Saturday, November 11, 2006

moment of truth

it has come earlier this year than most, dear reader.

published reports earlier this offseason had the cubs expanding payroll to $115mm in an effort to win immediately under new hire manager lou piniella. piniella himself clearly believed that such a resurgence was in the offing -- though he has been careful, as an old hand, to loudly and publicly qualify his capabilities as a magician.

"Just get me two starting pitchers, two position players, and, I'm telling you, we'll win."

oh, lou -- did you do no due diligence at all?

this writer, among others, has remained deeply skeptical of that possibility since it arose -- such a number doesn't make much sense in terms of the fluid ownership situation as the tribune company falls to pieces all around the team. with tribco shopping the superstation around, it has become all but a foregone conclusion that the cubs will be under new management next year. why would the club compromise dozens of potential leveraged bidders by expanding payroll and cutting free cash flow by $20mm?

this page has also called for months the decision surrounding aramis ramirez the most important fork in the road facing the club -- ramirez is the best free agent on the market this year, and the cubs both losing him and attempting to win in 2007 seems a farce beyond farces. whether or not there really is any truth to either a meaningful payroll expansion or a semiserious attempt at winning in 2007 will be told by monday morning.

and it does not look good.

Agent Paul Kinzer told it will take a six-year deal for a team to sign Ramirez once the Cubs' negotiating window expires this weekend and the third baseman hits the open market.

"If we go out, we're going to look for six years," Kinzer said Friday. "I'm pretty confident it would go there. Aramis is only 28 years old, and that puts him in his prime."

Chicago general manager Jim Hendry met with Kinzer on Thursday night in Arizona, and it appeared likely the two sides would speak again Friday. But Kinzer wasn't optimistic about Ramirez re-signing with the Cubs before the team's exclusive negotiating window runs out Saturday night.

"We're running out of time to get it done before then," said Kinzer, who plans to travel to the general managers' meetings in Naples, Fla., and begin discussions with other clubs Sunday. Several baseball sources said the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim will make a strong push for Ramirez.

let it be said -- agents in negotiations will talk, and there is still a sliver of hope that jim hendry will add a sixth year that kinzer and his player deserve (as the market would apparently have it) to the reported five-year/$75mm bid currently on the table. but in truth there is no promise that going to 6/90 would land ramirez -- he is, after all, the best player available and still only 28. bidding could easily hit or top 6/100 and even go to seven years. in any case it would seem aramis has little to risk in trying for it.

does anyone dare hope hendry and the cubs will commit to what it may take to avert that? no matter how buffoonish and rotely incompetent hendry will be exposed to be for not having dealt ramirez at the deadline?

instead, it seems increasingly likely that hendry and the cubs will fail with ramirez as he failed with furcal -- and spin the failure furiously, bleating madly about the only-recently-revealed no-trade clause in ramirez's contract while trying to ignore both the stupidity of granting a no-trade along with an opt-out as well as the simple fact that ramirez could easily have been convinced to waive the clause for a price and quite possibly for nothing to head to a certain southern california winner.

but is it fair to say that, if aramis is lost, all is lost for 2007? is there really no other recourse? having failed to get ramirez, hendry would -- in order to harbor any real pretense at winning -- indeed have to improve radically elsewhere and land a couple of the second-best free agents on the market.

rumored cub target gary sheffield was yesterday dealt to the detroit tigers and is so out of consideration. unofficial reports have daisuke matsuzaka headed into negotiations with boston. jim edmonds will return to saint louis. but dodger slugger j.d. drew opted out of his contract and is a potential target for the cubs, who are currently measuring babip-phenomenon gary matthews and the vastly inferior likes of dave roberts in center field.

but there are more concessions. of the other two pitchers beyond matsuzaka that are head-of-the-rotation material, the high-mileage jason schmidt appears close with seattle and the cavernous safeco that could help him to a cy young if he doesn't stay in california -- and barry zito has drawn a tremendous crowd that includes the mets, dodgers, angels, padres and rangers, a field which the cubs are unlikely in any case to come ahead of. there is no real free agent help in the pitching market beyond these that wouldn't take a great deal of plain old luck to materialize.

on the other side of the ball, alfonso soriano may be hendry's top target -- but so is he pat gillick's in philadelphia, and the cubs will have to beat an aggressive bid from a general manager who has landed his share of big whales. and this of course is not to mention any other club that may get involved.

in truth, this page has come to the opinion that it will be difficult if not all but impossible to spend a $20mm payroll expansion in any manner other than absolutely foolishly if ramirez is let to walk. perhaps that is no surprise -- after all, the cubs last signed george bell and danny jackson (and dave smith) as first-tier free agents -- but this weekend remains a moment of truth for the 2007 cubs. the hiring of piniella was supposed prelude to a fury of purpose in turning a chaotic and flailing franchise around. did it? or did it merely signal that piniella isn't as critically bright as he'd like to think he is?

stay tuned, dear reader. ramirez must stay -- and soriano must be signed to play second -- and drew must be signed to play center -- and the probable best of the pitching rest, ted lilly, signed to the cub rotation for anything like a one-year turnaround to become a true contender to be countenanced. that improbable sequence could only possibly survive one failure and still render a club remotely capable of 90 wins.

if ramirez is the first failure... you can kiss the 2007 miracle resuscitation goodnight.

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