Cubs mess just getting worse

With huge, immovable contracts and a general malaise about the club, it's hard to see the Chicago Cubs getting better any time soon.

The worst thing about the Cubs? You can’t even blow them up.

Left fielder Alfonso Soriano, immovable. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, immovable. Right-hander Carlos Zambrano, movable only if he is in the right mood to approve a deal.

Big Z was right about one thing in his latest bizarre rant Sunday — the Cubs are playing like a “Triple-A team.” The reasons: injuries, ineptitude and big-money players who drift from one losing season to another.

The Cubs are bad and getting worse. They fell 11 games back in the NL Central after getting swept in St. Louis over the weekend and still must visit Cincinnati and Philadelphia on this 10-game march to oblivion.

Forget about signing a free agent such as the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols or Brewers’ Prince Fielder. The Cubs are so far gone, they are much more than one player away.

About a month ago, I argued that the team should retain general manager Jim Hendry, who is in the last year of his contract. I can’t see it happening now.

Not with the team splintering apart and the farm system failing to provide adequate replacements. Not with attendance at Wrigley Field dropping from 39,610 in 2009 to 37,814 in ’10 to 34,818 in 31 dates this season.

Hendry has accomplished a lot, guiding the Cubs to three postseason appearances in his first six years and five winning seasons out of eight. The next GM will thank him for developing players such as shortstop Starlin Castro, second baseman Darwin Barney and Double-A center fielder Brett Jackson. But the big contracts — even if Hendry awarded them at the behest of the team’s previous owner, the Tribune Co. — will be the GM’s undoing.

Soriano is owed $18 million per season through 2014. Ramirez is making $14.6 million this season with a $16 million club option that vests if he is traded. Zambrano is guaranteed $17,875,000 this season and $18 million in ’12.

As if that’s not enough, all three players possess full no-trade clauses.

Hendry proved that he could move anyone by trading Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva, but Zambrano might be the only one of the Diminished Three for whom the GM could get any kind of return. And even then, it probably wouldn’t be much.

More likely to be dealt are right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, infielder Jeff Baker, right-handed setup man Kerry Wood, left-hander John Grabow and maybe first baseman Carlos Pena.

Fukudome, earning $13.5 million in the final year of his contract, possesses partial trade protection. Wood, as I reported in my latest Full Count video, already is in demand but hasn’t thought about whether he would waive his no-trade clause.

I’m guessing he won’t hesitate.

A fine mess this is. A mess that is only getting worse.




Your eyes do not deceive you: The Giants are getting more athletic and better defensively.

The team’s quiet evolution has been easy to miss amid the furor over the season-ending loss of catcher Buster Posey and disappointment of first baseman Brandon Belt going on the DL with a hairline fracture in his left wrist.

But in the past five games — with rookie Brandon Crawford at shortstop and Cody Ross, Andres Torres and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield — the Giants have taken on a different look.

The revised lineup excludes outfielders Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand. Third baseman Miguel Tejada, signed to be a $6.5 million shortstop, could be in jeopardy once third baseman Pablo Sandoval comes off the disabled list, assuming Sandoval makes a strong recovery from a fractured hamate bone in his right hand.

Manager Bruce Bochy essentially is taking the same approach he did last season, sifting through his pieces, playing hot hands. The Giants are so offensively challenged — they rank next to last in the National League in runs — that Bochy has license to be creative.

The question, of course, is whether Schierholtz and especially Crawford will hit enough to remain in the lineup.

In each case, Bochy thinks the answer might be yes.

Of Schierholtz, Bochy says: “He’s driving the ball better than he has in the past. He’s playing with more confidence, determination to stay out there. He’s starting to get more extra-base hits.

“He’s strong. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He has opened up his stance, freed up his hips.”

Crawford is more of a reach. He batted .250 with a .313 on-base percentage and .369 slugging average in parts of two seasons at Double-A and opened this season season at high Single-A after breaking a finger in spring training.

His defense alone is refreshing for a team that routinely plays declining veterans at short. Bochy, though, thinks Crawford might hit enough to be a long-term solution, greatly diminishing any chance of the Giants acquiring the Mets’ Jose Reyes.

“He has made an adjustment with his hands, shortened his swing,” Bochy says. “The kid has power. Sometimes, he gets big with his swing. But he’s throwing out some pretty good at-bats. He has surprised me with what he’s doing.”




Add the Nationals’ Todd Coffey to the list of relievers in whom the Rangers are showing interest. The Rangers even have a player who would fit the Nats’ need for a leadoff man and center fielder: Julio Borbon.

Of course, it’s doubtful the Rangers would trade a potential everyday player for a seventh-inning reliever. Still, Borbon could be a chip, given the Rangers’ depth in center field.

The Rangers just demoted Borbon to Triple-A, preferring to stick with Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry in center. And Leonys Martin, the new Cuban signee, is coming quickly. Martin has a .957 OPS at Double-A and could head to Triple-A soon.

Another possibility for the Rangers would be to move Triple-A catcher Taylor Teagarden for one of the Giants’ right-handed relievers, though such a move would leave them vulnerable at catcher.

Triple-A first baseman/third baseman Chris Davis remains a more obvious trade candidate — and a potentially good fit for an offensively challenged team such as the Padres.

As for the Nats, they continue to dream of a trade for the Rays’ B.J. Upton, who is from the same part of Virginia as the team’s biggest star, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

It’s difficult to imagine the Rays trading Upton and promoting Desmond Jennings to replace him if they are in contention. But Upton is a free agent after the 2012 season, and the Rays are always thinking of ways to get cheaper and better.

If the Rays could get the right pieces — right-handed setup man Tyler Clippard and a young position prospect perhaps? — maybe they could make an Upton deal work.




The trade market is still weeks away from taking shape, but the increased parity this season could lead to fewer sell-offs than in the past. Entering Monday’s play, only five teams were more than seven games out of first place.

“It might be more of a reallocation of pieces than classic buying or selling,” one GM says. “Parity also means that teams that aren’t close are saying, ‘Next year, it can be us.’ Maybe they buy a two- to three-year asset that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

The Nationals’ pursuit of Upton would fit that description, and there could be another difference this summer. Teams are either short on prospects or protective of them, increasing the importance of payroll flexibility.

“A team that can take on money might be the team that gets the player,” a second GM says. “It might come down to owners more than GMs, which owners are willing to take on money.”




The Indians’ most obvious need remains a quality starting pitcher. But the addition of a right-handed hitter would not be a bad idea, either.

Cleveland, after failing to score against Rangers left-handers Derek Holland and C.J. Wilson over the weekend, has lost five straight games against lefty starters. Overall, it is 9-9 in games started by left-handers, 24-15 in games started by righties.

The team’s best pure right-handed hitter, first baseman Matt LaPorta, is batting only .190 against lefties. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a switch-hitter, is hitting righties better than lefties. Catcher Carlos Santana, the Indians’ other switch-hitter, is the other way around.

The rest of the Indians’ lineup — including designated hitter Travis Hafner, who currently is on the DL — is predominantly left-handed. Triple-A third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and second baseman Jason Kipnis, two of the team’s top offensive prospects, also hit from the left side.

I started thinking about the Indians’ issues after receiving an inquiry on Twitter from a fan who asked the chances of the Indians acquiring Astros right fielder Hunter Pence. The Astros probably will not trade Pence, and the Indians would have no obvious place for him. They’re not about to give up on the struggling Shin-Soo Choo.

Still, the Indians have scored two or fewer runs in 11 of their past 18 games, and they won only one of those 11 games. Five of those low-scoring efforts — including the back-to-back shutouts over the weekend — were against lefty starters.




One more reason to admire the Marlins: Unlike teams such as the Rays, Pirates and Orioles, the Fish rarely draft in the top 10, yet remain competitive with low payrolls.

The Marlins’ average first-round position the past 10 years has been 16th. The following players are among their draft successes:

• Right-hander Josh Johnson, fourth round, 2002.
• First baseman Gaby Sanchez, fourth round, 2005.
• Left fielder Logan Morrison, 22nd round, 2005.
• Center fielder Chris Coghlan, 36th overall pick, 2006.
• Right fielder Mike Stanton, second round, 2007.




A scout who witnessed left-hander Scott Kazmir’s third rehabilitation start for Triple-A Salt Lake City didn’t think the pitcher would get out of the first inning.

Kazmir threw his first pitch behind the hitter and reached only 83-86 mph his first four innings. But he increased his velocity to 90 and 92 and wound up lasting six innings in what was, by far, his best rehab start.

“He walked five and had little to no command of his fastball and breaking ball,” the scout said. “His change was solid, and he threw it for strikes.

“I don’t know if he gets back, but he had to feel better after the sixth inning than he did after his first four innings of work.”




Interesting thing about the Brewers: They are second in the NL in strikeout rate, but most of that is due to the starting rotation and closer John Axford. Their bullpen overall ranks only 13th in the league in strikeouts per nine.

The return of hard-throwing left-hander Zach Braddock from a sleeping disorder should help. Righty Takashi Saito, while not a strikeout pitcher, could return from an oblique issue in mid-June.

Still, the Brewers would love to add another power arm to their ‘pen, though that power could come at a price if they add a pitcher with command issues. Brewers relievers might not miss many bats, but their walk rate is the third-lowest rate in the NL.




• Blue Jays rookie J.P. Arencibia is tied with the Yankees’ Russell Martin for the most home runs as a catcher, nine. He also is third in the majors with 29 RBI and fifth with an .818 OPS from the catching position.

To think, the Jays have another highly regarded catcher coming. Travis d’Arnaud, whom the team acquired in the Roy Halladay trade, has an .890 OPS at Double-A.

“He’s a good hitter, a handsy hitter,” one scout says of d'Arnaud. “He has opposite-field power, which you don’t see a lot with young guys. And he’s a technician behind the plate. He can really catch and throw. He really works at his craft.”

• Amazing Cardinals stat of the week: The team has started seven different third basemen, yet leads the NL in OPS at the position by a healthy margin.

Daniel Descalso and the injured David Freese have combined for 51 of the 61 starts at third. Rookie Matt Carpenter has played the position the past two days.

• The Marlins would like to add experience to their bullpen, and they’ve got a number of young, hard-throwing, right-handed relievers drawing interest from other clubs.

The group includes Jose Ceda at Triple-A and Sandy Rosario and Jhan Marinez at Double-A.

• The Diamondbacks, forever on the prowl for bullpen help, were one of the teams interested in lefty David Purcey before the A’s traded him to the Tigers for infielder Scott Sizemore.

• And, finally, as teams prepare to spend millions on the draft, keep in mind that the Dodgers signed one of the game’s top young pitchers out of the Dominican Republic for $15,000.

Right-hander Rubby De La Rosa, after pitching five impressive innings out of the bullpen, will make his first major league start Tuesday night at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.

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