Non-contenders play balancing act

Non-contenders play balancing act

Non-contenders play balancing act
It was just another September game at Wrigley Field, with the Cubs fighting to stay under the century mark in terms of losses, and the Pirates still in the hunt for one of the National League Wild Card spots.

As the Cubs have all season, they continued to fight on Friday. They knocked out some hits, the Pirates' bullpen was wild and, despite loading the bases, Pittsburgh escaped with a 7-6 win.

It was a good win for the Pirates. It also was good experience for the Cubs, who are in Season 1 of their rebuilding plan under their new regime.

"It's fun for us to be in situations where we can play in games that mean something at this time of the year," Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney said. "We're trying to steal as many as we can from these guys."

The Cubs hope to eventually be in a similar position as Pittsburgh and play meaningful late-season games. Barney, an efficient fielder and proven winner coming up through the ranks, likely will be a part of that team. Who surrounds Barney, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, however, is to be determined. That's what the season's second half and September is being used for by the Cubs' brass.

The position of the club on Chicago's North Side is no different than a handful of others, as teams out of contention throughout the Majors use this time to evaluate youngsters who might play a role in a franchise turnaround. It's a position teams like the Cubs, Astros, Rockies and others have been in for most of the season. While most clubs began giving young players a look this month when rosters expanded, the Cubs have been evaluating their youngsters for quite some time.

Chicago called up two players shortly after the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, former first-round Draft picks third baseman Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson. Since they joined the club on Aug. 5, manager Dale Sveum has done a solid job of juggling every manager's inevitable September conundrum: fielding the best lineup vs. giving rookies ample playing time.

"There's the part of the game where you want to help the other teams out who are behind them or tied with them, so you're always going to try to put your most competitive team on the field at that time," Sveum said. "You'd want other teams to do that for you when you're in that situation. You do the best you can."

The Mariners have done the same in the tough American League West, where they are the lone team out of contention. Seattle likely will play a key role in the outcome of the division and Wild Card races. After their current three-game set against the Orioles, the Mariners' next 12 games come against the other three teams in their division.

Seattle manager Eric Wedge said he plans to field a competitive lineup the rest of the way.

"It's still first and foremost about us winning games for us," Wedge said. "We want to win as many games as we can this year. If we mix in a newer player or younger player, it's because we think it's the right thing to do that particular night, not just for the player but also to help us win a ballgame."

After winning six AL Central titles, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has found himself in the bottom of the standings the past two seasons. As someone who's had to face teams with a spoiler mentality before, Gardenhire said his squad will approach each game in a similar fashion.

"We're going to be playing a lot of teams that are going to be contending, and we're going to put our team out there and try to win ballgames," Gardenhire said. "Have respect for the game and this organization like we always have and always will."

Some teams believe they already have a core in place to contend, and there's no reason to do more evaluating. That's the case for the Royals, who entered the season as a dark-horse candidate to win the AL Central by some pundits before injuries and an early 12-game losing streak got their season off to a slow start.

Now more healthy, the Royals are a big reason neither the White Sox nor Tigers can pull away in the division; Kansas City is 10-6 against the White Sox -- following Tuesday night's 3-2 loss -- and 4-7 against Detroit.

"We've got a very competitive group, and I feel like we had a lot of injuries this year to start the season, which hurt us a lot," said Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who is shut down for the rest of the season with a hamstring strain. "But at the end of the day, we feel like we can play with these guys."

So do most teams throughout the Majors, and that's what they'll continue to do, regardless of where they sit in the standings, until Oct. 3.

Cash Kruth is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.