COMMENTARY | There was not a whole lot in the 2013 season for the Chicago Cubs and their fans to celebrate, except perhaps its conclusion.
But even amidst all the missed pitches and miffed pitchers, trades and tirades, broken bats, bruised egos, and booted bouncers, there are some bright spots.
We saw frozen ropes and high heaters, prospects and projects, singing the stretch and sweeping the Sox.
So while I might have inferior ingredients on hand, let's see about making chicken salad anyway, shall we?
Debut of the Year - Junior Lake
On a beautiful Friday night in Denver, the Colorado Rockies celebrated their 20th anniversary and honored icons like Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, and Dante Bichette. But, by the end of the night, it was Junior Lake who people were talking about. On the first pitch of his first at-bat, Lake ripped the first pitch he saw down the 3rd-base line for a double and then promptly stole a base.
Nothing fuels hubris quite like adrenaline, except maybe a few beers or a clever screen name, and Lake was certainly not immune with his cathartic moment coming in the form of a TOOTBLAN. Lake would make up for the gaffe with two more hits, giving him a 3-for-4 night that brought the Cubs-friendly crowd to its feet.
Newcomer of the Year - Donnie Murphy
While this could, or really should, go to Lake, Nate Schierholtz, or Dioner Navarro, Murphy gets the nod because he basically came out of nowhere. And because he helped The Nightmen, my fantasy baseball team, climb out of the cellar.
A career journeyman with 18 home runs in parts of 7 MLB seasons, Murphy was called up to fill in at third for a few games. He then proceeded to put a stranglehold on the position by blasting 9 home runs in his first 98 at-bats (or just under 10.9 at bats per HR).
I wrote a previous article about Murphy's (highly debatable) value to the team, following which many readers took exception to my presentation of Aramis Ramirez, who was indeed an exceptional player. Mea culpa.
Better Late than Never - Starlin Castro
After three stellar seasons to start his career, the Cubs inked their young shortstop to a 7-year, $60 million contract with an optional 8th year at $16 million. But while his long-term deal sounds like C.R.E.A.M., his play on the field was more reminiscent of Thrift Shop.
Castro's offense, once good enough to (almost) overshadow his mental lapses, dropped off dramatically as he hit roughly 50 points lower than his career average.
Starlin hit .265 over the last month, .302 in the final two weeks, and .333 over the last 7 days of the season. Ah, who am I kidding? This was a pretty miserable campaign for Castro.
Surprise of the Year - Dioner Navarro
Nate Schierholtz received consideration for this award as well, but San Francisco Giants fans know that Nate shouldn't have been allowed to leave the Bay Area. Navarro, on the other hand, was just a veteran catcher signed to give Wellington Castillo an occasional break.
And spell Welly he did. In his previous 9 big league seasons, Navarro averaged 1 HR every 49 at-bats, swatting 41 dingers for his career. In only 200 at-bats with the Cubs, the switch-hitting backstop blasted 12 homers (1 every 16.67 at-bats), including 3 in a game against the White Sox.
What may be even more surprising than the power surge is the fact that Dioner is only 29 years old. The Cubs would love to keep him on the North Side, but switch-hitting catchers with experience and pop are hard to come by and he'll likely draw more money elsewhere.
Feldman began the season as an unheralded free-agent signing, even though the Cubs did pay him $6 million. With a losing career record and an ERA around 4.60, Feldman was a stopgap at best. But his hot start quickly made him a valuable commodity.
After going 7-6 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, Feldman was traded (along with Steve Clevenger) for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. The Cubs gave up players who had no real future with the team for pitchers who were, respectively, the Baltimore Orioles' former opening-day starter and closer.
Barring a couple hiccups, Strop has been a revelation, improving from a 7.25 ERA and 1.701 WHIP with the O's to 2.83 and .943 with the Cubs. He more than doubled his K/BB ratio (1.6 to 4.1) as well.
Arrieta impressed, too, going from 1-2 with a 7.23/1.78 ERA/WHIP in 5 starts with Baltimore to 4-2 with a 3.66/1.12 split in 9 contests with the Cubs. His late-season surge means that a spot in next year's rotation is his to lose.
Honorable mention: Matt Garza for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm and a PTBNL. This may end up as the better trade, and looked so as Garza and the Texas Rangers faltered down the stretch .
Moment of the Year - Ernie Banks receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
Mr. Cub's days of thrilling fans on the field ended long ago, but that doesn't mean he stopped being part of the game. Ernie's work as an ambassador for baseball earned him the highest honor that can be awarded to civilians in the United States.
Banks was honored with a ceremony at Wrigley Field prior to the game on August 13, where he said, "I didn't play in a World Series, I didn't play in the playoffs, but this takes the place for me." The statement is bittersweet, but the celebration of Ernie's contributions to baseball and the nation was anything but.
I tried to keep things on a more positive slant, and while that might make me a Pollyanna, there's really no use, or even challenge, in pointing out all the Cubs' shortcomings. Agree or disagree? Have your own awards? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Evan spent his formative years on a farm and a sleepy town in Northwest Indiana in the days before Wrigley Field was illuminated. As a result, every summer afternoon was spent watching or listening to the Cubs on WGN, a practice that ingrained the team into his DNA. His kids are named after the team and years of frustration have made him a self-loathing, yet still unapologetic, Cubs apologist. And, yes, he knows that that is contradictory.
- Sports & Recreation
- Nate Schierholtz
- Dioner Navarro
- Donnie Murphy