Monday, May 3, 2010

Early surprises and disappointments: A baker's dozen


1. Carlos Silva - Who would have thunk? Silva's resurgence has been a combination of a few factors: better health, a change in his approach, a little bit of luck, and pitching in a league that scores less runs. Silva was struggling to hit 85 on the gun this offseason, now he's consistently hitting 91 mph with his sinker. He's also throwing his changeup a lot more to lefties. That new found confidence in his changeup is helping limit the damage to a startling .111 average with no home runs vs. lefties -- a group that has plagued him even in his good years. There has been some luck. Hitters only have a .240 BABIP against him so far and that should go up. We did see Silva have his toughest outing last time out, though in fairness, 2 of the homeruns were windblown flyballs that reached the basket. Silva will regress a little more but there's no compelling reason to expect he'll become the slouch he was in Seattle.

2. Alfonso Soriano - He's been on hot streaks before but he looks to have a different approach over the past 8 games or so. He has a 9% walk rate, which is where it was when he had that monster year in Washington. Just as importantly, he's swinging at strikes. He no longer has the bat speed he used to, but he seems to have made some adjustments at the plate. Maybe Soriano is older and wiser. Maybe that talk with Lou (coincidentally about 8 games ago) got him re-focused. Maybe Rudy Jaramillo has corrected some flaws and kept him better balanced at the plate. Maybe the threat of Tyler Colvin stealing his job helped. Maybe it's just better health. My best guess? All of the above.

3. Kosuke Fukudome - Another player who seems more balanced at the plate. We always knew Kosuke had the plate discipline, but now he seems to be hitting the ball with authority. Balance will do that for you. Does Jaramillo get some of the credit here too? Possibly. But we've seen fast starts from Kosuke before only to see him fade as the season went on.

4. Tyler Colvin - Increased patience at the plate (noticing a theme, here?)has made him a more professional hitter. Since his resurgence at AA during the second half last season, Colvin has begun to answer questions about his power. This April, he has begun to address questions about his pitch recognition. Colvin was Soriano-esque in his pitch selection in the past and it led some to question whether he had any idea if the pitch coming was a strike up the middle or a slider low and away. He has allayed some of those concerns by showing he can be patient and swing at good pitches. That, better health, 25lbs of muscle, and better coaching at the big league level is turning Colvin into a legitimate major league outfielder. Right now he's the 4th outfielder in a very good outfield. He could probably start on more than a few teams.

5. Marlon Byrd - He has hit even better than Jim Hendry could have expected. He also breaks the mold of players on this list as he is someone who has had less patience, not more. 2 walks in one month is going to catch up eventually when NL pitchers figure him out. But for right now, Byrd has injected energy, leadership, solid hitting, and solid centerfield defense to the team.

6. Geovanny Soto - An overweight physique, a stint with the wacky weed, and a low BABIP contributed to Soto's precipitous fall last season but he appears to be a changed man. He lost 40 pounds and is dedicated to a healthier lifestyle. His best years have come when he's carried less weight, even since his minor league days, so that part of the equation bodes well. The other part, the BABIP, was mostly attributed to bad luck, though some of it was attributed to hitting less line drives and more groundballs last year. Soto seems to have corrected the problem. In addition he has been (you guesssed it) even more patient than usual. He and Fukudome are the Cubs best when it comes to waiting for a good pitch to hit -- and if not, they're happy to take the walk.

7. Tom Gorzelanny - The wins aren't there but he's arguably been the Cubs best starter so far. He has the highest K rate and the best ERA, or FIP, if you prefer advanced statistics. He may make Ted Lilly expendable by the trade deadline.

8. The Cubs Farm System - Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner are pushing their way into elite prospect category and most of the top prospects have been holding their own. They've even had some sleepers like Brandon Guyer and Robinson Chirinos enter the talk as guys who can possibly help the Cubs soon. Solid year so far down on the farm.


1. Aramis Ramirez - He and Alfonso Soriano are staging the Cubs version of Freaky Friday. It's been A-Ram who has been eager at the plate at times while Soriano has waited for his pitch. Yes, they both have an equal number of walks, but A-Ram has been inconsistent, taking his old approach at times, but, more often than not this year, he has struggled with the strike zone. He's been a slow starter in the past so we shouldn't expect this poor performance to continue.

2. Derrek Lee - How's that? The Cubs two best hitters are top two on this list. Like Ramirez, Lee's timing seems off but unlike A-Ram, he hasn't let it affect his strike zone discipline. Lee is a candidate to turn things around before Ramirez does.

3. The Bullpen - would have been first on this list but Marmol, Marshall and Zambrano have minimized the damage of late. Though you have to question whether an 18M set up man is the best solution. Grabow is turning from an expensive set-up man to a very expensive mop-up man. Lou need to take note on this and use Grabow as a LOOGY. Lefties are hitting just .167 while righties are hitting a robust .419. Lou has to come to terms that he is a highly paid specialist and the sooner the better. Personally I'm also disappointed in Esmalin Cardidad. Normally a guy with decent control, he wilted under the pressure of filling that 8th inning void. He's coming off of injury and heading to AAA. Maybe he'll get things straightened out and return as a much needed 7th inning guy.

4. Xavier Nady - He has been slow to come off of injury and his bat has yet to catch up. He was supposed to be the guy who kept Soriano fresh and protected Fukudome against lefties. So far, it's been Tyler Colvin who has snatched his role as 4th outfielder. Right now, it looks like the Cubs have paid a decent amount of money (3.3M) for a fifth outfielder. You have to wonder if the Cubs shouldn't consider trading him and replacing him with a cheaper, defensive minded right-hand hitting OF'er (someone like Reed Johnson, perhaps?). But it's still to early to tell. If Soriano gets hurt, the Cubs are going to need a proven bat to fill in that RBI slot in the middle of the lineup.

5. Ted Lilly - The first start was good but the velocity was down in his second start. Lilly isn't a guy who's going to overpower you, but he's sneaky fast. He's deceptive and mixes his pitches well - but he has to throw around 90 mph for that fastball to sneak by people. Let's just hope it was a one game blip.

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