7/3/2013 10:15 P.M. ET
Through 81 games, Cubs improved over last year
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
OAKLAND -- The Cubs have reached the halfway point in the season, posting a 35-46 record in the first 81 games, a slight improvement over last year's 31-50 record at the midpoint.
The Cubs have hit 20 more home runs at this point compared to last year (87 vs. 67) and have scored 39 more runs (337 to 298). The team ERA of 3.97 is nearly a half run lower than last year's 4.37 ERA through 81 games. Cubs starting pitchers have a 3.82 ERA through 81 games this season after posting a 4.32 ERA at this point last year, while the bullpen has a 4.32 ERA through 81 games this year, lower than the 4.47 ERA through 81 games last year.
How does manager Dale Sveum assess the team at the midway point?
"The two areas most glaring are obviously the bullpen and closing games out after having all these leads after the sixth, seventh, eighth innings," Sveum said. "We've got to clean that up somehow and win those ballgames that we put ourselves in a position to win.
"The offense is coming around a little bit and we're getting a little better with men in scoring position," he said. "Our two biggest problems have been men in scoring position and closing things with the bullpen."
The Cubs are tied for third-lowest batting average in the Major Leagues with runners in scoring position.
Camp designated, Rusin optioned for Strop, Guerrier
OAKLAND -- For Pedro Strop, getting traded to the Cubs means he's reunited with his friend, Kevin Gregg. For Matt Guerrier, it's a chance to get back on track.
The two relievers joined the Cubs on Wednesday at O.co Coliseum, taking the roster spots of Shawn Camp and Chris Rusin. Camp was designated for assignment, and Rusin, who started on Tuesday for Scott Feldman, was optioned to Triple-A Iowa.
Camp, 37, who was sidelined with a sprained right big toe in June, was 1-1 with a 7.04 ERA in 26 games with the Cubs. He gave up 34 hits and walked nine in 23 innings.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum called Camp the MVP of the first half last year when Camp compiled a 2.80 ERA in 43 games.
"Unfortunately, we had to outright Camp, which obviously wasn't my finest day as a manager," Sveum said. "It was tough, because Camp did so much for me my first year as manager and God knows where we would've been last year without him. Those days are tough when a guy's a great guy and obviously done a lot for you. He did a lot for me when I was managing in Double-A. We go way back. It was a tough day today."
The Cubs needed a starter to replace Feldman, who was dealt to the Orioles earlier on Tuesday, and Rusin filled in against the Athletics. He gave up three runs on six hits over 3 1/3 innings in the start, which he made on three days' rest.
Strop and Guerrier were acquired in separate deals. Strop was picked up from the Orioles along with Jake Arrieta, who was assigned to Iowa, while Guerrier was acquired from the Dodgers for Carlos Marmol.
Guerrier, 34, was 2-3 with three holds and a 4.80 ERA in 34 relief outings with the Dodgers before he was designated for assignment on Sunday. He and Gregg were teammates in Spring Training on the Dodgers, and had talked then about their roles.
"I was unsure about what was going to happen there in Spring Training with the amount of pitchers they had in camp and the decisions they had to make," Guerrier said of the Dodgers. "The way things worked out, they ended up needing all those starters and more. It was a weird situation that most teams don't run into."
Does he believe that a change of scenery will help him?
"We'll see," Guerrier said. "Obviously, things weren't going exactly as I'd like in L.A. We'll see how it goes."
Strop, 28, was one of the Orioles' primary set-up men last season, posting a 2.44 ERA in 70 appearances. This year, he missed time due to back problemos, and was 0-3 with a 7.25 ERA in 29 relief appearances.
"Obviously, I wasn't doing a good job there, so anything can happen," Strop said about being traded. "I'm just going to put that aside. I'm here, I'm a Cub now. I just want to help."
The right-hander said he changed his mechanics, and then struggled. Now, Strop said he feels back in his normal rhythm.
Villanueva could find his way back into rotation
OAKLAND -- Carlos Villanueva began the season in the Cubs' starting rotation and could find himself back there by the All-Star break.
The right-hander pitched 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday, and will continue to be stretched out. The Cubs do not have a starter set for Sunday against the Pirates, and could have Villanueva start and then get help from the bullpen. If the Cubs need Villanueva before Sunday, then they'll likely have to make a roster move and call someone up from the Minors.
Villanueva, whose last start was May 14, has posted a 2.04 ERA in 16 games as a reliever. He didn't feel he needed much time to prepare.
"The last two years, I've basically thrown without any buildup," he said. "I remember in New York, my first game in May, I went 75 [pitches], and last year, I went 95 in my first start in July. It's not the way you want to go and they're taking care of me here."
The Cubs need a starter to fill in for Scott Feldman, traded on Tuesday to the Orioles.
"We lost 'Feldy,' loved him, great teammate," Villanueva said. "I'm happy to see him go to a contender, but obviously, I'm sad for selfish reasons because he was a really good teammate. We've got the rumors swirling around [Matt] Garza. You've got to be prepared for it. The team has to do what's best for the future, obviously."
Although Villanueva has done everything but pick up a save this season, he does like starting the best.
"I've always been a starter, ever since I was a kid," Villanueva said. "I like having the control from pitch one. I'm sure all of our bench players would like to be starting."
But he'll never complain about his role.
"I want to be a guy who isn't trouble," Villanueva said.
He was 1-3 in eight starts with a 3.93 ERA.
"If there's an opportunity for me to help the team out, I feel with me starting, we have a good chance to win," he said. "From the heart, that's how I feel. I feel like I'm prepared, I feel like I'm matured. If I get a couple more starts, I'll try to do my best so I can get a full-time gig next year."
• The Cubs named Class A Daytona infielder Javier Baez and Triple-A Iowa pitcher Chris Rusin the organization's Minor League player and pitcher of the month for June, respectively.
Baez, 20, batted .300 with seven doubles and a league-leading nine home runs and 28 RBIs in 24 games. He became the second player in Florida State League history to hit four home runs in a game, doing so June 10 against Fort Myers.
For the season, Baez was batting .272 with 19 doubles, four triples, 17 home runs and 57 RBIs in 73 games. The Cubs' first-round Draft pick in 2011, Baez has a .283 career batting average with 34 doubles, 10 triples, 33 home runs and 104 RBIs in 158 Minor League games.
Rusin, 26, went 3-3 with a 2.86 ERA in six June starts, striking out 26 and issuing eight walks. He gave up three home runs over 44 innings, limiting the opposition to a .234 batting average. On Monday, he was named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star Team.
The lefty threw his first-career shutout in Iowa's 2-0 victory June 17 against Omaha as part of a career-high, 24-inning scoreless streak spanning four starts from June 7-22.
• The Stanley Cup is coming to Wrigley Field.
The Cubs will celebrate the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship Friday and Saturday. On Friday, Blackhawks players Bryan Bickell, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Bollig will be at Wrigley to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but they won't bring the actual Stanley Cup that day.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will have the trophy with him on Saturday when he throws out the ceremonial first pitch.
• The first Anthony Rizzo Foundation "Cook-off for Cancer" will be held Aug. 14 in Chicago. The event will feature upscale versions of ballpark food prepared by notable Chicago chefs and served by Cubs players. A three-person panel of local celebrities will give their take on the meals. Guests will vote for their favorite chef by tipping the Cubs server.
All tips and event proceeds will benefit pediatric cancer research, care and support. The event will take place from 6-10 p.m. CT at Cafe Brauer, located in Lincoln Park. Tickets are $1,000 for a table of four, or $200 for a single ticket. For more info, go to Cubs.com/cook.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.