Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

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Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

Agents used to love playing the Yankees against the Red Sox and getting that huge markup from New York or Boston.
But now the Yankees are working to get under the 189 million luxury-tax threshold by 2014, while the Red Sox hit the reset button with last summers blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.
So the winter meetings that begin Monday could become the battle for Los Angeles, with the Dodgers and Angels fighting over Zack Greinke.
Cubs fans have put their faith in Theo Epsteins Red Sox model. Theyre jealous of the 6 billion television contract the Dodgers could be getting from Fox Sports. But really their focus should be some 300 miles southwest of Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals wont be major players on the lobby scene inside the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. But quietly they have already built the scouting and player development machine the Cubs like to talk about, and they have flexed their financial muscles with a payroll around 110 million last season.
A lot of people always think working in St. Louis: Eh, its not Chicago, New York or L.A., Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. But there is pressure to win, to do it right. I think thats a great thing about St. Louis.
One year ago, the Cardinals had already lost one franchise icon (Tony La Russa), and were bracing for the possibility of losing another (Albert Pujols). They were hoping they made the right hire with a rookie manager (Mike Matheny).
This is The Cardinals Way. They defended their 11th World Series title by winning 88 games, and were one victory away from clinching the National League pennant.
Mozeliak pointed to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who led the group that purchased the team in 1996. Between 1996 and 2011, La Russa won two World Series rings and endured only three sub-.500 seasons. Mozeliak who replaced Walt Jocketty in October 2007 joined the organization after the 1995 season.
Its been a very stable environment, Mozeliak said. You can have that when youre having success, but I think now its sort of grown and become expected.
I always say to people (that) St. Louis is a wonderful place to be in baseball, because our fan base expects to win. Actually, they demand it. And I think thats a great compliment to them, because they show up. Were drawing three million fans. And as long as we put an entertaining product out there, they support it.
Ownership instability handcuffed Jim Hendry, who was never able to build off the 2008 team that won 97 games and a second straight division title. The Cubs went all-in trying to win one for the Tribune Co. after a last-place finish in 2006, but for years there had been issues with draft budgets and the ability to make international investments.
Clearly, the Cubs have a long-range plan now. But its not like the rest of the baseball world is going to stand still. In late October, Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel wrote a 2011 Cardinals obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An authoritative voice told you whats coming next.
Never, in my 40 years covering this team, have I been so entranced by the number of good arms the Cardinals have as potential starters, Hummel wrote. Most of those plus-90s spent the postseason in the bullpen, with Lance Lynn emerging for two starts, but the Cardinals never have had as many hard throwers as they have now, with right-handers Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, and Carlos Martinez lurking in the minors.
Then there is Trevor Rosenthal, who is the first Cardinal in my memory to hit 100 miles an hour consistently. Rosenthal also seems to have a working knowledge of a breaking ball but, for my money, I dont want to see somebody throwing 100 mph pitching two innings out of the bullpen. He seems ready for much more and is the most exciting young pitcher to come along here since Rick Ankiel, with Alan Benes and Matt Morris before that. But none of those could throw 100 miles an hour, and you see how interested the San Francisco and Washington hitters were about facing that kind of heat.
The Cubs once felt that way about Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. What could possibly go wrong?
The organizations that youre certainly envious of are the ones that seem like they have young pitchers all over the place, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Granted, those can be fleeting. Certainly, the 2003 Cubs looked like they were in the catbird seat and soon enough they were all injured and thats what happens. Thats the nature of pitching.
(But) look at the Cardinals right now and its a pretty nice position to be in when theyve got guys like Shelby Miller and Rosenthal coming out of the bullpen in the LCS. Thats having some organizational depth when a guy like (Jaime) Garcia goes down and you (dont) miss a beat. Thats when you know youve drafted well, developed well and made good trades. Thats the position we need to be in.
The last time the Cardinals lost 101 games in a season was 1907. The Cubs have so many needs that pitching will drive several key decisions, from the starter they could sign to join Scott Baker and Scott Feldman in the rotation, to the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, to next summers trade deadline.
From Day 1, Hoyer said, weve been staring at the same picture. Its a minor-league system that was devoid of pitching prospects. Its upper levels arent producing the depths that we need.
Its not a problem were going to fix this offseason. Were going to do our best and spend our money as wisely as possible this offseason to improve it, but organizationally its a three-, four-, five-year project. Its drafting pitchers. Its trading for pitchers. Its signing pitchers. I guess you never feel like you have enough pitching depth.
Epstein and Hoyer made their bones in the American League East by taking down the Evil Empire. This isnt the frenzy of Yankees-Red Sox, but if the Cubs are going to matter, they will have to find a way to respond to the Cardinals.

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.