Wednesday, August 30, 2006

so now we know

this page two days ago salivated with anticipation at the settlement of a months-old question: who exactly is the worst team in the national league? it seemed that seven games in ten days between the pittsburgh pirates and the chicago cubs could yield an answer.

turns out it didn't take that long.

monday's tilt saw the pirates -- an offense nearly as inept as the cubs' own -- pound cubs pitching for 19 hits and 11 runs, destroying rookie starter angel guzman early by putting crooked numbers up in the first, second and fourth to chase him. guzman, despite a sequence of injury-riddled years which included a labrum repair, still possesses promise at 24 and his first 40 innings are no grounds upon which anything can really be determined. the mere fact that he has recorded 46 strikeouts in this season is reason enough to hope to see more of him in a starting capacity. this page continues to advocate the position it has since may -- to redeem this ghastly season in some small way, play these kids and winnow the wheat. guzman, rich hill, carlos marmol and juan mateo should all take turns before any other pitcher on the cub staff, including carlos zambrano. sean marshall, for his part, has probably already secured a rotation spot in 2007 in the minds of most and needn't pitch again this season.

and this is particularly true in juxtaposition with glendon rusch, who came on in relief of guzman to demonstrate once again that he is likely finished as a major league pitcher. back when jim hendry was aborting the 2006 season in part by leaving this club fatally short of pitching, this page discussed jeff weaver once top-tier free agents like kevin millwood were signed.

so with millwood following bradley, furcal and giles into the litany of unrealized cub fantasies, it seems to this writer that there are only two wisps of hope for hope.

one is for jeff weaver, the only remaining free agent starter of any consequence. weaver has acquitted himself reasonably in his time in the majors; however, no one is going to confuse him with mark prior or kevin millwood. he's a competent mid-rotation guy -- but i don't think changing out even the likes of rusch ... for weaver is necessarily a pennant-winning upgrade for the rotation. moving him into prior's turn leaves the cubs fatally undermanned.

weaver has gone on in 2006 to pitch terribly, underperforming even the modest expectations of this writer, compiling an aggregate 6.16 era in 25 starts for the angels and cardinals. and he still would've been better than rusch this season, as rusch has not only vomited out a 7.69 era but has been unable to pitch effectively in relief and unable to take the ball every fifth day. that a pitcher who has thrown as weaver has could actually have been a positive net addition to this rotation speaks untold volumes about how thoroughly hendry and andy macfail have screwed this franchise up.

nor is that screwing limited to the rotation, unfortunately. the cub bullpen has consisted of two pitchers this year -- bob howry and scott eyre -- of which this page said:

the primary setup men in bob howry and scott eyre are to meet very high expectations among many cub fans. but this page, while applauding those signings to some degree -- indeed considering the failure of jim hendry to be primarily that he didn't make more of them -- would argue temperance to anyone believing them to be a large improvement over last year's model.

that opinion, if controversial, remains as evidenciary as ever and the opinion of this writer. one finds a great deal of reason to be suspect of eyre's prospects particularly, as his 2005 output -- on the basis of which he was signed and so many expectations have formed -- was a statistical outlier. eyre's earned run average was fully two runs under his career figure and a run and a half below his previous season; his 2005 whip was likewise a 40% reduction from his career number and by 20% a new career low. the chances of this performance being repeated in 2006 seem slight indeed.

indeed, even as eyre's continued excellence has surprised, the cub bullpen as a whole hasn't improved a jot on last season -- they were middle of the pack last year and are middle of the pack this year. as was here forecast, for all the hubris surrounding the signing of eyre and howry, they've been powerless to materially change the destiny of a group that regretfully relies the likes of roberto novoa, michael wuertz, will ohman and, of course, ryan dempster. and it won't be for a lack of trying -- howry will near 90 appearances this season, a figure last seen by kent tekulve in the late 1980s, and eyre might have taken that trip with him if not for injury.

dempster on tuesday came in late to a lost game and did nothing to assuage the nervousness that surrounds his every appearance, yielding two runs on four hits in the ninth to add insult to injury. but his best work remained to be done tuesday.

one of the pleasant surprises of the last week has been the persistent play of ryan theriot, long seemingly relegated to the doghouse of dusty baker's dimwitted intransigence. whether it be as a result of the injury to cesar! or the trade of neifi! or the edict of a frustrated hendry or all or neither, baker has finally -- FINALLY! -- benched the predictably failed ronny! and inserted theriot at short. it is perhaps comic that a team that at one point carried six second basemen on the roster has been relegated to freddie bynum to man the position, but better he than cedeno anyway. theriot has responded well, going 293/370/439 with six steals after the all star break.

but that didn't stop baker from finding a way for cedeno to lose the game, with a little help from bynum and dempster.

zambrano acted his maddening self, pitching brilliantly at times and at other times imploding to allow five runs over seven innings and 111 pitches. zambrano walked just one, but threw all over the zone for much of the game, running plenty of 2- and 3-ball counts despite facing one of the least patient teams in baseball. he himself also managed to commit two errors, one a throw and another a catch.

there's been a lot of talk in cubdom about the cy young award, but admittedly such talk causes this writer to laugh. zambrano is as talented as anyone could want, and a workhorse as well (much to this page's nervousness). consider the field, and it is amazing that zambrano has won 14 for this awful club. and he furthermore leads the league in strikeouts as well as innings, while allowing a stellar 6.8 hits/nine. but zambrano also leads the league in walks by a wide margin, imparting a 1.28 whip and a k:bb ratio of just 1.87. taken against his best competition for the award -- particularly chris carpenter, whose .276 obpa is simply stunning -- zambrano may be found a bit wanting. moreover, there is the consideration (shared by this writer) that "valuable" is a term that can only be imbued to players chasing something of value -- that is, postseason glory. be it his fault or no, zambrano is as far from valuable in that sense as any player in baseball. compounded with zambrano's clear maturity issues -- his error in the fifth was followed by another typical episode of broken concentration and wildness that contributed to consecutive rbi singles which allowed the pirates back in the game -- which have been only exacerbated by baker, it seems here that carpenter must be the recipient of the hardware.

but zambrano at least left the game tied, which the game stayed until the eleventh. here the cub offense rallied on a control-plagued damaso marte, with a juan pierre walk and an aramis ramirez walk -- ramirez reached in all six plate appearances, driving his second half line to a boggling 341/411/707 -- bearing fruit on a derrek lee single. (oh, how we've missed you, sir.)

but it -- stunningly -- wasn't enough. with one out and one on in the tenth, baker had called back theriot for jacque jones, hoping to change the game in a single blow. jones fanned, but now in need of a shortstop baker had cedeno hit for the pitcher. he too promptly struck out to end the inning, but stayed in the game. the gamble having failed, baker was left with a significantly weakened defense -- cedeno has been horrid in the field as well as the plate all year. in combination with bynum at second, pierre in center and barrett behind the plate, the cubs may at that moment have fielded one of the weakest up-the-middle defenses of the lively ball era. and they paid.

dempster came on to close the 11th, giving up a one-out single to humberto cota, followed by a juan castillo single to set up the critical moment. with the double play in order, dempster managed to induce a grounder to cedeno -- who couldn't come up with it cleanly. his hurried throw -- off the mark but still perhaps catchable -- handcuffed bynum, who dropped it. the run scored to tie it; castillo took third.

and here baker made a move this writer, for one, could not agree with -- intentionally walking mendoza-line hitter chris duffy to load the bases. with howry on the mound, this move is perhaps understandable -- with one away, it sets up the double play with a force at any base. but dempster is one of the most control-plagued closers in baseball, and baker put him in a position to walk in the winning run. he, of course, did, capping one of the most wrenching losses of the year.

so now we know, dear reader. these two games have settled, for this writer, just who the worst team in the national league really is. the pirates managed to further the gap in run differential between the two -- now bettering the cubs, (-95) to (-125), by a gap of 30 runs, an interval unlikely to be bridged this year. and this writer wouldn't be at all surprised if the slim two-and-a-half game advantage to the cubs in record evaporated before october as well.

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