What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

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What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

Monday, Sept. 12, 2011
Posted: 9:58 p.m. Updated: 10:14 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
CINCINNATI The flood-the-zone Bears coverage has already begun, which probably means you have already stopped paying close attention as time runs out on this Cubs season.

There are now 15 games left after Mondays 12-8 win over the Reds. Then the real action will start.

When Tom Ricketts announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19 after the two kept it a secret for almost an entire month the chairman made it clear that the next general manager would come from outside the organization.

That person would be from a winning culture, committed to player development and fluent in statistical analysis. So Ricketts cant make direct contact until Sept. 29 at the earliest and may have to wait until the World Series winner is crowned.

Well just play the cards were dealt, Ricketts said at last months press conference.

So the Cubs could wait to see how the power struggle plays out in the American League East between Bostons Theo Epstein, Tampa Bays Andrew Friedman and New Yorks Brian Cashman. They could try to go Hollywood with Billy Beane the architect of Oaklands Moneyball organization or identify the next executive on the rise.

It did not go unnoticed in the clubhouse that Ricketts strongly endorsed several people in the front office, while saying the decision on manager Mike Quade and his coaching staff would be up to the next general manager.

Until then, heres what the Cubs will be hoping to get out of the next two-plus weeks:

Perception vs. reality

Where the media used to fixate on Tyler Colvin, reporters now question Quade when Bryan LaHair isnt in the lineup.

The Pacific Coast League MVP led all minor-league hitters with 38 homers and has hit safely in all seven games played since his call-up. That 1.515 OPS is weighed against LaHairs age (29 next season) and pedigree (39th-round pick).

We still have a lot of baseball to play, Quade said. Im not inclined to go nuts after watching a guy for four or five games. But the one thing Ive been completely impressed with (is his) at-bats, his takes, his pitch counts that hes running up. Hes doing a lot of good stuff. Well see if it continues.

The future

Heading into this season, the Cubs built their narrative around Colvin and Andrew Cashner, two homegrown players who were supposed to make the leap.

The entire logic behind the Kosuke Fukudome trade was to get the chance to see Colvin play every day. Colvin entered Monday hitting .198 with four homers and 12 RBI in 35 games since the deadline deal. Like LaHair, Colvin runs into Quades loyalty to veteran players, his tendency to play matchups and the natural desire to pad your record.

Its not easy to see someone just giving up on Colvins left-handed pop, but the next administration might not be as invested. It's on Colvin to put up some more numbers this month.

The Cubs will be watching closely any time Cashner steps onto the mound and tests the rotator cuff that derailed his season. He is the X-factor in their 2012 rotation, and perhaps their entire offseason plan.

The superstar

Starlin Castro isnt at that level yet, but hes closer than anyone could have predicted a little more than two years ago, when he was playing at Class-A Daytona.
Starlin Castro will likely reach 200 hits this season and is the Cubs' superstar of the future, but will Mike Quade be his manager much longer? (US PRESSWIRE)
On Monday night Castro returned to Great American Ball Park, where he finished with six RBI in his major-league debut last May. He sliced an RBI double into the right-field corner. He hammered another ball 425 feet to center for a two-run homer, his ninth of the year. It wont be long before the Cubs will be projecting him to hit 20-25 home runs a year.

I know that I have this kind of power, Castro said.

Castro needs only 10 more hits to reach 200, and the Cubs are rooting for him to do it at Wrigley Field. As Alfonso Soriano said: I hope that he can stay hot to finish the road trip with like six or seven more hits and get 200 at home.

Spoilers

History may have had an alternate ending if the Cubs hadnt won three of four games in San Diego during the final week of last season. The Giants snuck into the playoffs and ultimately celebrated their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco.

The remaining schedule is light on contenders, and the races are largely decided across baseball. The Brewers who come to Wrigley Field for a three-game series next week began Monday with a magic number of 10. Maybe theyll be spraying champagne in the cramped visiting clubhouse.

The Cardinals woke up that morning with flickering hopes of a wild card, 4.5 games behind the Braves. Perhaps the Cubs could put those out Sept. 23-25 in St. Louis and play spoilers again.

Way back at the beginning of spring training, club officials promised that the Cubs would draw three-million fans at Wrigley Field. With six home dates left, and attendance at 2,804,409, theyre on target to surpass that mark.

What will that mean for next years major-league payroll?

Ricketts has said that he will have no clue what that dollar amount will be until his staff does a full accounting at seasons end and the next general manager decides how to allocate those resources.

That means the Cubs will continue to be in a holding pattern on the big questions. Will an established executive take this job? Pursue Prince Fielder? Re-sign Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena?

Until then, there are games that have to be played.

You want to finish strong, catcher Koyie Hill said. No matter what youre doing, you dont want to drag across the finish line.

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

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

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Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

CSN will also carry the live audio call of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully during Sunday's game as the SportsNet LA audio feed will be featured during the third inning.

Sunday’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon. 

Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.    

The media waited several extra minutes outside the visiting clubhouse after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers while Hammel met with Maddon in his office. Maddon’s postgame press conference then lasted almost eight minutes, giving Hammel time to shower and change into his street clothes. Hammel was still fuming by the time reporters wandered over to his locker.

“That’s between me and Joe,” Hammel said. 

Hammel – who normally enjoys the back-and-forth exchanges and gives insightful answers, even to uncomfortable questions – declined to get specific about the meeting, the decision-making process or how to work with Maddon.  

“That’s a conversation for me and him,” Hammel said. “There’s no reason for that to be in the papers. It’s a professional way of working through it. We’ll leave it there.” 

No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that had so far answered questions about a second-half fade. But Maddon didn’t like what he saw against a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup.

Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on and one out in the third inning. Adrian Gonzalez loomed next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.  

“I didn’t even pitch today in my mind,” Hammel said. “I barely threw 40 pitches, so this is a side day for me.”

Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.

“He was not happy with me taking him out that early,” Maddon said of his conversations with Hammel. “I can understand why, because it’s happened in the past. But I just didn’t see the game straightening out.

“Watching them one time through, it looked like they were on him a little bit. And I thought that was a great lineup for ‘Rob Z.’ One of the things with bullpen arms – I want to put them in a meaningful spot. 

“I didn’t see it happening for ‘Hammer’ today, and that’s cool, because he didn’t throw that many pitches. He’s going to be very well-rested for his next start. But it also illustrates ‘Rob Z’ and what he can do for us in the future.” 

No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third. But Hammel is also a respected veteran teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season. 

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Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division. 

Well, Hammel is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.  

“It is what it is,” Hammel said. “The guys fought hard. ‘Z’ did a hell of a job coming out of the ‘pen.”

Then again, the Cubs already think Mike Montgomery could develop into a good big-league starter – the lefty swingman got a longer leash given this particular Los Angeles matchup on Friday night – and thought enough of Zastryzny to make him a second-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2013.

But for now, Maddon allowed Hammel to take advantage of his open-door policy and vent.

“I want them to be able to do that,” Maddon said. “I have a reason why I did it. I’m not going to hide about anything. It’s not like I just picked that out of the hat and chose to do it today. 

“You just got to shoot them straight back. And hopefully they can deal with it. There’s a great line: ‘Honesty without compassion equals cruelty.’ So at some point, you got to understand your audience, too.”

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs had Julio Urias and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes, but couldn’t knock out the young lefty from Mexico who’s drawn comparisons to franchise icon Fernando Valenzuela and could be the next star to burst from this pitching-rich pipeline.  

The Cubs created their “you go, we go” sense of momentum on Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium with Dexter Fowler drawing a leadoff walk and MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting back-to-back singles into right field to generate the game’s first run.

Urias had already thrown 17 pitches in the first inning when manager Joe Maddon instructed cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist to try to bunt for a hit. It became an easy out for Urias, who then struck out Addison Russell and Jorge Soler looking and began to find his rhythm during a 3-2 victory in front of 49,522 at Chavez Ravine. 

“Second and third was kind of a nice spot to be,” Maddon said. “(Zobrist) could have hit into a double play. He’s the one guy who’s heavy groundball against that particular pitcher. 

“I actually like the bunt for the hit right there, (because) we had (already) scored (and) Addison’s been a pretty good RBI dude. I thought it was a nice move right there (to) at least get one (run) out of that. 

“You got him and Soler coming up versus a left-hander who’s a little bit shaky right there – I kind of liked it.”

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The Cubs had roughed up Urias during his second career big-league start on June 2 – or two-plus months before his 20th birthday – by hitting three homers and scoring six runs off him in five innings at Wrigley Field.   

But Urias – who pitched at four different minor-league levels last season – clearly has an accelerated learning curve. He managed to last six innings this time and didn’t allow another run after that early flurry, finishing with eight strikeouts against two walks.  

Urias has gone 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his last six games (four starts), helping bail out a $250 million team and a fragile rotation that’s used 14 different starting pitchers. If the Dodgers (72-57) can get Clayton Kershaw back to full strength, keep Rich Hill healthy and continue to bring along Urias, then the Cubs might have some matchup nightmares in October. 

“(Urias is) all of what they think he is,” Maddon said. “The kid was outstanding. He knows how to elevate against the guy you’re supposed to elevate against. He knows how to throw the ball down against the guy you’re supposed to throw the ball down to. He’s got a nice move to first base. He handled himself well at the plate. And he’s 20 years old. That’s pretty good.”