Tuesday, May 02, 2006

rewards of the accidental youth movement

this page doesn't imagine that any team which signs jacque jones, bob howry and scott eyre -- not to mention run halfheartedly at rafael furcal and eventually settle on juan pierre -- intends to go to a full-scale youth movement. all the aforementioned players were meant to address immediate team needs in a way that a truly youth-oriented team would see fit to fill with younger heads and lighter salaries. if anything, the youth movement the chicago cubs are in the middle of is a terrible accident.

such an accident is twofold in its nature. it is partly the result of a self-imposed salary cap that has, over the course of three years, forced payroll to be reallocated from the corner outfield spots and matt clement to be spread over the corner infield spots, centerfield, bullpen and the pitching troika of wood, prior and maddux. and it is also the consequence of general management's failure to nail down some desperately needed ability at some key positions -- one can hardly believe that ronny cedeno, for example, is the desired or intended solution at short -- and its mistakes in player evaluation -- as with wood and prior, to cite examples that join korey patterson, kyle farnsworth and possibly felix pie to illustrate the managerial overemphasis of inebriating raw talent over the more prudent measures of developed abilities and physical durability.

but the accident has happened, and the cubs are living with the consequences -- with three minor leaguers in the starting rotation, two more in the field and a couple others being shuttled through the bullpen, the north side sometimes feels more like tampa or miami sans the warm weather. and despite the concerns that a youth movement always brings -- for after all, most kids simply won't stick as everyday players, and most young teams fail miserably in the standings -- the cubs are also receiving some of the rewards.

matt murton, while hardly a product of the cub farm, has acquitted himself very well indeed in left field. murton is on the cusp of leading the team in rbi and has demonstrated an eye and patience in taking walks to offset his strikeouts. his .374 obp ranks second on the club to todd walker and makes him one of just two active players with an obp over .350 on this, the fourth-worst team in the nl in terms of reaching.

but the news from last night is rookie lefty sean marshall, whose fifth major league start was his most convincing yet. marshall allowed just five baserunners in seven and a third, brilliantly dousing an admittedly anemic pittsburgh attack (they are, after all, the worst offensive road club in the league). he worked ahead constantly through the first six innings, remaining remarkably efficient until tiring finally in the eighth, ending with just 91 pitches thrown. if this is the product of hanging around maddux in the dugout, the team should consider chaining zambrano, wood and prior to the man -- marshall has tossed his last 14.1 innings on just 187 pitches, just 13.0 an inning. this is the way to give the overworked/understaffed cub bullpen the break they so badly need.

it is only prudent to remind ourselves that marshall is now just 28.2 innings into the year, and this is a pitcher who compiled a 4.33 career era in the notoriously pitcher-friendly southern league in a very abbreviated stay. his appearance in the rotation remains the consequence of poor general management, he's still led an injury-prone career, high short-run expectations remain irrational (if less so) and the rules of small sample size still apply. better short runs have been mercilessly destroyed.

however, the least that can be said is that the worst this page feared to be risked has been wholly averted for this talented young pitcher and that the chances of his successfully making the improbable leap from daytona to chicago have improved markedly. as the book on marshall gets around, cub fans should still expect headaches -- but that the team has gone 5-0 in the kid's starts rather than 1-4 in spite of its overall offense makes this the most wildly successful beginning that could have been imagined, having gone in this writer's estimation from a non-issue to a likely disaster to this remarkable (if tenuous) genesis. marshall should take a bow.

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