Monthly archives: November 2005
Mélange du Jour
While it's not exactly a graveyard activity-wise today, there's certainly a lack of concrete doings in the Land of Cub. So, I can think of no better way to pass the time between happenings than to throw together a series of tangentially related ramblings of little to no substance.
You may or may not have noticed, but I've not gotten the next part of the Assuming the Position series in the can yet. Needless to say, I overestimated by capacity for writing while under the influence of feastables. However, I seem to be making actual progress this week, so I expect to get things going again next Tuesday. Thanks again, folks, for your patience.
Little But Good
It's a relatively small event in an offseason where mega-bucks and monster trades are being bandied about with ease like so much idle PTA-style gossip, but while far from earth-shattering, the Cubs signing of John Mabry for their bench is good news indeed.
Mabry's not a great player - if he was, he'd be a starter - but he's a solid reserve who instantly becomes the team's best option for a bat off the bench, as well as having the defensive versatility to play all four corners (although, he's bad enough at third to give Aramis' glove that golden glow).
He does a couple of things well - namely hitting for some power while walking at an acceptable rate - while giving his manager the flexibility to not only use him as a pinch hitter, but spot start him for more than one man on the diamond who might be in need of some rest. He's exactly the sort of player that teams should have on their bench, and he's exactly the sort of reserve the Cubs have lacked of late.
The report is that he's being paid $1M for his services, and while that might be a little high, quibbling with that figure in light of the nearly $1.6M the club has doled out to Jose Macias for being absolutely appalling over the last two years seems petty.
In fact, one of the glorious side effects of this deal might be the addition by subtraction that would be the release of Macias. My goodness, the acquisition of a solid bench component and the banishment of Jose Macias, all in one fell swoop? Be still my beating heart!
There's something about backing off from the daily grind, spending down time with your family and engaging in self-induced, food-related coma induction that can start the sub-conscious mind spinning and twirling, doing a lot of the work you've been trying to do while you were awake, in no small part due to dangerously high levels of tryptophan and, what I like to call, pumpkinpieandCoolWhiptophan.
For me, what began to happen was a slight softening of my stance on the Cubs' recent and soon-to-be-announced middle reliever signings, not so much because they make philosophical sense as a bullpen building method, but rather because they start to become less galling when viewed through the lens of the Cubs' needs and the market. Let's start by quickly defining the specific holes the team is looking to plug.
That may not be totally complete, but I think it's a fair assessment of big issues that confront them. So, we are left with five specific items to be dealt with, and one requirement that needs to be handled by the resolution of one of the three position player problems. I think there is some agreement that the leadoff man issue is one of the biggest, and since there is also some interdependency involved with some of the other items it seems like the best place to start.
On the free agent market there are two players who could fit into the Cubs' plans: Johnny Damon and Rafael Furcal. Between those two I think it's pretty clear who is likely to be the best value over time, as both men are likely to get similar deals, while Furcal has the advantage of being younger with better recent statistical trends. Clearly, he should be a priority for the club, and all indications are that he is being aggressively targeted by the organization.
For clarity's sake, here's where the decision to go after Furcal, making an assumption of success, leaves us:
Take a look at what the market bears in the outfield, and I think you'll see why this might be a set of needs better attacked through trade. Once the need for Damon is obviated by the assumed success of the Furcal pursuit as well as his prohibitive price tag, there is precious little available among free agent center fielders. Jacque Jones need not apply.
Similar things can be said about potential right fielders, although for my money, the one viable thumper - Brian Giles - is someone the Cubs should consider getting after. However, his age is a legitimate concern, and combined with the free fall to the next best available option and the aggressiveness with which other teams with cash are likely to pursue him, it's understandable why the organization would also consider this hole best filled via player exchange.
That leaves us with two outfield slots filled by trade, and a free agent signing of a combined shortstop/leadoff man solution. All that remains is to get after the bullpen issues and acquire one last starting pitcher.
This is the crux of my softening position: if the condition of the market dictates that the club's money isn't wisely spent on filling the outfield holes, then there are funds available to handle the rest of the problems.
In particular, this view leaves cash for relievers, and since much of the market focus is on working toward landing the few big fish (Billy Wagner, and the newly minted kajillionaire, B.J. Ryan, chief among them), the club likely viewed it as an opportunity to sneak in and get the issue handled while folks were looking the other way, and while they've likely overpaid a bit for the privilege, it appears this is exactly what they did.
The money for Furcal is still there, as is the money for another starter, so while I still have problems with building a bullpen with expensive free agents, it's not as if the club isn't following a plan. It is also - and this is something I regret overlooking in my initial assessments - part and parcel to Dustyproofing, which I am wholly in favor of.
I've previously expressed a willingness to overpay for Furcal due to the club's overwhelming need, the likelihood that he's the best available option to fix several issues, and that he helps accomplish the goal of reducing Baker's requirement for in-game thinking. He is exceptionally bad at it, and given the opportunity, he has shown that he will actively, if accidentally, damage the team's prospects on a given day.
Yes, in a perfect world I'd rather see the club build their bullpen the way teams like the Angels and White Sox have done - by, for the most part, giving youngsters and retreads with talent an opportunity to show their worth - but we're on the Planet Dusty (and will be for some time, like it or not), and there's little chance of success with him leading that model.
So, with some money to burn and a need to make in-game decisions more automatic, the money given to Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry becomes, if not money well spent, then money defensibly spent. I still may not like, but at least now I think I get it.
monger monger monger
Alright, alright, I know I did an entire post that was essentially a warning about how following rumors over the winter can be hazardous to your health, but gosh darnit, I'm bored, and sometimes an addict like me simply can't help himself. Besides, there seems to be some traction to this, so without anything else of substance to examine, I thought I'd take a quick peek.
First, we have the Daily Herald reporting that the Cubs could be in pursuit of yet another middle reliever, this time Bobby Howry, late of the Cleveland Indians. But that alone isn't enough to make me toss up a post, I need a little more backbone before I start circulating innuendo. Enter the New Jersey Star-Ledger:
Don't get me wrong, Howry's been very good for the Indians the last two years, but again, here we see the Cubs preparing to give a middle reliever in his thirties top dollar directly after the best season he's ever had, or is ever likely to have. Add in that Howry saw a precipitous drop in his hit rate (from 0.85 H/9 to a minuscule 0.67 H/9, which is good, but not necessarily sustainable), as well as his strikeout rate (from 8.23 K/9 to 5.92 K/9, which is never good), and there's reason to be wary.
Not enough to scare you off? How about his career 0.82 GB/FB ratio. I do not look forward to the hypothetical situation where Howry comes into a tight game late at Wrigley with men on and the wind howling out to left.
Of course, nothing's happened yet, but this has been a winter where the whispers of free agent goodies coming Chicago's way have turned out to true more often than not - in fact, I can't think of a resolved free agent situation that was rumored to involve the Cubs that hasn't gone their way, not that there have been many to begin with.
But even so, take what I said about Eyre and his signing and apply it equally here, because while I think Howry should be able to make the bullpen better next year if he comes on board, the philosophy behind his signing is mortally flawed, and will eventually do the Cubs severe injury.
Anyone wondering who the team was making room for when they jettisoned Jon Leicester had their query answered tonight, as it looks like the Cubs won the Scott Eyre sweepstakes - if there can really be such a thing - signing the lefty to a two year deal with a player option for year three. Ken Rosenthal is saying it's a three-year deal for $11M, and since a three-year deal is essentially what a two-year deal with a player option usually turns out to be, especially in the case of highly paid middle relievers, that's close enough for me.
I'll admit this deal makes me a little sad, because I was beginning to think the Cubs had learned their lesson when it came to spending so many bills on men who threw so few innings - and without being outright dominant, at that - but I suppose I was throwing pennies in the fountain on that score.
It's not that he won't shore up the bullpen in 2006 - I believe he will, although he's highly unlikely going into his age 34 season to have another year like the one he had in 2005 - it's that the idea of paying large sums of money to men who have just had their best season ever while doing a job that, by its very nature, will see wild fluctuations in season to season results, is simply wrong headed.
I don't want to be totally negative. I think Eyre will contribute, and I welcome him to the Cubs and wish him the best of luck. The fact is, I think he'll do quite well, but my issue isn't with his being on board in the first place, it's with the organizational philosophy that says it's a good idea to give him more dollars and years than you were willing to give one of your starting middle infielders last season. It's gotten the club in trouble in the past, and while we all may get lucky and not have it be a problem in this specific case, it is a way of doing business that will get them in trouble in the future.
Wherein Our Hero Begs Forgiveness
As I was fairly sure would happen at some point, I have officially fallen behind on my self-imposed schedule for the Assuming The Position series, and because of that I offer up my request for absolution and hope that you will all find me worthy. That's the bad news.
The good news is, I was going to give it a hiatus over the week of Thanksgiving anyway, so think of it as an early respite. The series should continue, barring other bumps in the road, on or about the 29th, hopefully plugging through at my two per week clip until the end.
For those of you wondering what my intentions are for the remaining segments, I should be doing second base, catcher, starting pitching, the bullpen, and if I find myself so inclined, the bench. That's the plan, and if there are any further deviations, I'll keep you all in the loop. Thanks again, everyone, for your patience.
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There was one piece of business transacted in the Land of Cub yesterday, and that was sending Jon Leicester to the Rangers for a PTBNL.
My initial reaction was that the Cubs had cut bait a little early on Jon-Boy, and while upon further reflection I still think it's the case if we're operating in a vacuum, my guess is that the team was looking to clear some room on the 40-man for free agents and the like, and Leicester was just the most expendable guy out there.
Looking at his stat line from last year, both in the Majors and minors, if the club was, indeed, trying to clear some room, I can understand why Leicester would be given the heave-ho. We all saw how he struggled in Chicago, but he was pretty darn awful in Iowa too, posting a 5.51 ERA over 98 innings, striking out 73 while allowing 115 hits, 42 walks, and a whopping 17 homers.
It's enough to make me think that something's wrong, perhaps mechanically, perhaps physically, or shoot, maybe it's his head, but whatever the cause, he had a very rough year that puts him, if I'm being extremely generous and assuming that any "swing men" are in the rotation, about eighth on the team's bullpen depth chart (behind five other men who will be making around league minimum, for those of you concerned about cost), and that's before any trades or signings are consummated.
I like Leicester, and I think he'll be useful at some point, perhaps even next year, but his loss is not a disaster, and if it makes room for someone better to come on board, then all the better.
I had a whole rant written out for when Andrew Jones won the MVP today. It was pretty good, too. Problem is, he didn't win. Albert Pujols did, and while I would have, quite naturally, preferred to see Our Savior Derrek Lee get the hardware, I'm actually at peace with the writers' choice for the trophy.
Of course, Lee did finish a distant third behind Pujols and Jones, so I've got a little something to be upset about, even in the face of perhaps the best news ever. So while I won't go off on an extended spiel, I will say that I'm less upset by Lee's regrettable if predictable snubbing than I am about what his third-place finish implies about the state of the institution that votes on such things. Not that its foolishness is news.
In fact, I now have so little confidence in the BBWAA, I've got a little experiment I'd love to try:
If I understand their tendencies correctly, once the writer reaches for the bauble, saying "Ooooo! Sparkly!" all the way, he'll close his fist around it, refusing to let go despite the fact that his paw is now too large to pass through the bottle's opening, thus proving once and for all that, at best, BBWAA members are the raccoons of the writing world.
Which, of course, begs the question: Derek, what did raccoons ever do to you?
Assuming The Position 2006: Third Base
At the end of 2004, Aramis Ramirez had emerged as a star, finally fulfilling the promise shown so early in his career and becoming a dominating force in the middle of the Cubs' lineup. As it turned out, his timing couldn't have been better, because while he may have been one year away from entering free agency, that's exactly the time Jim Hendry likes to lock up his young stars.
Hendry did just that, signing Ramirez to a four year...er...two year...um......multi-year contract that guaranteed he would be a Cub through 2006, and gave Ramirez the option of staying on through 2008, if he saw fit. It was big money for Aramis, guaranteeing that in those first two years he would nearly double what he had made during his career to that point, with salaries of approximately $9M in 2005 and $10.5M in 2006.
However, despite his fantastic 2004, the Cubs were taking a couple of risks. One was related to the deal's structure, and while I still have lingering issues with it, I basically came to peace with it then, and I remain peaceable now.
The other was the more obvious question of whether a man who, despite showing flashes of tremendous talent during his career, had never put together consecutive seasons of excellence, was worth the cash. Ramirez answered the question by putting together what was easily his second best season thus far. To get the full picture, let's look at his career to date as a full-time player.
For the first time since he became a Cub we can see a little regression on the plate discipline side. Nothing completely out of bounds - his strikeout and walk rates are still far better than they ever were during his time as a Pirate - but there's no denying he slipped a bit.
That's the bad news. The good news is, he's managed to pretty clearly establish a superior level of power, while at the same time putting up his second straight season with a .300 batting average. Hitting for power is a skill, as is hitting for average, and while they are certainly useful as separate entities - extreme examples of those practicing but one of those skills being men like Dave Kingman on the boom-boom side, and Willie Keeler over yonder with the slap-happy - put them together and you've got yourself a superior offensive player, indeed.
This is precisely what Ramirez has done during his time as a Cub, and in the process he's made himself one of the better offensive players in either league, particularly if one is taking position into account. Let's take a peek at where he ranked among Major League third basemen, starting with his breakout year in 2004.
These are the top 10 third basemen in the Majors according to VORP, and as you can see, Ramirez comes in a solid number five, also managing to be third in the NL. Look a little more closely at the list, and you can see that he's getting it done just like I said, with average and power. He's third in average, third in slugging, yet fifth in EQA due in large part to an OBP that, for a guy hitting .318, is relatively low.
His lack of speed also hurts him in the EQA ranking, because while it looks like he's clearly outproducing Alex Rodriguez when looking at their hitting line, when park adjustments and A-Rod's 28 for 32 in steals get factored in, he drops a spot lower than you might otherwise think. Still, there's absolutely no shame in being fifth among this group.
Now let's see how the list shapes up for 2005.
Note that only four men make a repeat appearance on this list, and of those, only one made a move up the ranks. I mention this to make a point about the difficulty in performing consistently from season to season. I doubt any of us would fail to rank Scott Rolen among the best third basemen around, yet here he is, missing from this past season's list.
Of course, it's not because his game left him, but rather because his body spent the year consistently failing him. The same can be said in reverse for Troy Glaus, who went missing from the list in 2004 because of injuries of his own, only to make it back with the Diamondbacks in 2005. Others simply stopped playing well, chief among them, Mike Lowell, who can be seen at this very moment through high-powered telescopes floating past Mars, having completely fallen off the planet in 2005.
I don't mean to imply that Ramirez' being among the best of the breed for two consecutive years means he's a lock to follow up with a similarly productive stint in 2006. Rather, I mean to say that, thus far, the risk inherent in giving any one ballplayer a huge amount of money has been well worth it in his case.
It's hard to stay on the field as a Major Leaguer and remain productive, even if you're among the finest at your position, and so far, despite injury issues of his own, he's managed to get it done and stay among those higher level players. Consistency is worth some investment, especially when you're one of the game's brighter lights.
So while his offensive contributions appear to have been worth the money, the chink in the Musketeer's armor is, of course, his defense. He seemed to take a step forward in 2004, reducing his error total to 10, and posting what was easily the best fielding percentage of his career.
The problem was, if one looked at some of the fielding metrics out there, that he was actually a little worse, posting his lowest RATE2 (RATE adjusted for league difficulty and normalized over time) in 4 years with a sad looking 89 (where 100 is average).
I posited last year in this space that the reduction in defensive utility we saw, despite the increased efficiency exhibited with the balls he handled, had everything to do with the groin injury he suffered in July of that year. I still think that's a reasonable theorem, since the hot corner is all about quickness and explosive movement, and any problems a player might have in his core are almost certain to take a toll on that explosiveness (just ask Nomar).
A similar thing seems to have happened this season. Ramirez not only saw his RATE2 go down to a dismal 88, but his fielding percentage went back down to .947 - that familiar territory safely below league average. This time - and granted, with the relative dearth of granular defensive metrics at our disposal I'm relying a lot on observation to fill in the gaps - I think injuries not only hurt his range a bit, but also but the kibosh on the progress he'd made with his footwork.
Ramirez had worked very hard leading up to 2004 to get his feet working better, and his success in that area was observable both in the way he executed in the field - primarily when he was throwing - and in the reduction in his error rate we've already mentioned. This progress went out the window in 2005, and I think it had as much to do with the groin, back, and quadriceps issues that continued to plague him throughout the year than anything else.
He simply seemed unable to comfortably plant himself after fielding a ball, and without that steady base providing balance and solidity, his throwing accuracy went out the window and onto the street, where it was promptly run over by a passing semi-truck.
If I can impose again for a moment and journey once more into the land of data-free observational conclusions, I honestly don't recall a single moment all year when Ramirez looked as smooth and comfortable in the field as he did during the 2004 season, and to my mind, the fact that he seemed to never have his legs under him was the primary factor.
I believe that if the Cubs can get a full, healthy year out of Ramirez - not just one where he makes due while battling injuries that affect what little mobility he has - that we'll see, if not a good fielding third baseman, at least one who is close enough to average to allow Cub fans to breathe comfortably when a grounder is hit to the left side.
Which brings us to the general issue of Ramirez and his injury problems. While yet to be formally saddled with the "injury-prone" label, the problems he's had over the last two years have certainly cut into his value, affecting both his playing time and his level of play when able to take the field.
It's apparent that he has some chronic issues surrounding his leg and core muscles, and much to the organization's credit, they made it clear once Ramirez' season was essentially over at the end of August, that he would be engaging in a targeted offseason program designed to prevent such injuries in the future.
The mission for him and the organization this offseason has to be to get him in the kind of condition that will allow him to go the entire season without experiencing more pain than what the everyday grind of the season will ordinarily bring. Obviously, not all injuries can be prevented, but there are preventive measures one can take to help reduce the chances that a player will be hurt, particularly with the type of harm Ramirez has suffered of late.
To me, this is the key to getting the most out of Ramirez going forward. While he's certainly capable of being productive while working through the types of physical hurdles he's encountered the last two years, he has yet to have the opportunity to show us the full power of his considerable talent, and if the team can get him ready to go this winter, Cub opponents should be shaking in their cleats.
There's been a lot of chatter surrounding Rafael Furcal over the last week or so. He might play second for the Mets, he might play center for the Yankees, he might invent a cure for the heartbreak of psoriasis while orbiting Earth in his Outer Space Laboratory. Yet one gets the feeling that this is only the beginning.
In fact, the words being bandied about at this point are in a near constant state of contradiction. Take this set of quotes from Furcal's agent, Paul Kinzer.
Ah, so he never said most of the things he said. There's going to be a lot of this sort of thing in the days and weeks to come - information leaks out, it causes some stir among the participants in the negotiations, denials and restatements are made in the interest of damage control. It makes this time all the more difficult for folks like us, as we sit here trying to figure out what's really happening.
Then, of course, there's the joy of non-information that only serves to create a vortex of oxymoronic gravity that pulls one's immortal soul into a black hole of amorphous frustration. Take a gander at these snippets:
Nobody's doin' nothin' 'till somebody does somethin'. That shouldn't take long.
It seems I have to go through it every year. Despite having seen it time and again, every year I have to remind myself that, while it's okay to pay attention to this stuff, it's not okay to try to make sense of it. All it takes is reading through a couple sets of quotes like these to come to the realization: That way lies madness. Just as certainly as standing for thirty seconds in front of a bakery brings the understanding: That way lies cookies.
Take my advice, folks. Save yourselves. This stuff will seep into every nook and cranny of your brain, invading moments of your life, making you think of Corey Patterson trade scenarios while you're trying to conduct a meeting, or talk to your spouse, or sleep. Just put down the mouse, and walk away from the monitor. Just walk away. You'll thank me later.
Assuming The Position 2006: Outfield - Part B
I talked on Tuesday about last season's disastrous outfield situation, rehashing all the horror that was.
Which brings us to this offseason, which finds the club in a similar state of outfield instability. It's clear that something must be done to alleviate the situation, but the question is what, and it seems to me the best way to go at it is to look at what parts are available to do the fixin'.
The above is by no means a complete list. I've left out options too putrid to mention, those too far fetched to imagine (without a change of leadership I'll refuse to believe any Cincinnati outfielders are available until they're actually dealt), and those I simply forgot.
There are useful players out there, and ways to combine men and cobble together such a beast (put Mench and Jones together and you've got an acceptable, if expensive, alternative). One of the bigger questions the Cubs will have to answer is who exactly they're looking to replace?
They pretty clearly will be finding someone to fill Jeromy Burnitz' shoes, but what of Patterson? What of Murton? I'd like to see Murton get the shot, and I'd like to see another center fielder in camp to spot Patterson if he fails to deliver. I don't trust that he can get it done, and I don't want to see Pie succumb to the same fate after being rushed along.
I'd love to see Giles, despite the age risks, but an outfield of Murton, Huff, and perhaps one last season of Kenny Lofton as Corey's safety net (or Juan Pierre as a one-year stopgap in Patterson's stead) would suit me just fine. Perfect it ain't, but perfect's not out there.
Welcome to Cub Town, Home of the Sarcastic Exclamation Point
According to a report by Phil Rogers in this morning's Tribune, the Cubs will be announcing a two-year deal with Neifi! later today. No word on what the money looks like, but Rogers writes, "His versatility was attractive to the Cubs, who see him as a contingency plan at both middle-infield positions," which begs the question of what exactly the "contingencies" might be that would activate this "plan?" Other players' ineffectiveness? Injuries? Tuesdays?
Look, there's no doubt that Neifi! is a fine defender, and that certainly has value, but when you're seriously considering starting a rookie in one of your middle infield spots, while I can understand the desire to have a backup in place in the event the youngster simply falls on his face, ideally you'd like it to be someone who won't hurt the team too badly if he does have to play.
Add in Dusty's penchant for the time-worn and weary of the baseball world, and you've got an excellent example of how not to Dusty-Proof. If the Cubs have Furcal and Walker up the middle, Neifi!'s a decent enough guy to act as Walker's glove-caddy, but if the club wants to see Cedeno start at either middle infield spot, they may have just unwittingly signed Neifi! as a starter, and that would be the very definition of disaster.
UPDATE: The money on this? Five million. That's dollars, kids. Two and a half a year. How do you think Todd Walker feels right now?
Assuming The Position 2006: Outfield - Part A
The Cubs entered 2005 with an outfield in transition. What was once a threatening threesome of Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, and Corey Patterson, became a Seven-Headed Out-Beast whose most familiar face (Patterson) spent significant time in Iowa due to his lack of production.
That the previous season's successful troika was broken up was certainly understandable. Alou was heading into his age 38 season after having a resurgent offensive year, and with his age and recent performance record, any skepticism as to the repeatability of his excellence can be excused. Add in that the option the Cubs didn't exercise was for $11.5M, and sending him away with a thank you and a cookie made a ton of sense.
Sosa's situation was different, but his departure was no less necessary. In fact, it was considerably more urgent, as his huge salary and rapidly declining production combined with a horrible decision to leave the ballpark during the season's final game to forever transform him from a fan favorite into a symbol of everything that was wrong with the 2004 club.
However, even with all of that fine reasoning the team had a lot of production to replace, and the biggest shoes to fill, at least in total stature, were obviously those of Sosa. Despite the hard feelings associated with his actions toward the end of 2004, he was still the team's all time leader in home runs as well as being arguably the most popular Cub since Ernie Banks. He was, for the years between the organization's playoff appearances in 1998 and 2003, just about the only reason many people came to the ballpark. After all, it's not often one gets to watch an inner-circle Hall of Famer at his peak.
Yet Sosa was miles away from being that player by the time he was sent away, so while the task of replacing his charisma would be tall indeed, that of replacing his production was not nearly so steep. There were some high profile players available who would have more than done the job - Carlos Beltran chief among them - but prices were high, and many of the better players were gone before Sosa's situation was handled. Plus, once he was dealt, with over $16M going to Baltimore along with him, the big boys were simply more than the organization wanted to afford.
So with time and dollars short, the job wound up falling to 36 year-old Jeromy Burnitz, who had spent the previous season in the hitter friendly climes nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It was a deal that made the best of a bad situation in a way that was reminiscent of a movie-style spy biting down on his handy-dandy cyanide tooth when confronted with the alternative of an equally inevitable, yet longer and more painful death. No good option was available, but at least one was preferable.
However, despite the desperation inherent in signing him, Burnitz was generally useful in right. His .258/.322/.435 line left a lot to be desired, particularly in the power department (anyone expecting much more batting average or OBP was fooling themselves), but in comparison to the man he was replacing (Sosa hit a disturbing .221/.295/.376 in 424 PAs for the Orioles), he was practically a god. Tack on the fact that he played excellent defense in right, and he was a solid signing for a team with at least one outfield star.
The problem, of course, was that the Cubs were sending men who were distinctly on the other side of the starlight spectrum to man the remainder of the pasture. Asking Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois to handle the duties in left was a plan that was doomed to failure from the start. Dubois was likely the better option, but the job was handed to Hollandsworth, based mostly on the excellent work he had done off the bench in 2004.
The issue with that bit of reasoning was pretty obvious, the main question being, why should 148 at bats that spun tales of this 31 year-old's hitting prowess trump the other 2,516 at bats that told a story of consistent, unrelenting mediocrity?
The answer from the Cubs was essentially, "because," and when Hollandsworth predictably struggled, Dusty was given little choice but to bench his guy and give Dubois a shot. Unfortunately, while he showed flashes of power, Dubois was unable to adjust when the league stopped throwing him yummy, yankable fastballs on the inner half.
As the opposition kept tossing him pitch after pitch low and slow outside, he kept swinging and missing, ever trying to pull the unpullable, and if that wasn't enough to dig his proverbial grave, his defense was Geneva-Convention-violation brutal. When he was performing offensively it was worth enduring, but without any ameliorating factor, torture of this kind would not stand.
So the Cubs were left without a viable option for one of their corners, and once it became clear that these men weren't up to the task, multiple alternatives were tried in an attempt to get something out of the position. First it was Jody Gerut, who was given fully 16 PAs before he was sent on his way and replaced by Matt Lawton, who had all of 83 PAs of relative uselessness before he was parceled elsewhere.
It wasn't until the Cubs looked inward that they finally found a solution, albeit once all was essentially lost. Matt Murton, 23 years old, only a few hundred at bats over A-ball, and all he did once he joined the club was hit. He almost instantly became the team's best offensive outfielder, putting up nearly the same VORP as Burnitz (14.7 to Burnie's 17.5), in less than a quarter of the plate appearances (160 to 671).
That he also seemed capable of consistently having the kind of intelligent at bats that most Cubs appeared to actively avoid only brought his superiority into starker relief. Laying off pitchers' pitches and pouncing on balls he could drive, Murton showed remarkable maturity for a player of his age and experience, and with every at bat, put the lie to Dusty Baker's contention that young players should be eased into a more prominent role.
There was little that Murton could have done earlier in the year - it was asking enough for him to make the jump as early as he did - but once he was on board the team should have been more aggressive about putting him in games. That it seemed appropriate to the organization to demote him for a few days in August to make room for some DL refugees returning to a sinking ship speaks volumes about the club's attitude toward experience and its relative lack.
Still, Murton didn't let it get to him, and once he returned, answered legitimate questions about his power by hitting 6 homers in 77 at bats. It took a while for everyone to catch on, but by year's end, Murton had made it clear, at least to me, that he belonged in the Majors.
And then there was Corey Patterson, whose modus operandi in previous years had always been to sprinkle flashes of brilliance among larger stretches of trouble. Yet there was digression from the norm in 2005, as Corey managed to put together a completely brilliance-free season, getting himself sent to AAA in the process, and bringing his career with the Cubs ever closer to an end.
It looks like the club is going to give him another shot this spring, but that's a courtesy based almost entirely on the perception of potential lingering in the mind of Jim Hendry like the memory of first love lost. Take a gander below for the shock of a cold shower.
That, ladies and gents, is what it's like to stare into the ugly maw of regression. There was some reason for hope last year with the increase in his walk rate, but all of that progress is gone, replaced with whiffs and weak pop-ups. If one is searching for reasons to be optimistic about Patterson's future, his performance record is a lousy place to look.
The one thing Corey can still do is play defense, despite occasionally odd routes to balls. His speed and athleticism help to make up for a lot of the misreads he makes, and when he's able to set up properly, his arm is surprisingly strong and accurate.
However, unless Patterson wants to be a fifth outfielder, forever coming off the bench to pinch hit in the hopes that he might find a hint of his old power stroke, playing defense in the late innings for a man who can actually swing the bat, he needs to make some big, fast changes.
It was sad to see how quickly Patterson deteriorated, but in the end he was only a smaller version of the Cub outfield as a unit. How badly did this mitxture stink up the joint? Look no further than the chart below, which details the cumulative team VORP of all players listed primarily as outfielders by Baseball Prospectus for the 2004 and 2005 seasons, with each team listed from highest to lowest according to their rank in the Majors during the corresponding year.
For the uninitiated, let me take a quick spin around what this VORP stuff means: it's an acronym that stands for Value Over Replacement Player, and without getting into the all too mathy mechanics of the thing, it's the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player (read: standard scrub) at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.
It's also important to note that ten runs of VORP generally corresponds to one win for the team, and I mention this so I can make a point: The Cubs finished 2004 with a record of 89-73. They finished 2005 with a record of 79-83, a difference of 10 wins. The Cub outfield finished 2005 with 123.1 VORP. They finished 2005 with 29.2 VORP, a difference of 93.9 VORP. Divide that by 10. Get the picture?
As horrible as it was to have the middle infield flux the club experienced all year, as damaging as all the pitching injuries and bullpen blowups were, the outfield's complete lack of anything resembling usefulness was almost entirely responsible for the difference between where the club was last year, and where they were this year.
For those of you wondering what standing pat would have done, the answer is not much. Alou came up with a solid 48.8 VORP for the Giants, but Sosa was a stunning -1.4, making their overall contribution 47.4. Figure that the men who replaced them combined for 34.1 VORP, and you're only looking at picking up one and a half wins for your trouble. In other words, without fresh blood - different fresh blood from what they brought on board - the Cubs were screwed.
So what can the organization possibly do to fix this mess? Tune in Thursday, when I'll go over some of the options at the Cubs' disposal.
Assuming The Position 2006: Shortstop
No risk, no reward. It's an axiom for a reason, and when it came to solving the Cubs' long-time issues at shortstop, the organization adopted the proverb as a mantra for 2005, signing the potentially dreamy, but perennially damaged Nomar Garciaparra to man the six hole.
It was sound reasoning. The Cubs had no one in the organization ready to take over the position, and the other available free agents were demanding years and dollars well out of line with their likely production. Rather than take a long term risk on one of the expensive and faulty toys on the market, the Cubs opted for the short-term gamble that, incidentally, had a much higher possible reward from the offensive end in particular, if only Garciaparra could stay healthy.
Of course, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, then Nomar would have a metric ton of chocolate-covered almonds instead of a surgically repaired groin. But there it is, that wince-inducing word Cub fans heard again and again since April 20th, and nary an after-dinner snack to be seen.
So, with the Cubs' up-the-middle savior sidelined until at least August, the club was forced to resort to measures that, should they be described as desperate, would make the final car ride of Thelma and Louise seem like the logical conclusion to a well thought out plan.
What followed was the basic scenario of any teen slasher movie: twenty minutes of raised expectations and irrational exuberance followed by an hour and a half of blood and carnage. Only in this case the standard third-of-an-hour of adolescent sexcapades was replaced by the ridiculously productive April of Neifi Perez, and the blood and carnage was replaced by......well......it wasn't replaced by anything. See below.
One great month, followed by four absolutely abysmal months with a solid one mixed in. You'll notice that the two good months were the ones in which he had the fewest trips to the plate, and in fact, if it weren't for his bad but not excruciating May, you could sort his at bats from highest to lowest and see a natural inverse sort in his OPS.
In other words, the more he swung, the worse he got, and while I think it's a stretch to assume a causal relationship between the two, especially since the monthly splits themselves are fairly arbitrary, at the very least it effectively brings home the idea that when it comes to Neifi!, less is more to the point where one could be excused for thinking that a total dearth of Neifi! would bring infinite riches, true love, and enlightenment.
Adding insult to injury (pun very much intended) was the constant and ridiculous usage of Neifi! at the top of the Cubs' order. It's one thing to accept your fate and use a player of Perez' caliber due to the direness of your straits, but it's quite another to take this individual who has the dubious distinction of being, not just one of the least productive hitters in the game today, but in the modern history of the game, and consistently bat him in front of the man on your squad who is plainly having an MVP-type season.
There are a great number of issues that one can raise with the tenure of Dusty Baker, but he is apparently unable to recognize that a man with a career .301 OBP - a horrific number nonetheless inflated considerably by having over one quarter of his plate appearances on the Planet That Pitching Forgot - is about as far from the correct choice to hit in front of the team's best player as Keanu Reeves was to play Don John, a fact that may be the most damning indictment of Baker's time as Cub manager due to its sheer, unencumbered stupidity.
Then, as if Misfortune hadn't piled on enough already, once Garciaparra did manage to return to the Cub lineup, it didn't take long for a combination of a cascade injury to his back, a season-ending quadriceps injury to Aramis Ramirez, and Ronny Cedeno's broken hand, to not only force Nomar to the hot corner, but leave the aforementioned Neifi! as essentially the last man on the roster capable of manning shortstop (Ryan Theriot joined the team shortly after Cedeno's injury, but he was only there in case Perez was struck by a meteor. Twice.).
So what began as a calculated risk ended as a worst case scenario, which is, I suppose, why the phrase 'calculated risk' contains the word 'risk' rather than 'guarantee', or 'promise', or 'invulnerability'. As I said before, it was a good gamble to take, and just because it didn't work out doesn't invalidate the thought process that said it was worth a roll of the dice.
However, I think it's safe to say that the Cubs aren't likely to speculate in a similar fashion in 2006, and with that in mind, let's go over some of the more likely options the club has at their disposal:
A lot of the Cubs' offseason hinges on what happens at shortstop, not only affecting that position on it's own, but having ripple effects through the infield and the lineup in general. While this is far from the only issue the Cubs must deal with, it could wind up being the most important.
Assuming The Position 2006: First Base
Going into 2004, Cub fans could be excused for thinking their team had gotten away with, if not murder, then perhaps serious maiming, or at the very least, a sound pummeling about the head and shoulders.
Not only had they acquired Derrek Lee, an above average Major League first baseman, for the price of a somewhat flawed prospect who had quite obviously fallen out of favor with his manager, but the man they brought to town had spent his career playing in a ballpark that ate right-handed power as a tasty before-meal snack.
Now that he was unshackled and set free to roam in a stadium that adores starboard-side sluggers the way Katie loves her Tom-Tom, the predictions of forty-homer seasons flowed unfettered, washing Lee in the collective optimism of a Cubfandom giddy with anticipation of an expected return to playoff baseball, and Goats willing, a trip to the World Series.
As we all know now, such glory was not to be, and to add insult to injury Lee, while performing far better than the three-headed out-monster preceding him, was not the player many had hoped for. Good? Yes. Great? No, and despite the heightened expectations, what we saw was not just predictable, but very much in line with his previous work.
The story on Lee was clear to anyone with an internet connection and the wherewithal to look up some historical splits. Derrek was a notoriously slow starter, his woeful Aprils and Mays denting his overall production like five-inch hail on a Camero's hood. This tendency stood as a great and obvious barrier to progress, and as I wrote in this space last year, should have tempered our flights of fancy.
I rehash this in the interest of context, for while many were disappointed in what Lee brought in 2004, it was a performance that was within reasonable proximity of his previous work. Not only that, but his results since 2000 were remarkably consistent, and based on that data, Lee's .278/.356/.504 line in his inaugural Cub season was practically preordained.
Which makes what happened in 2005 all the more remarkable.
If you took Lee's previous career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG, and put them all together to make a single hitting line, you'd have a .282/.379/.508 season. Solid. And I think coming into this past year that had Cub fans collectively rubbed a magic lamp and had the genie inside offer that as Lee's year, it gets accepted without a moment of hesitation. Turning such a sure thing down with the hope or expectation of seeing more, particularly after a year of witnessing Lee firsthand, would be hubris of the first order.
So imagine the surprise and delight of the Cub faithful when Lee began 2005 hotter than Jessica Alba in a Turkish Bath. The surprise coming not just from the fact of Lee's early season production, but the degree of dominance he showed coming out of the gate. As an illustration, let's take the table I reproduced above and insert 2005's numbers where the 2004 figures used to reside.
Suffice to say, he was brilliant, but despite his great success, the galling thing was that he could have been so much more useful. That he wasn't had nothing to do with the work he turned in, but rather, with the work turned in by those around him.
Lee finished the year with 107 RBI, which for someone who had such a monster year in both power and batting average, seems awfully low. In fact, through 2004 there have been 188 player-seasons where someone hit at least .300 and slugged at least .600 in 500 or more at bats. Of those, only 10 finished with fewer RBIs. Here's the list:
There is no shame in being part of this group. It is an impressive list of names, and while I don't know for sure where they all hit in the order (boxscores for the older players weren't readily available on Retrosheet), I think it's safe to say most of them hit close enough to the middle to get their shots, so their spot in the order wouldn't be likely to affect most of their opportunities.
However, since I don't have historical splits for many of these men when they had runners in scoring position, it's also difficult to say if a performance issue in those situations might have been a factor. Making that determination isn't a problem with Lee, however.
He was tied for 50th in the National League (with Omar Vizquel!) with 124 AB with runners in scoring position, and also had the fifth most walks in that situation with 42. Among NL players with at least 150 PAs with runners in scoring position, he had the highest SLG at .653, was tied for third in OBP at .480, was tied for fourth in BA at .331, and had the highest OPS at 1.133.
In other words, Lee wasn't just dominant in general, he was dominant at key moments, and one could pretty easily argue he was the most dominant player in the National League when scoring was on the line - yet he was only seventh in runs batted in. He also had the lowest seasonal RBI total in the history of the game for a man with at least 500 ABs and an isolated slugging of .320 or higher (Brady Anderson's mythical 1996 is the closest of those 68 player-seasons, with an ISO of .340 and only 110 RBI - of course, he was hitting leadoff). Yet, here he is on this dubiously impressive list.
It's obvious that the issue was a lack of opportunity, but since he was hitting third we can't blame his spot in the order. That means, as we all knew already, that the culprit in this is Dusty Baker and his inability to recognize useful lineup construction even if it wore a giant sign that said, "Hi! Ask me about Useful Lineup Construction!" all while singing the following song (to the tune of Led Zepplin's "Black Dog"):
Hey, hey Dusty
The two largest factors that will contribute to Lee being passed up for the NL MVP will be the team's failure to reach the postseason, and Lee's relatively low RBI totals. Having men with even modest on-base abilities hitting ahead of him would have likely made the latter point moot, and while it probably wouldn't have been enough to remove the former point as an issue, it certainly would have helped bring the club closer to October baseball.
Still, despite the unintentional torpedo job at Baker's hands, it was a masterful performance. Yet, the suddenness and degree of his development brings with it some questions, most beginning with either 'why' (as in, 'Why this huge improvement?') or 'can' (as in, 'Can he do it again?'), so it's worth taking a moment to view some of the component parts that make up his year and compare them to what he's done in the past.
One thing that jumps out at me is Lee's reduction in strikeouts. He's been steadily making progress in that department for a while, but he really made a jump this last year, making significantly better contact while getting his pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) back up where it needs to be. That Lee is making more contact is a positive, and that he's been progressing in this direction for a while implies that those gains are real, so there's a data point in favor of Lee's continued high level of play.
Another plus is the increase in his XBH%. Not only is it good simply because extra bases are always a plus, it bodes well for his increase in batting average as well. If that betterment had been due to an increase in singles, a case could be made that a lot of the extra hits were seeing-eye specials. However, since only 4 of the 31 hits Lee added from 2004 to 2005 were one-sackers, that argument goes quickly by the wayside.
Also, if I may engage in a bit of scoutiness for a moment, it was clear from watching Lee, particularly early in the season, that he had closed a hole in his swing. Balls on the inside that used to result in whiffs now became fence-clearing blasts, and I think part of the decline in his monthly splits over the course of the season, along with his seeing fewer pitches to hit due to the steady injury-related evisceration of the lineup around him, was the adjustment the league made to this newfound ability.
I think it's reasonable to surmise that closing that hole had a lot to do with the reduction in his strikeouts and the increase in his XBH. It's a natural conclusion, considering the fact that many of the pitches Lee was able to hit very, very hard were balls that would have generated more air than runs a year before.
It's also reasonable to suppose that pitchers won't come into this new sweetspot anymore, at least not looking for the strikeouts they used to get. However, while he won't get the same surprise advantage he got at the start of 2005, now that Lee doesn't have an obvious hole to exploit, pitching him should continue to be extremely difficult.
Not all is sweetness and light, though. What's concerning isn't apparent in what I listed above, which is that while it looks like Lee has gotten his walk rate back in line, when the intentional walks are removed from the equation, he actually has two fewer freebies than he did last year (his career high in IBB had been 8 in 2002, but last season saw him purposefully passed 23 times).
He still improved his BB/SO ratio even when taking that into account, just not to the same degree, and while his non-intentional walk rate held steady in the face of a higher contact rate, which is good, the fact that his non-intentional walk rate seems to have leveled off at a substantially lower plane than he's been at in previous years isn't.
So there are reasons to think Lee can at least approach this sort of season again - the main ones being fewer strikeouts and more extra base hits due to closing the hole in his swing. But the walk rate is something of a concern, as is the fact that he'll be 30 next year. He has almost certainly peaked, so I think the question is less will he regress and more how much?
Personally, I think the adjustments Lee has made and the results they've yielded imply that he has a solid shot at being a .300/.600 guy for a couple more years, and I'd love to see the Cubs get his contract extended for another two or three years if it can be done without breaking the bank.
Lee has a skillset that ages well (power and speed tend to regress less over time when they stick together), so while I doubt we'll see another monstrous season from him, I think it's reasonable to believe that he'll land safely between his previous level and last year's high point, and since he was already something of a bargain, it's worth getting him locked up.
Derrek Lee entered this year as a minor disappointment, despite being a solid player and a good value for the money. He ended 2005 as the indisputable fulcrum of the offense, and one of the top few players in the Majors. The man who had flown under expectations in his inaugural Cub season, come his second year, blew by even the most overblown predictions his arrival had originally wrought.
He is unlikely to receive the recognition he deserves in the form of a National League Most Valuable Player Award - ironically, it was his team that let him down there - but there is little question that, for the Cubs in 2005, he wasn't just valuable, he was The Savior.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com