Tuesday, July 11, 2006

at the break

with baseball rolling into the all-star break, the intermission always seems like an opportune time to take stock of the situation and spend a moment reflecting. that isn't a very pleasant task this season, of course.

at this time last year, this page began the dusty watch, noting the first real criticism of the cub manager in the pages of the tribune. twelve months on, the mother ship has ignominiously and belatedly released the hounds on baker.

Tribune: Hendry says you were involved in all the off-season decision-making and signed off on this team. Now when you say, 'Give me the horses and I'll win,' it suggests you weren't given enough to win.

Baker: No, no, no. ... When I said I need my horses, it's the horses we signed on to, before [the season]. That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying get me some more [players]. I have never, ever complained about my personnel, anyplace I've been. Have you ever heard me say, 'We don't have this,' or 'We don't have that,' ever?

Tribune: No, but 'Give me the horses' can be construed as you saying, 'I need more players.'

Baker: No, it's not. I don't care how it's construed. What I said is, 'Hey, man, give me the horses, and if my horses stay healthy, I'm going to win.' Well, my horses haven't been healthy. [Kerry] Wood and [Mark] Prior haven't been healthy. My main offense guy (Derrek Lee) wasn't healthy. It's not an alibi or an excuse, because I don't use excuses.

They can construe it however they want to. As I've said, the team we started with, on paper, is not the team we started with on the field. They're still here, they just were not here. They're in the stable.

Tribune: But Lee is back and you're still only 6-9 since he returned.

Baker: Yeah, but Derrek's not Derrek yet, and Mark was just beginning to be Mark (before being sidelined by a strained oblique). And at the same time, you have to consider my bullpen is way overpitched. We don't have a complete game, so somebody in my bullpen is out there every day. And it's not the guys' fault. We had a lot of young guys here out of necessity, not that they were really ready. How many starters have we used, 11 or 12? How many of those have been kids? That's all I'm saying. I mean, we've had some guys who haven't had the years we anticipated they were going to have too.

Tribune: At one point you denied your team was underachieving, and they were 18 or 19 games under .500 at the time, and even your most vocal supporters were saying, 'Come on, at least admit that much.'

Baker: Well, is that underachieving, or is that ...

Tribune: Just the way they are?

Baker: (No response.)

Tribune: Well, then, aren't you saying that you didn't get the talent?

Baker: No, I didn't say that. I said a lot of my talent is in the stable. There's a difference now. I didn't say that. You know when we started the season we had some question marks. Most teams have some question marks.

whether or not baker is canned in the next 48 hours or not is largely a matter of whether or not jim hendry can momentarily haul himself out of his well of denial, but this page certainly understands that expectations are being managed -- and this makes the likely eventual outcome clear.

what is also clear is that the cubs do not magically resurrect upon his dismissal. the blinding incompetence of the cubs administration rises far higher than baker -- indeed, even hendry is but an appendage of the monster.

bruce miles of the daily herald notes as much in his glance at the devastation that stretches behind this team -- and forward, sadly, as far as the eye can now see.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it extends from the top of the Tribune Tower to the last man on the roster.

For example, why is the Tribune Co. spending $94 million on player payroll when the Boston Red Sox are at $120 million?

... Hendry spent the early part of last winter chasing shortstop Rafael Furcal and center fielder Juan Pierre for the top of the lineup.

All the while, Hendry also should have been looking for a veteran arm to add to the starting rotation.

Instead, Hendry tried to sell the notion — maybe even to himself — that right-hander Kerry Wood would start the season or at least pitch sometime in April after having arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last August.

That turned out to be a gross miscalculation, as did the notion that rehabbing pitcher Wade Miller was “two weeks behind Woody.” When pitcher Mark Prior turned up with a sore shoulder in spring training, the Cubs were in deep trouble.

... Baker’s peculiar lineup patterns, use of pitchers, in-game strategies and handling of crises leave a lot to be desired.

Infielder Neifi Perez (.269 OBP) should only start once a week — and never bat second.

Baker still rides staff ace Carlos Zambrano hard. Relievers often don’t begin warming up until trouble has been brewing. Baker isn’t adverse to giving away precious outs early with sacrifice bunts, and the double switch has become an obsession.

and on and on.

it may as well be noted that this is not all dusty's fault. this page expended a lot of words in december, january, february and march trying to communicate the bleakness of the situation and the fatality of the manifold flaws of construction that doomed this team from the outset. we warned that the team had not committed the resources necessary to win despite possessing them. we warned about the lethal weakness of the starting rotation and to expect little or nothing of kerry wood and wade miller -- and shortly after, mark prior -- as the cubs pursued a problematic policy of cheap injury reclamation. we warned that maddux was not the pitcher he once was and that rusch was a ticking bomb. we warned that the bullpen would be insufficient, and that dempster would be trouble. we warned that ronny cedeno was not a competent major league shortstop and a major step down from missed target rafael furcal. we warned that neifi perez would see the field too much. we warned not to expect too much from matt murton. we warned that derrek lee's career year in 2005 might not be replicable (though it certainly didn't forecast what sort of year he would have) and that not enough had been done to deepen the offense in light of that fact. and we rued that these weaknesses were all to waste this club in a year both opportune and critical.

to be sure, this page was wrong about some things too. juan pierre turned out to be a bust, and even if he has started to hit in june and july as this page hoped he would that fact remains unchanged -- moreover, expectations of a resurgence in pierre to heady days gone by are now here tempered. jacque jones, for all his expected and partially realized uselessness, has hit well enough for three months to at least hold out some small hope that his contract won't be an utter folly (though surely it is still likely to prove so over the next two and a half years). this page also thought aramis ramirez was primed for another brilliant season, an expectation he has certainly failed to meet thusfar. we expected sean marshall, irrationally promoted, might meet with disaster and that jerome williams would be the better option -- marshall has at least kept his era under 5 and williams, while not given any innings, made poor use of those he was.

but the greatest error in judgment here, it seems, was the underestimation of just how awful things would be if a large number of our dismal component expectations proved to be essentially correct. the scope of the disaster well exceeds even this page's somewhat-too-optimistic expectations of the preseason and has taken on the dimensions of a truly epic collapse.

moreover, as has been noted, the cubs have precious little to look forward to in the second half. even if baker and the veterans are sent packing and the kids are finally allowed to play -- the only hope of obtaining some scrap of redeeming value out of this lost season -- the question becomes, "what kids?". after a handful of pitchers which include rich hill, angel guzman, jae-kuk ryu, carlos marmol and sean marshall, there is very little to talk about down on the farm. these cubs aren't the minnesota twins, who can move jason barlett in at short and jason kubel into a corner outfield spot.

dusty is not helping matters any, but this certainly does not lie on his head alone. expurgating him is a step in the right direction, but the expectation of this page is that real change will be deferred at least until the day team president andy macfail -- who has now presided over twelve years of failure, having done nothing to materially improve anything on the field -- is moved out of the organization. and indeed that may be too optimistic.

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