Thursday, December 28, 2006

Who can be centerfield?

One by one the Free Agent crop of centerfielders has slipped off of that list and onto various MLB rosters. Gary Matthews is now an Angel. Juan Pierre is now a Dodger. Dave Roberts has landed in San Francisco. Kenny Lofton has found work in Texas. Meanwhile the position that Pierre vacated with the Cubs remains vacant, or is it?

I know, I know, Hendry had a full plate going into the offseason. To be fair, IMO the Cubs General Manager has done a good job reshaping the Cubs roster and trying to turn the good ship Cubbie around in one offseason (still a near impossible task). With few options left what will Jim Hendry do with the centerfield position?

Jacques Jones
Jones wants out of Chicago. Apparently the Cubs brass wouldn't mind making this happen after Jones rocky season at Clark and Addison. With Soriano now slated to play rightfield and a Murton/Floyd platoon in leftfield, there appears to be only two options for Jones. Trade him or take your chances with him in center.

Jones has played center before. Early in Jones' career in Minnesota he played quite a bit of center. In his rookie year of 1999 he played 82 games in center and in his second year 63 games in center. Since 2001 he has only played occasionally in center.

Felix Pie
One of my least favorite topics in the world of Cubdom. You see I bought into the whole Corey Patterson "can't miss prospect" stuff. I ain't ready to buy another centerfield phenom as fast these days. Still with the offense the Cubs can put around Pie, maybe they can just ask him to go catch the ball. Wait, I just forgot, we're using that excuse for the all-glove/no-hit shortstop. The time is not now for Pie.

Alfonso Soriano
Would the Cubs actually move their prized offseason acquisition to centerfield? To be fair, rightfield is actually a harder position to play at Wrigley Field due to the large quantity of afternoon games with the sun playing havoc on many more experienced outfielders. When you look at it from this perspective and if Jones is still on the roster, Soriano may be the Cubs best option in both center and right. (That ain't saying much considering last year was his first year in the outfield).

Free Agent Leftovers
Aside from making a trade the Cubs only other options look to be 41 year old free agent Steve Finley and 32 year old, but often injured, Darrin Erstad. It really doesn't look like either of these players has much left. Finley in the last two years has hit .222 and .246. Erstad has not been able to stay healthy since he was a big part of the Angels 2002 team that won the World Series. In 2004 and 2005 he spent the majority of his time playing first for the halos. This season the former Nebraska Cornhusker kicker only played 40 games.

The pickings in centerfield are thin to say the least.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

rich hill and mark prior

the topic has certainly been addressed here previously -- with a look at the cubs' new free agent pitchers individually here and as part of the team here -- but as this writer found himself addressing comments in a thread, the reply wound up so long as to be be barred by haloscan from posting as a comment. such is the birth of a new post on an old topic.

where commenter kt cubs wondered:

Do the Cubs understand Vorp or is the management at the Cubs just stabbing in the dark with moves that dont appear to have any chance of a positive effect . . . ie Marquis and Derosa?

the reply went as follows:

there's actually room for a plug for hendry just once here, kt -- marquis is an example of buying low, something the cubs don't do nearly enough.

plug over. why does it have to be upon marquis that they finally do this?

marquis is not a great pitcher, though that his 6.02 era in 2006 is unusually high is unquestionable. but it has to be said that his 2005 and 2004 mask significant effects that make him look a lot better than he is. he was the beneficiary of wonderful luck in 2004, and had the good fortune of allowing an unusually high number of unearned runs in 2005.

a better way of contextualizing marquis (and lilly) may be to show them not by era but by runs allowed per nine (RA) -- adjusted by delta-r to remove the benefices of good fortune that can heavily skew annual performances as measured by era. put them into a list of familiar names, and one can begin to see why the rotation shouldn't probably be considered anything like a strength.

player 2006 2005 2004 2003 career
zambrano 3.74 3.22 3.56 3.62 3.68
maddux 3.94 4.32 4.40 3.963.40
wood 5.94 4.09 4.23 3.673.92
prior 7.00 3.89 4.32 3.15 3.92
lilly 4.95 5.77 4.33 4.64 4.93
marquis 6.16 4.74 5.10 4.86 5.18

then further consider that marquis has pitched in front of quality defense all his career -- his defense-adjusted era is 0.58 higher than his actual (as opposed to lilly, whose similar difference is just 0.13). anyone who expects one of these two to just step in for wood, maddux or prior (or zambrano, god forbid) is going to be sorely disappointed -- particularly in marquis. either one is likely to surrender a run per game more than any of them.

it's hard to look at the numbers and get a good feel for where lilly and marquis might fall into our range of experience. does anyone really want to see a list that contextualizes them?

you fellow sadists. ;)

here then is the list of cub starters (or mostly starters), innings pitched in a cub uni (minimum 150, with one exception) and corresponding RA net of del-r -- with career numbers for lilly, marquis and rich hill interposed -- 2007's front four are highlighted.

player ip ra(net)
carlos zambrano 977.0 3.68
greg maddux 1 1442.0 3.74
matt clement 587.7 3.81
kerry wood 1128.7 3.92
mark prior 657.0 3.92
rick sutcliffe 1267.3 4.14
jon lieber 827.6 4.18
mike harkey 422.3 4.18
mark clark 276.7 4.23
jaime navarro 437.0 4.32
greg maddux 2 574.0 4.36
rich hill 123.0 4.39
mike morgan 575.3 4.45
mike bielecki 600.7 4.47
frank castillo 949.7 4.58
jason bere 273.7 4.64
jeremi gonzalez 254.0 4.64
terry mulholland 379.0 4.68
kevin tapani 804.0 4.78
ted lilly 936.0 4.89
steve trachsel 1146.3 4.90
jose guzman 210.7 4.91
kevin foster 485.3 4.99
julian tavarez 161.3 5.08
shawn boskie 387.0 5.12
jason marquis 910.3 5.18
jim bullinger 481.0 5.22
glendon rusch 341.3 5.24
danny jackson 183.7 5.39
willie banks 150.0 5.70
amaury telemaco 163.0 6.02
shawn estes 152.3 7.03

if you take comfort from an analysis that leagues lilly with trachsel or tapani and marquis with boskie or bullinger, you are more an optimist than i am. the more it's examined, the more it seems that hope for real performance hinges on two players:

1) rich hill
2) mark prior

if hill can deliver the kind of year maddux did in 2005 and 2004 -- particularly the 34-35 starts -- and prior can re-emerge from his shoulder problems to toss the kind of year he did in 2005 and 2004 -- 20-odd starts of sub-4 era pitching -- there's hope.

if either one fail, short of a remarkable emergence from the kids at iowa, it seems here that the cubs will suffer from inadequacies in starting pitching. there seems precious little reason to have little faith in marquis approaching anything like a 19.2 vorp projection, and lilly too is a good candidate to underperform a 23.0 projection.

if both fail, 2007 could be a year surprisingly similar to 2006, though probably buoyed by an improved offense that should keep it from the lower deep.

Time for a little holiday cheer*...

Sung to the tune of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer:

Pollyellon the crazy Cub fan
Used to have a fancy site
And if you ever read it
You’d probably say it’s shite

All of the other bloggers
Like to laugh and call him names
They’d never sit in LF
Cause that’s where he is during home games

Then one foggy January eve
Jim Hendry called to say
Come over to the Cub convention tonight
And we can take a photo for your site

And all his lemmings loved him
As they shouted out with glee
Pollyellon the crazy Cub fan
You’ll go down in history

Happy Holidays!

*Satire, not to be taken seriously.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

an initial appraisal

major acquisitions are now behind as the cubs steam toward 2007.

"We'd like to do a few more things, but there's nothing urgent," Hendry said.

The new to-do list includes adding a left-handed-hitting outfielder, although the team seems to be in no hurry to sign free-agent outfielder Cliff Floyd, who has physical questions after missing parts of last season with Achilles' tendon problems.

And while a new list of free agents was created Wednesday after teams did not tender arbitration-eligible players, Hendry appears to have little interest in any of them. There's obviously a reason teams did not ask certain players back, and it's not always financial.

The Cubs did not non-tender any of their major-leaguers. They did let minor-league catcher Jose Reyes go but could re-sign him.

If a thorny spot remains, it is in the outfield, where the Cubs basically have no center fielder to replace the departed Juan Pierre. And another hole might open up if Hendry trades Jacque Jones, which is not an automatic.

So why didn't the Cubs get into the bidding for Kenny Lofton, who just signed with the Rangers for $6 million for one year?

Indications are they wanted to have a spot ready for top prospect Felix Pie. If Pie is ready for the big time, the $6 million would have been poorly spent and Lofton would have been unhappy on the bench. If Pie isn't ready, then the problem may be addressed in spring training. The Cubs' options would be to start Angel Pagan in center, or even Jones. And newcomer Alfonso Soriano could play there if Pie seems to be a long way off, which the Cubs don't believe is the case.

As for pitching, Hendry is satisfied, having earmarked $17 million per year on free agents Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and by adding Neal Cotts in a trade with the White Sox.

"I've very comfortable with the pitching," Hendry said. "We wanted to add two starters and we did. We have options when we see if [Wade] Miller and [Mark] Prior are healthy. We have some depth there. We have people who are going to have to fight for jobs, and that's [good]."

with mark derosa being loudly proclaimed the starting second baseman, soriano is ticketed to play outfield on this team in 2007 with matt murton and jacque. one can even scour the recent archives of the cubs' obedient little strumpet to find soriano headed to the outfield as recently as three days ago -- in the same bit where it is said that jacque in fact has not formally requested the trade he clearly wouldn't be opposed to, a point further reinforced today by dave van dyck in saying that moving jacque is "not an automatic". murton's only outfield position due to physical limitation is clearly left, where he may or may not receive a platoon partner (likely the lefthanded cliff floyd if any). that leaves jacque and soriano to split center and right between them -- and given that the cubs put no pursuit on lofton, continue to maintain that hype-victim pie will man center at some point soon "when he's ready" (whatever that truly means) and to mention pagan as though he were really an option, this would seem unlikely to change despite entreats in the mouthpiece.

further, with marquis and lilly joining carlos zambrano and rich hill, the rotation looks largely set to emerge from spring -- as does the core of the bullpen with bob howry, ryan dempster, kerry wood, michael wuertz, scott eyre and one or the other of will ohman and neal cotts.

in short, dear reader, what you see is what you get. the time has come to start evaluating what jim hendry hath wrought. there are a number of possible methods of gauging expectation -- this page has in the past utilized normalized payroll as a proxy for doing so and will do so again. but one might also take another avenue, utilizing value over replacement in a comprehensive estimate of the team total vorp that has been found to correlate rather well with winning percentage.

this writer has undertaken a basic examination of the last three seasons in the national league using the published statistic of value over replacement with an eye toward developing in steps a method of prediction. a trailing three-year moving average of vorp for constituent roster players was taken as a reasonable first approximation of the next year's production; these approximations were then totaled to produce a total team vorp estimate for the upcoming season.

several simplifications were used. first, the moving average was simple and contained no method of adjustment or depreciation for age or any other factor. second, forward projections only included the starting members of the opening day active roster for the club -- eight position players and the top eleven pitchers. this may seem inadequate at first consideration, but (beyond being a convenient concession for prediction) in the majority of cases this is shown to be a quite reasonable presumption -- bench players and bullpen callups from the minors usually count for nearly nothing in aggregate terms of vorp over an average year, with positive contributions canceling negative. also, midseason acquisitions generally tend to have lesser impacts being frequently (though not always) roughly equivalent in contribution to the players they replace and in any case having a smaller time window to contribute in. in short, phil nevins and tony womacks vastly outnumber rick sutcliffes -- this is not to say that scintillating midseason acquisitions cannot happen, but it is to say that the hope for such saviors are a very thin straw upon which to wager. third, for the initial run of the study, only three years (2004-6) of one club (you know which) were used; this is a limitation granted to the initial examination to determine what merit might underpin the concept, if any, that may support further effort.

so what has been found? the results are summarized in this table.

yearoffensepitchingoverallwin pct projectionactual win pct
avg dev 42.0 58.6 73.1   
2007193.2 194.0 387.2 0.534  

over the total of the three-year trial, expected values for both overall team vorp and for offensive and pitching subsets converge upon the subsequent actual values within 1.3%. variance within each individual year is considerable, with an average deviation from the overall of 6%, the variances of each year being 30.3%, (-1.4%) and (-26.8%) in the most recent season.

considerable variations occur of course from year to year among individual players. some have to do with injury, others with playing time, others with distortions of insufficiently large sample size ("slumps" and "streaks"). but what can here be seen is that, even over a window as small as three years and in the context of a team, these variations perhaps matter less than may be initially thought -- projected values closely approach actual, with such variations being symmetrically distributed about a zero mean. even unexpected large negative events -- such as a major injury to a player like derrek lee in 2006 -- are over time compensated by other events of similar proportion and inverse direction -- such as the unlikely contributions of glendon rusch and an initially-injured mark prior in the second half of 2004.

seasons can be parsed in retrospect for the effects and possible expectations of such events -- one could say, for example, that prior's contribution in 2004 was not entirely unexpected and that therefore some outperformance in the pitching component of 2004's season was to be anticipated. likewise, in the negative direction, some might suggest that sammy sosa's 2004 performance -- significantly diminished from his trailing three-year average -- was also not to be unexpected and constituted a negative likelihood evident to the observer but unaccounted for by the projection. this page would not disagree that in isolated cases such anticipations are possible; they remain, however, outside the scope of this study and fodder for subjective argument. they are also often minor in comparison with unanticipated and probably unpredictable events.

on the whole, then, it would appear that further investigation is in fact merited, but that any projection should be taken with the appropriate caveat that past projections have been shown to be at variance with final totals of up to one-third of the final in either direction.

using the same methods applied to these past seasons, the probable opening day roster for the 2007 cubs has been included here. a breakdown of the appropriate estimates by player follow.

cmichael barrett31.328.124.828.1
1bderrek lee7.595.632.145.1
2bmark derosa21.53.7(13.9)3.8
3baramis ramirez44.542.350.845.9
sscesar izturis(4.6)(4.2)21.74.3
lfmatt murton16.212.5--14.4
cfalfonso soriano48.839.431.039.7
rfjacque jones24.69.61.812.0
alloffense     193.2
spcarlos zambrano53.851.262.855.9
spted lilly25.62.341.123.0
sprich hill16.8(9.1)--3.9
spjason marquis(4.9)20.741.719.2
spwade miller2.86.921.810.5
lhrpscott eyre16.520.97.715.0
lhrpwill ohman14.212.6--13.4
rhrpbob howry23.823.315.620.9
rhrpmichael wuertz13.510.44.69.5
rhrpryan dempster3.921.84.310.0
rhrpkerry wood0.29.228.812.7
allpitching     194.0
alltotal     387.2

it is notable, perhaps, that for all the cries of joy and relief regarding the acquisitions made by this team during this offseason, the projected team overall vorp is -- while at a four-year high -- just 2.7% greater than the three-year average of expected vorp for the club. this hardly constitutes a revolution in firepower or expectation.

to the extent that events looking forward can be anticipated beyond the scope of study, there are reasons for optimism. neither kerry wood nor prior factor prominently into the projection -- which was also the case in 2006 but has not always been in the past -- and positive surprises of some size are quite possible from prior and rich hill, who has not done a great deal on the balance of previous major league seasons despite his promising performances. on the offensive side, questions remain in the aftermath of a career year in 2005 about the true normal level of lee's output -- can he surprise to the upside of a 45 vorp projection in 2007? like questions can be applied to mark derosa and alfonso soriano as well.

but the cold-eyed analysis must clearly suggest that the cubs are made up of some different names but in similar basic form to years previous that saw them compile a .481 overall winning percentage. it would seem from this vantage point that the club is again riding the whirlwind of random variation, hoping for the fates to spin them a long yarn.

Monday, December 11, 2006

ted lilly and jason marquis

with the signing of jason marquis following on the landing of ted lilly, the cubs pitching situation for the next couple years has congealed markedly in just a few days. both of these pitchers are contractually obligated to the cubs for years beyond carlos zambrano at this point, so it behooves us to examine them closely in order to determine what fortunes await the team.

sadly, such analysis is not entirely kind.

lilly has been signed as an ostensible second fiddle to zambrano. it should perhaps be a warning to even casual fans that the cubs are lilly's fifth major league team despite the fact that lilly is just 31. and further warning is given by the fact that the toronto blue jays saw fit to acquire a.j. burnett at some expense and risk for that role in 2006 behind roy halladay.

upon longer investigation, the merit of those warnings can be confirmed. lilly statistically simply doesn't rise to the standard of a front-of-the-rotation starter. clearly, he is not a bad pitcher -- a career record of 59-58 is respectable, and though his career era is 4.60 over his last four years he has allowed 340 earned in 683.2 innings to amount a 4.48 era. he will on occasion dazzle as do most decent pitchers. twice in 2006 he managed ten or more strikeout in a start; twice he managed to pitch eight complete.

but just as clearly, neither to such numbers make for a very good pitcher. lilly has over the same span allowed about a hit an inning (664), which would be fine if he had demonstrated an ability to limit walks. but he has not -- lilly is one of the more walk-prone starters on the junior circuit, allowing 286 over that same four-year span to make 3.8 per nine innings and a whip of 1.39. he also failed to pitch into the sixth in nine of his 32 starts last year. while some mild mitigation of his downside can be expected in coming to the national league, the move will not in and of itself transform lilly into a different pitcher. he will walk over 80 men if he can (for the first time in his career) pitch 200 innings. those who have found zambrano's control difficulties hard to stomach will find themselves in somewhat better but still familiar territory with lilly, whose capacity to escape hits nowhere near approaches zambrano's -- lilly walked at least four in nine different starts in 2006, compared to zambrano's 14, compiling a 4.31 era in those outings.

measurement by more advanced metrics confirms a tepid assessment. lilly for his career stands at 3 pitching runs above average in 936 innings; over the last four years -- the probable peak of his career output -- that same figure stands at 9. in terms of vorp, lilly's last four seasons totals are 26.4 in 2006, 4.0 in 2005, 46.8 in his career year of 2004 and with oakland in 2003 25.8 -- an annual average of 25.7. this is the model profile of an average major league starter, which is what the cubs have indeed signed. expectations for him in 2007 should be similar to those held for greg maddux in recent years with the cubs -- solid, but unspectacular and prone to the typical maddening bouts of difficulty.

for those who have been watching the cardinals in recent seasons, it will be perhaps evident that marquis is yet less than that as a pitcher. if we evaluate lilly by his praa and vorp totals, we should do the same for marquis: (-62) praa in 910.1 career innings, a four-year vorp line of (-5.7), 18.2, 36.7 and (-1.9) that averages 11.8. decidedly, this is a well-below-average major league starter.

while marquis pitched brilliantly at times for the cardinals, he also there benefitted from one of the most brilliant of national league defenses. by most measures 2004 was his career season, in which he posted a 3.71 era that jim hendry surely hopes to see replicated. but marquis, it must be said, was exceptionally fortunate that season -- totaling a rare (-24) in delta-r, an approximation of runs unallowed by luck. with that benefit, marquis' defense-adjusted era that year was 4.36, putting him some half a run better for the assistance of his defense -- but still a standout year for a pitcher with a dismal career dera of 5.13.

to be sure, marquis is not as disastrous as his 2006 campaign totals would indicate -- marquis may not be a good pitcher, but this last was a bad year even for him. but a broader view still must find marquis wanting -- the cubs would probably have done better to trust in the arrival of pitchers like sean marshall or juan mateo that to make a three-year commitment to marquis, whom was outperformed handily by both in a simple comparison. indeed, against marquis' 5.13 career dera, marshall posted in his rookie year 5.32 and mateo likewise 5.34. on balance, this writer finds it very hard to expect much more from marquis than from these two novices.

in the final analysis, following on a 66-win campaign in which the pitching staff frequently collapsed under the weight of uncertainty, it must be said that here hendry bought in marquis what he perceives to be a known factor. and certainty has a value. however, whether or not that value is of any assistance in pursuing the playoffs is questionable when this team is in a position to need luck to prevail.

when added to an in situ rotation of zambrano, rich hill and wade miller, the likelihood would seem to be that lilly and marquis show just what a terrible hazard it is to try to assemble by free agency a winner from a club so low as the 2006 cubs. immense strides had to be taken, and even if one or two were successful they would not be enough to climb out of such a deep crevasse to the mountain peak of a league pennant without others.

it seems here that these others the cubs have now failed to take -- with jason schmidt having landed in los angeles and the cubs having shot their bolt on these two, any meaningful pursuit of a difference-making pitcher is now over. and the cubs would seem to be left in a no-man's land of mediocrity so familiar to so many of us -- neither atop the peak nor deep in the crevasse, but stranded upon the face of the mountain to face the elements, praying for good fortune and fearing bad.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


After the high this team reached before Thanksgiving, I guess it was inevitable. Teams can go on large spending sprees and try to remake a ballclub in one offseason. Reality at some point will hit you smack dab in the face. For many of us the reality hit today with the rumored signing of Jason Marquis (3 years/$21 million).

I think the reality is simple. It's never a good idea to allow a club to fall apart the way MacPhail and Hendry did following 2004. Compound the poor job they did with the major league roster with poor minor league player development and you have a recipe for the desperate moves we have seen this offseason. The Cubs have been forced to overspend for players. The sad part with the recent pitching signings is the Cubs will be saddled with these players for awhile.

Earlier this week the Cubs added Ted Lilly. Today it's Jason Marquis. Nothing makes me want Gil Meche like Jason Marquis! Thus concludes the Cubs offseason shopping spree for the starting rotation. The results are not what we hoped, just days ago. Behind Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs 2007 rotation has no valid number two starter. Here's what they got: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Marquis, & Cotts/Marmol/Marshall/Prior (take your pick).

Here we go again. Once again, the Cubs hopes for 2007 involve getting Mark Prior's arm healthy. GULP. Healthy enough so he can take the ball every fifth day. If Prior can get healthy and be the pitcher we saw in 2003, well I like the Cubs chances. But how many times have we said this before? What are the odds that Prior will be healthy and pitch like he did in 2003? Slim and none. The Cubs know this, and that is why they overpaid for two middle of the road pitchers. I don't fault Hendry for getting the additional arms. They needed to do this. I just wish the two middle of the road starters weren't these two.

Oh well, I guess even when you spend money like a drunken sailor, you can't have everything.

Friday, December 08, 2006

rule 5 draft

one often-overlooked feature of the recently concluded winter meetings is the rule 5 draft, whereupon (in the major league phase of the draft) clubs are allowed to swoop down upon eligible unprotected players left off the 40-man roster of other organizations for a nominal fee -- and are allowed to keep them permanently if they manage to retain the player on their active roster for the entire upcoming year. players acquired in the minor league phases face no such roster restrictions.

this is a difficult feat, but not unprecedented -- and, as the most famous rule 5 pickup of recent years has demonstrated, it can also be significant.

the cubs were involved this year, picking up troubled former first-overall-pick josh hamilton in the major league phase only to trade him on to the reds. they further acquired from the minor phases jim henderson, and then by trade kevin hart for freddie bynum, clearing a spot on the 40-man (to which hart will not be added).

taken out of the cub system were (in the major league phase) ed campusano, lincoln holdzkom and jason smith, and (in the minor league phases) richard lewis and andy shipman.

arizona phil at cub reporter runs down the details best. henderson and hart are non-prospects of whom we figure never to hear again, and (unlike last year) the same can be said for much of what the cubs lost. but the team has potentially lost something in holdzkom. campusano may be the more likely to stick on a roster given that he is a lefty reliever and shipman was talked out highly before struggling in 2006, but former marlin draftee holdzkom has been near-impossible to hit for much of his interrupted career as a righthanded reliever. he pitched much of 2003 with a torn ligament in his elbow, undergoing a tommy john procedure that put him on the shelf for 2004 and much of 2005. he was subseqently traded to the cubs in the todd wellemeyer deal prior to the 2006 season, but his performance last year was impressive -- holdzkom returned to throw in the mid-90s with better command of his fastball-curve-slider repertoire than he had exhibited in years past. if the surgery rehabilitation has left holdzkom with better mechanics and command than he showed in the arizona fall league last month -- 13 walks in 20.1 ip, too small a sample to say much -- holdzkom may make it with the tigers.

"a spending spree for the ages"

that lead line is lifted from paul sullivan's bit today in the trib, where he avers:

The good news is that general manager Jim Hendry has been on a spending spree for the ages, and has proved over the years he won't let his own players get away if he really wants them back. The recent revelation that Hendry can sign free agents while hooked up to an EKG machine made him the Kirk Gibson of general managers.

The bad news is Zambrano's market value may have risen over the last couple of weeks like the price of oil, and the law of supply and demand suggests he may be worth much, much more in next year's market.

Hendry has allotted more than $270 million this off-season, and at the going rate he may have to add another $100 million to keep Zambrano a Cub.

it's a strange way to characterize the kind of free agent activity the cubs have certainly been capable of for many years and yet consistently refused to engage in. finally seeing one of the financial powerhouses of baseball make up for more than a decade of directing profits into the pockets of the shareholder instead of reinvesting it into the product on the field is a change, to be sure, but hardly one fit for lionization in any pages except those published by the team's owner itself.

coming out of the winter meetings which saw the cubs add ted lilly and daryle ward while moving freddie bynum, the consensus of opinion seems clear. as was pointed out in the comments of this page, from espn to sports illustrated to cbs sportsline to mlb itself, the air is thick with praise for heroic jim hendry and the cubs -- even the doltish masses have by plurality proclaimed the cubs to be the most improved of the lot.

new manager lou piniella has even outlined his fearsome lineup.

"[Alfonso] Soriano's going to lead off," Piniella said. "I mean this guy here has got just a special combination of speed and power. And he's comfortable in that spot, and we're going to leave him there.

"Derrek Lee is just a really, really fine professional hitter, and he is going to hit in the three hole," Piniella said. "And then we got the kid, [Aramis] Ramirez, that we signed. I was astounded when I read he only struck out 60 some times last year. For a power hitter, I mean that is a great ratio. He's going to hit fourth.

"We've got Jacque Jones in the fifth hole," he said. "We've got [Michael] Barrett, [Mark] DeRosa, and I haven't figured out really what we are going to do in the second and eighth holes. [Cesar] Izturis will be in one of them. It depends on what we do."

Piniella said Matt Murton will get plenty of playing time, and added he liked having Ryan Theriot, Henry Blanco and Angel Pagan on the bench.

heady days, dear reader, heady days.

but -- as you might suspect, if you read here often -- it all rings a bit hollow to this writer. hendry has spent the club's money commensurate with its revenues, and that is welcome -- but what has it profited the team?

once hendry resigned aramis ramirez, the cubs were all but guaranteed to be better than in 2006 even if they did nothing more -- the return of derrek lee, the probable permanent demotion of ronny cedeno and the merciful death of kerry wood's star-crossed contract were going to see to that. but how much better was and is a very questionable issue. the club had lost 96 games without lee, true, but it also got peak offensive years from jacque jones and michael barrett, not to mention an unexpected nova of production from ryan theriot in the second half.

to that mix has now been added alfonso soriano, mark derosa, lilly and ward, with jones interjecting a request to be traded.

where does that leave the team? presuming that jones' request is somehow honored, at least one starting pitcher and a rightfielder from a complete club -- a strange place to be after a quarter of a billion dollars committed.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The way it SHOULD be.

So far this college basketball season the hands-down greatest story has been the performance of my alma mater, Butler University. Butler is a school of 4000 students located in Indianapolis competing in Division 1 athletics. (I played football and ran track there)

So far this season, the Bulldogs are 10-0, ranked 15th by the AP, 14 in the Coaches, 1st in RPI, and this is what SI has to say about the team this week:

SI.COM'S College Basketball Power Rankings! "And if the Bulldogs had the same credentials, but were named Florida, they'd be in the top three. So why not just put them there?"

To all the, "Butler?!%! How can Butler be ahead of my [insert blueblood powerhouse here]" people, please take the following evidence into consideration:
• The Bulldogs are No. 1 in the RPI.
• They've played the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation.
• They've beaten six top-100 RPI teams, two more than anyone else in the country.
• They rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (and therefore are not a fluke).
• They're undefeated.
From that standpoint, it's a travesty not to have Butler in the top five.

Next three: 12/9 at Indiana State, 12/16 vs. Purdue, 12/22 vs. Evansville.

So if your sick of reading about our woe-be-gone favorite professional baseball team, try to catch the Butler Bulldogs this winter you'll surely be satisfied.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

From the hospital bed...

Tonight the Cubs signed Ted Lilly to a 4-year, 40 million dollar contract that was completed in the hospital as Jim Hendry was hooked up to an EKG machine!!! Read about it here.

schmidt off the board

a day after greg maddux came to terms with san diego, jason schmidt has apparently agreed to sign with the dodgers for three years and $47mm.

thus ends what was considered by many the best hope for the cubs to field a truly intimidating starting staff in 2007.

divisional progress report

as the winter meetings reach their climax, many cub fans have followed the travails of the club in some detail over the last month -- first the resigning of aramis ramirez, then the landing of alfonso soriano. such moves and the money that closed them stoked long-dormant dreams for many a watcher, even provoking some to speculate that the budget had been tossed aside and that there was no ceiling to what the cubs would spend to redeem themselves before their fans for years of passivity.

that dream -- always far more a selfish wish than empirical fact -- is showing some cracks with rumors regarding who might fill the vacancies in the rotation centering not on barry zito but ted lilly.

but, for a moment, this page would like to focus on what is afoot in rival power centers in the national league central -- houston and saint louis.

the houston astros face the loss of starters roger clemens and andy pettitte, third baseman aubrey huff and reliever russ springer, have already shed useless 2006 free-agent preston wilson and will further be without starter brandon backe who is recovering from surgery for all of 2007. but they are also finally climbing out from beneath the $16mm obligation to jeff bagwell -- and that in combination with the lapsing of contracts to pettitte ($10.5 mm in 2006) and clemens ($15.75mm) gives houston a titanic sum to go to market with this winter.

they boosted one of the more anemic offenses in the league by investing bagwell's freed paycheck in carlos lee, who will now take over the tiny left field in their bandbox park. lee will be a material threat between lance berkman and lefthanded slugging rightfielder luke scott, who (like rich hill) translated two years of success in destroying the minor leagues as a post-collegiate late bloomer to the majors in late 2006. still, hopes for an improved offense must rely on as much on a return to form of third baseman morgan ensberg -- who survived a tremendous slump and a benching to post a 235/396/463 line with 23 hr in 387 ab -- and continued performance by scott as lee. the ageless craig biggio is finally wearing down, but his decline is met by the rise of chris burke, who has become a central role player for the club and deserves an everyday spot.

to the rotation of peaking superstar roy oswalt, exciting prospect jason hirsh and replacement-level wandy rodriguez, the club has already added woody williams from san diego, probable source of a league-average 150 innings. but what could make the astros dangerous is the return of the 34-year-old pettite and the 44-year-old clemens. pettitte had been rumored to be considering retirement but is now likely to return to houston for 2007 at least, pending possible interferences by the yankees. still, he is likely to be only a handful of runs better than the average starter. the threat lies in clemens, who remains at 44 one of the best pitchers in the game.

if the astros can find a way to bring clemens and pettitte back for 2007 -- both have been approached by the yankees -- they feature a powerhouse pitching staff which looks to improve on a 2006 which saw them arguably the best in baseball despite 43 starts granted to rodriguez and struggling prospect taylor buchholz. a fivesome of oswalt, clemens, pettitte, williams and hirsh backed by rodriguez, buchholz and a bullpen that (even without springer) is top quartile could steamroll the central with any kind of an offensive threat behind it. and with lee, burke and scott to complement ensberg and berkman, this club may finally be able to overcome the offensive deadweight of catcher brad ausmus, shortstop adam everett, centerfielder willy tavares and past missteps like wilson and jason lane.

but, much as last year, much rides on clemens. pettitte could perhaps be replaced -- starters who provide 200 innings of 25-30 vorp are hard to come by but not impossible, and the money is already there. the astros could yet become major players for any of the remaining free agents if pettitte concludes a deal in new york. but clemens cannot be replaced -- his loss would be a major blow. general manager tim purpurra came to the winter meetings with ostensibly a starter and yet more bullpen depth in mind to safeguard against pettitte's defection. but clemens is the key. a decision is expected sometime in december.

turning to the world champion saint louis cardinals, they too have been busy -- and have to be. with all of jason marquis ($5.2mm), jeff suppan ($4mm), late acquisition and postseason hero jeff weaver and the injured mark mulder ($7.3mm) testing free agency, the pitching citadel of the amazing cardinal run of recent years -- the best in the history of the franchise -- is suddenly and unnervingly exposed. some of the $16.5mm freed was reinvested in ace chris carpenter, who remains locked up as does young anthony reyes, who contributed meaningfully in 17 starts last season. gm walt jocketty has also obtained kip wells under startlingly good terms, whom pitching coach dave duncan will try to guide back to the form of 2002-3 but probably unsuccessfully. wells can hardly be relied on for more than sid ponson was last season.

so it is perhaps not surprising to hear that the cardinals attacked jason schmidt at the winter meetings, by some reports making themselves a frontrunner. but they've apparently failed, with schmidt headed to the dodgers. they're also a finalist for miguel batista, with an in-house fallback position of adam wainwright and perhaps even reliever braden looper. batista can offer them 200 league-average innings, and that has its value to a team in need of innings. but the cardinals still need to find a head of the rotation starter to make themselves formidable, and they'll have resources left to deploy even after landing batista (if they do).

on offense, little turnover is expected from 2006's second-quartile outfit. still-productive jim edmonds at 37 following a down year had his option picked up at $10mm, a $2mm cut from 2006. that cash was redeployed when second baseman ronnie belliard was replaced by adam kennedy for $3mm a year over three years, who should provide more playing in front of aaron miles than belliard did last year. jocketty also signed scott spiezio to a small contract to reward his series heroics, but he figures to be a bench player. the team again intends to ride edmonds, all-world first baseman albert pujols and third baseman scott rolen, seeking supporting contributions from kennedy, shortstop david eckstein, rightfielder juan encarnacion and outfielders chris duncan, so taguchi and john rodriguez. duncan was something of a surprise contributor in 2006, having sparked to life from a rather dull minor league career. it's very hard to credibly forecast another season of .952 ops and 25 vorp for duncan, and what kennedy may do to improve the state of offensive affairs is likely to be offset by duncan's reversion to something closer to his career means. with catchers yadier molina and gary bennett along for the ride, this is an offensive club that needs pitching performance to win.

will they get it? carpenter in front of batista, reyes, wainwright and wells would be something well short of what houston is aiming for. the offense isn't quite as sour -- but still, without that plus starter, the cards will be vulnerable.

but the greatest advantage either club has over the cubs has yet gone unmentioned -- and that is the cubs themselves. having added alfonso soriano is a fine step, but one must recognize that he is being added to what was the 15th-best offense of 16 in 2006. and of course the cub pitching staff, a source alternately of strength and weakness in recent seasons, looks at this moment unproven at best and at worst simply weak.

in short, all three of these clubs have major acquisitions to yet make before staking any early claim to the division. how the next three weeks play out for all three clubs will do much to decide who goes to the playoffs representing the central.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

1,000 words

photo from

That's Jim Hendry's assistant, and moneyball expert, Gary Hughes talking to Tommy Lasorda at the winter meeting in Florida! Still no news to report out of Orlando, but at least we have a photo of Hughes! Anyone wanna take a guess who our Booze Cruisin' Gym Teacher takes his fashion cues from?

Monday, December 04, 2006

winter meetings begin

this page has become a much more managable workload since the contributors collectively and unconsiously cut posting down to once or twice a week, dear reader -- to that extent, this writer is somewhat happier for it. maybe quietude is the aftershock of the twin ramirez and soriano deals. maybe it's waiting for something else spectacular to happen, for another shoe to drop. maybe it's the nervousness of actually having expectations again after what seems like an age of having nothing to risk.

regardless, winter meetings have begun and the cubs are, expectations or no, still at least a couple proven quality starters and perhaps more from completing anything like a successful plan of a single-season turnaround. it has been noted here that, upon preliminary examination, even the offense plus soriano is some distance trailing the national league's best. make no mistake: as it is, this offense would need a truly stellar rotation to really win, an improbable and scintillating metamorphosis from one of the worst staffs in the nl last year and even from the incarnation as of this date.

is the door still open? unequivocably, yes -- despite the signings of a handful of possible targets, there is enough cream left atop the free agent churn to radically alter the destiny of the 2007 cubs.

but it is disconcerting at best to hear the cubs making offers to players like ted lilly while other reports put true potential difference-makers like barry zito and jason schmidt at arm's length. the likes of lilly or gil meche simply won't be enough -- if one or both are in the rotation on opening day, this page will say with the sole exemption of other stupendous acquisitions that the cubs would have every expectation of staying home in october next.

curiously, this page has as yet heard of no connection to the southsiders, who have a starter to deal whose quality is every bit that of schmidt or even zito. the sox apparently could use a young centerfielder -- pardon the rumormongering without substantiation, but is it unreasonable to think that felix pie might be the linchpin of a mutually-beneficial deal here that might include more pitching from the pool of inexperienced cub hurlers who tasted the majors in 2006? if the future truly is now for jim hendry, why should he be averse to trades (though hopefully not for jason jennings, who is no better an idea that meche or lilly)?

the winter meetings are sometimes all about striking such brave deals -- but are more often still about disappointment and even disillusionment. coming home without a star starter is permissable, certainly -- but coming home with lilly or meche in tow would take the shine off of soriano very quickly and signal that the cubs may yet prove this page essentially correct in its advocacy of a deep rebuilding by demonstrating that they have -- for all their new willingness to reinvest profits into the product -- not the firepower after all to follow through on what many have perhaps prematurely hoped to be a stunning reversal of decades of poor practice and evil fortune.