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TODAY

Saturday, July 21

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It's difficult to believe baseball season has started until your team plays at home. With both of the city's clubs coming home to roost this week, now is the perfect time to look at the year ahead, at the team's expectations, and at what each team needs to do to make that final step to postseason glory. We start with the Sox because a) they're second-class citizens around here, b) their tickets are cheaper, and c) I can buy a veggie dog at Sox Park.

The Sox:

Kenny Williams gets a bum rap around town, but when a man who is supposed to make analytical decisions that demonstrably steer a team in the proper direction says something like, "Character guys ... I want guys who want to play, not just guys who know how to play." (Chicago Tribune, 3/30/04) it's hard to think of it as anything other than a PR statement. It's a statement that is all about perception, nothing about results -- the type of thing you say to convince a skeptical media. But look, Willie Harris and I have several things in common: neither of us is very tall and neither of us is very good at baseball. So how did he become the team's starting second baseman? Clearly, he just wants to play more than I do. (Note to Kenny Williams, I really want to play really.)

Williams, now in his fourth full year as GM, has yet to learn the most valuable lesson of baseball decision-making: "Heart" is something you claim after you win games, and something you blame after you lose a season. Never start with Heart. Start with Talent, and then maybe move on to home runs, and top it off with a nice fast/change combination. Go up by 10 games on August 30, and then talk Heart.

I've been a lukewarm supporter of Williams, and have even put on the gloves a number of times now in his defense. Witness: when Gord Ashe over at the Blue Jays claimed Kenny scammed him by dealing a damaged Mike Sirotka, even though it's Toronto's job to put the pitcher through a physical. But Kenny's reliance on the intangibles is what leads to his scattershot approach to putting together a team. Rumor has it, he's after Kordell.

With the exception of his acquisition of Damaso Marte, there simply is no evidence of a plan here. Jimenez was a stopgap (which is fine, if we forget that Willie Harris was the fulfillment and not, say, Aaron Miles or Tim Hummell) and Colon evaporated when the Sox were only willing to overpay $36 million for his services. It's now time for the Sox to develop a cohesive team with a coherent vision. Build around the corner outfielders and, yes, Frank Thomas, all of whom can mash and get on base. Creating around these three means landing guys who can get on base for them, not Willie Harris, OBP .259; Jose Valentin, OBP .313; Aaron Rowand, OBP .327 or Paul Konerko, OBP .305.

The Sox pocketed the $36 million that almost went to Colon, and should be prepared to dish it out in the next few months. First off, Kenny, give me $200 of that to make "Say No to Timo" T-shirts. Trading for a guy who the Mets didn't want -- that's the Joe McEwing-loving Mets -- makes no sense. You went and got Carl Everett last year. Swell. Land an on-base machine this season and maybe the Tigers won't sweep us again. And let us now end Jose Valentin's role as a right-handed hitter, or at least let Julio Iglesias try instead.

04092004_colon.jpg

Fig1. Bartolo Colon, here getting hugged by catcher Miguel Olivo,
was great last season but was too expensive to keep.

Of course, the bats are a slim part of what troubles the Sox. The Sox' rotation is almost the definition of chuck and duck. It was important last year to go out and get Colon because Mark Buehrle, God love the little left-hander, is not an ace. He is a great number two, but no true number one in the league posts the low strikeout rates and mediocre ERAs he does. It's not a knock on him, it's a knock on the Sox' handling of the rotation.

For a solid week last summer, I privately kicked around the idea of renaming my cat "Lo Lo" after Esteban Loaiza volunteered his services to my fantasy team -- for a Twix bar -- and then single-handedly piloted my pitching staff out of the geek's basement. The beauty of Esteban is that the Sox landed him for about as much, and while it's unreasonable to accept him to be a Cy Young candidate again, he'll be solid. Unfortunately, like all good things, his price skyrocketed this year and he is no longer a member of the famed fantasy franchise, the Milwaukee Schlitzkickers. It's a business, baby.

A lot of baseball analysts talk about "freely available talent" when it comes to guys like Brian Daubach or Russ Gload, guys who play for a song and a beer and are valuable off the bench. The same can be said for pitchers, and Loaiza should be the model for that. One new pitch and he's suddenly bustin' fools.

I make this point here because as I write this, the White Sox lucked out supremely when Rule 5 claim Jason Grilli cleared waivers. Grilli is precisely the type of freely available talent, like Loaiza, who could make all the difference for the Sox. He was a top prospect just a few years ago, before his elbow shredded harder than a Dio concert. Now, if properly handled, he is the perfect pitcher to insert in a long-relief role to spell the top guys, who are bound to wear down by the end of the year if they keep going out there and throwing 100-plus pitch outings. Loaiza probably would have grabbed the Cy if he hadn't been gassed at the end of the year. Unfortunately, the Sox' system ain't what it used to be, and some of that Colon money will have to go toward getting at least one solid starter, if not two if the Sox want this to be the year (and it should be, since Ordonez will likely be gone after this season).

Right now, the Sox are maybe an 85-win team. Despite the Central's weakness, they'll need some serious help to pull off the playoffs this year. Considering I've now claimed the Sox need to improve their lineup, rotation and bullpen, things may seem bleak. But the outside acquisitions should really favor the bats and the starters. With Grilli and a few others in Charlotte, the bullpen should hold.

Speaking of the bullpen, Kenny, want to hear my other T-shirt idea? Front: "SAVE DAMASO MARTE." Back: "HELP, I'VE BEEN KOCH-BLOCKED!" Please don't let Billy close any more games. When a racecar can't speed anymore, you don't start hauling firewood with it. Marte, despite Opening Day, is the man. Koch was the man for the A's two years ago, sort of -- if you ignore his peripherals, cover one eye and have a thing for weird facial hair.

The Cubs:

God bless Jim Hendry, truly the only reason for anyone to be a Cubs fan. If he hadn't assembled the best roster in the NL this year, this column would have a much different tenor. Why? The Tribune Company and its many wicked ways.

Witness: the shrinking and shuffling of the trademark brick wall behind the catcher to make room for more luxury seats. That Spartan wall, a familiar sight to the entire baseball-watching nation thanks to WGN's cable broadcasts, was the perfect converse to the fey ivy drapery of the outfield wall. Now we get to see even more cell-phoned fans, talking and excitedly waving into the camera.

Recoil: at the ongoing dispute with the rooftop owners, which amounts to the Cubs taking their ball and going home. The Trib now claims to own, to wit, America's Newspaper, America's Superstation, America's Team and America's Breathable Air, Which Americans May Not Breathe Without First Asking Permission.

Regurgitate: at the very notion of Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services. The Trib owns Premium, who buys advance tickets from the Cubs (also owned by the Trib), and then sells them at inflated prices to their own fans, the heightened profits of which are reaped by the Trib. But it's not scalping, right? No matter what anyone says, there's no way to claim an organization respects its fans if it scalps its own tickets.

Icky stuff, all that. In fact, it was enough for me, in a drunken fit of righteousness this winter, to declare a boycott of the Cubs. Then Hendry put together a team that should easily win more than 100 games this year, a roster that is even strong off the bench, and signed my favorite underrated catcher, Michael Barrett. I sobered up a bit. I'd rather be a hypocrite than miss out on this season.

The difference this year, however, is that it's not about hope, it's about expectations. Even with Prior's balky Achilles, the Cubs have the top rotation in the league. At this point, health is the only thing that could derail the Cubs. Corey Patterson's knee needs to hold, Prior's Achilles needs to cool off, and Aramis Ramirez's ankle needs to be stable. The Cubs med team also needs to find a way to prevent Moises Alou's musculoskeleton from unraveling, and the Cubs should be fine. Even so, Dusty Baker and his Fogies Gallery has shown to be effective off the bench, with Tom Goodwin proving himself a serviceable fourth outfielder and Todd Walker able to fill in at second or the outfield. Ramon Martinez, like Windex, seems to do everything just fine.

04092004_prior.jpg

Fig2. As long as Mark Prior's arm and Achilles tendon hold
up, expect the Cubbies to go far this season.

The biggest concern for Cubs fans is Dusty and his love of high pitch counts. Last year, Carlos Zambrano was 21 and ranked seventh in the league in pitches per start. Kerry Wood, at 26, was second in the majors, trailing the 21-year-old Prior. Say what you want about managers and media putting too high a priority on pitch counts, but there's no denying that trotting out all of your young pitchers deep into games -- every game -- amounts to abuse. Prior (whose elbow has shown inflammation in recent MRIs taken to inspect his Achilles) is already on DL. Wood's elbow has been Tommy John'd and his shoulder sewn together with fishing line. Zambrano has already thrown more pitches than most veteran set-up men and the kid just shaved for the first time in Spring Training. Dusty needs to learn that "old school" managing does not equal "destroying promising careers." Hendry should rein Dusty in, considering how much the Cubs have invested financially in Wood and Prior.

The final question for the Cubs is Greg Maddux. For all the joy and fuzziness of inviting back the Scorned One, Maddux did not pitch especially well last year, his strikeout rate in further decline and his home run rate on an incline. Still, a flawed Greg Maddux is better than, say, a picture-perfect Shawn Estes any day. Maddux's American League twin, Jamie Moyer, is approximately the same age and the same style of pitcher, and has still been one of the AL's most effective hurlers. There's no reason to think that the Thinking Man's Pitcher can't at least approximate Moyer's success, keeping his ERA somewhere around 3.50 and helping the Cubs get to the Series.

As a Cubs fan, you have to love the unbalanced schedule that loads their season with games against, arguably, three of the four worst teams in the National League. Four of the five Reds starters this year had ERAs above 4.50 last season, and the other one (Jose Acevedo) has a career ERA of 5.22. The Pirates are the Pirates again, and the Brewers continue to pay the price for castrating Bernie Brewer, who will never slide into his Big Beer Stein Home again, thanks to the snoring down of the new stadium.

The Cardinals will continue to be a tough team, considering their lineup still has arguably the best third baseman (Rolen), shortstop (Renteria), left fielder (Pujols) and center fielder (Edmonds) in the National League, forgetting Mr. Bonds for a moment. But the real fun this year is going to come when the Cubs play the Astros. If the Cubs don't have the best rotation in the league, the Astros do, and every game should be a pitching duel, the kind of baseball that is only marginally fun to watch but great to talk about later. The Cubs' offense gives them the edge, however, as the Astros insist upon pulling Bagwell and Biggio out of the senior circuit and into the heart of their lineup year after year.

It was a fun dream last year, but this year, it has to happen: Cubs and Red Sox, a World Series held exclusively in the game's two oldest parks, where one curse has to be lifted. So what if it means the End Days cometh? It'll be worth it.

Comments

Ricky / April 10, 2004 9:32 PM

Funny stuff. But a little harsh on Dusty, don't you think?

anthony / April 12, 2004 8:17 AM

White Sox starting pitching is the best in their divsion, that alone should put them in the playoffs. If they should falter, I believe their bullpen may be the reason, alongside a helter-skelter defense. Overall, I look to the offense to carry the day. An active general manager and a zealous group of hardcore supporters in the European soccer sense will put them over the edge.
2.Buerhle wins more games then any Cubbie again this year....good piece

Pete / April 13, 2004 3:20 PM

Might be hard on Dusty right now, but he does have a track record of overworking his starters. Check back in two years and see if Prior's arm is still fully attached to his body.

miss ellen / April 13, 2004 4:07 PM

still attached? isn't it hovering above wrigley somewhere right now? attn: prior's arm - come back to earth, now!

OTOH - go SOX!! keep those bats hot! at least one of our teams is looking at a home opener win ;)

Chris / April 13, 2004 7:32 PM

Spot on. Except Valentin's OBP will (modestly) skyrocket this season as a result of his dropping the switch-hitter charade. And the much-anticipated Cubs/Astros pitching wars will be anticlimactic, with the Baby Bears taking 12 out of 19. It's still the Cards that concern me.

 

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Messinger is a sports fan and writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Black Table and New City, among other places.

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