impress and do not skip a beat in Iowa they could be very helpful if injuries or ineffectiveness strikes once the season starts.
The Cubs still have a lot of work to do….not to mention the fact Cliff Floyd has yet to step on the field. The chemistry should start to develop once the roster is reduced (it currently stands at 58). As long as they continue to show improvement, and most importantly remain healthy, there is no doubt Lou Piniella will have them ready to play once the games actually count.