Wednesday, February 14, 2007

prelude to a season

one of the most shocking offseasons in recent cub history is ending this week as pitchers and catchers report in mesa to begin the annual rite of reinitiation known as spring training. there certainly is no shortage of opinion in informed circles regarding the cubs and their installment plan for success which has seen the team distribute over $300mm in promises with very little current expense -- joe sheehan sums up the zeitgeist of a crowd that is characterized by, for once, measured optimism.

If you just look at the very short term, though—2007, in this case—it's clear that the Cubs will be better for having made all of these acquisitions. In fact, there's a reasonable argument that the Cubs have the best team in the NL Central. Make a tallest midget argument if you care to, but the Cardinals’ rings aren’t going to shine any less brightly because they won a weak division on their way to a world championship. In the three-division era, it’s enough to be better than the other guys, and the Cubs can do that in ’07.

Jim Hendry’s $300 million bet isn’t likely to pay off at the individual levels. I don’t feel any more sanguine about the back end of the Soriano contract or the overspending on DeRosa and Marquis than I did two months ago. Flags fly forever, though, and the Cubs are in better position to fly one next year thanks in part to that $300 million. The value of winning even one championship is measured in nine-digit numbers, and for a franchise like the Cubs, it’s not hard to see a scenario where the benefits dwarf that $300 million. I am genuinely on the fence about the conflict between long-term concerns and short-term goals, but I can say with certainty that the 2007 Chicago Cubs are my pick to win the NL Central.

Maybe, at a time like this, it’s best to be a fan, to just sit back in the sun, chow down on that mustard, ketchup and relish dog, and enjoy watching a team that has more than enough talent to play its way into October.

many have taken note of the struggles of the two power centers of the national league central, saint louis and houston, to return teams for 2007 that are likely to strike fear into opponents.

when we last left them, the astros were looking at an improved offense backing a youthful rotation -- but perhaps leaning on the potential return of andy pettitte and roger clemens to vault them clear of the competition. pettitte has since left for new york, and the youth of the rotation in jason hirsh and taylor buchholz was packaged for jason jennings, also opening an everyday spot of chris burke in center. mark loretta was subsequently signed to bolster the offense further.

but worse is afoot for houston, as the randy johnson move has left a spot open in new york. time will tell how this ends, but losing even four months of clemens would be a critical blow to the astros. roy oswalt, jennings, woody williams, and some combination of wandy rodriguez, chris sampson and fernando nieve is not a lot of hope to salt away a playoff appearance behind an offense that, however improved, was 12th in the league last year.

meanwhile, down interstate 55, the cardinals -- whose mildly upgraded offense was suddenly bereft of starting pitching to help it win -- lost out on miguel batista and have instead moved to resign mark mulder and take on ryan franklin. mulder is out until midyear at least rehabbing from surgery on his rotator cuff, and even then cannot be expected to pitch at his customary high level. franklin -- who almost surely becomes a starter on this club alongside chris carpenter, anthony reyes, adam wainwright and kip wells -- is, while better than wells, a very mean candidate as a starter. he does however keep braden looper in the bullpen where he belongs.

these are two clubs without the sort of firepower to close out any division except the nl central, which looks to be the weakest in the sport -- and chances are that neither can run away from both the other and the cubs in 2007. this chicago club is no powerhouse -- indeed, one can make a solid argument that they are very little changed in caliber from 2006 or 2005. but they can hardly help, if reasonably healthy and modestly lucky, having spent what jim hendry spent, to fall into contention in this lot.

many may expect, having read isolated clippings of an expensive revolution in the confines, for the cubs to run off and hide sometime before june 1. this writer sincerely doubts that -- but what may come instead is a long and suspenseful twilight race between closely-matched flawed ballclubs decided more by the difference between the quality of their fortunes, good or bad, than the balance of their strengths.

wildcards and x-factors abound for all three -- can anthony reyes and adam wainwright bring cardinal pitching to respectability? can woody williams and jason jennings limit the letdown in houston to a level that carlos lee, luke scott and chris burke can ameliorate? can jason marquis and wade miller show that they have some meaningful career left? can rich hill follow through on a beautiful second-half run? and -- perhaps most crucially of all for cub fans -- can mark prior's program of shoulder strengthening pay dividends enough to get him to the mound 25 times?

and lest we forget -- the general weakness of these three paves an avenue of opportunity for the remainder, particularly the milwaukee brewers. should potential become reality, this is a year in which an upstart can make a run at a division crown.

so this page would hope over the coming month to awaken from the solitude of winter and quietly begin to offer its views on what 2007 may have in store. there can be little doubt that this season looks to be one of the least predictable in recent memory, both for the strangeness of the makeup of the clubs and the similarity of their aggregate abilities -- so please forgive if reasoned opinions are sometimes not strongly held. but opinions and arguments will nonetheless be offered, and one hopes anew that the critical and the hopeful can at last be found a common destination.

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