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PIT/PA Watch

May 15: 3.55
Season: 3.61
NL Average: 3.73
Cubs' NL Rank: 15th

Cubs Season Record 22-15 (--)

This Series
May 14-May 16

Cubs Sweep 3-0



Final Score: 6-1

Final Score: 7-5

Final Score: 4-2


Next Series
May 18-May 20

AT

May 18: Clement (5-2, 2.78) vs
Schmidt (3-2, 3.79)


May 19: Zambrano (4-1, 1.82) vs
Rueter (1-4, 5.52)


May 20: Maddux (3-3, 4.44) vs
Hermanson (1-2, 4.67)



Last Series
May 11-May 13

Dodgers Win 2-1



Final Score: 7-3

Final Score: 4-0

Final Score: 7-3


Know Your Enemy - The Series
Part 1 - The Reds
Part 2 - The Pirates
Part 3 - The Brewers
Part 4A - The Cardinals - Position Players
Part 4B - The Cardinals - Pitching and Bench
Part 5A - The Astros - Position Players
Part 5B - The Astros - Pitching and Bench

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 Archives
08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003
09/01/2003 - 10/01/2003
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11/01/2003 - 12/01/2003
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05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004
Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Friday, January 30, 2004

Stuff and Nonsense

I so completely lack anything of interest to write about that I actually started penning a piece that picked apart, bit by bit, a recent Phil Rogers column. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but resorting to a trick like that is akin to taking your sister to prom. Sure she looks the part, but it takes the scrubbing power of Comet and tubful of holy water to wash away that first slow dance.

So, you won’t see that post anytime soon. Not only was it no fun to write, but after I had completed about 70% of the thing, I realized it wouldn’t be any fun to read, either. It’s truly a masturbatory exercise, and it reeks of an ill-advised attempt to prove oneself as the Smart Kid. Obviously, there’s a level of narcissism involved in any sort of similar endeavor, the assumption being that I have something to say and a way of saying it that others will find worthy of their time. However, laying a mean-spirited smack-down on someone else’s work, no matter how deserving of opprobrium, is inviting the same demon to visit me one day, and I don’t like his looks or his smell.

I’m not implying that this sort of thing shouldn’t be done. A good example of the genre at its finest is Mike Carminati’s hilarious work with Joe Morgan’s ESPN chats. It can be done, and done well, just not by me.

Enough of my soul-searching, a few baseball notes.

Hold that Tiger - Detroit has been “on the verge” of signing Pudge-Rod since sometime in the late 15th century. It could come to pass at any moment now, but I’m starting to feel embarrassed for all parties involved. It’s like watching some gold-digging smooth operator working a room full of heiresses. He’s got the ugly one on the hook, but she’s just there to make the pretty ones jealous. He does whatever he wants with the hotties, because he knows that no one else will dance with Miss Congeniality, and he knows that she knows it, too. Her desperation, and his understanding of it make for a disgusting scene, but what does he care? Even if the beautiful girls all turn their backs, at least he’ll have an iron-clad pre-nup and a house in the Hamptons.

New Beginnings - Jon Lieber started throwing off a mound this week. I always liked him when he was a Cub, so I’m glad to see him coming back, even if it is with the Almond Joy-owned Yankees. He looks to be the wild-card in the back end of their rotation, and while I wouldn’t say they need him to perform at pre-surgery levels, they will need him to do a fair imitation of a right-handed David Wells to truly provide some ballast to a very front-loaded staff. Here’s hoping for some stellar performances with pathetic run support. I can’t root for the Yanks, but I can wish Jon-Jon well.

On a Roll - Finally, I don't normally link to other blogger's material. Not because their work isn't worthy, but because I figure anyone who has discovered this site has almost certainly run across anything I would point them to. After all, linking to a post on The Cub Reporter implies that you came to me first, and then were "inspired" by my "endorsement" to pay a visit to Christian, and that's just so ridiculous I can barely keep typing.

This is a special instance, though. Alex Ciepley's blog, Ball Talk, is always good, and if you're not reading it regularly (again, as ridiculous an idea as the one stated above), you need to start. However, while Alex’s work is always exemplary, it’s been especially so this week. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes thought provoking, and sometimes just plain charming, he’s writing stuff lately I only wish I could. If you haven’t checked him out, do it. If you already have, do it again. It’s worth the click.

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Posted by Derek @ 3:36 PM

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Monday, January 26, 2004

Assuming the Position - Part 9 - The Bench

In this, the ninth and final installment of the Assuming the Position series, I'd like to spend some time with the guys who make sure that everyone coming in from the field between innings has a nice warm place to sit, and since the Cubs are part of a league where the pitchers hit and the hitters field, that can only mean one thing: The Clubhouse Staff The Bench.

Last year, the Cubs' bench was a motley collection of solid backups, young players deprived of their rightful starting job, and old men being paid for little beyond their semi-celebrity. There seemed to be nothing resembling a cohesive plan in the way 2003's group of second-stringers was assembled, and even if there was such a design, the fact that it was impossible to derive from simple observation is damning evidence of its lack of clear intent. Can the through-line missing from last season's group be seen linking 2004's part-time warriors?

Ramon Martinez - My favorite type of bench player. He's not good enough to threaten anyone for an everyday job, but he can hold his own defensively anywhere on the infield that doesn't require a mask, and his work with the bat hovers around the mean. He hits for a decent average and makes good contact, is willing to take the occasional walk, and has some surprising pop, so when he comes up to pinch hit, the thought doesn't give you an ulcer. He is the embodiment of competence without excellence, which is all you can ask from someone who gets under 300 PA's a season. What's actually a bit frightening is, at this point in both of their careers, he's actually a decent comp for Roberto Alomar. Don't believe me? Here's a look at their hitting lines over the last two years.

Season Alomar Martinez
2002 590AB .266/.331/.376 181AB .271/.335/.414
2003 516AB .258/.333/.349 293AB .283/.333/.375

I'll admit it's not entirely fair to compare two players with such disparate playing time, as it's entirely possible that over 500+ AB's Ramon would have more of his weaknesses exposed and fare worse when held up to Robbie. However, the fact that I can put some numbers up and make this comparison with a straight face speaks volumes about how far Alomar has fallen. The sad part is, he might actually be less valuable off the bench than Martinez, since he can only play second base.

I suppose this doesn't have a lot to do with Ramon, other than to say that in him, the Cubs have the closest thing to a perennial keeper one can find in a reserve player.

Tork Grudzieker - Besides the relatively slight possibility of a closer controversy, the only personnel usage issue going into the spring will be centered around the Cubs' pair of opposite-handed second sackers. Looking at plate performance, a strict platoon seems in order, as neither Walker nor Grudz fares particularly well against like-handed hurlers, and pitting them exclusively against their opposites yields a second baseman who hits in the .300/.360/.450 range. I'll take that from the keystone anytime.

Two problems arise, however. First, Grudz signed with at least a tacit understanding that he was the starter. If he gets used in a strict platoon, that notion goes quickly out the window. Would this make for a Grumble-Grudz, or will he just be happy as an important part of a winning team? And if he does start to complain, does it matter so long as his play remains unaffected? Second, while Walker is a superior hitter against righties, he's an inferior defender against everyone. A strict platoon puts him in the field for the majority of games, and while that may not mean as much to pitchers like Wood and Prior whose strikeouts make for easier absorption of poor infield play, Carlos Zambrano had a 2.28 GB/FB ratio last year, and the thought of seeing a lot of balls emerging from a cloud of Diving-Walker-Dust into the green grass of the outfield must be keeping him up many a night this winter. Matt Clement wasn't far behind in ground ball production at 2.04, and if the Cubs were to sign Greg Maddux you might have three compelling reasons to give Grudz a few more starts.

Todd Hollandsworth - Here's what I said about Hollandsworth in Part 5:

With a career line of .276/.333/.442, Hollandsworth offers more power than [Orlando] 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.

Well, the Cubs got him for $1M, and if they can keep him off the field when a lefty's on the mound, he'll actually be pretty valuable. His power is the best part of his game at the plate, in addition to the fact that he's left-handed. He'll be the one to come into the game when it's late, the Cubs need a hit with a tough right-hander on the mound, and someone like Barrett or Gonzo is due up. That, and spelling anyone in the outfield who needs a day off will be the main source of his playing time. There are likely to be a lot of games when Alou and/or Patterson need to sit, so being able to replace them with someone who can hit a little bit, and in the case of Alou, play better defense, sure makes it an easier sell.

Paul Bako - There are two schools of thought on backup catchers. The first says, get yourself a catch and throw man, someone who can handle the defensive chores better than your regular, and quality at bats be damned. I'll call this the Blanco School. The second says, get yourself a little offensive boost, someone who gets on base and has a little pop, but don't sweat the defensive stuff. I'll call this the Pratt School. Then there are those who seem to belong to a third school, populated by those who are devoid of either of the first two school's positive qualities. I'll call this the Uecker School, and Paul Bako is a prototypical student.

No, really, I'm serious.

I wasn't at first. When I initially thought of the Uecker analogy I felt I would have to temper the "hilarity" of the joke with statements like, "Of course, I'm being cruel to make a point," or, "Obviously, I'm exaggerating for effect," or, "Certainly, there isn't any direct correlation between Bako and Uecker, I was merely making a hyperbolic statement for humorous purposes."

Except it's no joke. Bako and Uecker make a frighteningly apt pair.

Player EQA (adjusted for all time) Translated OBP Translated SLG Defensive Rate2
Uecker .228 .310 .324 97
Bako .230 .311 .334 97

I've used some more advanced metrics (meaning I couldn't calculate them myself with a step-by-step instruction booklet) from their DT Cards over at Baseball Prospectus, because some adjustment for context is warranted. Uecker, bad as he was, also played in a far less friendly hitting environment than Bako (namely, 1962-1967), so comparing their stat lines without some adjustment for era would be cruel and unusual punishment. Even in doing so, poor Bob comes out looking slightly worse with the stick than Our Man Paul, but only slightly, and they look to be very comparable defensively, each playing at a level over the course of their career which was 3% below league average. The only thing to recommend Bako over Uecker is his higher batting average (when adjusted for era it's Bako: .241, Uecker: .207), but that's tempered by Uecker's far superior walk rate (Bob: 6.9 AB/BB, Paul: 10.0 AB/BB).

The two are not mirror images of each other, but their overall production levels nearly are. So this is my point. The Cubs are on the hook for $865K in 2004 for the services of a player who's production levels are on the same plane as a man who has made part of his living since leaving baseball making fun of how bad he was while he was in it. When similar players like Todd Greene and Kelly Stinnett sign for over $300K less, you have to ask yourself, why? I know the Cubs are short on lefties, but it's a lousy reason to overpay for an easily replicated, and none too valuable, skill set.

Jose Macias - I didn't get a chance to weigh in on this signing when it happened, but my reaction upon first hearing the news was befuddlement, and I remain in that state as I write this. I know that Jim Hendry understands there are these things called NRI's, and that you can invite a bunch of players who are qualified to be the 25th man to Spring Training without having to sign them to a Major League deal or, God Forbid, trade someone for them. I know he knows this because he's done it before, and he's even doing it this year with some pitchers who could fill out the back of the bullpen. Why, then, would you trade anything, even a sack of magic beans, for a guy like Macias?

The answer is, you wouldn't. But the Cubs did, and I suspect the reason was because Macias has that elusive "flexibility" that can be so valuable off the bench. He can play any position on the field other than one of the Battery Twins very nearly as well, and in some cases considerably better, than the player starting there. I'll admit, that in itself is worth something. However, toss in being positively Bako-esque at the plate, and the value of being able to fill in for anyone on the field diminishes significantly. Look, having someone available with a lead in the late innings to spell whichever defender looks most vulnerable on a particular day is worthwhile. Making a trade for him and inking him to a deal for $750K is not.

Tom Goodwin - *sigh* Tom Goodwin is a very fast man. There, I said something nice.

I'm reserving judgment on the overall composition of the reserve corps until I see some usage patterns (specifically in the Walker/Grudz case), but in general, it's a decent group. I'd love to see a catcher who could either hit or play great defense, but besides that there are solid defensive replacements, platoon options, and fast guys. The only other thing that seems lacking is a significant power source. Lose one of either Goodwin or Macias, and suddenly you have an open spot for a no-defense corner infield/outfield masher to make your opposite number think twice about which reliever he brings into a tight game. Give me that, and I think we're done.

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Posted by Derek @ 2:43 PM

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Taking a Flyer

The Cubs have signed Ryan Dempster to a one-year contract with a team option for 2005.

Dempster had a ligament replaced in his elbow in August, so he is unlikely to be in play this season unless a series of cascading unspeakable events occur. I'm not familiar enough with the current protocol for rehab on this type of surgery to make a definitive statement, but I believe it's possible he could be throwing in game situations in August or September. Of course, if he is, it's more likely to be in Iowa than Chicago (barring, again, the cascade of unspeakables).

This deal is very much like the contract Jon Lieber signed with the Yankees last year (right down to the deal being struck the January after an August elbow surgery), only for considerably less money. He'll get $300K this year, and another $200K if he's activated (which is unlikely), then an option for $2M next year with a buyout at $200K (Lieber's deal was for $3.5M over two years, with the opportunity to earn up to $16.75M over three years). The Cubs have essentially bought the right to conduct and evaluate his progress through rehab and claim him for 2005 if they like what they see.

The deal only guarantees him $500K, so it seems like a reasonable risk to take, especially with a pitcher who once showed so much promise. One could argue that, injury or not, Dempster hasn't been worth much since his very solid 2000 season, but he'll be 28 in 2005, still young enough to have some things to figure out, and if the Cubs need someone to work into the fifth spot in the rotation or flip to fill another need, he could turn out to be a fine candidate for either purpose. If not, all you did was spend some money, and not much of it at that. Nice move.

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Posted by Derek @ 3:03 PM

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

And if you look out to your left...

I'd been thinking about doing this for a couple of days, and then I got a request from a reader on the same subject, so spurred by the feedback, I went ahead with my plan.

I've added direct links to each part of the Assuming the Position series to the sidebar, so now, you too can see, with tremendous ease, how spectacularly wrong I was just two short months ago about the fate of Hee Seop Choi.

In any case, I hope this adds some cohesion the series. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder to myself that I ought to keep to a tighter timeline on similar projects in the future!

The final entry - Part 9, The Bench - is on its way soon, but until then, enjoy the archive!

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Posted by Derek @ 1:34 PM

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Monday, January 19, 2004

It was a Deal in a Deal... Part Deux

The Cubs continued to display their organizational aversion to arbitration today by signing Derrek Lee to a one-year, $6.9M deal. This appears to be another situation, similar to Kerry Wood's, where both sides are likely to agree on a long-term deal before the start of play, but with the deadline for submitting arbitration figures looming, there was a need to buy some time and avoid the embarrassment of possible acrimony.

As for the deal itself, if this one-year deal is even close to the base salary over the life of Lee's theoretical multi-year contract, the Cubs will be getting some pretty substantial bang for their bucks. Lee played half of his games in cavernous Pro Player Stadium last year, so his .271/.379/.508 line, while being very solid, may be the worst he puts up for some time. In 2003, Lee was 12th in the Majors in road SLG (.591) and 11th in road OPS (.979) putting him ahead of names like Richie Sexson, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, as well as our very own Sammy Sosa, and making a pretty strong case that his home ballpark was holding his numbers down to a significant degree.

It may be too much to expect those road numbers for an entire year, but if Lee even sniffs those figures in 2004 and beyond, the Cubs will have a very productive and very valuable player on their hands, and may just have him on the cheap.

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Posted by Derek @ 3:46 PM

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Assuming the Position - Part 8 - Third Base

Um....so.....anybody, uh.........see.....my dog ate, uh.........and there was this FLASH, see, um..........ah..........and then.........ELVIS (yeah, yeah, that's it!), Elvis said I should wait AT LEAST a month after talking about the rest of the infield to do a piece about third base. Really. Truly.

I also hadn't a clue what to write, but that hasn't stopped me before, so away I go.

The best deal the Cubs made for 2004 really got done in 2003. Confronted simultaneously with Corey Patterson's season ending knee injury and the gaping maw of penultimate uselessness at the hot corner, Jim Hendry called Dave Littlefield of the Pirates and found him more than willing to be robbed blind. One former infield prospect and a bag of magic beans later, the Cubs had acquired Kenny Lofton to fill the Patterson void and Aramis Ramirez to kick the maw in its ineffectual teeth. Lofton has since been allowed to go his merry way, but Ramirez remains, and that is whence my joy derives.

Thanks to the acquisition of Ramirez, last year was the first season since 1997 that a third baseman 25 years old or younger started the majority of games for the Cubs (Kevin Orie was 24). Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1982 when a 22 year-old named Sandberg played his first full season in the Majors, spending 133 games at La Esquina Caliente, the last he would play there in his remaining 14 years of service.

My point, if I have yet to let on strongly enough, is that the acquisition of a young third sacker with significant upside is not an event without consequence in the history of the franchise, and while I would be loathe to paint Ramirez with the "Heir to the Throne of Santo" brush, he does have a chance to help us cease to view Ronny's career through the eyes of the starving. When the last good thing you ate was a big, juicy Porterhouse, that's the thing you keep pining for, and while a well made burger may pale in comparison, after so many years without meat, does the difference really matter much?

As far as metaphorical burgers go, Ramirez isn't perfect, but he has qualities to recommend him. Mostly, he hits the ball real hard. Here's a list of Third Basemen and their Isolated Power vs. the league from 2001-2003.

RANK PLAYER ISO/DIFF ISO/PLAYER ISO/LEAGUE
1 Jose Valentin .079 .240 .161
2 Eric Chavez .079 .240 .161
3 Troy Glaus .076 .237 .161
4 Scott Rolen .066 .230 .164
5 Phil Nevin .050 .216 .166
6 Mike Lowell .039 .202 .164
7 Eric Hinske .037 .198 .161
8 Aramis Ramirez .032 .196 .164
9 Aaron Boone .029 .191 .163
10 Tony Batista .025 .187 .161

These numbers include his injury riddled 2002 season when he put up an abysmal .234/.279/.387 line, as well as a similarly poor April last year which saw him hitting at a .239/.317/.370 clip. He seems to have overcome those issues, and is playing at a level much closer to his breakout 2001 season, when he was a mere 23 years old.

And that's where most of my hope rests. He'll be 26 this year, likely a couple of years from his peak, had a great season when he was 23, and the intervening periods of underperformance can be explained in great part by injuries and the time needed to regain his stroke after fully healing (if you think a lingering ankle injury won't make you alter your swing mechanics to compensate, think again). His walk rates have never been high (Career, 15.8 AB/BB, 2003 14.5 AB/BB, 2003 Cubs 13.6 AB/BB), but they are improving over what he posted in 2001 (15.1 AB/BB), and without a commensurate increase in his strikeout rates (his K rate actually decreased 35.8% from his time in Pittsburg in 2003 to his time with the Cubs. Small sample size, I know, but encouraging nonetheless). There's a lot of potential there, and if all goes well, seeing it come to fruition could be one of the more satisfying aspects of the 2004 season.

Yet, despite the exciting offensive possibilities, there are issues to be raised with his defense, mostly with a high quantity of errant throws. The problem is not his arm. I doubt they've made the wall that can sustain the impact of a ball fired from his cannon, but the open question is whether that wall could be built large enough to ensure consistent contact. Frankly, helmets and body armor should be issued to anyone sitting from the screen to the bullpen on the first base side of Wrigley Field. Lack of action on this point may invite lawsuits from the maimed and traumatized. Sure, the Tribune Company could afford the payout, but they've worked too hard setting up their own scalping gig to let some newly blind mother of three prevent them from pocketing the dough.

But I digress.

The problem, instead, is his feet. Ramirez does a consistently poor job of setting his feet under himself, thus creating an unstable base leading to erratic throws. Dusty Baker has stated that they understand the problem and are going to work with him to correct it. I'll believe it when I see it. Ramirez is still young, so I won't completely write off the possibility of improvement, but something tells me this isn't a revelatory understanding of the ills that afflict him. After all, if I can see the problem, I have to believe that every scout and coach on the planet can as well, and if that's that case, then the Cubs better have some revolutionary method of teaching footwork, or Aramis will continue to be the largest contributor of defensively derived souvenirs in the league.

But is that really so bad? Actually, no. Despite the large number of errors, according to Clay Davenport's player cards at Baseball Prospectus, Ramirez has often been only slightly below average defensively. Over the last three seasons, his defense has been worth about 5 runs per 162 games below an average third baseman's. Doesn't look great, but when you figure that over that same period he's averaging 28.9 errors per 162 games, the implications are obvious. Make the errors manageable, and you've got a solid to good defensive third baseman on your hands. Causing it to occur is something else entirely, but stranger things have happened (see Sosa, Sammy re: Plate Discipline).

I may be overly enthusiastic about Ramirez, after all, most of what's exciting about him is contained in the physical tools he brings. I'm not normally one to be seduced by this level of unrealized potential, but hey, he's a Cub third baseman and it's January. A guy can dream, can't he?

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Posted by Derek @ 9:43 AM

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Friday, January 16, 2004

It was a Deal in a Deal...

The Cubs and Kerry Wood agreed to a one-year deal today, worth $9.75M. This, by no means, indicates that a multi-year deal won't get done. In fact, just the opposite. Here's the breakdown.

Yesterday was the deadline for players to file for arbitration, and it was necessary for Kerry to do so in order to keep negotiating with the club. The deadline for exchanging salary figures for the arbitration hearings was coming up on Tuesday. Well, neither side was interested in submitting numbers and getting all kerfluffled by the other side's "unreasonable" demands, so rather than do that, they agreed on a one-year deal which is likely in the same value range they had been discussing for year one of the long-term contract (a very appropriate value range, in my estimate).

Don't worry, folks, Wood will still be locked up by the time Opening Day rolls around. This is just one more step in the process.

P.S. Thanks to PD for pointing out the wire story.

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Posted by Derek @ 7:03 PM

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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Feel Good Story

The Cubs just signed Joe Borowski to a two-year deal worth $4.3M, plus some performance incentives based on games finished. I don't have any analysis of this, just a pat on the back for JoBo. To go from being cut by the Reds in 2000, to pitching in Mexico, and eventually to the closer's role and a multi-million dollar deal is a fantastic story, made all the better by the fact that Borowski richly deserves it. Congrats, Joe!

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Posted by Derek @ 12:58 PM

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Making the Pitch

According to a variety of sources, the Cubs have offered Prodigal Son Greg Maddux™ a two-year deal valued somewhere in the $13-$15M range. Before anyone gets too excited/annoyed, there are also reports that he has several more lucrative offers on the table from other teams. The stated origin of that information is "Major League sources," but an attribution that vague could mean it's coming from the mouth of Super Agent Scott Boras™, and if so, apply salt liberally.

Other possible offers aside, the Cubs have put down defendable money for a reasonable contract length, and if anyone tosses out more green or more time, the Cubs should feel good about letting Maddux go. I'm alright with the idea of starting Juan Cruz in the fifth slot, but I do have a soft spot for Mad Dog, and while I'd rather see that money go toward offensive upgrades, a rotation with Maddux and the Four Tops would be one to strike fear and envy into the hearts of all who oppose them. I'm particularly intrigued by the possible effect of some Mad Dog Mentoring on the Big Three, which in itself might make the contract worth doing.

In any case, the ball's in the Maddux/Boras court. Other "offers" may or may not materialize, but just thinking about the possibility of him re-donning the Blues is kind of fun. I'll write more about what this means if The Professor signs, but for now, don't mind if I sit back and dream a bit.

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Posted by Derek @ 11:29 AM

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Monday, January 12, 2004

Assuming the Position - Part 7 - The Bullpen

After an absolutely appalling year from the relief corps in 2002, the Cubs went on a massive spending spree in the offseason to improve the bullpen product, and it brought forth....well....mediocrity. Certainly an improvement, but in a year where a good bullpen could have taken a lot of pressure off an overworked starting staff, not quite improved enough. In order for the Cubs to be viable this year and into the future, Jim Hendry must assemble a cadre of relievers that Dusty Baker will not hesitate to use. Has he done the job?

Joe Borowski - The feel-good story of Borowski's roundabout trip to the Cubs' (complete with Mexican detour) has been well documented, but 2003 brought the ultimate fortune for JoBo in the form of another player's mis-fortune. When Antonio Alfonseca injured his groin during spring training, the Cubs were left with a gaping hole where their closer used to be. Dusty Baker refrained from anointing anyone out of spring training, so when the first save situation of the year came on April 5 in Cincinnati, it was anybody's guess who would come trotting in from the bullpen.

Out went Joe, out went three Reds, and out went the question of who would finish games for the Cubs.

One season and 33 saves later, Borowski comes into 2004 as the incumbent closer for this squad, a role that no one in baseball could have foreseen for him at this time last year (and if you did, I'd love for you to handle my stock portfolio). The time for concern over the possible fluke nature of his success is passed, as he followed his fine 2002, during which he was the best reliever on an awful staff, with an even better 2003. And now, for a little Table Time!

Year IP ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR AVG OBP SLG
2002 95.2 2.73 148 9.13 2.73 3.35 10 .239 .294 .384
2003 68.1 2.63 161 8.69 2.50 3.47 5 .207 .261 .293

His strikeout rate declined slightly, and because of his more specialized role he threw fewer innings, but everything else points to a pitcher who is not only a non-fluke, but has managed to figure things out and become an extremely valuable asset in the bullpen. He's a fine choice to continue in the closer's role since he's not only a solid pitcher, but is also blessed with a short memory, perhaps the most valuable attribute a man who will occasionally be handed all the blame for a loss can have. If Dusty doesn't have confidence in JoBo, he ought to. He's doing the job.

LaTroy Hawkins - The Cubs signed Hawkins this offseason for near closer money, and while Borowski is a good pitcher, when LaTroy puts on his Cubbie blue uniform, he becomes the most potent weapon in Dusty Baker's relief arsenal. Stop! Table Time!

Year IP ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR AVG OBP SLG
2002 80.1 2.13 208 7.06 1.68 4.20 5 .217 .252 .307
2003 77.1 1.86 248 8.73 1.75 5.00 4 .239 .274 .322

Look at those strikeout to walk ratios. Yikes! Hawkins possesses two of the most important skills you look for in a good reliever. He doesn't let men on base, and he keeps the ball in the yard. If you do that coming out of the bullpen, you're more than halfway home, and Hawkins does it in spades.

While there is idle chatter about LaTroy taking the ball in the ninth, I wouldn't anticipate that scenario unless Borowski is hurt or starts to fail badly. The fun thing about the way this has played out is that, as a non-closer who happens to be the best pitcher in the bullpen, Hawkins is free to come into the most critical game situations with little regard to what the inning is. Imagine that. A one-run lead, two men on, one out, top of the seventh, and in trots your best reliever. Shocking!

The Cubs are likely to occasionally execute the Red Sox initial 2003 bullpen plan, without even intending to. Lacking a dominant reliever, the BoSox plan was doomed to failure and ridicule. Not an issue for the Cubs, as they not only have the man for the plan, but any adherence to it will be completely accidental. I don't know if Jim Hendry is savvy enough to have done this on purpose, but intentional or not, it sets up a possible usage pattern that should keep sabremetrically inclined Cub fans happy all year long.

Mike Remlinger - For the first lefty out of the pen, he sure has trouble sitting down southpaws. Last year, Remlinger put up a .263/.343/.442 line against his fellow portsiders, versus his .180/.301/.323 line when facing his opposites. His three-year splits are even more pronounced (.277/.335/.455 vs. L, .186/.280/.290 vs. R), so why Dusty used him more against lefties than anytime over the last three seasons is beyond me. Still not convinced he shouldn't face his brethren? Take a look at this.

Year R/L Ratio ERA
2001 2.18 2.76
2002 2.56 1.99
2003 1.69 3.65

The R/L Ratio is the number of at bats facing right-handers divided by the number of at bats facing left-handers. The lower the number, the more often he faced a lefty. See a pattern? More lefties for Remlinger = more runs for the other team. I don't know if Dusty has figured out that he should be used like any right-hander with a bad platoon split (*cough* JeffNelson! *cough*), but the sooner he does, the better off the Cubs, and Remlinger's ego, will be.

Kyle Farnsworth - Cub fans didn't know what to expect from Kyle in 2003. Would we see the dominating flamethrower of the 2001 campaign, or the fragile, hitable owner of 2002's 7.33 ERA? The only thing anyone knew for sure was how he would look in his uniform ("Pants by Dutch Boy®, the leader in skin-tight comfort.").

As it turned out, the hand-wringing was unnecessary, and Farnsworth turned the heat back up on his way to his second-best season.

Year IP ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR AVG OBP SLG
2002 46.2 7.33 55 8.87 4.63 1.92 9 .293 .366 .558
2003 76.1 3.30 129 10.85 4.24 2.56 6 .196 .285 .295

Um...wow. That's one heck of an improvement. I wonder how many relievers have thrown at least 45 innings in two consecutive seasons and seen their SLG against sliced nearly in half? My guess? Not many.

It's pretty obvious that the one thing keeping Kyle from dominating everyone in the ballpark (besides, perhaps, his psyche) is his control. Get that walk rate under three, and Dutch Boy will own the National League.

Kent Mercker - Finally! A lefty who gets out lefties....sort of!

2002 VS. L .209/.303/.433
2003 VS. L .222/.350/.358

In 2002 he kept his lefty opponents' average down, but most of what got hit was hit hard, while in 2003, he wasn't hit as hard, but was hit more often. He also walked a bunch of guys last year, and if there's anything that's really troubling about his performance, that would be it. True, he kept his ERA down to a miniscule 1.95 last year, but when you walk 32 men in 55.1 IP, you're playing with fire. I would also not expect him to keep right-hander's down to a .230/.303/.393 line again. He was absolutely murdered by his opposites in 2002 (to the tune of .350/.424/.675), and while I wouldn't expect an outright repetition of that kind of "work" again, even if the truth lies between the two, he should be shielded from righties at all costs.

Mercker has become the definition of LOOGY, and if he's used as such, he can be a net positive.

Todd Wellemeyer/Sergio Mitre/???????? - This spot is, or could be, less about who can contribute most to the team today, and more about who will benefit from the experience tomorrow. After having a year to monitor his usage patterns, it's clear that to Dusty Baker, even more than with some managers, the last spot in the bullpen is reserved for use in blowouts and extra inning emergencies. There's little reason to have a veteran mediocrity fill this spot when there are young arms in the system for whom time with the big club could be valuable. That doesn't mean we won't see a semi-famous NRI breaking camp with the team in April, after all, Dusty has a thing for those who have been around the block (Gary Glover or Jamey Wright, anyone?). It just means that in an ideal world, a young pitcher from the system who doesn't have a ton left to learn in the minors would get a chance to clock some time in the show, becoming acclimated to the Majors in a relatively low-pressure gig. Not that the veteran NRI route doesn't have its merits (it's certainly served the Angels and Braves in the past), but rooting around in the salvage yard hasn't been one of the organization's strengths, and isn't likely to become one anytime soon.

Had the Cubs merely acquired LaTroy Hawkins, or simply dumped Antonio Alfonseca, they would have done themselves a service, but having accomplished both has gone a long way toward making the Cubs' pen one of the best in the National League. Adding a lefty who might occasionally sit down others of their ilk is a bonus, but in the aftermath of all this activity we're left with a question. Will an improved bullpen take some heat off the starting staff?

It's a big question, and it might hold the key to the organization's future. In an upcoming entry, I'll take a peek at Dusty Baker's usage patterns and see if I can find the answer. It may not be there, but it can't hurt to look!

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Posted by Derek @ 3:35 PM

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The Astros have finalized their deal with Roger Clemens, bringing him and his six Cy Youngs to Minute Maid Park, apparently to form a Western Yankee Annex (see Pettitte, Andy).

Besides giving the Houstons an obvious psychological boost, Clemens gives them badly needed innings at an above average level of performance. No one will confuse Roger with the Rocket of yore, but he's still an effective pitcher, even at 41.

But how will Clemens fare in Houston? Despite some holes (any resemblance between Craig Biggio and a centerfielder is purely coincidental), the Astros defense is a significant improvement on the unit Clemens saw stumbling behind him in 2003. No Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, or Alfonso Soriano means fewer singles up the middle and a cloud of dust, even when your second-baseman's named Jeff Kent. Still, I'd call it a wash. For some reason, right-handers hit him pretty hard (his three-year splits are .276/.315/.438 vs. R, and .224/.300/.347 vs. L), and with that short left-field porch in the Juice Box, the Rocket could spend a lot of time getting launched himself.

Houston needed this badly, but while Clemens will serve ably as their third or fourth starter, this move doesn't put the kibosh on the Cubs hopes for 2004. If Chicago can keep their starters off the DL, the division will still be theirs for the taking.

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Posted by Derek @ 12:57 PM

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Saturday, January 10, 2004

Well....Crap

Will Carroll is reporting over at his blog that Roger Clemens is about to sign a deal to pitch next season with the Astros. I’ll comment more on this when it’s finalized, but for now, head over to Will’s site for any details and discussion of the implications.

EDIT 1/12/2004: It's official. More on this later.

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Posted by Derek @ 7:41 AM

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Thursday, January 08, 2004

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

If you needed any more proof that the world is going straight to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in the proverbial hand-basket, look no further than The View From the Bleachers and note that this very blog made the finals in their "Best Cub Blog (Not Written By Christian Ruzich) 2003" contest. I'm honored that anyone voted for this blog at all, so, thanks Mom (I'll get you some medicine for that carpal tunnel syndrome real soon)!

But seriously, folks, I do think it's cool that a few people thought enough of my work to vote for The Big Red C. It's always nice when a little positive feedback comes your way, and I'll take all I can get.

So, thanks to Bleacher Bum for thinking to put this contest on in the first place, and if you haven't already, head on over to TVFTB and cast your vote. Democracy is about participation, people! So, if you find that in a couple of weeks you have to read an interview with me on TVFTB about why I write this thing, it's your own damn fault!

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Posted by Derek @ 1:18 PM

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Wednesday, January 07, 2004

No Go, Ryno

I know this is a day late, but I had a long diatribe in the works about how I didn't understand the HOF voting process, how the concept of what I refer to as "vote creep" (where a deserving player who is acknowledged to be an eventual Hall of Famer starts the process short of the votes necessary for enshrinement, then creeps up over a period of years until he hits the magic 75%, as if the passing of time made him a more worthy candidate) was beyond my comprehension, and how some of these same players are forced by the voters to wait for a "weak" ballot to get their necessary induction ratio as if it were a statement of their relative "worthiness."

Then I remembered that Bill James wrote a whole book about this, and rather than venting 2,000 words of spleen on a topic that's already been thoroughly covered by one of the great writers in the game, I figured I should save myself the embarrassment and say that while I'm disappointed that Sandberg didn't make it this year, his time will come. The votes will "creep," and like Gary Carter before him, Ryno will have his day.

That's enough of that. I've got a book to read.

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Posted by Derek @ 9:09 AM

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Sunday, January 04, 2004

Assuming the Position - Part 6 - The Starting Staff

The story of the 2003 Chicago Cubs was written on the arms of the pitching staff. Without the outstanding contributions of the starters, particularly the front three, there would have been no NLCS defeat to mourn. What can we expect for 2004?

Mark Prior - There is no single player on the Cubs roster who is more important to the present and future success of the franchise than Mark Prior. He finished the year with a record of 18-6, 245 K, only 50 BB, and a miniscule 2.43 ERA over 211.1 IP, good enough for third place in the NL Cy Young voting. All this when he was only 22 years old. Prior appears to have the ability and desire to be one of, if not the single most dominating pitcher in the National League for many years to come.

That being said, there is much that is troubling about the way Prior was used last season. Despite being extremely young and still at a point in his career where the risk for injury is higher, in 2003 Prior accumulated the highest average pitch count per game in the majors, averaging throwing 113.2 balls every time he took the mound. Nine of his thirty starts went over 120 pitches, three over 130, and his average pitch count over his six starts in September was 126.3. These are not statistics to be proud of, and many in the blogosphere and beyond have rung the alarm about Prior's workload. Apologists will point to Prior's textbook mechanics, the smooth and flawless delivery that lulls so many major league hitters to sleep, as the factor that makes his usage pattern excusable or even ideal. After all, if you have a pitcher like Prior who is unquestionably the best man on your staff, if there is no one in your bullpen who you think has a better chance to get the out than the man already on the mound, and if his 120th pitch looks as easy and effortless as the first, why not just let him go until he can't anymore?

It's all about context. If the game in question is in a vacuum, if there are no future considerations involved, if this game is the only game he will ever throw, the usage pattern makes sense. The problem, of course, is that no game is played in a vacuum. Perhaps in the playoffs, when the stakes are so high and the light of an offseason of rest can be seen at the end of the tunnel, thoughts of how this outing affects the future can be pushed aside, but the regular season is not such a beast. When you have a pitcher with Prior's long term potential, every decision you make has to take both the present and future into account. This doesn't mean managing scared, just smart. If your starter has the lead and has thrown 110 pitches through seven innings, are you better off sending him back out to start the eighth, likely racking up another 15+ pitches, or should you pass it off to the bullpen?

More often than not, when Prior was on the mound, Dusty Baker sent him back out there. Was he the best man for the job? Probably. But if you can't rely on your bullpen to throw two innings and protect today's lead, keeping your best starter fresh for the tomorrows to come, let alone healthy for the seasons beyond, then either your bullpen needs to get better or you have to learn to trust what you've got. It looks like Jim Hendry has made some solid upgrades to the relief corps this offseason, but whether Baker will trust it enough remains an open question, and a subject for another entry.

Kerry Wood - Mark Prior may be the super-charged robotic arm of the Cubs, but Wood is the team's heart and soul, as well as its second best pitcher. He was also second on the team, and in the majors, in the number of pitches thrown per game, racking up an average of 109.9 pitches in each outing. Wood also led MLB in Pitcher Abuse Points (Prior came in third), and had the highest pitch count in a single outing for any pitcher last season, tossing 141 pitches over 7 innings against St. Louis on the tenth of May.

Despite this horror show, I'm not terribly concerned about the long term impact of last season on Wood's arm. Kerry hasn't had a serious arm injury since losing the 1999 season to Tommy John surgery, and he hasn't missed time because of his arm since 2001 when he lost about a month to shoulder tendonitis. He's thrown over 200 innings for two straight seasons now, and last year he was finally able to get his strikeout rate near where it was in 1998. He'll be 27 next season, and all signs point to him being a dominant, durable pitcher for years to come. So, why am I concerned about his usage patterns?

By the end of the year, it became clear that starts immediately following more strenuous outings were potential disasters. Not that Woody couldn't go deep into games, there were many occasions when he threw over 115 pitches and still came out looking good in the starts that followed. It was the games where Kerry was completely exhausted, when he needed oxygen afterwards, when it was obvious to laymen watching on television that he had given all he had but was asked to give more that were followed by horrendous, bone-crushing defeats. To get the most out of Kerry Wood, and get the most out of the team, Baker needs to learn to recognize when he's reached his limit.

Carlos Zambrano - Leading the team in innings pitched, Carlos was a horse all year, and while Dusty rode him with slightly less zeal than the other members of the "Big Three," by year's end Zambrano showed the most overt signs of long term trouble.

The problems began in his next to last outing of the season, when despite being handed leads of 3-0 and 9-4, Big Z let the Pirates back into the game, giving up 9 runs in 4.2 IP. The Cubs went on to win the game, but Zambrano's performance was unsettling for a number of reasons. Carlos had broken the 200 IP mark in his previous game, the first 200 inning season in his career, and up until then he had given up a grand total of six home runs. That's right, six dingers in 204.1 IP. In this game, he gave up two home runs to the same player. He also gave up eight hits and walked three men. His next game against the Reds wasn't much better. While he didn't give up a home run, he did cough up 7 H in 5 IP, while issuing 5 free passes. He didn't look right on the mound, and it showed in the results as his control, spotty already, was worse than usual. However, despite the poor results, one could still point to Carlos' still excellent GB/FB ratios over those games as a sign that his issues might be short lived.

Zambrano's gaudy regular season GB/FB ratio of 2.28 was easily the best on a staff where the worst ratio was the fine 1.06 mark posted by Wood. He gave up only nine home runs over 214 innings, and only 188 hits overall. No Cubs pitcher was hurt less by balls in the air than Carlos Zambrano. But, come playoff time, Big Z was swatted by flies.

Over three October starts, a season long trend reversed itself for Carlos. His GB/FB ratio went from extreme groundball, to a decidedly flyball-centric 0.75, he gave up 25 hits over 16.2 innings, and went from giving up one home run for every 100 batters faced to giving up a long ball every twentieth hitter. No matter what language you speak, that spells trouble. Most of the time when a sinker-ball pitcher becomes fatigued his ball sinks more, but the change in the GB/FB ratio and the increase in home runs implies that either the sink wasn't as hard, or it just wasn't there. If it's the first explanation, then maybe we're simply dealing with the fatigue of a young man who has never pitched so many innings in a season. But if it's the second answer, say your prayers, because you're looking at a pitcher who has significantly altered their mechanics to make up for the aforementioned fatigue, or even worse, to compensate for an injury.

No matter what the cause, the end of last season leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the Big Z heading into 2004. The answers to those questions may hold the key to the Cubs season.

Matt Clement - His strikeout rate dropped from his fine 2002 season (he didn't have the same consistent control of his nasty slider from game to game, frequently getting under it), but when he had it together, Clement was a force to be reckoned with. He posted the second best BAA among the teams' starters, allowing opponents to hit a meager .227 against him. That's the second best BAA of his career (the best was his .215 mark in 2002), and that along with his still declining walk rate are signs that last year was a season where Clement was able to consolidate some of the previous year's gains. He has an excellent chance to move from consolidation to building this year, and I would expect his contribution to land somewhere between the 2002 and 2003 versions. Not bad for your fourth starter.

Juan Cruz/????? - Smart money says Cruz will be manning the back of the rotation in 2004, and that's alright by me. Cruz has been all over the place during his first few years in the bigs, but the time has come for him to get a solid opportunity to pitch regularly for the Cubs. There's nothing left for him to prove in the minors, and with prospects like Angel Guzman breathing down his neck, it's time for Juan to get it done or get dealt.

The good news is, the organization seems to be behind him. Both Dusty Baker and Jim Hendry have said that the fifth starter's job is Juan's for the taking in the spring. Of course, the second base job was Bobby Hill's for the taking last year, so these statements, while encouraging, should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Cruz is backing up the Cubs' decision with his stellar play in the Dominican Winter League. In 5 games, 2 of them starts, Juan has posted this stat line:

W L IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA
3 0 26.0 14 4 3 0 8 33 1.04

Granted, this is a league where Esteban Yan has a 1.83 ERA over 54 IP, but those numbers still bode well for the coming season. Cruz has a lot of talent, and when he first pitched for the Cubs in 2001, he had a lot of poise as well. That cold-blooded resolve seemed to leave Juan during his first disastrous starts of the 2002 season, but he has the ability to be a rotation mainstay for years to come. He needs to show that he can go more than five innings per start and consistently keep his head in the game if he wants to keep his presumptive job.

Although improvements have been made on the offensive end, the fate of the 2004 Cubs rests firmly on the shoulders of the pitching staff once again, and one of the most important issues heading into this season will be how the innings are distributed between the starters and relievers. That, and a look at the bullpen in general, will be the subject of Assuming the Position - Part 7.

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Posted by Derek @ 7:36 PM

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