now that the cubs have rolled into the break six back of the wildcard, several orbits behind the cardinals and with about a 3% chance of making the playoffs by my reckoning, it's time to take a good look again at how this team has failed and where the repairs can be made in 2006.
prior. zambrano. wood. maddux. most had assumed this would be the anchor of the 2005 cub team as it had the 2003 incarnation. but things have not gone as hoped -- prior and wood have spent more time on the DL than the field, while maddux slowly declines into senescence with a 4.67 first-half era. having lost matt clement to free agency in the offseason, the need for effective starters pushed glendon rusch into the limelight, where he has become perhaps the unexpected cubs pitching mvp. zambrano has gone from brilliant to erratic as the season has moved on.
the combined effect has been a starting staff that ranks 10th in the NL in earned-run average -- immensely underperforming the high expectations of the preseason.
it is my opinion that many of the problems this staff is facing are a product of their use -- or rather, abuse. zambrano remains the second-most abused pitcher in baseball, and his erratic pitching of late may well be due to the accumulated overuse of his arm. i fear to think that the "tennis elbow" aches that zambrano is feeling are mirrors of the "achilles heel" that prior hid behind in 2004 to recover from an arm injury that was a result of being beaten to shreds by dusty baker in 2003. this continuing abuse has rendered the young starters fragile, and is perhaps even cutting short the future potential of some of the most promising arms in the game in prior and zambrano, sending them down a path already walked by kerry wood.
if this analysis is correct, injuries such as have limited prior and wood may continue to be a feature of the starting staff, at least for so long as dusty baker and larry rothschild handle them. i wouldn't at all be surprised if zambrano missed time later this year. one hopes that the addition of jerome williams will help mute the effect.
you have to get a bit lucky in the pen, like anything else. but bullpen construction isn't rocket science. take the example of the 2004 cardinals. a personal rule of thumb is that a good team needs at least four guys in the pen who can be legitimately expected to toss a sub-3 era -- the 2004 cards, an excellent pitching team, had six guys who threw at least 20 innings with a sub-3 era. (currently, seven of their eight leaders in relief innings pitched are sub-3.) if you looked at the names on that squad, you might be surprised by their quality. but walt jocketty wasn't, i'm pretty sure.
ray king was well established as a fine lefty reliever before 2004. eldred had been remarkable for the sox in 2000 before running out of gas, and the cards smartly moved him to the pen where he wouldn't pitch as much -- and he flourished in 2003, setting the stage for 2004. calero had been untouchable in his rookie 2003 as well, and tavarez has always been an excellent reliever who doesn't do well as a starter. kline had been very good and durable for the cards for years.
contrast that with the motley lot hendry put together, and it's plain that jocketty understands team construction a lot better than he does. who was going to fill these roles for the cubs this year? hawkins and maybe remmy is only 1.5. that's a poor bullpen -- was from the start -- and hendry's fault.
worse, at about two months in, the cubs dumped their best reliever. williams and aardsma may help this team in years to come, so it isn't up to me to say that this was a "bad trade". but i have to say i think we should deeply regret losing hawkins. he got booed? big deal. the crowd at wrigley are drunken idiots. check the board on the cubs, and one finds that hawkins still has the third-best bullpen era on the team -- and i would honestly not be surprised if that is the team-best by the end of the year.
not just that -- check the five-year totals for all cub relievers. he's one of the very best the cubs have had. even with him, we're bullpen-weak. so we trade him? that's a gaffe in the context of this year, even though i fully admit that hendry might have begun 2006 with that trade by obtaining a young starter to help offset the eventual loss of maddux and the possible dumping of kerry wood.
how much can a fan say about the blinding brilliance of derrek lee? he has been the most productive first baseman in the national league despite stiff competition, turning in one of the great half-seasons of baseball ever by a cub infielder. aramis ramirez has likewise fired to life from a moribund start to rate among the very best in the league. these two players are cornerstones that a team can build on.
the rest of the infield has done fairly well on aggregate. todd walker was spelled during injury by jerry hairston to maintain a reasonably high level of output at the position. neifi perez managed to assemble his one good month for this year in nomar's absence -- however, that isn't enough to keep neifi from having been one of the cubs' least productive everyday players, which is exactly what you'd expect of neifi perez. michael barrett remains pretty solid as an offensive catcher, especially in the context of this season at the position, despite his defensive shortcomings.
the cubs certainly have a hole to fill at shortstop, with nomar questionable to return to the cub lineup. but this is hardly the weakest point on the team. baker's ineptitude has aggravated the problem by insisting to hit neifi at the top of the order -- inexplicably -- and that can be quickly remedied with walker or hairston. whether dusty has the smarts to help his team in this way is another matter. giving ronny cedeno a roll is a start, perhaps -- but it's hard to expect oo much from a kid who has never hit particularly well prior to this year.
this is a different matter again from the infield. the outfield has lived up to its billing as one of the worst in all of baseball. burnitz has been adequate but hardly spectacular in relation to all outfielders -- and he's been the brightest spot. most of the reps in center were taken by the worst everyday player in baseball -- now thankfully in the minors (hopefully to stay), but leaving the cubs without a true centerfielder. likewise, jason dubois was mercifully dumped upon iowa, giving the recently awakened todd hollandsworth the everyday job in left. the big issue with that is that hollandsworth isn't an everyday player -- he will probably break down if asked to play outside of a platoon.
the departure of sammy sosa and moises alou hurt this team immensely -- they miss the 2004 production of both, and are financially hamstrung by the deal that sent sammy to baltimore. hendry's inability to compensate for their loss is another black spot on his record this year. the outfield is a continuing problem for the cubs with no sure solutions on the horizon. matt murton and adam greenberg are going to be given some kind of chance to contribute, as might felix pie at some point. with little left to play for, it's an excellent time to try these guys out. it would be unsurprising if the cubs had to fill all three outfield spots with new faces in 2006, so getting a reading on these kids -- especially murton, who might be ready -- is important.
this team signed enrique wilson during the season. doesn't that say everything? if it doesn't, then noting that jose macias has 79 at-bats for this team does. the bench would have been bad before neifi got pressed into the starting lineup, further thinning the ranks. the only bright spot in the year to date has been jerry hairston, who has been better than some of the starters.
hendry and dusty really deserve to lose their jobs -- dusty for his manifold failings, notably the abuse of the starting staff and his stupidity in lineups and game management; hendry, for spending $100 million on a team that had little chance of success before and certainly even less chance now.
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