Cubs think big: Going deep with Carlos Pena

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Cubs think big: Going deep with Carlos Pena

Saturday, April 2, 2011
Posted: 1:23 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com
The white board at the front of the Cubs clubhouse on Saturday morning listed all the details, from game time (12:05) to when pitchers stretch (10:45) and position players hit in the cage (11).

It also had a little Zen philosophy written on the right side, which almost seemed out of place in a room where Jay-Zs rap music was bumping from the speakers.

You cant see the rising sun if your eyes are fixed on the setting one. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, thats why it is called present. Conquer the now!

This was less than 24 hours after an Opening Day loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Carlos Pena did not want to take credit or responsibility for those words. Technically, a clubhouse attendant wrote it in black erasable marker.

But it sums up Penas worldview. Hes been traded twice, released twice and is now working for his seventh team.

Im talking about every cell in your body, Pena said, detaching yourself from the past and detaching yourself from the future and focus on the now. I know that there is extreme power in that.

Sometimes when we try to take too much on, maybe carry some baggage from the past, (or) start thinking too far ahead into the future, then all of a sudden (were) absent from the present moment. If all of us take (the) attitude where were here today 100 percent this second, (then) we can handle that.

A few Cubs walked by the board with confused or curious looks. You wouldve guessed Pena was behind the message, and you probably couldve eliminated 90 percent of the roster without a second thought.

Manager Mike Quade has read Phil Jacksons book and actually liked it, but hadnt seen the words of inspiration by the time he met with the media in his office.

Oh, wow, the yin and the yang? Quade said. Just go play, man. I talk way too much, but Im not that philosophical. Im just like: Figure out a way to beat the Pirates. Thats all I would put on the board.

Pena is a deep thinker, an engineering student from Northeastern University, but those who know him well say its not an act. Over-analyzing the game and allowing outside forces to seep in slowed his development as a first-round pick. It probably didnt help last year in Tampa Bay when he hit .196.

Pena, who will turn 33 next month, was immediately viewed as a one-and-done player at the winter meetings when agent Scott Boras and general manager Jim Hendry announced their pillow contract.

But Pena has impressed the Cubs with his willingness to lead. He doesnt come across as a mercenary. You saw the first baseman go to the mound more than once on Saturday trying to calm down Carlos Zambrano.

Maybe living in the Wrigley Field fishbowl will get old, but right now Pena finds the cramped clubhouse to be cozy way better than people make it out to be.

Driving to work Pena sees Lake Michigan to his right and imagines what it will look like once the trees blossom and summer rolls in. He looked at Wrigley Fields architecture and absorbed the entire scene.

Its just a beautiful place (with) great energy, Pena said. (Im) like a kid, and I dont even want to lose that. I dont care (that) Im a Major League Baseball player. Ok, Im too cool for that? No, Im not.

As a young boy in the Dominican Republic, Pena would run underneath the stands at Quisqueya, and be blown away when he got out of the darkness and saw the entire stadium lit up. Some 25 years later, he had the same experience at Clark and Addison.

I walk up the ramp and you see that light at the end of the tunnel, Pena said. You come up and its like the gates of heaven have opened when you see Wrigley Field at the end. This is really a special place in every sense of the word and Im not going to hide it. Im really excited to be here.

How can Pena keep this enthusiasm up for 160 more games across the next six months? Will he hit above .200? What does he want out of his next contract?

Those are questions for tomorrow. Penas just trying to focus on today.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Ben Zobrist doesn't yell and scream like John Lackey, but the veteran utility player still has a way of cutting right to the chase and not mincing words.

Zobrist — who's about to turn 36 — is refreshingly honest, even when admitting his new role as the Cubs' leadoff hitter comes with his challenges.

On the one hand, Zobrist seems like the perfect fit for the one-spot in the Cubs lineup: He's ultra patient, barely swings at pitches outside the strike zone and even has some pop to start a game off with a bang (as he did Sunday afternoon).

And while he acknowledged he needs to keep the same approach regardless of where he's hitting in the lineup, Zobrist still has a level of discomfort leading off.

"Leading off is not easy because of that first at-bat," he said. "You feel like, 'Well maybe I should be patient,' but then you don't want to let the ball right down the middle go by. There's just that question in your mind. You gotta weigh it based on the pitcher you're facing that day and really try to zone up on the first pitch.

"You don't get to see any of the previous pitches. Sometimes, it's harder to time the pitcher when you haven't seen anybody else batting in front of you in the lineup. That's the only difference. Besides that, I just consider it one of the other spots in the lineup."

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Monday marked Zobrist's 154th start in the leadoff spot in his career, which ranks fifth in frequency behind second (319 starts), third (267), fourth (229) and fifth (185).

Zobrist's numbers at leadoff are the lowest of any of those five lineup positions — .237 average, .328 on-base percentage and .708 OPS.

Hitting second through fifth in the order, Zobrist has career marks of .273 average, .368 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS.

Entering Monday night, Zobrist has made 24 starts at leadoff for the Cubs and carries a .220 average and .322 on-base percentage.

But he set the tone Sunday afternoon with a leadoff homer and came just a few feet shy of two more longballs later in the game.

Monday night, he put together a 12-pitch at-bat before striking out looking to lead off against Giants starter Ty Blach. Through his first three plate appearances Monday, Zobrist had seen 20 pitches.

Even though he admitted there are challenges in the leadoff spot, Zobrist isn't putting any added pressure on himself to set the table for the Cubs' big bats.

"It's just about being consistent," he said. "If I can be consistent and I can get on base, then I'll be doing my job in that spot. Although [Kyle] Schwarber hasn't hit as well as he wants to hit at the start of the year, he still got on base a lot in that spot. 

"We as an offense will continue to play better. It doesn't really matter who's [leading off] as long as we're getting on base."

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Maddon also liked the idea of Zobrist and his career .358 on-base percentage possibly forcing the opposition to shift less against Schwarber.

The thinking goes, if Zobrist reaches base ahead of Schwarber (hitting second), the defense will have to account for a baserunner and thus not be as able to load up the right side of the infield with defenders.

Zobrist is already a Swiss Army Knife for Maddon with his ability to play multiple positions. But the veteran has also been a key cog in the lineup, though mostly as protection to Anthony Rizzo the last two years, hitting cleanup. 

Maddon and the Cubs knew exactly what they were getting with Zobrist's versatility.

But now can he give the Cubs lineup a consistent presence atop the order in the vein of Dexter Fowler the last two years?

"Probably his best asset — two things — are that he knows the strike zone as well as he does and the fact that he's able to play a variety of different positions," Maddon said. "I say switch-hitting's also a part of that, but he's been this guy for a while. 

"He's got this recognition in the latter part of his career, but he's always been this type of player.

"All he wants to do is win. That's who he is."

Cubs in no rush to make Brett Anderson/Eddie Butler rotation decision

Cubs in no rush to make Brett Anderson/Eddie Butler rotation decision

Brett Anderson had been the only player on the 25-man Opening Day roster without a World Series ring or the equity built up from being part of last year’s championship team. The Cubs viewed him as a relatively low-risk, high-reward gamble at the back of their rotation.

Anderson got booed off the Wrigley Field mound in the first inning his last time out, walking away from a blowout loss to the New York Yankees on May 6 that spiked his ERA to 8.18 and put him on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his lower back.

“I still have confidence in myself that when everything’s healthy, and when everything’s right, I can get people out,” Anderson said. “I just got to get there.”

A significant step will be Tuesday’s bullpen session, but the Cubs are in no rush with a lefty who’s been on the disabled list 10 times since 2010 and already undergone two surgical procedures on his lower back. Anderson said he’s pain-free and relieved that this got diagnosed as a muscle issue and not the kind of disc problem he’s dealt with before.     

The Cubs are clearly intrigued by Eddie Butler’s immediate upside and long-term potential. But the change-of-scenery guy also followed up a great Cub debut – six scoreless innings in a win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium – by needing 92 pitches to get through three innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in an ugly, rain-soaked loss last week.    

“That’s an evaluation,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Hopefully, nobody gets hurt, either. There are so many different variables involved. For me, the biggest thing is for him to be well, to go pitch, to be pitching well and then you make that decision.”   

Maddon said Anderson – who’s working on a one-year, $3.5 million, incentive-laden deal tied to starts – “absolutely” will need to go on a rehab assignment. 

“But we haven’t put pencil to paper or whatever in regards to doing that yet,” Maddon said. “He’s doing well. It shouldn’t be too long. It’s just a matter of him getting everything together and getting some work back in. So I don’t have a finish line. But I think he’s in pretty good shape moving forward.”