CHICAGO -- If you’re overly surprised by the Chicago Cubs' 5-12 record three weeks into the season then you must be an overly optimistic person. The season is going about as planned.
Sure, there was always a chance they would employ a closer who wouldn’t implode or an outfield which would overachieve or that Edwin Jackson would have at least one quality start, but the odds were against all of that and the first three weeks followed those odds.
The one real surprise to the start of the season remains the lineup choices manager Rick Renteria continues to make. Stop me if you’ve heard this cry before: Why aren’t young players like Mike Olt and Junior Lake playing every day?
Now, realize this isn’t necessarily just another rant about that, but even if you’re OK with the idea of “protecting” the young players -- if that’s what’s going on -- at least you need to acknowledge it’s a bit of a surprise that Ryan Sweeney has nine starts this year in 17 games. Who saw that coming?
The point is -- and continues to be -- if the Cubs are building for the future wouldn’t it be best for every potential starter to get his at-bats now? Even if he struggles. Struggle now to be better later is the thinking.
“All managers when they have young players on their club want to put them in a position to succeed early in the season, early in their big league careers,” Cubs radio analyst and former big league hitter Ron Coomer said over the weekend. “There are two ways of looking at it. Your guy is accustomed to playing every day and we’ll see what we got if you play him more but the risk/reward to me is something you have to look at.”
It’s the chicken-and-egg of baseball. A hot player undoubtedly stays in the lineup but how can he get hot in limited at-bats, especially in a platoon situation? What happened to the thinking that young players need to play every day either in the majors or down in the minors? When Olt made the team it was wrongly assumed he would start nearly every day instead of just eight of 17.
“Olt, we still want to see what he can do,” Renteria said Sunday. “I think it’s really important. I’ve been trying over time with all the guys to give them some days where they go back-to-back against a lefty or righty. It gives them a better view, it gets them a little more comfortable. The reality is they are going to face lefties and righties. You have to give them an opportunity to use some games back-to-back to give them some kind of comfort.”
Renteria says that, but then realizes he wants to play his whole roster and he can’t really abide by those words. Olt started Sunday after homering on Saturday but the back-to-backs haven’t come very often so far.
“It definitely helps for your timing, but I’ve been doing better at focusing on those pinch-hits to take full advantage of that,” Olt said. “It’s out of my control. Whatever happens I just want to make sure I’m ready.”
No young player is going to openly question his manager -- though Lake has expressed some frustration -- so we’re left to figure out what’s best for them by other means. Coincidence or not, the three everyday players in the Cubs lineup are having the best at-bats and results. Anthony Rizzo is hitting .349, Starlin Castro .286 with a team leading nine RBIs and Emilio Bonifacio is back up to .366.
Now, that’s a little misleading as Rizzo and Castro are the two most talented hitters on the team. They should be hitting well -- but would they be doing as well if they were being platooned? Besides, if Renteria is putting the other players in the best positions to succeed then why aren’t Olt (.189), Lake (.239 ), Valbuena (.219) and Sweeney (.184) doing better?
Their struggles are more than forgiveable in an everyday situation because the hope is they are learning, but we don’t know what they’re getting out of it right now. In short, are we seeing the real Mike Olt or is he pressing? Isn’t the other side of the coin in trying to “protect” a player the notion that the manager doesn’t have confidence in you when a pitcher that throws the same way you do is on the mound? Baseball is all about confidence.
Bonifacio is the best example of a hot hitter being afforded a lineup spot every day but that’s only because of timing or the randomness of his streak. He started the season on fire but then went through a 1 for 17 stretch. Do you think if he started off the year 1 for 17 he would be playing every day? But you can’t expect the world out of a young player right away so unless Olt has a random hot streak in limited at-bats to start the season -- like Bonifacio -- he’s doomed to fight from behind and subsequently for more at-bats. But this is the time to give him the benefit of the doubt. You’re not winning anything. He looked bad on Sunday at the plate. So what? Play him again. Since he's not hitting for a high average right now in a platoon situation why not give him two weeks or more of at-bats? Maybe it is about playing time and needing to relax. That's the luxury that can be afforded in a rebuilding situation.
And now we’ve possibly come to the crux of the matter. If Renteria is playing players because there’s an infinitesimal match-up advantage so he can win that day’s game he’s doing everyone a disservice. The Cubs front office has often said they don’t meddle when it comes to the lineup. No one completely believes that, but even if it’s partly true maybe they should step in.
“You don’t want to lose a guy because he’s struggling in April and then you lose him for the season,” Coomer said.
We’re not even a month in but the last thing the Cubs should want is a lost season for Lake and/or Olt. There should be another wave of prospects coming -- it would be nice if these two were more established by then. But they need the at-bats. Every young player does. That’s no surprise, right?