Open for business: What we learned about the Cubs in May

Open for business: What we learned about the Cubs in May
June 1, 2012, 12:10 am
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Kerry Wood wrote the perfect ending, walking off the mound at Wrigley Field for the final time and embracing his son. Whoever cuts the highlight film for the 2013 Cubs Convention already has the feel-good moment for the diehard fans.

That it took almost three months for the new Mr. Cub and Theo Epsteins front office to agree on a one-year, 3 million contract was probably a sign.

The deal was announced last January at the convention, inside a Hilton Chicago ballroom, roughly 90 minutes after the team president said you cant make baseball decisions based on public relations.

Woods retirement may wind up being what chairman Tom Ricketts likes to call an inflection point. (So could his fathers Super PAC.)

Everythings supposed to be cold and clinical now, and this month confirmed what we already knew: No one is untouchable.

Epstein said as much this week, when reporters surrounded him during batting practice at Wrigley Field. The losing streak had reached 12 games, shattering the idea that the Cubs could contend this year.

More than two months from the July 31 deadline, people were talking about Ryan Dempsters no-trade rights, and Epstein was planning to meet again with his Opening Day starter.

Every option has to be on the table, Epstein said.

Heres the disclaimer: The Cubs would have to be absolutely blown away to deal a Matt Garza or a Starlin Castro. Youd have to get multiple impact players in return to even consider it, and those deals are increasingly difficult to engineer.

When the Cubs open a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night at AT&T Park, they will again be trying to find out who is and who isnt a foundation piece. Thats the lens through which you can view the rest of this season.

Carlos Marmol and Rafael Dolis lost the closers job in May, and the Cubs are planning to go by committee in the ninth inning with James Russell, Shawn Camp and Casey Coleman.

As Epstein predicted, Bryan LaHair cooled off and didnt produce at a Babe Ruthian level. But no other first baseman in the National League has more home runs (10), and only Joey Votto has a higher on-base percentage than LaHairs .396.

Trying to jumpstart the lineup, manager Dale Sveum removed Castro from the No. 3 hole, opening another debate on how high the All-Star shortstops ceiling will be.

Its easy to forget, but remember that Castro is around the same age as the college players who will be taken in next weeks amateur draft. The 22-year-old already has two .300 seasons on his big-league resume, and appears to be on his way to a third.

Castro has walked five times in 205 at-bats. Can he learn to grind out at-bats and become patient at the plate?

A lot of people do, Sveum said. You understand (that) it takes time. Some guys are built to do it. Some guys take 2,000-3,000 major-league at-bats until it all starts gradually coming together. A lot of times you just get tired of it. You get tired of rolling over. You get tired of swinging at bad pitches.

Thats the maturity level that comes with major-league at-bats.

Castro is up to 1,437 plate appearances now, and hes playing for his third manager in three years. You can wonder how the losing environment will effect him.

But the Cubs didnt really explode or lash out during that 12-game losing streak. Insiders say the clubhouse is more quiet and emotionally level without Carlos Zambrano and Marlon Byrd.

Nobodys wondering whos in charge or who might get fired. Sveum and his experienced group of coaches have essentially seen it all before. They will be judged subjectively in 2012, far beyond the won-loss record (18-32).

Theyve done a really nice job of being prepared and being even-keeled during these moments, general manager Jed Hoyer said. I know sometimes people want to see throwing helmets and broken coolers and things like that.

(But) at some point were going to win seven out of eight (and) you got to stay in the middle and not (have) players feel like youre running hot and cold on them.

It wont be easy maintaining equilibrium. Alfonso Soriano smiled when a reporter asked what happened to the clubhouse wall after Wednesdays walk-off win over the San Diego Padres.

Part of it had been smashed, leaving a dent and cracks in the space between the lockers of Soriano and Dempster (who got a no-decision that afternoon).

Oh, I dont know, Soriano said. For sure, thats not me.

Those moments of frustration have been kept behind closed doors. Soriano essentially shrugged: Thats part of the game, too.

This is a business. Once the draft ends next week, the Cubs will shift gears and focus on the trade deadline. They will block out all the noise about Anthony Rizzo (and his sore right wrist heard around the Twitter world).

I understand fans have a right to be upset anytime were not playing winning baseball, Epstein said. I just think if we start making decisions based on it or scrap plans because of it (and) try to put Band-Aids on situations were doing the fans a disservice in the long run.

Ill always operate with the belief that the only way to make fans happy in the long run is to get to a point where were playing baseball in October on a regular basis. And nothing is going to get in the way of that.

Sometimes when you rip the scab off, theres some pain, until we grow some new skin and were born anew. Were going places. Its just (that) this is a tough road.