Monday, September 11, 2006

scott moore and the plan for reconstruction

before the all star break, this page took a look at the forward prospects at third base for the cubs. at that time, aramis was suffering through a first half that saw him go 259/320/481 despite 16 home runs and 52 rbi in 85 games.

ramirez's defense and proneness to mild injuries have been occasion for some grousing on the north side, as has his recent inability to fill the hole left in the cub lineup left by the injury of derrek lee. though his free-swinging style certainly aggravated the problem, this page finds it hard to fault ramirez for being pitched around mercilessly this season as the only material threat for the cubs at the plate. and a cursory glace at ramirez's production from the hot corner in the context of all major league third basemen from 2003-5 reveals how good he has been -- fourth in total bases, fourth in home runs and sixth in extra-base hits despite being 11th in games played, yielding third in ops and second in slugging behind only the yankees' alex rodriguez.

ramirez's 2007 and 2008 with the cubs would be worth $22.5mm with a mutual option in 2009 -- but the chances of him matching or exceeding 3-years/$34mm in free agency seems quite good in a world in which scott rolen is slated for $14.5mm in 2007, rafael furcal is being paid $13mm a year and carlos lee is looking for $15mm. there is simply no other third baseman in his class available in free agency prior to 2008-9, and that should ensure a potentially hefty payday for a player who has slugged .540 in a cub uniform if he exercizes the option.

aramis ramirez has since then gone on to post one of the best second halves in all of baseball, going 316/379/632 and clouting a home run every 13 at-bats, driving -- along with improved and/or unusual productivity from juan pierre, matt murton, ryan theriot and the dearly departed phil nevin -- the otherwise dismal cubs offense forward to eighth in the nl since the intermission in spite of deadweight like ronny cedeno, jacque jones, angel pagan and john mabry (all four stunningly in the top eight in at-bats for the cubs since the break, thanks to the ongoing sabotage being perpetrated by vengeful lame duck dusty baker).

the failure of the cubs in the second half -- having gone 22-33, second-worst in the league ahead (and only just) of the freefalling brewers -- has instead been the story of pitching, which has been worsted only by the washington nationals in this timeframe, actually somewhat underperforming the horrid first half.

all this amounts to what has long been known to the sensible -- aramis ramirez will almost certainly exercize his out clause and seek free agency following this season. a quick glance at 2006-7 free agents at third base shows him to be easily the class of the field, and what remains of his original deal -- three years at some $34mm -- is at least $3mm a year under consensus estimates of market value. the economics have been confirmed by ramirez himself, who has told friends that he intends to go to market.

now, it must be said that this in no way means ramirez cannot come back next season -- indeed, jim hendry still has every opportunity to extend ramirez before november's filing date. but the promotion of scott moore is an interesting countermeasure to ramirez's situation. moore thursday played first base, going 2 for 3 with a homer in his first major league start. one suspects this will put his name on many lips today and for the rest of september -- indeed, so provoking this post -- as though he were some form of insurance against ramirez's departure.

but that would be something of a gross exaggeration of moore's likely potential. this page has said previously:

the lefthanded-batting moore is 22 and a former 8th-overall pick of the tigers, and is the leading prospect at third in the cub organization -- but he strikes out every third at-bat in double-a with a 4-to-1 k:bb ratio, and has posted a .338 obp in his minor league career besides being a significantly substandard defender. these characteristics are what allowed detroit to move him to the cubs in good conscience. while there is always some remote chance of metamorphosis with a young player, moore seems highly unlikely be anything like ramirez's caliber as a player despite his draft pedigree.

moore has done little to dissuade this page from that opinion this season, his first at double-a west tenn, where the 22-year-old went 276/360/479 in 463 ab, hitting an impressive 22 homers in the pitcher-friendly southern league but striking out 126 times -- once every 3.6 at-bats -- while committing a team-high 19 errors. these numbers closely match his 2005 output in high-a daytona -- this is no fluke performance for the former first-rounder. he can be likely expected to hit in the 250-265 range with an 760-820 ops in the majors, but with prolonged slumps, a godawful number of strikeouts and poor performance in the field. this predicted output corresponds to a third-tier major league third baseman. moore will be cheap but probably isn't offensively any better than a brandon inge -- and notably carries an inferior glove.

the question facing the cubs, of course, is whether or not the $15mm per annum over four or five years that ramirez is likely to command helps them enough to justify retaining him -- and this is spite of the probable fact that the 28-year-old aramis would be 32 or 33 at the end of that term and in the stages of the normal decline that most players experience following their physical peak from 27 to 29 years of age.

the answer to that question, it seems here, is bound up deeply with the young pitching that the cubs are now bringing to the majors in the form of rich hill, sean marshall, juan mateo, jae-kuk ryu, angel guzman and carlos marmol. beyond them, there is the prospect of sean gallagher, randy wells, donald veal and relievers tim layden, carmen pignatiello, clay rapada, andy shipman and adalberto mendez. and -- beyond them -- more distant but promising prospects named mitch atkins, mark pawelek, mark holliman, jose ceda, jeff samardzija and billy muldowney will soon be vying of attention. a lot of incompetence can be laid at the door of andy macfail and jim hendry, but they have been committed to bringing an almost-unheard-of depth of pitching into the cub organization -- of the 32 draft picks in the first five rounds since 2001, 19 (59%) have been expended in pitching; of the 19 picks in the first 100 players taken, 12 (63%) were used to obtain pitchers.

many of these pitchers will turn out to be nothing of much importance at the major league level -- player development is defined by attrition, after all. but the cubs stand today as one of the deepest organizations in pitching prospects in baseball, and that matters. as 2005 fell by the wayside, this page forwarded a plan for reconstruction limited to free agent movement with an eye toward a winning 2006. hendry did indeed follow something much like this plan -- but failed miserably in execution, signing too few relievers and too little bench, missing on rafael furcal and not even bidding at brian giles.

this year it has become apparent that the problems run yet deeper at the major league level, where kerry wood and mark prior have again failed to make a durable mark and the team is blighted by belligerent multiyear commitments to jacque jones, ryan dempster and perhaps soon juan pierre. if ramirez is retained for $15mm per annum and pierre resigned at around $6-7mm, with expected arbitration raises for carlos zambrano and prior, the cubs would already be committed to some $85mm in 2007 payroll and that figure likely again in 2008 -- just to keep this club intact, this same club that threatens to lose 100 games.

the prospect of 90+ loss seasons for the next two years just to perpetuate a sense of stability cannot be an acceptable path. that this franchise is in need of radical overhaul is even admitted (and ridiculed) in the pages of the tribune itself. so what to do?

with apologies to paul sullivan, stabbing at lightning in a bottle by attempting to land gary sheffield, kerry wood, ray durham, mike mussina and others is a pipe dream. with the tribune in trouble and issuing profit warnings, the club payroll is not expanding dramatically -- indeed, it may contract, no matter how obscene the profits of the team itself. the chances of this organization making the high offer on even one of those players is remote at best.

these next few years -- beginning from a point so low, constrained by both the financial condition of the ownership and the idiocy of jim hendry in regards to players like jacque and dempster -- are best thought of as one of quiet rebuilding with youthful pitching. the accidental youth movement of this season should be allowed to flower in full, uninhibited by free agent acquisitions (that the tribune is ill-positioned to allow in any case) taking playing time away from youthful longer-term assets.

this page has made little secret of its contempt for the position players in the cubs farm. as promising the returns of draft picks expended on pitching are, so dismal are the prospects for any position player. moore has already been discussed here, and the cream of crop -- felix pie -- seems less and less an outstanding talent so much as a reasonable major league centerfielder with every passing season. but it also seems here that no good case can be made for acquiring today such free agents as the cubs would likely afford in an attempt to win in 2007 or 2008 which will almost surely be entirely futile. juan pierre and aramis ramirez are free agents.

the only plausible case, it here seems, for landing any expensive talent in the near term entails the ability of that player to still be massively productive in 2009, 2010 and 2011 -- when pitchers like hill, gallagher, veal and others will be reaching for their peak potential -- and for them to be a truly rare commodity.

pierre, at 30 next season already on the probable downswing, surely can fulfill neither qualification. his salary is much larger than his usefulness to the cubs, and he should not be retained in spite of the price hendry paid for him.

ramirez, sparkling offensive talent that he is, is but a year younger than pierre and has for compatriots at third base an unusual wealth of talented players -- indeed, third base has become one of the most deeply populated positions on the diamond in major league talent.

indeed, it seems here that one of two paths can be taken by the cubs -- one of which involves ramirez, and another of which does not.

if ramirez is retained, macfail and hendry must make hay out of this wealth of pitching prospects now. rather than wait for them to develop, targets exist in the trade market -- dontrelle willis and miguel cabrera in florida, jason bay in pittsburgh, dan haren in oakland, carl crawford in tampa bay, jake peavy in san diego, david dejesus in kansas city, chris capuano in milwaukee, vernon wells in toronto, joe nathan in minnesota -- who are impact players right now for teams of limited means who are still controlled contracts by virtue of not yet having reached the six years of service time necessary to acquire free agent status. perhaps not all of these players and others like them are realizable gets, nor would the cubs be able to get a large number of them -- but if the cubs commit to ramirez now, they must attack these targets willing to make deals like the one they made for juan pierre in an effort to win well before before 2010.

if, however, ramirez is not retained, the cubs should be willing to install moore at third, ryan theriot at second, felix pie in center and matt murton in left -- and allow the pitching that is bubbling up through the farm to develop for a few years while drafting position players in high rounds in the hopes of filling out as much of the 2010 roster as possible with talented youth. as albatross contracts like those of jacque and dempster expire or are moved out, cash can be freed to fill the spots that have no in-house solution with free agents and probably some of the kind of trades discussed in the previous paragraph. this sort of "riding the wave" of talent development is the sort of tactic seen more often from quadruple-a franchises like kansas city or florida, but the cubs are so close to such teams in overall talent and so hamstrung by the stupid personnel decisions made by macfail and hendry over the last couple of years that it has become a legitimate -- even perhaps the safest and best -- path to redemption.

if this page had to guess at the future, it would suppose that neither path is likely. indeed, jim hendry is a general manager loathe to part with prospects in trade -- making the former avenue unlikely -- and yet desperate to make some approach to winning now because of the terms of his contract, which expires following 2007 -- making the latter unlikely.

instead, this page would predict a third, middle path -- relying on inexperienced pitching and prayers for mark prior while signing insufficient free agents in an attempt to patch only some of the holes in the hull of this derelict. and something less than mediocrity will be the likely result, as this team truly does need a radical overhaul to have any aspirations to success.

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