Tuesday, October 18

Cubs Countdown: Number 5

Where have I been lately, aside from disappointing everyone? It's a mystery to me, much like the 4 consecutive CGs by the Pale Hose, but it will not last. I do have some thoughts on the postseason so far, despite one of my WS horses falling in the final furlong, but the 'Stros should see me good on Wednesday. Their rotation is the stuff of dreams, and wet ones at that. Let's hope the White Sox bring their galoshes.

But retrospectively, I've put together a little Cubs countdown, some of it factual, most of it complete bullshit, and a tiny bit possibly true. Enjoy it over the rest of the week, and there will be more postseason reflections this week (sorry to be an absentee blogger lately), especially if those fucking Cardinals tie up the series tomorrow night.


5 things the Cubs did well in 2005

1. Derrek Lee
MVLee showed the kind of form that has silently been expected of him since he joined. With indisputed career highs in almost every offensive category, Lee was the glue that held this shaky, injury-ravaged squad together. Without Lee, our team would have challenged for the worst in the NL, without doubt. I’ve gushed about him enough this year, so in this instance, I shall revert to silent, unspoken reverence of his achievements. However, I will say this: DO NOT EXPECT THE SAME AGAIN NEXT YEAR, AS THAT’S NOT HOW TEAMS WIN PENNANTS.

2. Ryan Dempster
Dempster did whatever was asked of him in any situation. 5-3, 33 SV, 3.13 ERA: without these juicy stats, our season could well have ended 15-18 wins short of where we finished up. It was nice to see him blossom into the utility man he perhaps always dreamed of being, and it helps us greatly in the long run. If we snag him into a longer contract, come Free Agency time, we have the flexibility to chase top SPs or a stud closer if one is available, safe in the knowledge that whichever one we don’t pick, Dempster can play the role. His pitches were on point this year, and his reliability was a huge cornerstone of the little success that we found. His last ER was given up on August 12, his last BSV was July 24, and with a run of 19 straight saves to round out his season, this man deserves a diamond-encrusted locker in the clubhouse.

3. One-Run Rags to Riches
Our Cubs managed to reach dizzying heights in the fingernail-chewers this year. We posted a reasonable, perhaps statistically fair 26-20 mark in 2005, good enough for best in the NL Central and 3rd-ish overall in the National League. This marks a welcome change from seasons past where the Cubs were frequently falling to the 9th inning blowup (Are you listening LaTroy? Farns? Joe-Bo?), and shows a sign that our team does have some fight after all. When your season ends up where it almost always does – undeniable mediocrity – you have to take the bright spots where you can find them, and if we come back with a similar bite next year, who knows where we could end up.

4. Redbird Beatdowns
The Cubbies managed to outwit the Cards in the season series, 10-6, and it’s this kind of performance against the perennial NL Central winners that continues to give us hope. It’s not often that Dusty Baker outsmarts his opponents, but that record represents the best against the Cards by any team in 2005. That’s right folks, just wallow in that for a moment: the Cardinals’ worst record this year came against the Cubs. Delicious. I can smell La Russa’s hair burning.

5. Starting Pitching
The trio of Maddux, Zambrano and Prior, while not as dominant as other NL threesomes, went 38-28 with solid ERAs and control (4.24, 3.26 and 3.81 respectively). Goddamn, where did we fail them? If they all show up for work next year, we should be sitting well with a good up-down top 3, and considering what we wasted from them this season past, I would imagine that the loss column from MZP will greatly diminish in 2006. Let's not all forget just how close we were this year, optimistically speaking, and little things like I'm pointing out might in this next segment can easily translate to 15 more wins if we fix them and fix them properly.

4 things the Cubs did badly in 2005

1. Wasting Quality Starts
Without counting, I can think of at least 15 starts by Maddux, Zambrano, Prior and Williams where the pitcher in question went at least 7 1/3 innings, giving up 3 runs or less in their outing, and losing or getting the dreaded ND. When your guys are throwing like that, make it count. Zambrano had 2 CG NDs this year, which is just mind-blowing. I call it the “Clemens Effect” – pitching like an All-Star and taking the loss. If, and the “if” is huge by the way, the Cubs convert ¾ of those quality starts to wins, we’re looking at the Wild Card. Criminal ineffective offense in those clutch situations was what really put the dampener on 2005.

2. Kerry Wood
Again, KW had more expectations foisted upon his weary shoulders than Neil Young, post-Harvest. Again, he failed to achieve. The hard-throwing lugnut managed just 10 starts, and his substantial DL trips really ruined our rotation and the efforts to replace him with any pick ‘em lying around in our minor league system (Mitre, Koronka, Hill) was never going to be a solid fix. Wood’s injury woes continued in 2005, and with average stats in the few appearances he did make (21 G, 1o GS, 66 IP, 3-4, 4.23 ERA), whether in the bullpen or in the rotation, didn’t make the grade. He’s never won more than 14 games in a season, and despite insane strikeout numbers, early-career wear ‘n tear means his best years are realistically behind him.

3. Scoring Position Blues
As a team, the Cubs batted a measly .257 with RISP. While our opponents all season long only fared slightly better at .264, that translates to a lot. With RISPs and 2 outs, the definition of our year is cleared. The Cubs batted .227 with 2-out RISPs, scoring an additional 196 runs. Our opponents hit .273 with 2-out RISP opportunities, translating to an extra 363 runs hung on our weary pitching staff. That alone will swing 12-15 games away from you over the course of a year, if not more.

4. Front Office F-ups
Despite poring over mounds of statistics and footage, I still cannot figure out our trading and transaction strategy in 2005. Perhaps the best I can do is “What the F*ck?!?!”, surely the Cubs Front Office mantra all season long. With the stupefying moves we did make (you know what they say, sometimes it’s what you don’t do that defines you), trading away misunderstood journeyman OF Todd Hollandsworth (I know, I know, I beat him to a bloody pulp all year long and yet I miss him), essentially swapping Jason Dubois for Matt Lawton (who played 18 games before heading to the Yankees for 2 scrub bush league players), not to mention the endless up-down-up-down trips for several fragile minor league egos – it all adds up to a day late and a dollar short in any pennant race. Executive decisions ended up ruling our team; the constant uncertainty about our everyday OF (Players who tasted the OF in 2005 for a significant period of time: Lawton, Hollandsworth, Patterson, JHJr., Burnitz, Neifi, Macias, Dubois) killed any chance of continuity, making it no surprise that we kept batting guys on cold streaks because there was little hope of finding an everyday rhythm. At the end of the day, you can make all the moves, shuffles, transactions and activations you want, but you need to let the players play. Dusty’s unwillingness to let certain guys play over others, for whatever reason (#1 reason = BLIND LOYALTY!), was more hindrance than tactical genius, and we can only hope next season is different.


At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Embarrased Cubs fan said...

I think the Cubs need to go with the young guy at short (Cedeno) and sign a second bagger. Also, resign Nomar and play him in the outfield where he says he is willing to be. If he doesn't pan out...trade him. Most of all we need a centerfielder that gets on base whether that is from inside the organization or from outside is Hendry's dilemma. But that is what he gets paid the big bucks for. Maybe a Damon or Giles, maybe Pie. We also must have some bullpen help...oh my, how about Farnsworth?

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Jim said...

I'm going out on a limb to say that I think this year will be the one during which Kerry Wood finally breaks out and lives up to his potential. The news about his latest medical problems has all be very positive. He seems to have matured. And the stint in the bullpen were mostly quite positive.

The piece that's been seriously missing has been the lead off slot in the offense, provided the pitching stays healthy.

Houston looks like it's going through a last hurrah, and the Cards are ready for a mediocre season. The Reds have a powerful offense, but they're not going to come up with the starting pitching they need. The Pirates don't have the money. The "wild card" might be the Brewers. They've made some good trades in the past couple of years and they seem willing to spend money on the team.

In any event, I expect next year to provide a much tighter race in the NL Central than we've seen these past two years.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger JT said...

Oh Jim, yr going to hate my next post given how you feel about Kerry. I think that he's suffered too much early on in his career -- as a power pitcher, the types of injuries he has endured are poisonous to his longevity. Even the one we named this blog after has cost him countless starts, both this season and before.

His bullpen outings were successful, but over time, I don't think it's a position where he can blossom. His long-haul mentality means he's not as careful with his pitches, and even in single-inning appearances he was getting shellacked with huge HRs as guys just sit and wait for his fireball.

I will be doing something about the NL Central next week -- what you've said is pretty much hitting the nail on the head so far.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Jim said...

We won't have a real picture about Wood until next season. I'm betting the long shot on this one. Sometimes you've gotta go with your gut feeling, just don't bet the old homestead on it.

Nolan Ryan didn't become a good pitcher until the second half of his career. As far as I know, he didn't have the injuries that Wood has had, but still. Then there's Warren Spahn, maybe the best left hander in history, who didn't make it to the majors until he was past 25. Hoyt Wilhelm didn't make it to the majors until he was over 30. All of these guys are in the Hall of Fame.

I'm not ready to give up on Wood. I'll take him as my long shot bet for next year. Of course, I also think that Corey Patterson can learn to hit like Eckstein, but I'm not quite ready to put any money down on that number yet. I think he and his brother have a daddy back home who is telling them they can make the family rich by hitting home runs. I hope I'm wrong about this.

Don't be surprised if Farnsworth ends up back in the Cubs organization. Major League baseball is a small world, and except for the final game with Houston, he had a fairly good year.

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Lazlo said...

I pretty much agree on Patterson. Not only that, but the coaches still seem amazed and enfatuated with his power! Read the article at Cubs.com. They're making mechanical changes, but the coach is still amazed at how much bat speed and leverage he can creat with his little body. That worries me a bit. However, if they can teach him to keep his head on the ball, that might be enough. That's all I really ask. I'd love to see Murton, Patterson, and Pie in the outfield next year. Or maybe Nomar, Patterson, and Murton. That'd be great too. But only if Patterson can keep his head on the ball and not pull off and look at foul territory down the right field line while he swings.

At 12:14 AM, Blogger JT said...

I doubt the following things:

1. Nomar coming back. He really shouldn't, let's be honest. Dusty and the bonehead Front Office should be concentrating on developing youth like JoePa. Let Cedeno cut his teeth the best way possible, by playing. He is not the only young guy who should have a chance.

Note: look at most of the successful teams in the playoffs. Balance of youth and certain selfless, savvy vets, all fused with a solid rotation and an anchor-like bullpen. The more money we dole out to 30-somethings, the longer our mediocrity will continue. Houston has a shitload of young'uns: Bruntlett, Lane, Taveras, Everett, Ensberg, Lamb... the list goes on. I can't believe for one minute that our MLB-ready guys in the farm system are not close to, or possibly equal to, that group in terms of talent and hunger. Don't jade them anymore by sending out Walker and Nomar and Macias to hack away all night while they bounce from Iowa to Illinois every other week. It's bullshit and it's hurting our organization (with supposedly one of the best farm systems in the league right now) to keep being afraid of giving guys a chance.
2. Re: Corey Patterson's technique. I'll believe it when I goddamn see it for more than a week. Of course they're talking up his "progress", as they're trying as hard to make him look valuable as Bush is peddling that worthless buddy Miers for the SCOTUS. Personally, I'm ok with seeing Pie and Murton flanking Hairston Jr, because at least JHJ has some semblance of baseball nous out there. Sure, he's scratchy, but he was about as good as any other lead-off guy, scratching the bunts out and whatnot. Call me crazy, but as much as I want us to scrap the whole damn roster and start fresh, we need some continuity. A lack of continuity, after all, was the nail in Melrose Place's coffin. And Saved by the Bell: The New Class. Nobody believed it when all those fucks went to the same college.

3. Aha! Houston is still ticking! I could still win money on the World Series! Seriously though, those pitching matchups are going to be ridiculous.

Game 1 - Contreras vs. Clemens
Game 2 - Buehrle vs. Pettitte
Game 3 - Garland vs. Oswalt
Game 4 - Garcia vs. Backe

Aside from Houston in Gm 4, those are 3 absolute toss-ups, and you figure if the series is really as tight as advertised, heck, we'll see Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt all throw in at least 2 games to get the job done (see 2001 D'backs). And for god's sake, I hope it works.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Lazlo said...

I agree that it is unlikely to see Nomar back, but I think it would actually be a smart move. I also think we should bring Walker back. However, I think Nomar should play outfield! I think he could play center as well as Hairston ever did, and he certainly hits better. He could fill in until Patterson finally get's his stuff together, and then Nomar could rest Aramis and Cedeno too. Burny and Lee suffered this year because they didn't sit many games out, I'm sure of it. We don't want to see that kind of thing happen again. Nomar would be a great guy to have around, especially if he can spell Aramis sometimes. If we've got Nomar, Walker, and Cedeno, our need for Macias goes down.

Also, I agree that Patterson should have to prove his mechanical changes. I think it would be ridiculous for him to be in the starting line up on opening day unless he proves himself in spring training.

On Houston's young players- They are not what has made that team great! Ensberg isn't all that young, and he is the only really good player, and this may be a fluke season, out of that crew you mentioned, JT. The pitching staff, Biggio and Berkman have carried that team! Ausmus, their fiesty catcher, isn't a young guy. Tavaras is barely seeing any playing time at this point(though I'm not sure why). Lane, Everrett, Lamb- none of these guys are impressive. Yes, everett is pretty good defensively. So are both Alex Gonzalezes. So is Neifi Perez. So what makes Everrett a great young player? I do agree that the young players need to be given a shot, especially when guys like Macias are getting played instead, but I don't believe in dumping older players who are proven just because a young guy would be cheaper. Nomar is a great hitter. There is no arguing that. I'm far more willing to give up Burny to give a young guy a shot than to give up Nomar, especially if he is willing to change positions. Plus, no one seems to be afraid of Burnitz, but everyone knows when Nomar is coming up.

ps. I apologize for this comment, it is poorly written and seems to be primarily in rant.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger JT said...

Lazlo -- first, it's ok to rant. I think that's all I've done since day 1.

Second, you definitely made my point for me. In saying that none of those Houston "young guys" are individually that impressive is exactly what I was trying to say. While not being incredible or entirely ready for the majors, the fact is that they are IN THE MAJORS REGARDLESS. The best way to learn is to be getting pinch-hits, pinch-runs, and spot-starts to give an everyday guy some rest.

What is also true is that they have all made the most of whatever limited opportunities they've had. Personally I think Ensberg will continue to produce at 3rd, but guys like Everett (making that huge Game 4-winning double play) and Taveras (his speed on the basepads makes him the 1st choice guy in late-inning pinch-run situations), and Lane (2 very important HR against the Cards in the NLCS) have taken advantage of their chances. Lamb allows Berkman to play in LF, and his defense is solid regardless of his bat.

My point was exactly that: though none are, as you say, impressive, they're learning the game the best way how. No kid gloves, no extra time spent in winter ball or the minors until they're 26 or 27. They're thrown into the middle of a pro baseball season to show what they've got. If it works for them and every other team (Ryan Howard? Jeremy "I lost 19 games in my first full season but now I'm Detroit's #1 starter" Bonderman?), then when will we get our chance? Plus, if they're not that impressive (which you might well be right about in the long run), then surely what we have waiting at the AAA and AA level is better and just dying for their chance.

That has to hurt, to see Macias and co. getting all the ABs while they shag flyballs and get 10-day contracts before shipping back to West Tenn.

I also don't mean that we should be using "dumping old players who are proven because young players because are cheaper" -- we should be doing whatever might help us beyond today. If that means casting off some of the older guys, then so be it.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Lazlo said...

I think we KIND of agree on this topic, but I am concerned about making a run at the World Series next year and the year after, because that is when our great players will be great. Z, Prior, Dempster, Lee, and Aramis are all in their prime. Barrett is coming into his own, Nomar probably only has one more year with us (if that), Walker is going to soon have to make way for the young patterson, Brandon Sing, or Cedeno, and Maddux may be done soon. I think it's 2006, 2007, or wait another 5 years until ...? I agree that our young players need to get a chance, but by that I mean Murton and Cedeno, primarily. They look like they can come up and produce.


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