despite much grander rumors circulating the cubs at the deadline, the deal that got done was to send new acquisition jody gerut to pittsburgh for 34-year-old left fielder matt lawton.
lawton is a pretty solid answer to two cub problems -- leadoff and left field. his current .380 on-base percentage makes him the second-best on the club, while his 16 stolen bases lead by a healthy margin. lawton's history is also as a slightly-better-than-average corner outfielder, with good range and a very nice left-field arm that allows him to play right servicably.
there's very little downside for the cubs here, besides the expense of the salary (lawton gets $7.5mm for 2005 with no further obligation thereafter, further mitigated by cash considerations coming the cubs way). gerut was no loss except as a project possibility, and lawton will head a lineup that has in the last month shorn itself of the non-contributions of korey patterson and jason dubois and installed jerry hairston in center. these may seem minor shifts to some -- but i admit to thinking that the cub lineup is improved by half at least with lawton, hairston and walker all seeing the field, with hollandsworth filling the left-handed-bat bench role he seems destined to play.
if these moves are now compounded by a successful return of nomar to shortstop -- putting neifi back into the defensive-substitute/pinch-hitting role he was designed to play on this team -- this cub club will have made massive strides from midyear to becoming a legitimate and consistent scoring threat.
the cubs might also be making significant additions to the bullpen, long a sore spot, by relegating wood and a rehabbed scott williamson to relief. wood is likely to remain a control-plagued enigma, i suspect, but could perhaps join ryan dempster in becoming a qualified success story. williamson, for his part, has been a dominating reliever in the past; how tommy john surgery will have affected his velocity and movement remains to be seen, but early returns have been positive.
rich hill continues to look servicable as a major-league starter, adding himself to prior, zambrano, jerome williams and a tailspinning maddux. this is not the powerhouse rotation many expected -- indeed, it looks much like two aces and three fifth starters at the moment. but williams, along with hill, has been pretty good in the early returns, although showing flashes of the control trouble which ended his time in san francisco.
this is still a team with massive question marks. maddux may be experiencing the end of his legendary career out on the mound this month; williamson and wood may not be what we hope for in the bullpen -- that is, a reprieve from the hackery of novoa, mitre, wuertz and wellemeyer and some legitimate help for remlinger and dempster. and -- most of all -- it's simply really hard to make up ground in the playoff races -- the cubs remain four back (now of white-hot houston) looking up at four teams. so these moves, encouraging as they are, may simply be too little too late to make a difference. but the dog days are bringing some optimism -- and if it isn't sure to be rewarded, it also isn't entirely unwarranted.