Tuesday, October 31, 2006

clouds gather over the aramis talks

yesterday's news that aramis ramirez had filed for free agency, exercizing his option to void the remainder of his contract, has awakened much of cubdom to the difficult state of negotiations between the team and agent paul kinzer. bruce miles initially reported on saturday that the sides were far apart.

Paul Kinzer also wouldn’t put odds on whether Ramirez would file for free agency and test the open market.

“We’ve had some discussions, but there’s nothing imminent right now, “Kinzer said. “We’ve still got a ways to go. I don’t want to say right now (about Ramirez filing for free agency), but we’re still talking. That’s still his first choice.”

despite kinzer's reluctance to speculate on saturday, ramirez filed monday in a move was called "procedural" by many, including miles. but it may say something significant about the state of affairs between the negotiating parties.

filing early in the free agent declaration window -- which opened saturday and will close at the end of november 11 -- is a tactic that players can and do use as a signal of the seriousness of their demands in renegotiating their deal with their current club, effectively reminding the club that they can go to market. it is also confirmation of miles' original report that a chasm remains to be bridged between the two sides -- such a move becomes a plausible tactic if and when the parties are far apart with little promise, when sabre-rattling seems to become potentially useful.

sabre-rattling is, then, very often indicative of comprehensive failure. filing yesterday does nearly nothing to actually increase aramis' leverage per se that filing on november 11 wouldn't also have done -- provided one accepts that he, kinzer and jim hendry all understand a significant and pervasive interest in one of the top free agents in baseball, and who doesn't? it's hardly as though the move reveals something to hendry that he shouldn't already have known. the move isn't informative in the slightest -- it's simply a public threat. and when down to threats between parties that both feel they have another way out besides accomodation, situations are only rarely rectified.

so while the filing itself can technically be called a "formality", it is probably quite a lot more than that -- it is a falling barometer regarding an extended stay with the cubs for ramirez. anyone who credibly dismisses the filing as irrelevant must do so from the grounds that a deal was unlikely in the first place -- for while it may do little to materially or irreversibly change the situation on the ground, it augurs quite poorly for an eventual pact.

this situation is quickly gaining an patina familiar to those who watched as hendry failed to land rafael furcal last year. it seems obvious that what the cubs and kinzer have in mind are still poles apart after some discussion, and that better offers from other suitors have been intimated and may even have been whispered. today once again, the tribune is managing expectations -- painting ramirez as disingenuous and immovable and the cubs as merely prudent. strangely and perhaps tellingly, it is only this week that rumors of a no-trade clause in ramirez's deal for 2005 and 2006 have surfaced. as these notions almost certainly have their source in the cubs administration, their truthfulness is to be questioned -- at no point previous to this week was this page aware of any mention of a no-trade clause, and such a clause can ostensibly be spun to put the onus of failing to deal ramirez at the trade deadline on the player, not the management:

Ramirez had a no-trade provision in the first two years of his four-year, $42 million deal, and he told the Tribune during the '06 season he did not want to be traded, no matter how bad it got for the Cubs.

this is deceptive at best on the part of the tribune -- for even if such a clause actually existed, ramirez could very well have changed his mind and accepted a trade to a contending team in july even after publicly expressing a desire to stay motivated by duty in may when the team was falling apart -- an expression that the paper is now conspicuously turning against him.

moreover, if such a clause existed, one must ask -- who in their right mind gave ramirez a deal that not only made him untradable for two years but then gave him the option to walk scot free at the end of it? even under the initially reported terms, this page considered the deal an unwarranted shifting of risk to the club for a minor fiscal reward -- and that estimation is doubled if a no-trade clause was also included. the contract may be forgotten by the masses quickly enough, but this page doubts any of its readers would have negotiated for the team a contract so questionable. if this was the result of a shortsighted effort to sign ramirez at a total net savings of a few million dollars over two years, jim hendry and the cubs would have once again hamstrung the club with the elan of managerial incompetence that only they seem capable of mustering.

in any case, it increasingly appears that this page will be sadly borne out and that the biggest fork in the road facing the club coming out of 2006 will end with the team's offensive leader leaving without compensation.

it can certainly be argued that whether or not ramirez is resigned is a choice between bad options -- that the best option was forfeited in july when the trade deadline passed. but this much is virtually certain: aramis ramirez is a vital piece to any hopeful plan to win immediately for this club. his production probably cannot be replaced at third this year short of a blockbuster trade for miguel cabrera or miguel tejada, and his loss will likely back hendry into a desperate corner when it comes time to talk to alfonso soriano in mid-november. this page would still expect hendry to put a push on to bring ramirez back -- in order to try to execute a one-year turnaround, not to mention look somewhat less foolish for having failed to get anything for him -- but the odds of success look dimmer now than ever.

Little Jimmy's costume.

Today is October 31 and thanks to a bunch of pagan Celts drunk on mead gallivanting through their villages, we will be visited by dozens of children tonight (maybe their moms too? :) ) dressed in Halloween costumes demanding candy.

Now we all know that our drunken GM loves donuts, but if Cruller Jim were to stop by your house tonight, what do you think he'd be dressed up as and what would the Gym Teacher's candy-of-choice?

I picture little Jimmy sauntering up my steps, fresh knee scrapes stemming from the fall he has just taken as a couple high school kids stole his orange pumpkin candy holder. Up he walks in his 1972 Converse All-Stars, grey tank-top, 4-inch red Adidas athletic shorts with matching red polyester zip-up coat, and new gym teacher whistle; his bulbous belly popping out of the grey tank-top like some trucker girl singing Free Bird at a rest stop karaoke.

After carefully examining the contents of the bowl-o-candy, ever the discerning candy aficionado, Jimmy asks......

"Where's the rum balls, maam?"

Happy Halloween, 1060west folks.

- The Sorrow

Monday, October 30, 2006


with the cardinals having wrapped up their first world title since 1982 late last week, thoughts in this head were too uncollected and disorganized to be set to keystrokes. a long weekend of consideration settled thoughts and submissed prejudices. and reflection on the fine and hard-earned words of my good friend yielded me a different sort of closure.

it goes without saying that this writer too detests the white-belt faux-southern "moran" fandom of the cardinals -- their buffoonery is only exceeded, in this humble opinion, by the terrifically pathetic apathy of mainstream cubdom -- to whom it must seem self-evident that doing the same fucking thing every year will yield different results simply because they really enjoy engaging in the insular fantasy they've constructed for themselves -- and to whom doing something different in an effort to break a 98-year deathspiral is not only metaphysically certain to be pointless (despite the fact that different input, even if only incrementally different, might actually yield different results) but is akin to treason and/or heresy. this writer can't honestly accuse cardinal fans of being as stupid as cub fans -- really can't -- but disdains them anyway. redbird nation isn't to be put on high simply because they aren't the lowest of the low.

however, proper respect is given to the organization, the team and their management.

q: did they deserve to win the world series on 83 wins?

a: did they deserve to lose it in 2004 or 2005, when they were clearly the best team in the league?

please, rational readers and dear friends in suffering -- you bet they earned it. six playoff appearances in seven years is all about earning it. it's often said that baseball is not a sprint but a marathon -- but it's a much longer race even than most people seem to think. it transcends single seasons into decades and generations. and no other club in baseball except possibly the yankees and braves has done more to deserve winning the whole enchilada in this generation. the cardinals earned it in such a way that is almost beyond the conception of any living cub fan, so long has it been since a similar example was seen on the north side of chicago -- 658-475 (.581) since y2k makes this the best seven-year stretch of baseball from any cardinal club in history outside the compromised war years -- that's right, better even than the gashouse gang by percentage points -- and one has to go back to the 1930s to find anything even remotely comparable in the annals of the chicago cubs. does it matter that their well-deserved title arrived in the ostensible sunset of, as a golden coda to that run? clearly not.

so here is the clearest statement of honor and respect to be made about it -- and then this sad, horrible season will be over for this observer:

i wish the cubs were the cardinals. i wish our fans were as smart. i wish our ownership was as dedicated. i wish our management was as competent. and i wish our team was even half as good.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Hard to swallow

Tonite I sat at home and watched as the Cubs rival the St. Louis Cardinals won their 10th World Championship. It was the second Cardinal championship (24 years does not qualify as a drought) that I remember, amidst their five World Series appearances since I started watching the Fall Classic.

Now it's hard for me as a Cub fan to swallow any success that the Cardinals and their pompous skipper may have. What might be even harder for me to swallow is the fact that the Cardinals recorded only 83 regular season wins. They had the thirteenth best record in MLB in 2006. The 83 wins is an alltime low for a World Champ (in a full 162 or 154 game season). Even more alarming the pathetic Cubs actually took the season series from the Redbirds 11-8. From April to September this was not a good Cardinals team folks. But all of that was pushed aside in October.

When the playoffs started, who would have thunk that this Cardinal team would hoist the trophy? Looking at the 11 years that LaRussa has managed the Cardinals you will only find two teams that had less wins: the 1997 Cardinals and the 1999 Cardinals (the 1998 Cardinals tied the 2006 team with 83 wins). LaRussa has had some great teams in St. Louis. You only have to look back to his hundred win teams in 2004 and 2005. Still the Cardinal club that LaRussa will be remembered for, will be his team that put it all together in October.

The baseball gods must be playing a cruel joke on us Cub fans. First 2003, next the 2005 White Sox and now the 2006 Cardinals. You'd think somebody is writing a script to make Cub fans suffer. But what can you say. The Sox and Cardinals are well run baseball organizations with really good General Managers putting the pieces in place. These teams are built to win. Unlike certain unnamed teams. Ahhh, you have to have a strange sense of humor to be a Cub fan.

Congrats to the Redbirds and the self annointed "greatest fans in baseball". It might not have been the best team for 6 months, but they certainly were the best this October.

Onto the hot stove league.


as the team, under now-desperate general manager jim hendry, has apparently set itself to a one-year turnaround, prospect development has taken a back seat to immediate gratification. with the advent of a sort of irrational madness that might be called daisukemania or even gyromania, whispers about the pitching-poor cubs -- who, despite fielding a bevy of promising young prospects, notched the third-worst era in the national league last year and whose staff remains in turmoil -- pirating a starter from japanese ball have grown into open calls and shouts.

much was made of hendry's comments regarding the bidding for 26-year-old daisuke matsuzaka, but this page sees little reason to consider them further. daisuke is likely to field a posting fee of some $30mm -- payable to his current team, the seibu lions -- and a contract likely to be in the neighborhood of at least $6-8mm a year. the last star of comparable caliber to emerge from japan, ichiro suzuki, negotiated a three-year/$15mm deal with seattle in 2001 which will be the reference point from which daisuke's negotioations (fronted by scott boras) depart. these numbers are unapproachable for a cub team that has to fill several holes on a budget if they are to effect the kind of turnaround they profess to desire.

but that doesn't mean that the cubs have no prospect of obtaining help from japan.

for the uninitiated, the posting system allows the rights to players who are under contract in japan to be sold to major league clubs with the mutual consent of both leagues and the japanese players association (which was encouraged by the mlbpa to challenge the system under international labor rights law, but has not although the system remains under constant threat of attack and revision). players gain free agency in japan only after nine years, but as free agency approaches teams can post players still under their reserve control who are receiving interest from american clubs in search of cash compensation that can be quite considerable. the rights to posted players are then subjected to silent auction, the winner of which is granted a 30-day window to negotiate a new contract with the player. (japanese players are not allowed to negotiate with major league teams until after the free agent declaration period in japan is over, which is in the first week of november, which is approximately when players are posted.) if a deal cannot be reached, the posting fee is refunded and the player returns to his japanese club.

questions of what one might expect from investing in these pitchers are difficult to answer. some have called the japanese leagues a sort of 'quadruple-a', with talent of a corresponding level. while such a subjective judgment is hard to verify, this page has examined the careers of four previous crossover pitchers -- hideki irabu, kaz ishii, hideo nomo and masato yoshii -- who are the only examples of players who made significant numbers of starts on both sides of the pacific. on consideration of the average decline in performance in moving from japan to america, this page has concluded that one can expect 1) an increase in the rate of hits per nine innings of about one; 2) the rate of walks per nine to remain approximately constant; and 3) the rate of strikeouts per nine to decline in the area of 20% from their npb statistics.

applied to daisuke, this means an expectation over time of 8.2 h/9, 3.2 bb/9 and 6.9 k/9, which corresponds to a 1.27 whip. a quick survey of major league players producing similar numbers yields a likely comp of brandon webb -- in other words, daisuke is likely to be very good indeed, and at 26 is only now coming into his prime. the largest concern has to be for the extraordinary number of innings he was allowed to throw over the last few years as a young pitcher, but for many that will be neither here nor there. of course, with the cubs likely to run at the back of the daisuke pack, it's all really neither here nor there for this page.

however, we wouldn't at all be surprised to see the cubs bid for and get 31-y/o righthander hiroki kuroda. he isn't a pitcher of the caliber of daisuke (though he did win his central league era title this year), but then he's cheaper -- probably field 2-3 years for $5-7mm per with no (as he is a free agent) posting fee. the potential sticking point is that the player has to want to come. players like kuroda are already successes in japan, and to come to the united states and fail a la hideki "fat toad" irabu is not an attractive prospect. but kuroda is said to have been taking english lessons, a telltale sign.

applied to kuroda, however, these same rules that we above applied to daisuke yield an expectation of 10.3 h/9, 2.5 bb/9, 5.3 k/9, 1.42 whip -- the 2006 ballpark of esteban loaiza or paul maholm, both 15-20 vorp starters. active starters with career statistics in this vein include loaiza, zack greinke, joe mays and mike maroth.

other possibilities that have been mentioned include kei igawa, koji uehara, hirotoshi ishii and kazumi saito. igawa seems unlikely to make his way -- he is three years from free agency and his team (hanshin) has made public that they want to keep him. it would take a very considerable posting fee to change their minds. uehara is in a similar situation, closer to free agency but playing for the yomiuri giants who are openly antagonistic of the posting system. ishii is an injury-plagued reliever and probably won't interest the cubs. the 28-y/o saito won the sawamura award (analogous to the cy young) for reaching what might be called the triple crown (era, wins, ks) of his league. the expectation of saito -- 9.3 h/9, 3.3 bb/9, 6.1 k/9, 1.40 whip -- is somewhat better, closer to noah lowry or vincente padilla this last year with a 20-ish vorp. but, again, saito is nowhere near free agency and his club, the softbank hawks, is unlikely to post him with so much time on their side and none of the organizational cash concerns that perpetually haunt clubs like the yakult swallows.

one position player who will be making the trip is akinori iwamura, third baseman for low-budget yakult and teammate of the aforementioned ishii. (one who apparently won't is the most coveted of all the positional players in japan, south korean seung yeop lee.) iwamura is very unlikely at this point to figure into hendry's plans, though the phillies have expressed interest, unless negotiations with aramis ramirez go disastrously wrong.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A sport in decline

Despite the annual excitement that surrounds the World Series, despite record attendance numbers, and despite the fact that Bud Selig and Don Fehr are being congratulated for creating labor peace, there are major issues facing the game that most who stop by this page follow regularly. Baseball my friends has long been believed to be in a decline. A few facts only seem to justify that belief.

The World Series television ratings for the first three games are once again pitiful. This from an AP article:
The St. Louis Cardinals' 5-0 victory Tuesday night was the lowest-rated Game 3 in Series history, and the three-game average also was the lowest ever.

Game 3 drew a 10.2 fast national rating and 17 share, Fox said Wednesday, down 7 percent from the 11.0 rating last year for the 7-5, 14-inning win by the Chicago White Sox over the Houston Astros. The previous record low for Game 3 was the 10.8 rating for the Anaheim Angels' 10-4 win over the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

The three-game average of 9.9/17 was down 7 percent from the previous low of 10.6/19, set last year.

Yeah, there are many excuses. Two Midwest teams, no huge market team from the east (specifically the evil empire), no national story for the country to latch onto. Still, it has become an annual event to hear about the low ratings for the World Series. You can make all the excuses about market size, but the viewers just are not there. The commish, well he's just happy putting cash in his pockets. Here is what Uncle Bud had to say:
"I'm not overly concerned," he said. "The teams' television ratings all year have been spectacular. Let's wait until the World Series is over."
followed by this:
"We've now renewed all our contracts for seven years and had lots of competition," Selig said, "so apparently the people in the television business like what they're seeing."
Sounds like a man who is pretty satisfied with the job he has done.

An AP/AOL Poll released prior to the 2006 World Series should wipe that grin off of the commissioners face. It is my opinion that this poll shows what is troubling the sport of baseball. Like horse racing and boxing before baseball, the grand old game is failing to register with a younger audience (I know what a News Flash). According to the poll only 1/3rd of Americans consider themselves baseball fans. The numbers are worse when you take out those who are age 35 and higher. Baseball is not connecting with the youngsters.
According to the poll, more Americans 35 years and older than under 35 considered themselves baseball fans. Whites were more likely than minorities to put themselves in that category.

Yet overall, about two-thirds of Americans did not regard themselves as fans.

One of the reasons younger kids are not becoming fans is there is so many choices out there for entertainment. Another excuse that has been talked about over the last few decades is the late start time of the fall classic. Here is what the survey found:
75 percent of fans said postseason games start at the right time, 19 percent said they were on too late. And while most fans, 73 percent, said they would stay up late to watch the World Series, only 38 percent of those with school-aged children said they'd let their children stay awake past their bedtimes.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but the steroid issue has died down from last spring. Fans consider that the third issue confronting the game today, behind huge salaries and the cost of attending a ballgame.
Among all Americans, 28 percent said salaries were the top problem in baseball, 21 percent said it was the high cost of attending games and 19 percent said it was players using steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

That's a change from an AP-AOL Sports poll taken in April 2005, when 27 percent picked banned substances as baseball's No. 1 problem.

Click here to see complete findings of the AP/AOL survey.

As baseball looks ahead to the future they have to be concerned. Bud Selig has called this the Golden Age. I'm not so sure about that. When Selig's contract expires in 2009 he will be 75 years old. Andy MacPhail will be 56 in 2009. The rumors have swirled for years that Andy is in line to take over for Selig. His success on the last two CBA's has only increased his value in baseball circles. The third generation baseball czar knows how to run a successful baseball business. Andy MacPhail could be the man called upon to turn the numbers above around. It will be a big challenge for MacPhail, but certainly not the biggest of his baseball career.

And there were three

No new news here. As a matter of fact, Chuck at Ivychat as always was front and center on this days ago. Still there are a few small nuggets to add. According to the Washington Business Journal there are three groups that have emerged as bidders for the Tribune Co. Here is what they say:

According to the report, three groups have emerged as possible bidders:

At the moment, it is unclear whether Carlyle would bid alone or join with a
group of buyers.

The report said that some bidders think the Chandler family, the largest shareholder in Tribune after the purchase of Los Angeles' Times Mirror in 2000, would accept a per-share buyout bid in the mid-$30s.

Despite the final three, speculation remains that the Trib could be sold off in parts. According to Newsday media companies like Denver based MediaNews Group are taking a look at some of the Tribune's print properties.

And in case you missed this from a few days ago, Tribune Execs are preparing to exit the company once the takeover is complete. This from MarketWatch:

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Tribune Co. (TRB), which is considering a range of strategic options, changed several employee-benefit plans to speed up payments if there is a change of control at the company.

The publisher of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times disclosed the potential payouts of previously earned benefits in a filing Tuesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It's unclear from the filing the value executives have built up in the benefit plans. A Tribune spokeswoman said the plan amendments result in no new or additional benefits to company officers.

Tribune's board approved the changes last week to a bonus deferral plan, supplemental retirement plan and supplemental defined-contribution plan, the filing said.

The changes come as Tribune, beset by industrywide revenue pressures and unhappy investors, plans to decide by the end of the year on options to enhance shareholder value, including a possible asset sale or outright sale of the company.

Well it's looking clearer and clearer that despite the hopes of a vocal minority, the Tribune Company and the Chicago Cubs are about to have a new owner. Did anyone explain this to Lou Piniella when he took the job? How long will Jim Hendry survive the change in ownership? Maybe John McDonough really is interim. These are the days of our lives.

Seen on the Web: There is a new website that's pushing the Cubs to bring back the Stone Pony. bringbackstoney.com has an interesting quote at the bottom from Len K. Very interesting!

Monday, October 23, 2006

owners, players tentatively agree to new cba

this page has in the past fretted about the 2007 season as a potential sacrificial lamb of the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement this offseason and the potential for the unilateral contraction of two teams.

of course, the problems in cleveland and seattle were largely resolved by shining new temples to the sport, whose new revenue streams propelled those teams into consistent competition, in the indians' case, for the first time in decades. if it's understood that what challenges the challenged markets of baseball is often less the city they're located in than the stadium they play in, the logical foundation for the players to resist contraction on the grounds that stadium financing is the solution to the problem -- and not job cuts -- is set, along with the stage for yet another labor confrontation in baseball.

the threat of contraction never materialized despite ownership's clear prerogative, and that certainly set the stage for a more positive labor dynamic. the good news is that players and owners have come to an agreement without rancor. this small bit speaks volumes:

They set aside their long history of bitter negotiations to reach a tentative agreement on a five-year contract, the first time the sides have achieved labor peace before their current deal expires.

there's a first time for everything, and this page for one is happy to see it come.

Friday, October 20, 2006

this is the plan?

the world series hasn't even begun yet, dear reader, and mid-november is still three weeks away -- but this page nonetheless had to shake its head at this article in today's tribune.

The Cubs must come up with an extension for Ramirez within 14 days after the end of the World Series, which begins Saturday, or risk losing him to free agency.

Hendry is confident Ramirez will stay, and because there's plenty of time to meet the mid-November deadline, it's too early to panic. On the other hand, the longer negotiations go on, the more likely it is Ramirez will use his considerable leverage to squeeze every last Benjamin out of the Cubs.

Although the Cubs can't force him to sign at their price, they can, and already have, let him know they have a contingency plan in case he decides to leave.

"It's like dominoes," one Cubs source said. "If you lose a bat like that, and you don't put a bat nearly as good [in place] of him, then you're going to get some offense from a couple of different places."

much as this page has previously feared, that plan is typically disastrous and unlikely.

One of those dominoes could be at shortstop, and no, it's not Alex Rodriguez. Industry sources say Hendry once again will explore the possibility of trading for Baltimore's Miguel Tejada, who has three years and $38 million remaining on his six-year, $72 million contract, including a $12 million salary in 2007 and $13 million the two following years.

Tejada may be back on the market, although it certainly would take more than Prior to land him this time. Carlos Zambrano is considered an untouchable, but when asked to name his untouchables this week, Hendry mentioned only Derrek Lee.

tejada has been the object of cubbie dreaming since they originally failed to land him following the 2003 season. tejada was then going to be just 28 in 2004, and offered an unusual mix of power and fielding competency at his position. baltimore signed him to a six-year, $72mm blockbuster that has since turned out to be a reasonably good deal for the hapless orioles. tejada is still owed $12mm for 2007 and $13mm for each of 2008 and 2009; and a sort of mutual antipathy has set in between the restless tejada, who has freely criticized management, and ownership.

tejada, now 31, is still an excellent player by any measure. his vorp production of 65.1 in 2004 and 62.9 in 2005 was exceeded by 2006's 66.4 -- a year in which he hit .330, slugged .498, hit 24 homers and drove in 100 for a terrible team. he would, if obtained, be the best player on the club and probably remain so through 2009 even if normal age-related deterioration sets in.

but he'd also be replacing the current best hitter on the club in ramirez, who himself has averaged 46.2 vorp over the last three seasons -- presenting then a direct expected advantage of some 15-20 offensive runs over replacement -- and who is two years younger than tejada. consider too that tejada would likely be replacing cesar izturis at shortstop -- a player with a proven capacity to post negative vorp -- and the availability of scott moore, who is perhaps less at detriment at third than izturis is at shortstop, and the move overall is likely to help the cubs offensively in the short term.

but these are the key qualifiers -- "offensively" and "short term". the longer term consequences largely hinge upon who would have to be dealt to obtain tejada, and that package is not insignificant no matter how motivated the counterparty in the deal.

last december, this page saw fit to ridicule the flights of fancy being undertaken by the delusionally hopeful with regards to tejada and others. at that time, the dreamed-of price was mark prior -- not only for tejada but erik bedard as well -- and the cubs had already committed prohibitive amounts to payroll.

one wonders what the cubs could package that would constitute an overwhelming offer. this page has already considered the dessicated higher levels of the cub farm system. a deal consisting of single-a talent has utterly no chance of prying loose a first-tier star with four remaining contract years. and what players from the major league roster would baltimore consider in trade for tejada? players like derrek lee and aramis ramirez are going to free agency at the end of 2006; chances are that they together would not be sufficient to land tejada.

in the end, there are really only two players in the entire cub organization around whom some kind of deal for tejada could be built: mark prior or carlos zambrano. both are young, fantastically talented, and still short of free agency, which would allow baltimore potentially to craft a long-term deal for them (a precondition, it is here imagined, for any deal to actually take place).

the situation this time around has changed somewhat. the cubs, without ramirez's obligation on the books, would have plenty of room to afford tejada even without a significant overall payroll expansion.

lee of course later signed a monstrous contract extension; his recovery from a forearm injury is in any case likely to rule him out of any deal with the traditionally-injury-paranoid oriole ownership. prior is perhaps permanently damaged goods and going nowhere.

in truth, it seems to this writer that only two components of the cubs system could anchor a deal for tejada -- carlos zambrano or rich hill.

zambrano is an excellent pitcher, of course, and could be a responsible straight-up trade candidate. but he is now approaching free agency after 2007; and the cubs could not hope to make such a deal rational -- in giving up zambrano and ramirez, replacing them with tejada and a free agent pitcher such as jason schmidt, the cubs would have gotten much older, essentially no better and considerably more expensive.

no, if there is going to be a deal for tejada, it will in every likelihood center on rich hill and at least one other prospect from the cub farm system -- and unless that prospect is donald veal or perhaps felix pie, chances are the deal would be for hill and two prospects.

consider, then, the cubs backup plan to failing to close a deal with ramirez: spend slightly less money (to the tune of $2mm or so), but sell the most promising pitcher to emerge from the cub farm since mark prior and at least one other probable major league contributor -- both being controlled contracts for the next five years at least. whatever gains in value of replacement are realized in going from ramirez to tejada are immediately tossed out the window even in the short term by sacrificing what is currently the second-best starting pitcher on the team and more. moreover, the damage to the club over a five-year window is probably significant.

plan c looks just as awful.

If the Cubs can't get Tejada and opt for defensive-minded shortstop Cesar Izturis, the offensive upgrade would have to be in the outfield. New manager Lou Piniella doesn't want a power-hitting outfielder who's also a butcher on defense.

San Diego has a $7 million option on center fielder Mike Cameron, who was a catalyst on Piniella's teams in Seattle. Cameron had career highs in doubles (34) and triples (nine) and drove in 49 runs after the All-Star break. He also has a strong arm and great range. Cameron turns 34 in January, and the Padres are likely to pick up his option.

Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, who led the American League with 58 steals and hit .348 with runners in scoring position in 2006, has $9.25 million due him over the next two years, with club options for 2009 and 2010. The Cubs would have to come up with a significant package of prospects to pry him loose.

Another alternative is Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, who led the AL in hits (224) and scored 110 runs. He receives $11 million in 2007 in the final year of his contract. Suzuki loves Seattle, but may be tired of receiving more attention in Japan than he does in the United States, playing on a West Coast team with no national following.

this does not constitute a plan any more than a noose constitutes a plan. cameron is coming off a brilliant 2006, but is 34 and has been in a slow but steady decline since his heyday between 1999 and 2001 and usually posts a vorp in the neighborhood of matt murton. the young crawford is a lovely idea but will take as much in talent to get as tejada and never offer anything like the kind of production either tejada or ramirez can. and ichiro, an excellent fielder and very competent hitter who could as easily play center as either corner, is nonetheless typically a 35-40 vorp player who will be 33, makes $11mm a year and will be a free agent at the end of the season.

if this is truly the backup planning, dear reader, it is utterly unconscionable for hendry not to already be hip-deep in negotiations with ramirez. it would seem that the next three weeks virtually must produce a deal with ramirez if the cubs really hope to be materially better in 2007 than they were in 2006.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the one-year turnaround

with the anticipated announcement of lou piniella as the cubs new manager upon us, this page sets its gaze upon what his hiring means and what to anticipate going forward.

the situation was evaluated from a political perspective by this writer all along, and it would now seem that jim hendry has succeeded in carving a significant slice of operational freedom from newbie team president john mcdonough. mcdonough demonstrated his ignorance of the on-field aspects of the cubs almost immediately, and he has since said nothing to indicate that he is anything but a baseball lightweight concerned (as fits the company he works for) with marketing and profits. as such, he is (unlike former general manager andy macfail) completely reliant on hendry to run baseball operations, which is perhaps an inherently tragic place to be; and hendry would seem to have used that advantage to wrangle a free hand, the first manifestation of which is piniella.

how piniella fares as an on-field manager in 2007 will be in large part determined by hendry's ability to address a national-league-worst roster in a single offseason, and it must be implied now that he will have "complete creative control" over that process. fiscal control is of course denied him -- those numbers are handed down from tribune tower -- but rumor is afoot about an increase in total payroll to $115mm for 2007, a rise that would correspond to an effort to reverse the abandonment of the club in the second half of this year which this page took as one of the few positives of a dismal season.

this page will believe that payroll expansion when it sees it for reasons having to do with tribco's much larger financial problems above and away from baseball. it should be remembered that radical payroll expansions catch the wind every year around this time. but even such a payroll level -- while perhaps an absolute necessity for this club if it is to harbor any significant hope of pulling off what would appear to be hendry's essential plan since much earlier last season -- may well not be enough.

if the idea in the mind of the current general manager is that he will be given the kind of resources in 2007 that it would take to make this club a winner from what it is now, good old cruller jim is in for a massive surprise. he genuinely seems to think he's going to be given what it would take -- and his dreamy stupidity in this direction in part explains his insane idea of holding his cards instead of folding right now before the 31st in an effort to go much younger and start the sincere rebuilding this club obviously needs.

the other part of the explanation, of course, is that hendry was inked to a two-year extension through 2008 before the start of the year. he has to win soon or not at all.

this page has agitated for months in favor of a deep rebuilding reliant on young pitching and prospect development, and it remains the opinion here that this direction offers by far the more probable, indeed perhaps the only real chance of a long-term turnaround of this sickly franchise. but it has also been noted that has never been the likely course of a general manager with a very questionable track record and only two years left on his contract. that truth puts the tragedy into the inability of tribco to completely clean house and give hendry his walking papers along with baker and macfail.

instead, piniella's hiring would seem to signal another retreading of a shopworn offseason plan -- the one-year crash program with the intention of catching lightning in a bottle.

whatever the final tally of resources marshalled to that cause, the hard truth is that such single-season turnarounds are impossibly rare -- and that in part because, where a meaningful core of inexpensive young talent does not exist, the market all but puts beyond reach the quantity of talent needed to make a winner of a club. the cubs fielded a team at the start of 2006 with a payroll some 21% higher than the major league average, even further above the national league average, and that club won just 66 games -- a radically low (33.6%) efficiency in translating payroll into winning percentage. why? because the team carried very few good players that were still controlled contracts and several free agents who weren't worth a plugged nickel.

that situation is extremely unlikely to meaningfully change in 2007 and in fact will likely aggravate itself. aramis ramirez will be marked-to-market if he stays; if he doesn't stay, the push is apparently on for a-rod, a deal that will not only cost the cubs a similar amount of money as ramirez but likely at minimum a young starting pitcher as well. derrek lee is already very well paid; carlos zambrano stands to be raised to $10mm or more in his final arbitration year if he isn't outright offered a multiyear quasi-free-agent contract. none of these players represents the sort of payroll-efficient production that good teams not playing in the bronx are built upon.

in this page's preseason discussion of payroll efficiency, the cubs were estimated to harbor a probable win total of 79-85 games. the club in practice obviously fell well short of that mark with just 66. why? it is here posited that two reasons dominated: 1) random variation in the correlative between payroll and winning percentage; and 2) inefficiency inherent in the cubs makeup that is a product of having too few young talents and too many derelict free agents on the roster.

the general correlation between team total value over replacement and winning doesn't require a great deal of proof beyond this chart, and won't receive more examination here. previously, this page has discussed payroll efficiency -- that is, winning percentage divided by normalized payroll -- but will disdain that in favor of a vorp efficiency analysis here -- that is, team vorp normalized over the nl divided by payroll normalized over the league. it is felt that this analysis is somewhat more direct and reduces some variation in the correlation.

examining each national league team in particular, however, begins to reveal what factors differentiate teams and offer a window onto how successful teams can be successful. the cubs finished dead last in the league in team total vorp -- meaning that their payroll (approximated with some inaccuracy from hardball dollars) bought very little indeed in 2006. this results in a vorp efficiency of just 54% -- which is to say that the cubs returned about 54 cents of value on the dollar relative to the league as a whole. that is a signal of either some terrible luck or some apocalyptic management.

some of that inefficiency is almost certainly bad luck. but when the disparity between expected returns and actual is so vast, there is almost certainly also a significant component of poor management -- particularly when that inefficiency is persistent over seasons.

examining an extreme case like the marlins is not difficult but yields an important insight. a near-replacement level team (team vorp < 100, for example) with a payroll of only pre-arbitration contracts (team payroll ~ $13mm) would garner a vorp efficiency of 150%. it would also probably be the worst team in the history of baseball. the trick of winning baseball is, from this perspective, not only to be more efficient than your competition but more efficient than a regression curve would predict for your payroll size.

the relationship between normalized payroll and vorp efficiency approximately follows an inverse power law -- which is to say that efficiency becomes harder to obtain the more one spends and generally the better the team is. lucky, well-run clubs with young cores of productive talent fall over the regression line; unlucky, poorly-run clubs with ageing and expensive players and/or unproductive players fall under it.

the cubs underperformed the regression expectation by the greatest margin in the league in 2006, managing just 70% of the vorp total that their payroll would imply, while four of the top five clubs in winning percentage were also top five in outperforming expected vorp efficiency. it seems to this page that the problem of winning baseball is similar to if not the same problem of maximizing vorp efficiency.

how? by finding players who are cheap and good -- some revelation, that, but it carries radical implications. it means that the cubs are already spending as much or more than the team should need to be successful -- and that spending marginally more is not necessarily a formula for reaching the playoffs. it means that a player like ryan howard is immensely more valuable to his team than a player like albert pujols. and it means that free agent rebuildings are, while perhaps palliative, all but worthless in terms of playoff pursuits without an emergent core of young, inexpensive, productive players to underpin them.

if there is an example in the league this year of a team commonly perceived to have bought their way to success, it is either the new york mets or the los angeles dodgers. but both clubs in fact got tremendous production from inexpensive players that truly drove their seasons. the mets particularly reaped the benefits of jose reyes (age 23), david wright (23), john maine (25), aaron heilman (27), pedro feliciano (29) and duaner sanchez (26) in 2006 -- all contributing vorp of 18 or more, none of them making more than half a million dollars. the dodgers, with the press obsessed with high-profile acquisitions like nomar garciaparra and rafael furcal, rode to the nl wildcard on jonathan broxton (22), andre ethier (24), russell martin (23), chad billingsley (21) and minor league signee takashi saito (36) -- again, all contributing vorp of at least 16, none making over half a million.

the cubs, on the other hand, found themselves with only ryan theriot, rich hill and matt murton offering comparable levels of production for the price -- with hill and theriot playing less than half the year. compounded with the previously described problems of clearly below-replacement-value players of any size contract being allowed to languish for far too long for this club, and it is little wonder that the cubs finished at the bottom of the national league in both value over replacement and wins.

the latter affliction is the more easily resolved -- simply removing ronny cedeno and glendon rusch and replacing them with... well, just about anyone will do the trick. but the former -- how does a team come up with a david wright? and just how much of that kind of production would it take to make the 2007 cubs the kind of vorp efficient team that wins in major league baseball?

one can analyze the 2006 model while assuming some changes to guess at the magnitude of what may need be done. presume (as seems likely) cedeno to be substituted by cesar izturis -- himself a (-8.7) vorp player last year and (-4.5) in 2005, but better than cedeno anyway -- and rusch and neifi perez to be substituted by replacement level minor leaguers. further presume derrek lee to have contributed as the 35 vorp player he has long been, and the cubs would have added about 55 runs over replacement while only slightly lessening payroll -- raising team vorp efficiency to 64%, still the worst in the national league. the team would further have had to have added 80 runs over replacement without adding to payroll to raise team vorp to 400, a level which corresponded to 105% expected vorp efficiency outperformance in 2006 -- which is where the division-winning cardinals performed. (for perspective, that is the approximate difference between the mets' reyes and cedeno last year.) and to get to an expected vorp efficiency outperformance level of 126% (the minimum of the other three playoff clubs) the cubs would need to add quite a lot more.

on this view, the plan for a one-year turnaround with the expansion of payroll to $115mm as part of a free-agent buying binge -- presuming uncritically for a moment that it comes to pass -- is fraught with difficulty. a $115mm payroll will normalize to something like 145% of the nl average, which would reduce our regression expectation of vorp efficiency to 72%. in order to become a playoff caliber (125% outperformance of expected vorp efficiency) club, the cubs would have to use that $15-20mm to purchase -- even presuming the conditions set forth in the previous paragraph -- something like 160 runs over replacement, which would drive the projected team vorp up to about 480. of course, that $15-20mm expansion would also have to feed raises for both carlos zambrano and ramirez -- so perhaps it is more realistic to talk about $10-15mm of available cash to go to market with.

consider the elite free agents soon to be on the market this winter, most or all of whom are likely to cost upwards of $12mm a year or more.

jim edmonds20.944.782.6
jason schmidt50.419.467.7
alfonso soriano49.839.431.0
barry zito50.138.126.4
moises alou28.342.440.8
carlos lee47.424.938.7
ray durham48.525.734.5

it should be apparent that what the cubs would need to be assured of adding some 160 runs over replacement in 2007 isn't one of these free agents but three or four, in a buying splurge of not $15mm but $50-60mm.

in short, dear reader, the idea that the 2007 cubs are going to pragmatically solve the problems that beset the 2006 version of the club in free agency is all but ridiculous. even if the 2005 version of mark prior should reappear, his 40 vorp contribution above and beyond the likes of angel guzman would only serve to reduce the shopping list from schmidt, lee and soriano to merely lee and soriano. to be sure, spending more money correlates well with winning -- but without access to an inexpensive core of productive talent that affords the efficiency which allows a club to focus the resources it takes to market, it takes a lot more than $115mm to win.

as this page has said before and now hopes to have shown at least in comprehensive outline, jim hendry has with piniella has undertaken to play a fool's game if they purport to turn the franchise around so quickly using free agency. the only mitigating factor that could redeem 2007 and the years forward would be a flowering of the youthful pitching in which this page has invested its imperiled hope for the future of the club. while that is sincerely hoped for come what may, it would certainly be unexpected so soon. instead, this page is reduced to warily praying that hendry and piniella do not conspire to use the best young assets in trade, bringing in expensive established players on the brink of or well into free agency -- thereby once again setting back the hopes of a long-term revitalization in favor of ephemeral delusions of immediate gratification.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Distant replay--the Baker hiring

As we wait on the formality of the Cubs press conference to announce Lou Piniella as their new skipper, I took a look back on the excitement that accompanied Dusty Baker when he came to town, 4 long years ago.

It was November 19, 2002 when the Cubs announced the hiring of the now departed Dusty Baker. Hope and optimism rang throughout Cubdom as Baker came into the mix. Baker was a veteran manager of the wars in October. He was going to be the man that took the Cubs to the promised land. Thanks to the interweb we can look back on the spin that was being force fed to Cub fans by John McDonough's marketing machine:

During his coming out party with the Chicago media Tuesday afternoon, Baker made one thing very clear: he wants to win and he will do it by his rules. Now that the ink is dry on the contract that he and the Cubs reached Friday, the real work begins. His challenges ahead include hiring a coaching staff, getting in touch with his new players and helping his boss in the free agent recruiting wars.

and there was this:

Baker inherits a team that went 67-95 under two different managers in 2002. Besides the on-field struggles, there were plenty of behind-the-scenes problems as well with reports of infighting in the clubhouse, a player caught napping on the job and team members reporting late for work.

Of course as always Cub fans were portrayed as happy-go-lucky:

"He wouldn't demand anything from his players he wouldn't expect from himself," Sofia said. "His teams don't make any mental mistakes. He also controls the egos and promotes teamwork. He has what it takes."

Tom Dillavou lives in the Wrigleyville neighborhood and wandered over to the park to see if he could get a ball signed for his son.

Dillavou echoed the sentiments of other fans staking out the area under the famed Wrigley Field marquee that read simply, "Cubs welcome Dusty Baker."

"I think he's going to break the curse," Dillavou said of Baker and the Cubs' 94-year drought of World Series victories. "The main thing is any time teams have a superstar, you have to get that star to play with the others. If he can get Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent to get along, he'll have it easy with Sammy Sosa."

Ahh the curse talk and keeping the clubhouse straight. You can't beat the crap they discuss about a bad team after a bad season. What about bad pitching and hitting?

It will be real interesting to see how the media spins the hiring of Piniella. Hiring Piniella was not the smooth public relations move that hiring Joe Girardi would have been. There is no doubt that Lou can manage. His track record proves this. Still, like another manager, he needs his "horses". Without the players, this move is pointless. Hendry's most important offseason moves are in the days ahead.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hendry finds his man

As long as there are no problems in contract negotiations it looks like the Cubs have found their new manager. According to Chris DeLuca in the Chicago Sun-Times it will be a "refreshed" Lou Piniella.

Piniella, 63, declined to speak specifically about the Cubs' offer but said that is the only team he will consider managing next season. Sources confirmed Saturday that Piniella is the Cubs' choice and contract talks will begin soon. The team is hoping to announce Piniella as its 48th manager this week, before the World Series begins Saturday in Detroit.

A potential snag in talks won't center on money as much as length of contract. General manager Jim Hendry, who is said to have been cleared to make this hire on his own, has just two years left on his contract and might not be able to offer Piniella more than a two-year deal.

If the Piniella talks fall through, sources say the Cubs will formally contact the San Diego Padres about interviewing manager Bruce Bochy, who has been given the green light to meet with other teams. Former Florida Marlins manager Joe Girardi -- the fan favorite who was a Cubs catcher and team captain -- fell out of contention and appears headed to the Washington Nationals.

Piniella comes to town with a track record that was great when he left Seattle after the 2002 season. What followed in Tampa were three forgettable seasons. Here is a look at Lou's big league managerial record:

Year League Team Age G W-L WP Finish
1986 AL East NewYorkY 42 162 90-72 .556 2
1987 AL East NewYorkY 43 162 89-73 .549 4

1988 AL East NewYorkY 44 93 45-48 .484 5

1990 NL West Cincnnti 46 162 91-71 .562 WS 1
1991 NL West Cincnnti 47 162 74-88 .457 5
1992 NL West Cincnnti 48 162 90-72 .556 2

1993 AL West Seattle 49 162 82-80 .506 4
1994 AL West Seattle 50 112 49-63 .438 3
1995 AL West Seattle 51 145 79-66 .545 1
1996 AL West Seattle 52 161 85-76 .528 2
1997 AL West Seattle 53 162 90-72 .556 1
1998 AL West Seattle 54 161 76-85 .472 3
1999 AL West Seattle 55 162 79-83 .488 3
2000 AL West Seattle 56 162 91-71 .562 2
2001 AL West Seattle 57 162 116-46 .716 1
2002 AL West Seattle 58 162 93-69 .574 3

2003 AL East TampaBay 59 162 63-99 .389 5
2004 AL East TampaBay 60 161 70-91 .435 4
2005 AL East TampaBay 61 162 67-95 .414 5

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for the data above.

Everybody knows what Piniella did with the 1990 Reds. What Uncle Lou did in Seattle might be the real impressive piece to his resume. The Seattle Mariners were a laughingstock little franchise in the Pacific Northwest when Piniella took over. During his ten years in Seattle the Mariners became one of baseballs better clubs. Piniella winning manager of the year honors in '95 and '01. The Mariners would have several postseason appearances, but Piniella would never get them to the World Series.

Now the challenge ahead of Piniella is unlike any he has ever seen before. This page wishes Uncle Lou all the luck in the world, he's gonna need it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

resolution of an impasse

the cubs today added padre skipper bruce bochy to the interview list, joining sweet lou piniella and joltin' joe girardi as a late entry into what had appeared a two-horse race.

while manager speculation has been all the talk of cubdom since dusty baker's release, you can probably tell, dear reader, by the breathless and exhaustive coverage you've here read about it that this all amounts to a sideshow of a sideshow in the eyes of this page. the winning and losing of 2007 and beyond will be done on the field by players, not managers, and it will be a lot more losing than winning without some thorough and magical work out of general manager jim hendry.

however, if we should deign to speculate, piniella was clearly the favorite through yesterday and probably still is. the pages of the tribune, last week singing the praises of girardi, have decidedly changed tune this week -- piniella dominates the pages of the trib spin machine here and here, not to mention the bright one.

and yet, something seems amiss -- why bother to interview bochy?

this writer for one understands the managerial tempest as a defining struggle for power between a lame-duck general manager who somehow survived the axeing of his boss and his manager, and the novice team president who knows lots about selling and little about baseball. john mcdonough, being completed unvetted for the job he has just been handed, is in a political quandary of sorts: he is surely bureaucrat enough, after two decades working for the tribune, to understand that his fief requires definition and consolidation behind the scenes and in public in order to make himself a leader of this organization; and yet, having only slight credibility in baseball operations if any, he is hamstrung to some extent by being reliant on hendry for access to that knowledge. hendry, on the other hand, is in a position of a sort of shaman, a guardian of secret knowledge -- and that gives him leverage over his boss enough to argue forcefully for his way.

this power struggle in the cub front office is being played out in the selection of manager. girardi is a favorite of mcdonough -- young, dynamic, highly marketable chicago roots and straight as an arrow, girardi is a brand manager's low-risk dream. hendry is said instead to be partial to piniella -- tested, durable, fiery and a frequent winner, piniella is seen (for whatever reason, such is the zeitgeist) to be the best-equipped to manage a team to winning sooner rather than later. with hendry nearing the end of his rope following 2006, that is a consideration -- but piniella has made a name for himself in baseball for biting the hand that feeds him. his constant attacks on ownership over his final two years in tampa made him a pariah when ownership changed, the new being unable to countenance a recurrence of the public damage done to the old -- and piniella proceeded to quickly lambaste the new ownership as well. in short, piniella is a brand manager's nightmare.

the outcome between girardi and piniella was to be seen as an outcome between mcdonough and hendry on some level, as so often corporate decisions are the reflections of subcutaneous interpersonal machinations. and the appearance of bochy, in that light, is perhaps the surfacing of an impasse between the president and the general manager -- and a third-way compromise. bochy too has won in san diego, including the 1998 nl pennant and three straight winning years since the institution of cavernous petco park. and his twelve years there have shown him to be a flexible company man -- not nearly so outspoken or dangerous as the loose-cannon piniella. in satisfying the conditions of both parties, bochy immediately becomes a very probable candidate, perhaps even the odds-on favorite.

where that leaves the border war between mcdonough and hendry is uncertain, but it is a face-saving solution for both and demonstrates some capacity to work together if it comes to fruition. but that conflicts will arise between them in the future is all but certain, and the resolutions of those conflicts will drive the fortunes of the team to a much greater degree than is popularly perceived.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

the other end of the spectrum

an ongoing offseason roundtable being hosted by the chicago national league ballclub blog rendered this typically insightful and trenchant analysis from host participant and 1060west friend and commenter maddog.

If we establish the core talent at this point as Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and Michael Barrett, we’re not talking about a whole lot of talent to build around. Zambrano is undoubtedly the most productive player of those four.

3-year average Value Over Replacement Player (VORP):
Carlos Zambrano — 55.6
Aramis Ramirez — 46.2
Michael Barrett — 28.3
Derrek Lee (using ’02-’04 stats) — 37.0

The Cubs core, also their top 4 VORP players combine for a total VORP of 167.1. The average of just the top three VORP leaders of the 8 playoff teams is 162.9. The Cubs core consists of four players that make up just a little bit more production than a playoff team’s top three VORP guys.

The average of the eight playoff teams highest VORP player is 65.7 (Zambrano = 55.6). The average of the 2nd highest VORP player on the playoff teams is 53.2 (Ramirez = 46.2) and the average of the 3rd highest is 44.1 (Lee = 37).

The Cubs fall short of the average playoff team’s VORP leader at each spot.

pardon me for a moment of what seems like irrational optimism in the aftermath of a catastrophe season, dear reader, but this can be twisted into a granule of hope for 2007. retain ramirez and land one young star of a 6-to-7-win caliber and the cubs have an apparently-legitimate playoff-average core, even if only for the next couple years at best. (as maddog too notes along with yours truly, this core is already nearing its age-mandated expiration date.)

imagine (indulge, if you will) engineering a trade for miguel cabrera with a flight of young pitchers -- including, say, blue-chip prospect donald veal but not the major-league-ready rich hill. install him in left. or, maybe better, manufacture a similar trade for vernon wells and place him in center.

if the young pitching takes some semblance of flight in 2007 with a positional core of wells, lee, ramirez, zambrano and barrett -- if hill builds on his second half and if mark prior or another youngster were to step into the rotation and make a meaningful contribution -- then the cubs could possibly be able to stage a fair imitation of a resurgence next year.

but such a fate is conditional on at least two other acts -- only one of which lies entirely within the team's purview.

health, obviously, is the first -- but at least the team should know better than to rely on wood and prior as rotation components.

the second is this. the cubs problems in 2006 stemmed from two complementary issues, it seems to this writer. maddog analyzes the shortage of plus talent on the field, which is undeniable. but the other half was the persistence in playing really bad players for the lack of good ones. examine these lists: of batters and pitchers, who played for the cubs in 2006 sorted by value over replacement, and of 2006 win percentage added for the club. openly destructive players like rusch (-12.6 vorp, -1.44 wpa), dempster (-3.13 wpa), mabry (-12.6 vorp, -1.89 wpa), neifi (-7.3 vorp, -1.47 wpa in only 87 games) and -- most egregiously -- cedeno (-17.1 vorp, -4.65 wpa) have to be limited or sidelined. neither hendry nor baker made decisive moves to do so, excepting the trade of neifi to the playoff-bound tigers. (note also that this page does not name angel guzman or carlos marmol here, as their "contributions" were made in large part after the fate of the team had been decided in the name of building experience.)

consider a comparison of detracting players on the cubs to those of both the playoff clubs and the misbegotten of baseball. this table contains the number and sum of players with a wpa of less than (-1) on each team, followed by the sum of negative vorp players (limited to those recording more than 100 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched).

teamwpa <(-1)vorp <0
playoff average4.6-6.41-37.2

on this view the insufficiencies of the cubs on the lower end of their talent spectrum are made clearer -- the difference between the cellar-dwelling likes of the cubs and the cream of baseball is as much or more pronounced at the low end of the talent scale as at the high end. not only were the cubs plagued by a nominal lack of star power; they were riddled with the players that made those shortcomings true disasters by being unable to perform even at replacement levels in the absence of very good players.

if, for example, juan pierre were replaced by a full year of premier talent such as vernon wells or andruw jones in centerfield, the cubs could expect an improvement of some three to four games in record for the exchange -- the approximate difference indicated by their usual warp and vorp differentials. however, if cedeno were replaced by even a fourth-tier talent such as juan uribe or jack wilson, the difference to the cubs by the same metrics would be the same three to four games. execute both moves in conjunction with a typical six-to-seven-win year from derrek lee at first base over the virtually null production vis-a-vis replacement from that position this year, and the cubs have added some 12-15 wins to their meager 2006 output of 66.

this page would suggest that -- if the goal is to field a winning team in 2007, rather than undertake the ground-up rebuilding that this writer advocates as the surer path to constructing a consistent winner -- the better part of jim hendry's job between today and opening day 2007 is not the landing of a few stars (though that would be both welcome and necessary) so much as finding five or six players capable of reliably playing at least replacement level baseball.

of course, the difficulty is in the doing -- finding a way to vernon wells or miguel cabrera is not likely. and it remains to be seen as to whether this club and its general manager can even do the simple part: admit mistakes like cedeno and rusch, and be sensible enough to at minimum deleverage dempster by placing him in a mopup role if not move him outright. what transpires between now and december 31 will, as always, determine much about what happens between april and october of 2007.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Will Hendry's snooze guarantee the Cubs will lose?

So Old Jim Hendry decided to work on this Columbus Day. Hendry interviewed Joe Girardi for the Cubs vacant managerial post. Reports indicate that Hendry will interview Iowa manager Mike Quade and West Tenn skipper Pat Listach later on this week. These interviews look to be academic as the choice will come down to Girardi or Lou Piniella.

I've been out of town for a few days, so I apologize for bringing this Barry Rozner nugget from Friday's Daily Herald to the table late:


The Cubs already have put new boss John McDonough in a tough spot, as the team looks for a new manager but has a GM on a short leash.

Might it have been better to give McDonough a clean board on which to scribble, instead of inheriting contracts?

Now, it’s possible that the new manager will outlast the current GM, meaning the next GM will inherit a manager.

It doesn’t make sense, and it might make a sane manager wonder if this is a good spot to land right now.

Sounds familiar

When Ed Lynch fired his first manager, Jim Riggleman, he developed a bunker mentality for the first few months after that and never really came out of that shell.

Lynch didn’t survive the next July.

Now, insiders say Jim Hendry is beginning to act the same way after whacking his first manager. Here’s hoping he comes out of it quickly and doesn’t meet the same fate.

If Cruller Jim is developing a bunker mentality, the problems are gonna get a lot worse on the northside before they get better. With Andy MacPhail gone and John McDonough in charge the buck for baseball operations stops at Jim Hendry. Now is not the time for him to go into a shell trying to protect himself.

Now let's compound this. What has happened since Rozner wrote this on Friday? Well, there was a little upset in the Motor City(guess why I was out of town over the weekend!). The Tigers win/Yankees loss has everyone speculating that Torre might be out in the Bronx. Who would replace Torre? Take a look at the cover of today's NY Daily News. Piniella of course. So if Hendry's first choice is Piniella, he will lose out if New York fires Torre. Now, just for shits and giggles, let's imagine that Girardi decides to take the Nats job or a broadcasting gig. Where does that leave our old friend Cruller Jim? Unless he can somehow convince Torre to manage the Cubs (I'm LMAO at even suggesting that) he's gonna be back to square one.

If the two prime candidates are as the media suggested last Monday Joe Girardi and Lou Piniella, the Cubs General Manager should have conducted the interviews with the two candiadates last week and had his new guy in place by the weekend. Before any other more appealing jobs opened up. But hey, this is what it is--the Cubs under Hendry. They are slow at everything. What amazes me is Hendry knows he should act quickly, but...:
"Free agency is in November, and I don't think you can pursue free agents without a manager," Hendry said. "In a perfect world, you'd like to act expediently and without rushing into it, feel like you have the person who best suits the job. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do in the winter besides that."

It's not a perfect world Jim. Something tells me the clock could run out on Cruller Jim and he just might end up having to settle for a fourth or fifth candidate. Maybe the interviews of Quade and Listach are not academic at all.

Friday, October 06, 2006

the music man

with the resignation of andy macfail, the cubs elevated marketing vice president john mcdonough to the role of president.

the initial opinion of this writer regarding the move was stated thusly.

this writer would like to call the events of the last day a great step forward for accountability for this ballclub, to say that they gave rare credence to those who would argue that the management really do notice what happens on the field and take it seriously. but it seems that just the opposite is the deeper message of these events -- particularly in light of the continuing presence of the incompetent boob most responsible for the ridiculous state of the team, general manager jim hendry.

without question, macfail and baker were part of the problem at clark and addison. but what the events of the day have shown, dear reader, is that they are not so much the cause of the problems as symptoms of problems that clearly persist, as the promotion of mcdonough and continuation of hendry indicate.

to be fair, mcdonough has done very little as of yet and the course of his actions will far outweigh the verbiage he spills. but the verbiage has so far been anything but consolatory.

the initial press conference began on the wrongest of wrong feet, with the new president of a 96-loss ballclub claiming his aim to be winning the world series in the next few years. this page finds it difficult to take such words as anything but either an insult to our intelligence or a statement of complete ignorance. such over-the-top chicanery may play well with the willfully naive biedermeier dullards that make up the vast majority of cubdom, but no informed and insightful analyst can look at the cubs and see anything but a very hard road over the next few years. mcdonough either isn't an informed and insightful analyst despite his position; or he believes that the fan he's speaking to is stupid enough, desperate enough or both to take him at his word no matter how ridiculous his word is.

now, perhaps it could have been argued that mcdonough was merely caught in a moment of hubris and that he would retract such words with circumspection. but that does not now seem to be the case. his first interview in the pages of the tribune revealed the depth to which salesmanship infects his soul.

Q: Did the empty seats in September jar you, and did it have any affect on the organization?

A: Yes, it did jar me. To me, when you see empty seats that are sold, which most of them I think were, it speaks to apathy and indifference that in some ways they might have given up hope, and for whatever reason they chose to do something else. That has to be changed. It will change. We talk about the unique mystique of Wrigley Field and coming to the park, and how it's an event...

When you walk in here it's like a Norman Rockwell painting, and you're just consumed with the beauty of the vista of Wrigley Field, everything that is this park. But between the bar being raised in 2003, and we didn't get there, the White Sox winning the World Series, it ratcheted it up even higher, and the expectations of our fan base is high. It should be, and I think it's a good thing, a very good thing.

Q: But not many teams go from 96 losses to a world championship in one season.

A: Right. You win 30 more games and you're back to .500. But we need to win and win consistently, and the ultimate goal through all of this is to win the World Series. We will win the World Series. I don't know when that will be. I hope it's in the very near future. But I think this fan base, they need to wrap their arms around something. This franchise is based on hope and dreams. They need to wrap their arms around something that can say, 'Look, we have to trust their mission is to win the World Series....' And it is.

and again today in the bright one, mcdonough repeats the theme.

''The immediate goal and the future goal is to win,'' McDonough said, repeating his first remarks from Sunday. ''We have to win as soon as possible. Whatever course [general manager] Jim Hendry charts, I feel strongly about it.

''It's a grandiose statement, but I think our fans need to have something to wrap their hands around. You have to give your fandom hopes and dreams.''

as has been lamented here before, the peddling of pathetic sentiment is what has broken this franchise and made it a perennial loser and the laughingstock of global sport. those who are too addled, adolescent and ill-equipped to deal with reality have given a sanctuary in wrigley field by a serpentine organization whose primary care is the extraction of money from these deluded masses -- and to hell with the winning and losing, for the team might as well be the jesse white tumblers. the actual product is merely an excuse to take surreptitious flight from the fears and responsibilities that are part and parcel to the surly humdrum of the postmodern world. the cubs have become a paragon of Entertainment, that empty bane of our choking society -- whatever might have been virtuous in their example as a timeless and spontaneous theater of the human moral condition has long since died for lack of air and light, occluded by the black and sprawling clouds of the now-ubiquitous fantasy-driven escape.

mcdonough is an entertainer, the arbiter of that lamentable death, one of the money-changers in the temple. and he is either bold enough a con or ignorant enough about it to proudly proclaim that his reign over the cubs will be the reign of hopes and dreams and fantasies and escapes. the cubs will be neither a baseball team concerned about runs scored or allowed nor a protagonist in demonstration of humble moral redemption -- but rather a sort of spectacular calliope surrounded by a hundred dancing monkeys, each shuffling to the grinder's tune and holding out their sad beggar's cup. no wonder, then, that he so easily bandies about the words 'world series' -- for to him and to the millions of lost cub fans he would connect with the concept is not a concrete goal in reality but a hazy shining dream, a brilliant imaginary carrot, an elaborate rococo divertissement, a stocking to be hung by the chimney with care -- a corner of the culture industry, a vulnerability to be exploited.

and while, with his encouragement, poor dim souls seek to invest their aimless hearts in something they vainly hope can transcend angst-filled "real" lives and impart a shadow of meaning to confused existences and finally animate gray and deadened lives, mcdonough has helped himself to their pocketbooks in exchange for the right to the opportunity.

this is such a recurrent thread in human affairs that the tale has been told a thousand times in myth and fiction. this writer thought first of professor harold hill, the vulture of midwestern small town boredom and innocence who ruthlessly conned and disillusioned children for a few dollars. of course, in the end, meredith wilson redeemed his devil by love and music -- but of course the greater literature of the age has not seen fit to, and honestly, instead rejecting the question of transcendence in universal human truth altogether for a meaner vision of relative and distorted truths and their attendant exploitations in the hands of the amoral postmodern man whose only supposed and shallow transcendence is himself and the dreams he harbors.

indeed, one is forced to wonder if the lifeless enticement of the dream hasn't become far more addictive, reliable and profitable than its vital realization ever could be -- and whether a man like mcdonough, whatever he might say, would want to risk finding out.

it seems then that, on these words, mcdonough is for all his blather disinterested in the team as a vehicle for winning or losing and instead entirely captivated by its capacity in facilitating fantasies from which he can (with some well-placed if not entirely straightforward words) reap a tidy wage. interesting rationalizations have arisen regarding why mcdonough was placed over a team despite a complete lack of vetting experience in baseball operations, and to the extent that his elevation portends the sale of the team to an owner interested in something other than hope this page certainly welcomes it. but such rationalizations, even if shown to be true in the end, do nothing to mitigate what mcdonough himself professes to be -- a purveyor of fantastic escapes, not an achiever of real goals -- as he joins a long line of ill-guided cub executives in quietly sabotaging the very hopes that they would sell to the gullible crowd.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

revenge of the predictions roundtable, part two

continuing the examination of our inability to prophesy the future, here's more from the preseason predictions roundtable.

STARTING PITCHING QUESTIONS: Name the Cubs starter that will...

-make the most starts

  • Newman - Maddux
  • John Dooley - Maddux 32
  • Mikey P - Maddux
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Maddux
  • Vehere - Zambrano
  • CCD - Zambrano
  • gaius marius - maddux
ANSWER: zambrano

this perhaps could be qualified -- maddux is again an ex-cub, but he leads zambrano by a start with 34, and is still making starts in the postseason with the dodgers. but, once maddux was shipped to los angeles, zambrano became the runaway leader.

but the thing to note here is that eight different starters got at least nine starts this season -- happily including youngsters sean marshall (24), rich hill (16), carlos marmol (13), angel guzman (10) and juan mateo (10). this is to be seen as the most beneficial thing to happen to this club all season -- it's exactly what we here would have hoped for, and the revelation of hill and quiet travails of mateo -- two of the best three cub starters in the second half -- could never have been brought to the light of day without it. both young hurlers have made a claim on the 2007 rotation.

-pitch the most innings

  • Newman - Zambrano
  • John Dooley - Maddux
  • Mikey P - Maddux
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Maddux
  • Vehere - Zambrano
  • CCD - Zambrano
  • gaius marius - maddux
ANSWER: zambrano

at 214, big z topped 209 innings for the fourth year running, again placing top five in all of baseball in pitches thrown.

-record the most k's

  • Newman - Zambrano
  • John Dooley - Zambrano 188
  • Mikey P - Zambrano
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Zambrano
  • Vehere - Zambrano
  • CCD - Zambrano
  • gaius marius - hard to say, but maybe wood
ANSWER: zambrano

it would've taken a major injury to zambrano or a major surprise from marshall this year to change this outcome, which is what the only dissenter was forecasting.

-have the most wins

  • Newman - Maddux
  • John Dooley - Zambrano 14
  • Mikey P - Zambrano
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Zambrano
  • Vehere - Zambrano and Maddux (tie)
  • CCD - Zambrano 17
  • gaius marius - maddux
ANSWER: zambrano

second highest still on the club is sean marshall with a laughable six.

-have the best WHIP (min 160 IP)

  • Newman - Maddux
  • John Dooley - Maddux
  • Mikey P - Zambrano
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Rusch
  • Vehere - Zambrano
  • CCD - Zambrano
  • gaius marius - maddux
ANSWER: zambrano by default

zambrano was of course the only pitcher to throw 160 innings for the cubs (second being maddux with 136.1), but the surprise of the year here is the pitcher who led all starters in whip at 1.24 -- rich hill. he's been a frequent topic on this page since early in the season, and in making the jump up in high style this season hill has given cub fans a lot to hope for in him.

-have the lowest ERA

  • Newman - Zambrano
  • John Dooley - Zambrano 3.23
  • Mikey P - Zambrano
  • Marino - Zambrano
  • MCav - Zambrano
  • Vehere - Zambrano
  • CCD - Zambrano 3.04
  • gaius marius - maddux
ANSWER: zambrano

zambrano has been the class of the rotation, of course.

RELIEF PITCHING QUESTIONS: Name the Cubs reliever that will...

-have the most appearances

  • Newman - Eyre
  • John Dooley - Eyre, 85(not kidding)
  • Mikey P - Eyre
  • Marino - Howry
  • MCav - Dempster
  • Vehere - Kerry Wood
  • CCD - Eyre
  • gaius marius - eyre
ANSWER: bob howry

howry has not only challenged the cub all-time record for appearances but has crept into the top 50 all-time single-season appearances at 84. will ohman comes down second at an amazing 78 despite spending a bit of time in the minors early this year.

-have the most saves

  • Newman - Dempster
  • John Dooley - Ryan Dempster 21 (out of 28)...notice those aren't a lot of chances, plus, I think he's gonna struggle. Just a hunch. No reasoning
  • Mikey P - Dempster
  • Marino - Dempster
  • MCav - Dempster
  • Vehere - Dempster
  • CCD - Dempster, I wouldn't be surprised if Wood or Howry takes the job at midseason
  • gaius marius - howry
ANSWER: ryan dempster

howry was the only other cub pitcher to record a save (with five) in spite of the fact that dempster has been one of the most singularly spectacular failures as a closer in all of baseball this year. his nine blown saves are exceeded only by jason isringhausen, who has recorded nearly twice as many saves. a cataclysmic may and june should probably have removed dempster from the hot seat in favor of setup duty then -- but this was, after all, dusty baker's team.

-have the most holds

  • Newman - Eyre
  • John Dooley - Howry
  • Mikey P - Howry
  • Marino - Eyre
  • MCav - Dempster
  • Vehere - Wood
  • CCD - Howry
  • gaius marius - eyre
ANSWER: bob howry

part and parcel to having the most appearances by a wide margin -- second was eyre.

-have the best WHIP

  • Newman - Howry
  • John Dooley - Eyre, 1.07
  • Mikey P - Eyre
  • Marino - Howry
  • MCav - Dempster
  • Vehere - Eyre
  • CCD - Howry
  • gaius marius- howry
ANSWER: bob howry

howry's 1.14 to date is just ahead of angel guzman's relief number of 1.15, and of course comes in a sample seven times as large. howry has been the class of the bullpen all season.

the disappointment of these last two catagories has to be scott eyre, one of hendry's expensive offseason troika designed to "fix" the bullpen. the pen itself again finished in the middle of the nl pack -- and while dempster's scintillating suicides grabbed headlines, eyre quietly reverted to his career means in the second half of 2006, posting a 5.49 era in 29 appearances after the all-star break, allowing 36 baserunners in 19.2 innings. eyre, in spite of a run of early season success which conformed to optimistic expectations and so removed him from much late-season scrutiny, was not particularly effective on the year -- his season-long 1.48 whip, .345 obpa and .457 slga are testament to that, ranking with roster chaff like roberto novoa on all counts and confirming his 2005 performance to be the unrepeatable outlier many suspected it was. this page would expect eyre to be 2007's dempster -- mercilessly displaying his long-term form, with an era in the low 4's and whip near 1.50 -- making eyre yet another expensive veteran signed by the cubs coming off an unlikely career year and hendry's bullpen ministrations of last year simply another example of his incompetency.

-have the lowest ERA

  • Newman - Howry
  • John Dooley - Eyre, 1.87
  • Mikey P - Eyre
  • Marino - Howry
  • MCav - Dempster
  • Vehere - Wuertz
  • CCD - Howry
  • gaius marius - howry
ANSWER: mike wuertz

wuertz began the year awfully, making only four disastrous appearances before the all-star break and spending most of the semester in iowa. but in iowa he dominated as he never has before by counteracting his great weakness in the majors heretofore: throwing strikes with consistency. much like hill, wuertz had previously demonstrated a capacity to pitch with control -- his career 3.04 bb/9 in the minors through 2005 certainly proves as much. but, also like hill, forays in the majors were accompanied by the kind of outside corner fishing expeditions which larry rothschild loves and which destroy young careers. it is almost as though wuertz and hill decided together -- at some point in may or june when they were both in des moines -- to ignore rothschild from now on and confront major league hitters by going for the throat. success has followed for both, and as hill has staked his claim as one of the most promising young pitchers in the national league wuertz has -- just perhaps -- become the legitimate major league reliever that his slider long indicated he could be. wuertz's career era is now down to 3.58.

more will be heard from wuertz next season as to whether or not this success is sustainable. but this writer, for one, is encouraged.