Friday, August 19, 2005

a plan for reconstruction

there's plainly a lot of work to be done on this baseball club in the offseason, and it's fortunate that there will be some capital available to do it with. one hopes that the cubs get realistic about their season and start taking a look around the organization for parts already available in house for 2006 -- a potentially crucial year.

as far as the minors go, i have to say that my personal opinion is that there's extremely little laying around at iowa and west tenn that can help (unless you think calvin murray is a key cog on any winning team). felix pie, all injuries aside, is not ready for prime time and has to learn how not to be korey patterson before he play a role at the big league level. matt murton is what he is, and could be a legitimate fourth outfielder right now. rich hill might need more time before stepping into the cub rotation after getting roughed up in his first taste of the show. in short, free agency is going to play a big part in determining the fortunes of the 2006 cubs.

a look at the cubs obligations for 2006 shows what they don't need -- both catchers, both corner infielders, prior and wood are all under contract for a sum of $44mm. maddux is almost certain to have his 2006 $9mm option vest, putting the expended total at $53mm. todd walker's $2.75mm team option vests at an unknown number of plate appearances, but the cubs are likely to exercise it anyway -- pushing the total up to ~$56mm.

the cubs hold a mutual option with jeromy burnitz at $7mm with a $500k buyout, and i can't imagine his production is worth $7mm for a team that badly needs an offensive upgrade in the outfield. glendon rusch holds a player option for $2mm plus incentives for 2006. he's certainly pitched well enough to test the market, it seems to me, and his return is questionable. the cubs also hold a team option on scott williamson.

hairston, macias, patterson and zambrano are arbitration-eligible -- being protected players, having no 2006 contract, more than three years of major-league service time (or two years and being in the top 17% in service time among those with at least 86 days on the 25-man roster in the second year, known as "super-two"...) but less than six. (prior would also be, but is under contract for 2006.) patterson conceivably could be non-tendered, making him a free agent, but he should be inexpensive and may be back, thanks to the cubs irrational hope beyond hope for him to suddenly morph into willie mays. the same fate should befall macias, who doesn't need to be kept.

auto-renewals (players with less than three years of 25-man-roster service time) on the 40-man roster include aardsma, cedeno, fontenot, greenberg, hill, koronka, leicester, lewis, mitre, murton, novoa, ohman, pinto, rohlicek, soto, wellemeyer, williams and wuertz.

guzman, mitre, wellemeyer and williams (as well as ohman and leicester, i think) will be out of options following 2005, all having been on a 40-man roster (in order to be protected from rule 5 drafts) for three years in which they were assigned to the minors. all but williams could find themselves adrift, although ohman too is probably a 2006 fixture. (UPDATE: guzman and williams are still optionable, according to cub reporter's exhaustive survey.)

free agents include lawton, nomar, hollandsworth, fox, grieve, neifi and dempster. (burnitz, maddux, rusch, walker and williamson could also be, if their options -- player, team or mutual -- are not exercized.)

the upshot of all this is that the rotation for 2006 is likely to be set -- prior, maddux, williams, wood and zambrano will all return. the cubs will find it difficult to move maddux or wood because of the size of their contract and their 2005 performance. williams is out of options, and so will have to pass waivers to be moved down to iowa -- an unlikely hurdle for a 23-year-old with 50-odd major league starts to clear, and i doubt the cubs are willing to lose him despite his tepid 2005. zambrano and prior aren't going anywhere. so i'd expect the rotation, whatever its flaws, to return essentially intact. (more on wood later.)

the bullpen is another matter. rusch may or may not be back. dempster is a free agent. mitre and wellemeyer are out of options. this is a place where the cubs could be aggressive and really improve their club. whatever one thinks about will ohman's ceiling, he has pitched more than well enough to maintain his spot as a loogy, obviating the dire need for a scott sauerbeck. scott williamson remains an enigma so far, having only six unimpressive appearances since his tommy john. how he pitches the remainder of the way will probably determine his future with the cubs.

but it will be key to the success of this club to replace disasters-in-waiting like novoa and wuertz with proven professional relievers. good teams simply don't rely on guys like them. potential help is widely available, but the cream looks to me bob howry, julian tavarez, felix rodriguez, tom gordon, mike timlin, rudy seanez, al reyes, brian meadows, jay witasick, jim mecir, trevor hoffman and ugueth urbina -- and, from the left side, mike stanton, billy wagner, alan embree, sauerbeck, chris hammond, and b.j. ryan. if we don't see at least three of these guys on the cub roster in early april 2006 to compliment ohman and possibly dempster and williamson, hendry will have left this team yet again with a glaring achilles heel.

with wood's success in his short stint as a reliever, there is a temptation to think that he could serve as the closer for this team in 2006. and i think he's certainly suited for the job -- his first two pitches are devastating, and relief work hides the rest of them. his control problems are somewhat masked by short appearances. however, he has to want to move out to the bullpen -- and i doubt he really does. the cubs can't force him to be a reliever in the long term; wood will simply insist on changing teams, by trade or free agency. and the team, for its part, has a $12mm salary to justify -- there is a heavy incentive to seek value out of wood in starting him. so i think that, despite his effectiveness in relief, wood is probably a starter in 2006, for april and may at least. (that is, if he's pitching at all.)

the infield is mostly a known quantity as well -- it's quite likely, it seems, for better or for worse, that nomar will return at shortstop. he's a marketing asset and a potential offensive gem as a middle infielder, but his fielding is a serious drawback at this point and his injury history is increasingly troubling. he'll have to be handcuffed to a better backup than neifi perez, because that guy will end up playing a lot.

there is the possibility, however, that the cubs would make a splash and really pursue free agent rafael furcal, the best overall shortstop on the market, who would definitively solve the leadoff problem on this team. he'd come at a higher price than nomar, but would really be worth it in my humble opinion. furcal's not the best leadoff hitter in the majors with a career obp of .345, but he has speed to burn and a fine defensive presence that the cubs (with the third-most errors in the NL) could really use. considering the need of the cubs for both those qualities, he's the guy i'd rather see the cubs pick up.

the outfield is another area ripe (stinking, in fact) for upgrade. murton doesn't have the power to be a starter for a contending team at this point, and hairston would be a better bench player. patterson shouldn't be playing everyday in the majors. burnitz is likely to leave. lawton is a free agent. so the field is open -- and this is where the cubs may make or break 2006 to a greater extent even than in the bullpen.

first of all, lawton should be resigned to play left. his career .370 obp and reasonable speed make him the leadoff hitter if furcal isn't signed and the team hits nomar into the middle of the order. if the cubs do manage to land furcal or another leadoff hitter, lawton can hit second.

other potential candidates in the pool include brian giles, preston wilson, reggie sanders, jacque jones and others. i'd love to see giles come to wrigley after years of killing us with the pirates. he can play right and is only 35, making him fairly safe for a two- or three-year deal. his power numbers, playing in massive petco park, are down this year -- but his away split reads 333/458/588. he'd be a tremendous addition for any club, but may command $10mm a year.

center is a real problem spot for this team, and the free agent field includes potential expensive disasters like preston wilson and jose cruz jr. this is the position more than any other, i think, that the cubs would benefit from a trade -- juan pierre, for example, would be ideally suited to the cubs -- because there don't appear to be any great answers in the marketplace. but without a trade, i'd like to see the cubs go for someone steady and productive. the more i think about it, the more i reconcile to the idea of kenny lofton. he won't cost much (about $3mm), will still steal a base and get aboard at a .350 clip. he'd also be an excellent bench addition if the cubs can swing a deal for a better starting centerfielder. lofton isn't the great player he was, but he won't be the spectacular mistake wilson or cruz would likely be.

so the bench, in the ideal situation, will already be staffed by perhaps blanco, macias, hairston, and maybe murton. i hate to think that patterson will be retained even as a lefty-hitting fifth outfielder almost as much as i hate the idea of macias being signed through 2006 -- but as a pinch runner and defensive outfielder one could have worse options. murton certainly doesn't have to be kept around either if the cubs find a way to staff a better right-handed corner outfielder.

from the right side, tim salmon will be available at something significantly less than his $9mm+ 2005 salary after his recent injury problems and would be an outstanding fourth corner outfielder and big bench bat. from the left, lofton, orlando palmeiro and bobby higginson are all free agents, palmeiro being the much cheaper of the three. in the infield, hairston is a capable second bagger if he isn't moved for value (he really should start for someone). damion easley and miggy cairo, who are a bit more versatile around the infield, will also be in the pool. if the cubs do resign nomar, however, they need a major-league shortstop on the bench, and there aren't just too many. of course, the cubs could always resign neifi, which is probably the most likely event even if not the most attractive.

but i'd also like to forward the notion of a return to a cub past -- bobby hill, who was amazingly sent back to triple-a by the pirates this week. hill is a switch-hitter, has a good glove, can play all three infield positions (he was an all-american college shortstop, even if his range isn't major-league caliber), draws walks, can steal bases quite well even though he has rarely been given the opportunity and is an effective pinch-hitter (career .363 obp as a ph). things clearly aren't working out for him with the pirates -- the cubs might pick up the hotline to dave littlefield's office again and give him a try.

and then there's the manager. it's no secret that i think dusty's a fool and a horrid manager. whatever service he does perform for this team is more than cancelled by his many negative attributes. when a candidate like joe girardi is out there, i think it's a no-brainer to scuttle dusty, and i'd like to think that he'll be gone.

so where does that leave this team? a new manager; the same rotation at around $30mm, depending on how zambrano shakes out; a far better bullpen for something like $8-10; the same infield, give or take furcal, for $30mm; a $20-25mm outfield of giles, lawton and pierre or lofton; and an upgraded bench for $10mm. the price tag for this team will run a bit over $100mm -- an increase over this year, but not radically.

i'd be the last person to think anyone over at clark and addison is going to follow any advice i give. but this team is one that could contend, even with the health problems in the rotation. add another quality starter and things get that much better, though there's obviously a fiscal ceiling somewhere. more importantly, with some combination of lawton, pierre, lofton and maybe even furcal, it would be a team that can run as well as get aboard in front of the bangers in lee, ramirez and giles. with guys like barrett, walker, hairston, cairo, salmon, higginson and palmeiro in the mix, the bottom of the order is no longer the black hole that it's been so often for this club. and that adds up to actual scoring, which is a notion verging on misty heroic mythology on the north side.

here's hoping something even vaguely resembling these ideas make it to the field in 2006.

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