Carlos Pena's still waiting for the power surge

450044.jpg

Carlos Pena's still waiting for the power surge

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Posted: 9:59 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Carlos Penas Zen philosophy allows him to look at the big picture. Where others see zero home runs, he takes snapshots of the good at-bats. He insists that it will all balance out.

So on a frigid April night, fly balls will die at the warning track against the cold winds blowing in off Lake Michigan. Welcome to Wrigley Field.

Hopefully in July Im going to get some off the end (of the bat) that are going to be gone, Pena said, and nowhere else would they have been homers. So Im just waiting for (that) reward.

Pena is being paid 10 million this season to drive balls into the bleachers and onto Sheffield Avenue. But the Cubs cant wait for karma in a zero-zero game.

Pena saw the defensive shift on Monday against the San Diego Padres. Thats nothing new. He got that for years in Tampa Bay and the Milwaukee Brewers lined up that way in the second game of spring training.

Pena dropped a perfect bunt on a 1-2 count and sprinted to first base to begin the seventh inning. It was a risky, heads-up play that ultimately didnt factor into a 1-0 victory in the 10th.

Hes bound and determined to take some base hits that way, manager Mike Quade said. We need him to hit homers. But he can contribute a whole bunch by getting on base.

Pena wants to get in the opponents head as much as they want to mess with his concentration. The Padres called off the shift in the ninth inning, but Pena pointed out that they moved into it after strike one he flew out to left on a first-pitch fastball that at-bat.

I dont know if its a secret weapon, Pena said, (but) there will be times where I think its just the right play.

Pena isnt a one-dimensional player. His Gold Glove defense at first base helps the middle infielders. Hes a calming presence for the pitchers on the mound. He was a foundation piece for a Rays team that won 277 games and two division titles across the past three seasons.

Pena is a good acquisition for us. Hes been firing us (up) every game, Carlos Zambrano said. Every day he comes ready to play and hes a gamer. (He) wants to win.

The past four years Pena has finished with 46, 31, 39 and 28 homers and averaged 102 RBI per season. The Cubs are banking on him producing like that.

So far Pena has generated only one extra-base hit on April 3 and is batting .143 with runners in scoring position and .077 against left-handers.

Though Pena doesnt want to make excuses, part of that .214 average can be explained by the right thumb injury thats forced him to wear a kind of cast inside his glove while playing first base.

Still, Penas seeing the ball well enough to draw walks and that patience has pushed his on-base percentage to .346. Hitting home runs is what he does. He believes things will heat up soon enough.

Im very careful with the way I analyze myself, Pena said. I know Im swinging the bat pretty well, even though the numbers may not say so. I have to be wise when it comes to that and not let that stuff affect my confidence.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]  

On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”