CHICAGO – The Cubs have become adept at plugging and replacing the holes left open stemming from players being traded away the past two years.
The options haven’t always been bountiful as the minor league system is steadily gaining depth and impact players. But the 2013 version of the sell-off Cubs, which has witnessed the departure of mainstays Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, isn’t exactly the same as the 2012 product that also saw their best talent get traded away.
“I think we have a lot of big-league ready guys still on our team where last year we pieced it together just to put a team out there,” Monday’s starter Jeff Samardzija said. “There’s a lot of guys who have a lot on the line which is exciting and you see how we play every day because of that.”
Even with their 5-0 loss Monday against the Brewers, the Cubs (48-56) aren’t looking to coast through the final two months of the season or using any trades as an excuse to mail in their last 58 games. They have their sights set on trying to finish .500.
While that may seem far-fetched considering they sit eight games below .500 with plenty of games remaining against National League Central opponents in one of baseball’s toughest divisions, it’s a stark contrast to the grind-it-out mentally last year.
“It’s a goal that you want to have, but it’s [also] not a goal that we want to have with this organization because I think those kind of things hold things back too,” manager Dale Sveum said. “‘Oh, as long as we get to .500, yippee,’ but you’re still going home like everybody else who’s not in the playoffs.”
Certainly the Cubs have a ways to go to turn into a perennial playoff contender. But a fresh vibe in the clubhouse, in part credited to younger players such as outfielder Junior Lake and pitcher Chris Rusin taking on bigger roles, is helping the Cubs move past the void left by their former teammates, particularly Soriano.
“We’ve got a lot of young talent,” closer Kevin Gregg said. “You see that in Junior Lake. We’re just putting pieces together. We have a lot of talented pieces now; it’s just how we can put them together.”
It helps that the Cubs’ rotation has remained mostly intact. Carlos Villanueva slipped back into the rotation after getting booted when Garza returned from his spring training injury while Samardzija and Travis Wood have given a glimpse of a potentially potent 1-2 combination on the mound.
“We’ve dealt with a lot as a rotation,” Samardzija said. “We hadn’t gotten much of a chance in the last month and a half or so to get in a good rhythm … We’ve got a good group that sticks together and bounces ideas off each other. It’s a good thing we have going.”
The Cubs have the pieces in place and the players have a better understanding of how to weather the rough road of losing teammates amid a successful stretch. Even though the front office has traded five players from the Opening Day roster within the past few weeks, the Cubs own a 13-11 record this month and – more importantly – are learning to win despite losing some of their best players.
“I’ve said that since the first day I got here in the spring, it’s a great group of young guys and we have high expectations for ourselves,” outfielder Nate Schierholtz said. “I think the more experience we get the better we’re going to become. We’re not too far away from that.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.
Brewers 5, Cubs 0
Tipping point: Right-hander Jeff Samardzija did everything he could to put the Cubs in position to win, but the offense couldn't come through against the Brewers. Milwaukee scored five runs off reliever Pedro Strop in the ninth to turn a scoreless ballgame into an easy win for the Brewers.
On the mound: Samardzija became the third consecutive Cubs starter to throw seven innings of shutout ball. He surrendered only three hits and struck out seven for his most strikeouts since June 8 – a span of nine starts. Although he needed 109 pitches, Samardzija helped save the bullpen by working seven innings. He earned a no decision.
At the plate: The Cubs had six hits in the shutout loss, including two from Anthony Rizzo, who also walked. Junior Lake, making his Wrigley Field debut, snapped an 0 for 14 stretch and finished 2 for 4 with a bunt single. Nate Schierholtz struggled in the cleanup spot going 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and a weak grounder to first.
Under the radar: In their last 55 games since May 26, the Cubs' 30-25 record is fourth-best in the National League. Their .545 winning percentage trails the Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates.