Friday, March 30, 2007

2007 cubs: hope and starting pitching

over the years, there have been a lot of words expended on this page disparaging in one way or another the stupidity of useless hope. there are those in the world who see it as their mission to not only hope for success but expect it regardless of the material conditions and probabilities. useless hope has often found a home with the fans, and too often with the management, of the chicago national league ballclub, nearly always to its detriment -- and sometimes catastrophically so, enabling dimwitted decisions that run contrary to the probable best interests of the team in reality.

in saying so (and loudly), we here have often been accused of being bereft of any hope at all -- of being incapable of seeing the brighter side, even of tolerating success. that is of course often a counteraccusation emitted from someone who, consciously or not, knows themself to trade in the kinds of hope here called useless -- but sometimes not. sometimes, the mission of this page -- to provide the highest resolution of perspicacious criticism possible in an effort to highlight how the chicago cubs might be made a better team -- is so easy, so full of opportunity as to make it sound a siren of negativity. at other times the finer grains of criticism are thought to be holding disproportionate attention, calling into question the dispassionate objectivity of the critic.

this writer, for one, is sure to have made both errors at some time or another. but the balance of the page, in the context of its mission, is thought here to be rather positive -- indeed, often too much so. one obvious piece of evidence supporting has been that the consensus opinion of the contributors has in fact overestimated the final win total of each of the last three cub teams -- as has this writer's own notional estimate, to the tune of about six wins per year.

but that this page doesn't gush with abject and senseless love at every trifling opportunity is a product of its commitment to a rational hope -- a grounded assessment of the most probable course of future events first, only then yielding hope to the sunnier aspects of that appraisal. such an approach seems increasingly a lost art in a western world centuries inured to the elevation of irrational sentimentalism promulgated by rousseau, hamann, herder and byron long before trickling down to the cub marketing department -- and it certainly gains little but popular scorn, especially in spring. but it does have a habit of coming close to truth with alarming frequency, and that in and of itself will have to be enough.

moreover, one needn't dig into ancient history to find such rationally hopeful perspectives. this page has been agitating over many months for the immanentization of the cadre of ready youthful pitching -- rich hill, juan mateo, angel guzman, carlos marmol, jae-kuk ryu, reynel pinto, ricky nolasco, jermaine van buren, jerome williams -- that has swollen the rosters of iowa and west tenn because it considers this lot of pitchers (now short several traded names) to be the solid basis of a winning pitching staff behind veteran carlos zambrano. this page has been looking eagerly to a change in ownership that, though its ultimate outcome remains unsure, holds the good possibility of bringing an activist philosophy that will finally give on-field performance at least equal status with turning a buck, something that hasn't been true of any cub ownership since the death of william wrigley in 1932 -- not coindicentally, in the same decade as the last unqualified cub pennant. there is much to look forward to, dear reader -- indeed, at few points in the last five decades could the intermediate-term outlook for this club have been brighter.

but that, unfortunately, does not necessarily translate into an unambiguously glorious near-term outlook for the 2007 season.

much has already been said here about its probable fate and where the rational hope lies for this ballclub -- an initial appraisal in december; more rumination centering on rich hill and mark prior in december, january and then (disappointingly) february; followed by a look at the offense; not to mention a glance around the division and some context for what it may mean; as well as a peek at piniella's toughest test. so this writer is going to forego the laborious and (frankly) overweening five-part outlook of last year -- as much can be done with less.

the offense is what it is -- the signing of alfonso soriano is a considerable addition over juan pierre, but the club in the field is otherwise fairly familiar. the return of a healthy derrek lee means almost as much. and hopefully ronny cedeno won't see the field much.

but this was a club that plated just 4.4 runs a game in 2006, and all these improvements -- built on so low a base -- seem still to fall shy of the kind of offense that the cubs mustered in 2003 and 2004. some of the solutions to problems -- notably career-utilityman-cum-starting-second-baseman mark derosa -- are extremely suspicious. others -- cliff floyd and quite probably cesar izturis, who has been limited this spring -- may not see the field quite as much as one would like (particularly with cedeno lurking). there are plenty enough candidates for the negative production that some honorable baseball erudites have noted to correlate as well or better with october baseball as top-shelf performances, and which the 2006 version was swamped in.

the bullpen too is unremarkable and mostly unchanged from last season -- this club will still somehow give gascan ryan dempster the ball in the ninth, use the fine bob howry and the less-fine scott eyre as primary setups, and a familiar cast of characters will fill out the middle innings. neal cotts seems little improvement over anything the cubs had previously, and a spate of spring injuries -- kerry wood, michael wuertz, roberto novoa -- have raised the same questions about depth that seem to appear every spring. nonetheless, the unit looks set to reprise a middle-third performance again this year.

so rational hope for something beyond september, such as can be found, resides as it so often does in the starting rotation -- and here largely in two players: rich hill and mark prior.

so much is hanging on hill and expectations so radically revised in light of his brilliant 2006 second half that few seem to remember how widely reviled he was at this time last year -- or how tenuous his foothold in the majors may yet be. but he has done his part thusfar in 2007 -- he has been steady, posting a .302 obpa and 1.09 whip in his 15.2 innings, striking out 16 and walking none. he has played every bit the part that this page has long hoped for him and more recently come to expect -- though this is just his second year and his propensity to give up the long ball will almost certainly hurt him from time to time, he looks set to become the second man behind zambrano.

carlos zambrano, for his part, continued in 2006 to be the force of nature to which cub fans have become accustomed. while concerns linger in the mind of this writer about the huge number of pitches he has been asked to throw in recent seasons, not to mention his nl-leading walk total from last year, there's little enough reason to suspect zambrano will falter.

prior, however, has been another story.

a view of the rest of the rotation evidences the absolute need of his success. ted lilly has long been a league-average starter in the american league, and one should expect no better than that from him in the national. moreover, the unvarnished truth is that jason marquis and wade miller are very probably bad starting pitchers. miller will never recover the stuff that labrum surgery took from him, and he has never exhibited the kind of control that would enable him to pitch effectively without it. a spring line including a 1.52 whip and .372 obpa seems to validate pessimism in as much as any 20-inning line can -- for as long as he holds a rotation spot, one suspects, he will be in jeopardy. marquis may not be the 6-era pitcher he was last year in saint louis, but he is every bit a 5+ era pitcher who is going often enough to be cursed by the mouth of every attentive fan; worse still, his ill-advised free agent contract all but guarantees that, if healthy, he will take his turn all year without question.

in light of a merely adequate offense, this cub team badly needs a superior third starter to stand alongside zambrano and hill to make its pitching staff formidable. in a long shot, that pitcher could be the long-touted angel guzman -- but a long history of both injury and contact rather tempers expectations even if he finds his confidence. a yet longer shot could be donald veal, whose dominance at the lower levels of the minors could if continued in tennessee expedite his rise.

but the surest candidate for such success remains prior, who has dominated at the major league level before and remains one of the best five cub starters by luck-adjusted runs allowed of the last 25 years. a return to form following three scattershot seasons of injury and control problems is, however improbable, the single most likely event that could catapult a merely decent cub rotation into a playoff-hungry engine of success.

there is some small reason for hope here. prior, despite last year's devastation, managed 172.2 innings at all levels in 2005 and 131.1 in 2004 of what ended up being at the major league level an aggregate 3.82 era. it is true that his spring has been wretchedly disappointing for anyone who still invested any belief in his resurrection from 2006 -- scheduled throwing has been missed or delayed, his control has been ephemeral at best, and his velocity and mechanics indicate the probability of some admixture of current pain and permanent damage.

but his start on the 22nd -- four hits and two walks in four innings with three strikeouts and a run allowed -- and particularly his comments following offered at least some fertilizer for that seed.

"We have about a week left to go," he said. "I'm ready to rock 'n' roll and get out of this place and move on." ... "They weren't taking that many good swings off me," he said. "And they didn't really hit too many balls hard. It was a good outing. … There are still some things I need to fine-tune, but I think I'm ready to go."

perhaps -- though one suspects that prior understands as well as anyone that this is not only his free agent year but that his future in baseball probably hangs in the balance. he might say anything now to get the chance to take a chance in chicago.

nonetheless, a prior that can -- again, however improbable it may seem now -- work his way back over the next month to a low-90s fastball and an ability to hit spots with both fastball and curve is still the first, best hope for a playoff appearance for this team in 2007. he could be the talisman that changes the balance of a mediocre pitching staff. despite his demotion to iowa for the start of the year -- a demotion that this writer freely admits may never be reversed -- this writer would still not at all be surprised to see prior given every opportunity to succeed in the rotation this year.

for this writer thinks that jim hendry and lou piniella, if they don't know it yet, will come to understand just how dependent their postseason chances still are on the arm and health of mark prior.

1Carlos ZambranoRyan DempsterScott Eyre*Michael BarrettDerrek LeeMatt Murton
2Ted Lilly*Bob HowryWill Ohman*Henry BlancoMark DerosaAlfonso Soriano
3Jason MarquisMichael WuertzNeal Cotts*Cesar Izturis**Jacque Jones*
4Rich Hill*Kerry WoodAramis RamirezCliff Floyd*
5Wade MillerRoberto NovoaRyan TheriotDaryle Ward*
6Angel GuzmanRocky CherryRonny CedenoAngel Pagan**
7Mark PriorTomas PerezBuck Coats*
8Juan Mateo

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