What's left to watch in this Cubs season?

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What's left to watch in this Cubs season?

Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010
6:36 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Mike Quade planned to cook for his family, friends and staff on Thursday in Chicago. An option quarterback as a teenager at Prospect High School, he looked forward to watching college football. It didnt matter who was playing that night.

The Cubs manager could toast his new job, even if it doesnt become permanent, as well as his teams performance since he took over, no matter that his 6-3 record is skewed by two last-place teams.

And if I have a minute or two, Quade said, maybe I find a racetrack.

After the off day, there is exactly one month left in the season. If you have seen too much of the 57-77 Cubs, you probably are ready for some football. If you are a betting man, you probably didnt have a September with Lou Piniella in Tampa, Fla., Derrek Lee in Atlanta and Ted Lilly in Los Angeles.

Thats where an organization in transition finds itself. With 17 percent of the schedule remaining, heres what to watch for:

How the rotation turns. Tom Gorzelanny is expected to miss his next start after a line drive knocked him to the ground and sent him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Wednesday for X-rays. Thursdays CT scan revealed a small incomplete hairline fracture underneath the fingernail of his left pinky finger, which is stable. Gorzelanny will likely be skipped due to the swelling on the palm of his left hand.

The situation will be reassessed once the swelling subsides, but pitching coach Larry Rothschild was already facing several decisions on his staff. Carlos Silva threw 78 pitches and gave up five runs in 4 23 innings on Wednesday night at Kane County during his second rehabilitation start for Class-A Peoria. Whether or not Silva needs another, the front office would like to take a closer look at least one pitcher from Triple-A Iowa.

September call-ups. First-place Iowa began Thursday with a one-game lead and five to play, so the organization isnt in a rush to make more promotions. The Cubs have used 16 rookies this season, gutting Ryne Sandbergs roster, and theyre expected to bring up around six players once Iowas finished. The most anticipated move will involve Jeff Samardzija (11-3, 4.02 at Triple-A) and what sort of future returns the Cubs may see on their 10 million investment.

Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro. The Cubs are stressing scouting and development and when they explain the model they point to these two homegrown players. Colvins athleticism allows him to play all three outfield positions, but he will continue to work out at first base during batting practice. Quade is hesitant to push Colvin into game action at that position, but probably will against a non-contender later this month once the rookies comfortable enough.

Castro woke up Thursday tied for third in the National League with a .317 average. He is hitting .367 since July 10, but is trailing Colorados Carlos Gonzalez by 12 percentage points, and it remains to be seen how the shortstops body will hold up through Game No. 162. When asked if Castro could win a batting title, Colvin summed up his 20-year-old teammates vast potential: Why not?

Attendance figures. Wrigley Field has been filled to nearly 93 percent capacity this season, but has also seen some of its smallest crowds in almost four years. There are 12 home games remaining, including nine against decent box-office draws (New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals), plus a Labor Day gate with the Houston Astros.

During a rare interview with four beat writers on Wednesday, chairman Tom Ricketts acknowledged the relationship between tickets sales and payroll flexibility. Ultimately, that could influence whether or not the Cubs need Colvin to play first base, or can sign a free agent like Adam Dunn.

Champagne celebrations. After a brutal 20 games in 20 days stretch in August, the schedule gets noticeably easier, with four off days built in this month. The Cubs are playing 12 consecutive games against sub-.500 teams through Sept. 12.

Maybe they can eliminate the Cardinals from contention, or perhaps theyll watch the Padres clinch a division title in San Diego (Sept. 27-30).

We get paid to play, Aramis Ramirez said. The way I look at it is there are (30) teams and only eight go to the playoffs. The other ones go home at the same time we (will). We got (28) games to go. Well try to win as many of those as we can.

The search process. From the beginning, general manager Jim Hendry has said that he doesnt want to give daily updates, and will take his time working contacts throughout the industry. Sandberg and Fredi Gonzalez are in the mix, but it is Quade we will see before, during and after every game, so publicly he will be dissected the most.

If nothing else, it will raise the profile of a 53-year-old man who spent 17 years managing in the minors, in places like Rockford and Scranton, Pa.

Its a cool deal for him, said Randy Wells, who played for Quade at Iowa. Its probably not your most ideal situation, getting your first major-league job (like this). But sometimes its a little break like that. If he shows he can do it, you never know whats in store.

Hes going (to) give it everything hes got and try to get the best out of us. Who knows what platform that will lead to?

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

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

SAN DIEGO – The Los Angeles Dodgers made an honorable no-tolerance statement on domestic violence, or their high-powered front office didn’t do enough homework on Aroldis Chapman, or a Hollywood franchise couldn’t deal with the bad optics.

Maybe all those factors swirled together as a deal with the Cincinnati Reds collapsed during the winter meetings, the police report surfacing weeks after an ugly incident at Chapman’s South Florida home. 

The New York Yankees scavenged and acquired the superstar closer at a steep discount in late December, before the Broward County State Attorney’s Office decided to not file criminal charges, and before Major League Baseball imposed a 30-game suspension to start this season. 

The Cubs handled Chapman’s transition in a clumsy, awkward manner after that blockbuster trade with the Yankees one month ago, looking unprepared for his welcome-to-Chicago press conference with coach Henry Blanco sitting there as the translator, and sounding insensitive when the Wrigley Field sound system played a 1997 Prodigy song called: “Smack My B---- Up.”

The Cubs hired a new translator – and fired a DJ – and now have Chapman’s 100-mph velocity waiting for a potential playoff preview that begins Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

“The talent is even more impressive when you’re actually there watching it on your side,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That life at home plate is purely different. It’s just different what the baseball does.

“It’s obvious to me that you have to get in there and talk to him and develop that relationship. He’s smiling more easily already and the conversation’s actually coming back to me in English a little bit, which is fun to hear, so I’ve been really happy about that.”

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Whether or not Dodger fans stay until the end to watch a first-place team that has weathered Clayton Kershaw’s back injury – and the 26 other players who have spent time on the disabled list this season, tying a major-league record – watching Chapman is a unique experience even for an MVP candidate or a Cy Young Award winner. 

“It’s fun hearing the crowd do their oohs and aahs on every pitch,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “how engaged they are, and how excited they are when he comes in to pitch.”

“A lot of the players are almost in the same amount of awe that the fans are,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “When you see a guy like Chapman go out there and compete and perform, there’s a lot of appreciation and respect for what he’s capable of, because, frankly, the game’s never really seen anything like it, especially from the left side. 

“We’ve seen a lot of hard throwers. But when you see a scouting report that’s 100-to-105 (mph), he’s a one-of-one type of guy. You definitely stop and watch when he’s out there.”

Chapman – who can cash in as a free agent after this season – has so far answered the legitimate questions about how he would fit into a laid-back clubhouse and effect best-team-in-baseball chemistry.

“He’s an absolute professional,” Arrieta said. “I’m very attentive to details. (I’m) watching the way he goes about his routine and (how) it starts for a 7 o’clock game. He’s starting right around 2:30, 3 o’clock, getting ready for that ninth inning.

“He’s getting his body ready. He’s getting his mind ready. You can see his focus. A guy like that, he obviously has his routine down extremely well, so it’s really nice to kind of watch him throughout the day. What’s he doing at 3:30? What’s he doing at 4:30? What’s he doing at 6 o’clock? He’s constantly doing things to prepare himself for those three outs.

“That’s why he’s so successful. Obviously, he’s very gifted. His velocity, his presence and his size alone are extremely tough to defeat. But when you see the amount of hours that he puts into those three outs, it makes you realize why he’s able to go out there and be as successful as he is.”

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Chapman hasn’t quite been the add-on to a dominant bullpen the Cubs envisioned, because top setup guy Pedro Strop (knee) and former closer Hector Rondon (triceps) are on the disabled list. Maddon also had to curb his enthusiasm for four-out saves and realize Chapman – who’s allowed four of eight inherited runners to score – prefers to work one inning at a time.  

But Chapman has been as good as advertised, going 9-for-11 in save chances, allowing two earned runs in 15 appearances and striking out 21 of the 48 batters he’s faced while giving up only three walks.   

“It’s probably a demoralizing feeling for the other team to see him warming up,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Big-league hitters will hit a fastball after a while if they see it enough. But he makes guys take some pretty silly hacks.”

“You can literally hear the ball out of his hand,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He can make the seams sing a little bit with the power he’s getting.”

Dodger Stadium draws celebrities to an iconic site, creates a sense of energy and gets louder and louder. But after a series of decisions that could echo into October, Wrigley Field is where Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” blasts from the speakers as Chapman warms up and the fans look up at the video board after each pitch.   

“The guys on the bench are like mimicking what the crowd is doing,” Maddon said. “It’s wonderful. How many pitchers elicit that kind of reaction? There’s a couple, but you’re anticipating that big number and we’ve never seen that here. 

“But most any place you’ve not seen it. (It’s) the reputation, where he’s come from – and his presence and how big he is – he’s so formidable and imposing. And now he’s our toy.”

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”