White Sox

Theo Epstein's not hitting the panic button

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Theo Epstein's not hitting the panic button

MIAMI - The Cubs will have to do something to shake up this 3-10 team. It just won't involve promoting Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson, or making any other type of panic move.

The Cubs flew out of Miami after Thursday's 5-3 loss to the Marlins, which completed a three-game sweep that should help take the heat off Ozzie Guillen.

The Cubs are saying the right things and sticking to baseball, not politics. Their clubhouse is more professional without Carlos Zambrano, who warmly greeted Theo Epstein by the batting cage.

But the changes won't happen overnight. A road trip that began with some promise - beating the Cardinals after they raised their World Series banner - ended on a five-game losing streak.

The Cubs were outscored 34-10 during that time and the schedule doesn't get any easier from here, not with the Reds and Cardinals coming into Wrigley Field.

"You don't want to do any kind of panicking 13 games into the season," manager Dale Sveum said.

The fans would love to see Rizzo and Jackson, top prospects who are supposed to be foundation pieces for years to come. But the president of baseball operations isn't the reactionary type.

"Those guys are continuing their development at Triple-A," Epstein said. "We're also not giving up on guys after a homestand and a road trip. Guys need time to get into the rhythm of the season and show what they can do. Baseball's best understood from bigger samples and from a distance sometimes.

"No one wants to get off to this kind of start and the lineup's not performing really well right now. It's a little bit early to be thinking about those kind of moves, and specifically with your better prospects.

"Once they're fully developed, then you look and see how it fits into the big picture, what's going on with the big-league team."

Epstein - who met the team in Miami after a scouting trip for the draft - could be thinking about incremental moves. Like adding another bullpen piece, especially if Kerry Wood's right shoulder doesn't feel better by the weekend.

But the 2012 Cubs were built on starting pitching, and the Marlins (7-6) knocked out Jeff Samardzija in the fourth inning. Samardzija (2-1, 5.71 ERA) gave up five runs on eight hits and five walks. The Cubs got swept, even with the top of their rotation going this series.

"We got to win, man, that's really all there is to it," Samardzija said. "Pitchers got to pitch better, position players got to play positions better. It's all-around. There's not one thing that we need to improve on. Everybody needs to improve. It starts with yourself."

As a team, the Cubs have hit only five home runs. Alfonso Soriano doesn't have an extra-base hit yet. Marlon Byrd (.075) continues to spiral downward. Geovany Soto (.167) is also struggling at the plate.

"Nobody's going to put our head down right now," outfielder David DeJesus said. "It's not like we're coming here to just hang around and have fun. We want to win baseball games and we just got to get better as a team.

"We got to focus and take every at-bat the way professionals do. And I feel that will lead to better, big innings and Ws in the win column."

This front office has promised to block out all the noise. Sveum sees effort, and there's not much he can do with the lineup. The clubhouse chemistry seems to have improved. But it still might be time for some earplugs.

"There are things we can do," Epstein said, "smaller moves that we can make, and probably will make, over the course of this season to try to put together a club that can be more competitive - (while) also looking out for the best long-term interests of the organization.

"View those things through that lens - not through what we look like two weeks in. You got to keep the big picture in mind sometimes."

Tim Anderson's bat flip gets the Twittersphere buzzing

Tim Anderson's bat flip gets the Twittersphere buzzing

 

The White Sox made national headlines on Wednesday for being involved in a scuffle with the Kansas City Royals after an emphatic bat flip by Tim Anderson.

The 25-year old Anderson absolutely crushed his 50th career home run in the fourth inning and followed with the bat flip-heard-’round-the-world. Later on, Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller hit Anderson with a fastball and chaos ensued. In the end, ump Joe West ejected Keller, Anderson, White Sox manager Rick Renteria and Royals bench coach Dale Sveum.

The incident certainly caught the eye of the Twittersphere, with the reactions being split down the middle.

Anderson had a response to a tweet from Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk, who seemed to be referencing Anderson in complaining about the “excessive” “pimping” on homeruns.

And even free agent NFL quarterback Josh McCown got in on the debate:

The White Sox don’t see the Royals again until May 27, so Anderson and co. will have a awhile before they get a chance to get payback in the form of a win.

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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