In part one of my interview with Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Cubs studio analyst Todd Hollandsworth, he shared his perspectives on some of the core Cubs currently on the MLB roster: Rizzo, Castro, Baez and Alcantara.
In the final installment in our Labor Day discussion, Todd talks about the Cubs pitching staff and the holes that need to be filled in it, how you go about doing that, the Rizzo/Russell debacle and the Cubs contending in—what?—2015.
CI: What moves do you see the Cubs making this offseason, through free agency and trades?
Holly: I think the number-one issue is how to address the rotation. What is the vision for that rotation moving forward? How much is it going to cost them? How for out will they have to go, and how much of a commitment it’s going to take to bring in a [Jon] Lester or trade for a [Cole] Hamels or consider a [Max] Scherzer? You know the rotation needs some help, and you feel like the time has come for them to make that move.
There are some questions about Travis Wood, who has taken a significant step back, and Edwin Jackson, whose days in the rotation are probably numbered, so how do you address that?
Arrieta has done a good job at the top of that rotation since Samardzija and Hammel went to the A’s, but are you going to sit back and watch him develop with the understanding that you don’t have the depth in the system to make this work.
I think people are going to creep into 2015 with a smidge of expectation, and I’m with them. This team, as young as it is, has shown some tremendous upside, and if in 2015 they have a few things go their way with other teams in this division, like the Pirates not being as active or the Cardinals not being able to make some moves, this team could be very relevant next year.
So we’ll see, but I do think you target that rotation and how you fix it.
The other moves are secondary moves. You’ve got depth in many positions throughout the system, so what you do is assess the moving parts and see what can help in other areas of the offense, but in terms of spending dollars, you have to concentrate on how to improve that rotation.
CI: How concerned are you with a veteran coming in and possibly negatively affecting the clubhouse chemistry?
Holly: If you’re referring to the Milton Bradley experience happening again, that would shock me. I don’t think that mistake happens any longer. The homework they do with most of these guys dives into everything. They find out what kind of person you are, what is your history is in other places, and how things have gone.
When you have survived and you have been around for six years, the book is out. You’ve either played with one team for a long time and they’ve loved keeping you around for six years, or you have been in multiple places, and either way most people have built an opinion about you. Is he a good clubhouse guy? Is a team guy? Is he a numbers guy? Is he a selfish player? Is he somebody who cares about others?
Most of that stuff kind of weeds itself out, and with social media today, it’s almost unavoidable to not know who you’re signing. I’d say 20 years ago, when I was playing, you could make that argument a little more clearly; guys could just go out and put up numbers and not everyone knew the stories with other teams. Today, with media the way it is, you know so much about players and who they are as people before you even sign them.
CI: How does Addison Russell play into this? Do you see him as a moveable piece, and how does Castro play into that?
Holly: That’s a great question, and I wish I had a great answer for you, but I just don’t know. I think the leverage comes down to the fact that you can only play one shortstop, and you’ve got one who is an All Star. You have production [in two players at that position], so you have to look at how to get better by moving one to another position, or how to get better without one by making a trade.
The obvious connection is the buzz about Castro going to New York. They need offense at that position, and we need young pitching, and they’ve got it. But the question really becomes how do you plan to shape your team and who are you going to be.
Here’s the thing: you know Starlin, but the problem with Russell is you’re not sure. Despite what he’s done in the minor leagues–the power, the hand-eye coordination and tremendous bat speed–you haven’t seen him play at the major league level quite yet, so there’s obviously going to be some hesitation.
If you get that deal and you love it, and in it they ask for Starlin Castro, maybe that’s the path you choose. But at the same time, I also believe he can be an answer here in Chicago with just a few improvements in the mental focus things that we talked about. I think Starlin has absolutely taken strides to be an answer here going forward, but Russell is a top-flight prospect, so you’ve got your hands full. It depends on which guy gets you the deal that makes your team that much better, and you have to believe it.
CI: What have been the most positive things you’ve seen from the Cubs pitching staff since the All Star break?
Holly: I cannot tell you how impressive that bullpen has been. They have given the team a chance to win time and time again, and it’s not just Strop, Rondon and Ramirez. It is Wright and Grimm. These guys have done a fantastic job, but the one thing that really has impressed me from the first half to the second half–and this is not velocity or stuff–it’s aggressiveness, which is what you want to see from your bullpen: coming in and throwing strikes and not building trouble with walks.
It is always the hot topic of conversation with any bullpen around baseball. I do MLB Network, and we talk so much about so many teams and so many of these issues, and it almost always gets back to who’s making trouble for themselves with the walks. Even Trevor Rosenthal with the Cardinals, someone who has a legitimate shot at 50, has been a lightning rod in St. Louis because some of the trouble he’s gotten into.
That’s the one thing that has stood out to me with the Cubs bullpen; they’ve come in, thrown strikes, been aggressive and haven’t made trouble for themselves. You put that together with the stuff they have, it’s been a lock-down bullpen.
You pair that with Arrieta, who has had couple hiccups but has proven to a lot of people what he’s all about, and Hendricks, who has proven he can get through an outing without his best stuff, and good things are happening.
CI: What grade would you give Ricky Renteria in his first season as manager, and would you give him a different grade between the first and second halves?
Holly: I would give him an A across the board. With expectations being what they were coming in, it wasn’t going to be about wins and losses.
Look at what improved from the bullpen, to Anthony Rizzo, to Starlin Castro, to the performance on the field and the product that you have been watching day in and day out, to the development of Kyle Hendricks and Arrieta. A lot of the love also has to go Chris Bosio’s way, as it should on so many levels, and the staff that has done a fantastic job with a young team trying to find its way right now.
They are playing competitive down the stretch. They played the Cardinals and the Brewers tough. That’s what you like to see out of your team playing against teams with playoff implications.
I know he’s dealt with a lot of circumstances, some beyond his control–such as the trades of Samardzija and Hammel and the fallout from that–when the team was playing good baseball at the time, and the losing streak followed it up. There’s not much he can do to persuade his players to not get caught up in things like that, because sometimes the performance on the field will take a step back.
This to me is the most impressive thing: We’ve watched the team get off to a slow start, grow and move into a direction, take a step back, deal with trades, speculations and young players moving up; and they played winning baseball for a good month and a half.
There are too many positives there to think that a season that has had a lot of losing has been anything but a success.
CI: You said you see this team starting to contend in 2015. Do you believe that, and for how long do you see them contending.
Holly: Absolutely. I think they can contend next year. There’s no reason to doubt it. So much of it is what are you going to get from these younger players. The playing time and the opportunities are coming their way, and the results are starting to show.
You have to remember that contending is not so much based on who you are as a team, but what is going on around you, and we’ve watched a lot of that this year. In five of the six divisions, there is a legitimate argument for the team on top to leave the door open for teams that are in second or third place. The Brewers are a great example of this. They got off to a great start this year and then they basically played .500 baseball for about three months.
What that tells me is the fact that 10 games over .500 is what is going to get you into the playoff conversation in September
That should open our eyes to know it’s as important to know what is going on around you as it is to know your team. If they get off to a good start and believe in their cause and sometimes get a little unpredictable production from other players, above and beyond, this team can turn into a winner. There’s no doubt about it I believe it could be a very positive season and September could mean something.
Now if you want me to push them all the way to the World Series, I would probably extend the conversation, because playoff baseball is a completely different animal, and there is not a whole lot of playoff experience on this roster right now. If you go out and get a couple key veterans, and they go out and play well and the team wins 84-plus games, or if they get hot in September and find themselves in the Wild Card race, I would be concerned that there aren’t too many people on the roster who have postseason experience—virtually none.
So that is a different conversation, but as far as contending next year, I absolutely believe this team can contend if they make a few moves in that rotation, solidify some things with the position players, create some depth and bring in some veterans. They don’t have to be high end. I’m not talking about going out and getting Nelson Cruz. I mean guys who understand their roles and are good contributors.
Then this thing can happen.