Fanning the Flames After a Tough Cubs Loss
It was hot inside Los Cabos International Airport Thursday afternoon. They had lost power around midday Wednesday and it had apparently shorted the AC, which is, you know, kind of a big deal when you’re talking about a heavily windowed building sitting in direct sunlight in a desert region with temps in the mid-90’s. To make matters worse, there was zero air movement in the place. Everyone just had to sit there stewing in sweat and frustration while fanning themselves.
I arrived home in time to catch the end of the Cubs/Mets debacle and to find pretty much the same situation I’d left early in the day. Everyone was just sitting there stewing in their sweat and frustration while fanning. And fanning hard.
I’m not here to tell you how to fan* because Lord knows I’m not the moral authority on the subject. But it seemed to me that there was a lot of overreaction to Thursday’s loss (and to my questions about how perpetually angry fans ever enjoy themselves). Did it suck? Sure. Can you be mad/sad/disappointed? Of course. But let’s put some context to the season instead of just diving headfirst into a gooey pit of apoplexy.
Admittedly, though, apoplexy tastes remarkably similar to marzipan, so a quick dip could be quite delicious.
Here’s the thing: just as I didn’t get a great deal of sympathy for having to wait on my flight in a greenhouse, it’s not too productive to bellyache about a team that’s sitting at 51 wins by the end of June. There are absolutely some flaws the Cubs will need to address and I’m not reducing the validity of any fears you want to harbor relative to the bullpen or even Jason Heyward’s ability to return to form at the plate.
With the playoffs a virtual lock at this point, it’s understandable that attentions have turned away from the reality of the day-to-day to instead fixate on the implications of each game on chances in October. Idle hands and whatnot. Fans get antsy, they start calling for all kinds of changes. Execs get antsy, they start trading core pieces for pitchers that might not even be with the team next season.
The Cubs should have won Thursday night and had several chances to do so. Maybe Gary Jones should’ve sent Travis Wood (who was pinch-running for Miguel Montero) home from first on Ben Zobrist’s double. Then again, you don’t want to run into an out at home with the heart of your order coming up. Then again again, said heart was ripped out of the Cubs’ chest Temple of Doom-style as they went down in flames.
Leading the ritual sacrifice was Jeurys Familia, whose 98 mph sinker was a scalpel with bad intentions. A lot of folks want to point to the Cubs hitters’ approaches and lay the loss on that doorstep, which is certainly one way to look at it. Yet another is to say that Kris Bryant is flat-out overrated and can’t hit good pitching. Well, at least according to “two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year” Tony Massarotti.
But let’s ask this question: if the game were on the line, would you want Bryant at the plate? Last year, Bryant struck out 199 times during the regular season. In the playoffs, he had 12 more strikeouts — and only six hits — while batting .176. (Four of his hits went for extra bases.) In the dreaded “close and late” situations, as defined by baseballreference.com, he is hitting just .205 this season (with a .659 OPS) and just .235 for his career (with a .783 OPS). Those numbers are well below his regular-season totals.
So here’s what I’m getting at:
Bryant is an easy out if you pitch him properly. He can’t hit good pitching.
While he was justly excoriated for espousing a take that was hotter than the tarmac in Cabo, Massarotti is kinda onto something. Good pitches thrown by good pitchers will make good hitters look not good. And Familia is a really good pitcher who was throwing really good pitches in the 9th inning on Thursday. We can get pedantic about what good means, but unless you’re feeling froggy I think you understand what I mean.
The Cubs bullpen, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so effective. Newly signed Joel Peralta came on in the 7th to relieve John Lackey and gave up a walk and a single, prompting the bed-wetting that cost the Cubs the game. Peralta is not good and I’m not even going to attempt to justify either his appearance in the game or on the roster because I can’t. What I can say, though, is that his presence is indicative of the Cubs’ strategy of attempting to put band-aids on bullet holes until such time as they can see the doctor.
The bullpen is a weak spot on this team. I know it, you know it, and you can be damn sure the front office knows it. When it comes to the relief core, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are driving a car in need of several repairs. Rather than go all out and fix everything at once, they’re getting by on minimal tweaks and hoping they can get a few extra miles before replacing another worn-out part.
They’ve got Joe Nathan (hey, another 40+ year-old guy!) starting his rehab at AA Tennessee and are hoping for another reclamation of a former Oriole in lefty Brian Matusz. These aren’t final solutions, per se, more like low-risk stopgaps and ways to gain leverage as the trade deadline approaches. There are fears that the Cubs will do little, particularly with Sean Doolittle on the DL and the Yankees requiring that Kyle Schwarber be included in any conversation about Andrew Miller.
I’m not sure why the Yankees would want an injured slugger to negotiate on the Cubs’ behalf, but I guess it’s no crazier than out-of-touch Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman claiming that he’d carry Schwarber on his back to New York if it meant getting Aroldis Chapman in return. I wanted to pass it off as the lunacy of a septuagenarian whose frame of reference has remained the same for a few decades. Then the Cubs bullpen continued to implode and fans started offering to hoist War Bears on their own shoulders.
It’s been said already and it’ll have to be said again, which is why I don’t feel too bad giving this particularly dead horse another whack: Kyle Schwarber isn’t being traded. Stop it.
Prior to the the first game in New York, Epstein addressed the whens, hows, and whys of improving the bullpen.
“It’s pretty rare that you rebuild a bullpen midseason through big-ticket items,” the Cubs’ head honcho said. “Last year was actually more typical. They don’t all work out, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you have a plan and a process, and you’re willing to kind of cycle through guys (and) ride things out, you often get rewarded in the end.
“For a postseason bullpen, if you’re thinking that far in advance, you’re not talking about eight guys. You’re talking about three or four guys that you can lean on heavily. It’s being open-minded, being willing to let guys ride through their downturns and make adjustments, so that they can find it.”
It’s said that history books are written by the winners, but there sure are a lot of revisionists in the wake of losses. Makes sense, though, right? I don’t care how ugly things got in the last third of the Thursday’s game, this front office isn’t going to change its tune overnight.
So be mad about the Peralta experiment. Be mad about putting men on second and third with no outs in the 9th and ending up with bupkus. Just don’t make the leap that the Cubs’ failures in one game in late June — or even in their one-run games heretofore — are indicative of their (in)ability to win games in October. How’d the Mets fare against the Cubs in the regular season last year? How ’bout the playoffs? Okay, cool, good talk.
I’ve kept you over already, so I’ll end with some sage words of advice for handling the next few weeks: It’s a long season, take deep breaths, avoid the clap.
*I will make exceptions for those who cite Edwin Jackson as a reason to not have faith in the front office and those who are singing playoff dirges in June.