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.

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."