Monday, November 28, 2005

progress report

it was some eight weeks ago when this page said: "more of interest may happen with regards to the cub franchise in the next six weeks than has in the last twelve." well, that of course was not setting the bar very high at all, and it took two extra weeks -- but enough has happened to perhaps justify a progress report taken against the points elucidated at the end of the year and before.

the rotation -- the resigning of glendon rusch was a relatively minor move to solidify a starting group that was destined to remain largely intact from 2005 anyway, with prior, maddux, williams, wood and zambrano all under 2006 contract. is this enough to win with? i doubt it. this group, which placed 8th in the NL in era, remains overworked by their manager and injury-prone as a result.

much of the analysis of the cubs 2006 rotation that i've read includes somewhere the qualifying statement, "if wood and prior remain healthy", followed by hope that some great thing may happen. folks, at this point, i think it's far more likely that zambrano will come down with similar ailments than that wood and prior can both make 25 starts (much less 35). i'm with rozner on this one -- relying on this group to stay healthy under the relentless idiocy of dusty "pitcher-killer" baker is ridiculous and courting failure. zambrano ended up the second most abused pitcher in baseball, followed by mark prior in only 27 starts. short of a drive to find at least one more rock-solid starter (and maybe two), one can expect some degree of mediocrity from the 2006 rotation simply because their talent will be severely mitigated by their pain.

the bullpen -- here was the area where i felt the cubs could most help themselves, and help themselves they have. while the price tag can be argued, bobby howry is one of the premier righthanded relievers in the game and can be an invaluable asset. scott eyre, meanwhile, with less of a track record than howry, managed to land a sweet deal to supplant will ohman as the cubs first loogy. dempster was given way too much money and time to revert to the mean -- dempster is going to surprise people, i think, with how inconsistent he is in 2006, and by that i mean he won't be closing all year. the cubs also have brought back williamson, who is a crap shoot and may be finished as a good big league pitcher. dumping leicester was another step in the right direction.

the thing that bothers me at least as much as signing eyre and dempster on those terms is the consistent appearance of the name "novoa" in articles pertaining to the 2006 cubs bullpen. if the cubs don't have bullpen help enough to put novoa in des moines or further outland for the upcoming year, they don't have enough to win.

howry will be solid and eyre should be good if not spectacular, but ohman showed signs of wearing out late, having put in 73 appearances, and may not be the same arm in 2006. i bet dempster carries a 4+ era and a head of controversy into june. wuertz still hasn't exhibited sufficient control to be a reliable reliever. and then you throw novoa in there? that's not a great bullpen. this team still needs not only howry and eyre but more. and they'd better get a long look at jermaine van buren in mesa, because he is hard to hit if he trusts his stuff. and they'd better think of making wood a reliever permanently when he finally does (if he does) come back. only if they get up to a level with four or more relievers who can legitimately toss a sub-3 era will i feel comfortable. right now they have howry, eyre and maybe ohman -- they combine for maybe two and a half, probabilistically speaking. wood could be another, in spite of his salary, and so perhaps could van buren.

the infield -- resigning neifi perez does not constitute a plan. again we'll say it -- a commitment to a significant role for neifi perez on the basis of his 2005 performance -- which some idiots actually think of as successful despite a .302 obp and a .692 ops -- likely dooms the squad to mediocrity. while the corners are set with lee and ramirez, and wodd talker remains the primary option at second for another year, shortstop is a glaring hole. with no plan b -- and garciaparra mercifully cut loose -- it's furcal or bust -- and it feels frighteningly like bust right now. chipper jones' contract restructuring puts atlanta in the hunt to retain him despite the emergence of wilson betemit. while the mets have apparently cooled on furcal and the dodgers have no real reason to sign him, the braves remain a huge obstacle -- furcal's relationship with bobby cox may be the banana peel on which jim hendry is made to slip. still, rumors persist that the cubs are close (along with yet more incredible rumors) -- and we'd better hope they're true.

the outfield -- while matt murton looks increasingly ensconced in left with garciaparra fading, the cubs still have holes to fill in center and right as they try to move away from one of the worst outfields in baseball in 2005. with florida taking this offseason as an opportunity to retool with youth, juan pierre rumors have been flying. the tribune has reported that a pierre deal with the cubs is unlikely because of hendry's unwillingness to deal the requisite prospects -- pie, murton and/or hill. this sort of folly is unfortunately typical of our beloved team. the probability that the net contribution of all three of these guys amounts to what pierre has already done in the majors is, as much as i like hill and particularly murton, frankly quite slim. pierre not only fills a gaping klown-sized hole, but offers valuable insurance against failing to sign furcal as a leadoff man. if the cubs end up with both, so much the better -- a more intimidating 1-2 hasn't been seen in cubdom since dernier and sandberg.

the cubs cannot start 2006 with the failed klown in center or the unripened pie and hope to win much. if pierre cannot be got and failing johnny damon, hendry is going to have to scramble for the likes of kenny lofton to shore up the middle.

meanwhile, virtually no news has emerged from the hot stove regarding the cubs and right field short of the soriano/mench speculation (which simply seems too big to be true). with furcal and pierre occupying the minds of cub fans, we dare not forget that this team still needs a bopper to mind the sheffield side, and preferrably a lefty bopper at that.

the bench -- having reinked neifi to hopefully join hairston and blanco on the cub bench, the infield is well supported at this point. but, as our analysis of reconstruction noted previously, this is really not sufficient for a team with real aspirations. these signings are likely to sort themselves out later in the offseason, and this page will eagerly anticipate how hendry bolsters the bench as an indicator of just how serious the cubs are about 2006.

the management -- despite putting him on watch months ago, goddamned dusty baker appears ever more likely to be at the helm of this team in 2006 -- and that is a tragedy not to be understated. for all the cubs might do right in the offseason -- even if they find furcal and pierre in the opening day lineup (or even soriano and mench); even if howry, eyre, williamson, ohman and dempster all pitch to high expectation; even if health blesses the starting eight and neifi doesn't see the field for more than 150 at-bats -- all this can be quickly and completely undone by the horrifying conjunction of dusty baker's head and the tender arms of wood, prior and zambrano. if the 2006 cubs squad can have only one achilles heel, the wizard is it. if this team patches all its holes and is allowed to putrify anyway under his macabre leadership, it will be a failing not only of baker but of hendry and macfail -- of the entire cub front office, yet again.

in summation, while the critical moves are yet to be made, this much can be known about the 2006 cubs: starting pitching and dusty baker will make success a difficult venture -- and if it should by fortune descend upon the franchise early in the year, cub fans and followers will find it impossible to relax, knowing that the injuries which can gut the club are only a turn of the rotation away. so much for an easy, recumbent year.

but you didn't expect one of those anyway, did you?

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