While he has definitely begun the decline phase of his career, I'm not sure we won't see a bit of a rebound next year. He spent a long period before his toe surgery struggling because of the pain he was experiencing, then had a period after his return where he struggled (and, no, I'm not going to rehash the details of that episode) to get his timing and stroke back. Add in his even worse September, which looked to be more a symptom of trying to single-handedly win every game than an actual decline in skills, and I think you're looking at a player who is more likely to get a little better than a little worse. I'm not saying Sammy will have 2001 numbers (.328/.437/.737), or even 2002 numbers (.288/.399/.594), but I don't think he'll sink below the .279/.358/.553 line he put up last year. There's nothing in his previous history, including last year, that would make you think anything but a catastrophic injury would keep him from playing 150-155 games, and while if it were anybody else I might say the numbers over the last three years represent a steady pattern of decline that we can expect to continue into 2004, my instinct tells me that we're more likely to see something along the lines of .285/.370/.580 for 2004.
Moises is starting to slip. Despite managing to climb a little ways up the cliff he fell off in 2002, he's still reached a point in his career where his lifetime .300/.367/.508 line is wishful thinking. He remained useful last year, and oddly enough, durable as well, but anyone counting on 151 games from Alou in 2004 will find themselves wondering what to do for those 40-50 games when Mo has a gimpy hamstring/trick knee/sucking chest wound. Luckily, it seems the front office understands that Alou's fragility, combined with some uncertainty in center, make it necessary to pick up a fourth outfielder who can actually play. More on that in a bit.
Last year was turning into Patterson's coming out party. His .298/.329/.511 line was a giant improvement over his rookie season, and while his patience still left something to be desired, he at least began moving in the right direction, upping his walk rate from an execrable one per 31.2 at bats to an uninspiring, but still improved one per 21.9 at bats. Starting to come into his power, Corey was one short of his previous season's home run total in just over half the at bats. Everything was pointing towards Patterson having a season that fulfilled the promise the organization saw when they selected him as the third overall pick in the 1998 draft.
Corey badly injured his knee running out a grounder, tearing both the meniscus and the MCL. His season was over, and while the Cubs were able to get to the postseason without him thanks to some fine wheeling and dealing by Jim Hendry, Patterson still remains an integral part of the Cubs' future plans in the outfield.
Which brings us to 2004. There's no doubt the Cubs want him in the lineup as often as possible, but that's the question: How often is possible? Unfortunately, there's no way to tell what Corey's knee will feel like come spring. Every report I've read says he's making good progress, but they also say he's not likely to be able to play every day right off the bat. There's also uncertainty about what level he'll play at when he does return. Will he feel good enough to get in the cage when he normally would, allowing him to get his timing back before the games start counting? Will he be able to run as well, not just in the short term, but in the long term? If he can't run as well, how does that impact his overall game?
It's reasonable to be unsure about all of these things, and more, but I also think it's reasonable to be optimistic in the long run. While a serious injury, it's one of those owies that athletes often make full recoveries from. It's the short term where the real issues lie, and that brings us to...
Fourth Outfielder - ???
Note that I didn't put Tom Goodwin's name down. Assuming that everyone in the front office doesn't destroy their last functioning brain cells this weekend in various New Orleans speakeasys, Goodwin will be the fifth wheel, used to pinch hit, pinch run, and pinch anyone sitting next to him on the bench who falls asleep. The Cubs are just smart enough to recognize that this is not the season to merely get by with someone like Troy O'Leary. They need a player who can start 100 games and not drag the team down, but can also start only 30 and not be a source of discontent. It's a tough bill to fill, but as usual, I've got some suggestions.
Orlando Palmeiro - If the Cubs don't come out of the Winter Meetings with a fourth outfielder, this guy might be the reason. The Cardinals have until December 20th to offer him arbitration, and if they don't he's free game. Right now, the Cubs would have to make a trade for him, and there's no reason to do that if the Cards are going to set him free anyway. Of course, he's not good enough to trade for, especially with the other options that are freely available, but he might have one of the better ratios of skills to cost if he hits the market, hence the waiting game.
As for his skills, they're about what you'd expect from a fourth outfielder. He's a no power, decent OBP guy who can play good to excellent defense at all three outfield positions. Ideally, he wouldn't get much over 200 AB's, but if he has to push 300 due to circumstances, the world wouldn't end. He's left handed, which is pretty much a prerequisite for getting considered for this gig in the first place, and he got $700,000 from the Cardinals last year, which is probably about what he's worth. He's not my favorite of the bunch from a talent standpoint, but if you're looking for a passable guy from the bargain bin, and you're using the money you save wisely, I'm be fine with him.
Todd Hollandsworth - With a career line of .276/.333/.442, Hollandsworth offers more power than Palmeiro at the expense of OBP and defense. The disparity in the field isn't really a source of concern for me, as we're talking about the difference between someone who can be about average anywhere in the outfield, versus someone who's well above average. I'll take average defense if the bat's there, particularly with the Cubs' strikeout heavy staff. No, my worries stem from Hollandsworth's ability to get on base. Of course, he's not bad for a guy coming off the bench, and the power is definitely a plus, but I'm looking for a guy I can run out there for 100 games if I have to. Is a .333 OBP with moderate power enough for that? If he cost the same as Palmeiro, I might say yes, but last year he got $1.5M from the Marlins for 224 AB's, and if someone wants to pay him that, I think the Cubs have to let them.
Orlando Merced - Yeech! I feel dirty just typing his name. Not only has he been this inexplicable scourge to all of Cubdom, but he's officially become totally ineffective as well. His .231/.283/.373 line last year was easily the worst of his career (I'm ignoring his first season of 24 AB's), and entering the 2004 season at 37, he's not a good candidate to get any better. I'm not even sure why I mentioned him, except he's a switch hitter, and anyone who hits lefty against righties is going to at least get a glance. That's all he'll get, though. Merced won't be a Cub.
Jose Cruz Jr. - His name's been getting tossed around like bird seed at a hippie wedding, and with good reason. Cruz has always shown decent patience at the plate, but for some reason the switch hitter really found religion last season, posting a career high 102 walks in 539 AB's. He's never hit for average, but always had solid power, and if the walk rate proves to be a new performance level (not unheard of for a 29 year-old), he could be an underrated offensive force. Add in his solid to excellent defense anywhere in the outfield (famous dropped balls notwithstanding), and he looks like the one to get.
The problem is playing time, and will he get enough of it to be happy. Cruz is good enough to start. Good enough to start for the Cubs, in fact, and I have my doubts that he would accept the role he would be asked to play. He's also likely to require $2-3M to sign, and that seems awfully steep for someone who might sit on the bench a lot. As much as I like him, I don't think this is a situation he's going to come into willingly.
So, if I was signing a Strat team, I'd go with Cruz, but since we're in the real world, I have to lean towards Palmeiro. He's punchless, but he gets on base and plays good defense for a price I can stomach, and while he's not the ideal, I think he might be the best overall option. Here's hoping, no matter who gets signed, that all the regulars have a healthy 2004.