Who is to Blame? Not Who but What


As if the news of Jim Hendry’s dismissal was not enough fodder for the media over the weekend, All Star shortstop Starlin Castro was caught by Bobby Valentine and ESPN cameras on Sunday Night Baseball showing multiple instances of mental lapses. One instance showed Castro still pacing around his defensive position with his head down as a pitch was being thrown. Another showed the sophomore reaching into his back pocket for some sunflower seeds a moment before a pitch was delivered, instead of being in a ready defensive position.

The kid may have been preoccupied with a bad throw he had made earlier in the game, but that is no excuse not to be in tune in the middle of the game and being set in a defensive position when the pitcher is ready to throw. Not to mention that having your head down as a pitch is being thrown could result in a safety concern had the ball been put in play in Castro’s direction. The popular phrase that was thrown around with the Hendry firing was “culture change.” Letting the long time General Manager of the Cubs go is only the first step of a cleansing process that needs to be made.

As ownership looks for a new General Manager, Mike Quade has been left in a bit of limbo. Surely whoever comes in as the new GM would like to appoint their own choice for the job at the top of the dugout steps. Quade has made some questionable decisions during the course of the 2011 season that has been questioned on Cubbies Crib before, but he sure did not help his cause with not having much to say about the Castro incident in a postgame interview Sunday night. Quade said he was not aware of Castro’s moments of lack of focus, and was not sure where to go with the questions he was hit with by the media. His response included asking “Bobby” [Valentine], who was part of the broadcast team for that game, and joking that at least they picked off Matt Holliday, who also must have been eating sunflower seeds to not get back to the  base in time.

To be fair to Quade, it is tough to answer questions that you do not expect to be coming. But should not the manager be aware of everything that is going on during a game? That is what the bench coach and base coaches are for, to be his extra eyes and ears. It was also reported that the tv broadcast of the game had been on in the clubhouse. Surely someone on the Cubs payroll, if not the coaches, should have caught that and brought it up?

Kudos to Quade for at least getting it right the next night, sitting Castro in the series opener against the Braves. But on the other hand, with the anyone in baseball having known what happened on the nationally televised game by Monday morning, it was an easy decision to make. This is not the first time Quade has sat Castro during his time as Cubs manager, with the instances coming both as the season was being played out in 2010, and earlier in 2011. The benching earlier this year was regarding a dropped pop fly that the shortstop lost in the sun. The penalty actually extended to his double play partner Darwin Barney as well.

While everyone can agree that Sunday night’s infraction was due a punishment, the one earlier in the season was questionable. The fans and media were quick to point to the double standard, as they have had to put up with Alfonso Soriano dropping more than his share of fly balls and posing in the batter’s box for doubles off the wall, along with Aramis Ramirez not running hard on grounders once in a while. The double standard may have been direct directions from the front office, but the several events this season that have included Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and the play on the field in general show that the damage has been done. Quade does not have the respect of his players and will need to follow Hendry out the door, fair or not.

But the culture change does not end there. For some time now I have had concern over the bad influence a guy like Soriano can have on an impressionable youth like Castro. The Cubs mega millions left fielder has been known as all offensive flash, no defense kind of guy that convinced Hendry to ink Soriano to the ridiculous contract. As Valentine admitted, Castro is a standout talent that could be a super star. But with role models like Soriano and Castro’s recent focus lapse, the kid’s own career may be taking a wrong turn. The All Star selections and big money will still come, whether with the Cubs or another team, but the North Siders need Castro to be more of a Derek Jeter to build a dynasty around than a Hanley Ramirez cancer.

I was surprised to hear that Soriano trying to confront Carlos Zambrano was one of the reasons why the fiery pitcher had stormed out of Atlanta muttering about retiring the other week. I was even more shocked to hear that the left fielder had also talked to Castro to tell the kid that what he did on Sunday night was not right. Despite these sudden examples of trying to be a leader, a true culture change cannot occur while Soriano is in Cubs pinstripes.

Only a few Cubs fans may remember Steve Stone mentioning a few years ago on Radio 670 The Score that Soriano had basically ruined Felix Pie. The five tool prospect was supposed to be the next superstar the team was going to be built around, but the speedy center fielder wanted to swing for the fences like his buddy Soriano, hoping for the big money contract that came with home runs and RBIs, instead of being a disciplined top of the order guy that could take advantage of his speed. Stone said that Soriano was busy spending his new found wealth (thanks to Hendry) partying on Rush Street, and apparently Pie was his wing man. As we know, the rest is history as Pie is now long gone with nothing to show for his time here. We cannot make the same mistake with Soriano negatively influencing Castro.

The insult to injury is that the team still plays Soriano as a starter despite the outfielder being a defensive liability and lack of offensive production. The worst is that Soriano is never benched for his mental lapses consisting of the dropped fly balls and posing mentioned earlier. You send the wrong message to kids like Castro and Barney when you do that, perpetuating the losing and lazy culture in the clubhouse.

Recently Ramirez was bunched in with Soriano in this aspect, as he drew fire from Comcast SportsNet analyst Todd Hollandsworth. The former Cub teammate ripped Ramirez for lacking effort that provides the wrong impression for the younger players. Ramirez has been known for cold starts over the last couple years, only heating up when the season no longer matters, along with some lazy play at third base and running out grounders, but his overall production numbers at the end of the year at least make his flaws easier to swallow. Until now. With all that has transpired in the last few days, as Hollandsworth’s comments were made two weeks ago, the evidence is starting to mount up on why the Cubs have struggled the last three years. If Ramirez’s 2013 option is bought out with no attempts to resign him, it may be an indication that Hollandsworth was on to something.

True culture change will require some house cleaning, and Tom Ricketts has at least started with dismissing Hendry. Quade is most likely next, but the real test will be if the owner cuts Soriano lose, even if it means eating the rest of the salary, possibly doing the same with Carlos Zambrano, and buying out Ramirez. A lot of the talk for 2012 and beyond has centered around whether to go for a youth movement or to sign a big name like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. But the deeper problem appears to lie within the organization, and regardless of how the team wishes to proceed going forward, the cleansing must start from within first. Stay tuned.