Monthly archives: December 2005
Back In The Loop, But Wishing I Weren't
When last we met I was...oh, how should I say this...upset.
I've calmed down a bit while spending a week in The Land That Babyproofing Forgot, but I'm not sure how much of that is exhaustion from repeatedly saving a defenseless cat from the clutches of perhaps the most relentless toddler on the planet, how much is resignation to an inescapable fate, and how much can be attributed to ketchup's natural mellowing agents.
Still, what with me bubbling over into a frothing rant at the Jones news, it's best that I was safely out of earshot as the Prior for Tejada rumors began to swirl. I've had a couple of days to digest this possibility, and that being the case, I think I can speak with a little less vitriol on the subject than if I'd taken to keyboard with more immediacy, so here we go.
It is, quite simply, a win now strategy, and it makes one think that there must be some substantial pressure on Jim Hendry to make this thing work right this second or find another place of employment. It's the only explanation I can think of, because even with Prior's injury history, there's simply too much potential there - really, if everything is harnessed, I don't think it's ridiculous to think he can be a once-in-a-generation type pitcher.
But I suppose that's part of why this is being proposed as well - the "ifs" inherent in Prior's career to date, which somewhat ironically, could be exactly what puts the kibosh on the whole thing, as the Orioles appear wary of his injury risk.
But in the end, from the Cub perspective, this potential deal comes from an opportunistic desperation with a hint of near-religious fervor - as if losing out on Rafael Furcal were some sort of ordained event meant to clear the way for this ray of light and hope that was Tejada's trade demand, with destiny revealing itself to Jim Hendry, showing him the path to glory that could only be attained by paying an incredibly steep price for a shortstop they should have been willing to pursue two years ago (that last bit's for Chuck).
Despite the offensive issues the Cubs face, I think it's a deal the organization would truly regret in the long term, especially since I don't think adding Tejada while subtracting Prior would make the team of championship quality, even with the theoretical addition of the talented but even more fragile Erik Bedard.
In fact, I find it hard to believe that the Cubs found prices for outfielders that could hit so outrageous that using Prior as a trading chit made more sense. I don't know what it would have cost, but I'd be shocked if acquiring, say, Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo would have been more expensive than what the combined price of Tejada and Jones would end up being in one of the proposed scenarios.
It is becoming more and more clear that the Cubs as an organization are being reactive and not proactive, which means they are not only failing to execute a plan, they simply don't have a plan to begin with. After all the years and all the failures, you'd think we as a fan base would at least be owed that much.
Jones-ing in right
I just caught wind of the news that the Cubs have signed Jacque Jones to a three-year, $16M deal. I thought I smelled something on my way home, but I figured it was merely the odor of rotten food and other unspeakable elements commingling and wafting up from a nearby alleyway. Now I know it was the anticipatory stench of the Cub outfield.
I don't think I can fully express how bad a signing this is. Obviously, I'm not privy to the various trade discussions the Cubs have had with parties unknown, and so I can't understand how the asking price of potentially useful players might have brought Jim Hendry to this particular point of hallucinatory desperation, but I cannot believe that even the strongest Alice-in-Wonderland engraved dose could make a reasonable person look at Jones and see a player worthy of this kind of expenditure in years and dollars.
I'm going to cut my rant short lest I melt the keyboard, and besides, I need to pack, but before I go off to have my brain melted into goo and reconstituted without the pollutants this horrific train wreck of a signing has deposited therein, cleansing my mind of bile so that I might enjoy my family holiday in peace, let me mention that Jones' career hitting line is .279/.327/.455, which is bad enough for a right fielder, but even worse when you consider that he's been playing well below that level for the last two years.
It's one thing to make a bad signing for a single season, but this is one that the club will be regretting from here to 2008, and I simply see no way around it. It will make the team worse in 2006, and it will make them worse for the two years that follow. Perhaps other moves would have done even more damage than this move does, but unless I see some evidence of that, I'm not buying. Conscious or not, this signing signals that the club has decided to rest all their hopes on the arms of their pitching staff, and with how well we've seen that work of late, one can't be blamed for feeling like Cub fans have just received three years of coal in their collective stockings.
A Little Holly-Day Business
Just an FYI to everyone that posting will be light starting tomorrow, and during most of the holiday season, due to my primary activity over the course of that time amounting to ensuring that a twenty-month-old doesn't damage property, herself, or others while staying in the unbabyproofed environs of the sets of sixty-somethings who raised my wife and me.
Of course, if something notable happens I'll have commentary up as soon as I'm aware and am afforded a moment's peace, but barring that, I'll simply wish you all a happy and safe holiday season, whatever that means for you, including a healthy, prosperous New Year for yourself and loved ones.
In addition, this is a great opportunity to thank all of you who stop by here to peruse the scribbled meanderings of my obviously addled mind. I'm constantly amazed, and frankly, thrilled, that people care enough about what I might say to actually read what I've written - and as you're all aware, I can go on and on and on and on and on and on.... - so thank you all so much for spending a little of the currency that is your precious time here at Cub Town. Sure, it's possible that I'd keep writing if people didn't read it, but I'm glad I don't have to find out, and that's all because of you.
Thanks again, and all the best to you and yours.
On what is a blisteringly frigid day here in Chicago, it's necessary to search far and wide for even the tiniest scraps of Cub-related news items. Perhaps the local writers are still warming their digits from the time spent following the exploits of a nearby Foot-Ball team I've heard occasional tell of.
No matter. For while our citizen-scribes dare not waste precious, recently defrosted ink on the insignificant offseason doings of the North Side Nine, there are still brave souls in other, similarly affected climes who see fit to relate stories of the Cubs' entanglements with their own fine fellows. Take this tidbit from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The Cubs are very interested in signing Twins outfielder Jacque Jones, but they are offering only a two-year contract to the free agent
Decent enough news. Although I'm still dead set against it, I think there's little chance that Jones will settle for such small potatoes. Still, the same was being said of Bill Mueller before he inked a two-year pact with the Dodgers even though he had a three-year deal on the table from the Pirates.
There's something to be said for having a shot at winning, and no matter what we all might be thinking at this point in the season, I believe the Cubs are still regarded as contenders by a lot of players, which means a two-year deal could actually get something done with Jones if the rest of his suitors are from less able teams. Which brings us to this snippet from the the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The Chicago Cubs consider Twins free agent Jacque Jones the best outfielder still available and are expected to make him a $5 million, one-year offer. Jones can get $18 million for three years from the Kansas City Royals, with a fourth year vested were he to achieve performance incentives.
Good news and bad news here. If this is information is correct in relation to the Cubs potential offer, I don't see much chance of Jones being a Cub. Even with the competition being the Royals, I can imagine it must be hard for a player to leave a deal worth nearly four times as much on the table.
Then again, if the Cubs are really going to offer two years, and the Royals offer is accurately reported and the only real competition, then things get a little scary. Needless to say, I have my fingers crossed that this falls through and some sort of worthwhile trade can be found, but I have to admit, there's only so long I can hold that position before my digits begin to cramp.
But wait! Are those reports too meaningful for you to bear? Hang in, then, because there's this from the Denver Post.
The Cubs told the Rockies last week that, for now anyway, they are holding onto reliever Todd Wellemeyer, whom Colorado has attempted to acquire.
This deal has been in the pipeline for a while, but with little real action on it, there's no surprise that the Cubs pulled back. Of course, one can hope that Wellemeyer appears to be a desirable part of a package to acquire an outfielder, but I've only got so much of the stuff to give at a time.
More likely they just wanted to be sure there was backup available should a member of the bullpen go down or flame out, and since they've given away most of the folks that could play that role already, it's sensible to keep him around, even if he wasn't the best choice for the job in the first place.
So, folks, is that enough to keep you warm? Because, me, I'm still feeling the chill.
All The News That's Fit To Interpret
Today, we'll start with an exercise in what the newspapers call "reporting". Our first example comes from Paul Sullivan in this morning's Tribune.
After Pierre's introductory news conference Wednesday at Wrigley Field, general manager Jim Hendry disclosed he would offer Patterson arbitration next week and might give him the right-field job in 2006.
This was the first I read on the subject today, and after being forcibly restrained from harming myself, I went on to see how the other papers covered the story. This is Bruce Miles in the Daily Herald.
Now, where the first statement made Patterson seem like he was a viable option for the right-field job, Miles' phrasing paints the possibility as more of a contingency plan should other more desirable alternatives not pan out. Then there's what Mike Kiley gives us in the Sun-Times.
So, not only does Kiley go the extra mile to let us know how this statement came to be made in the first place, but he let's us know that, as he sees it, the possibility is not only remote, it's downright laughable.
Three gentlemen, all at the same press conference, all hearing the same responses to the same questions, came up with these three very different ways of translating those statements to us - and yes, these are translations, interpretations, if you will. It's an important lesson in the value of context, and something to always keep in mind when reading your morning paper on any subject.
* * * * *
Of course, all the hubub above obscures the real news, which is that Hendry is now publicly stating his intention to offer Patterson arbitration - and, to my mind, it is the statement of intent that is really important here, not the possibility of it becoming reality, undesirable though that may be.
In other words, with the non-tender deadline looming, and the Cubs still trying to deal Corey, it became necessary to let potential trade partners know that there would be no discount to be had after the 20th - that if you do, indeed, want to bring this man to your club, you'll have to give something in return.
I don't believe for a second that the team is really considering running Patterson out there as a starter, or even having him on the club, until every last living option has been exhausted. Granted, that could still happen, but I think the possibility is remote. Hendry is trying to facilitate a deal, not keep Corey in the fold. At least, that's my interpretation.
Assuming The Position 2006: Starting Pitching
Let's start with a shopping list:
Gather all your ingredients, and take your items of interest to a room that you've set up for discreet observation. Place the goods in said room, which you will have previously furnished entirely with chairs, a couch, carpeting, tables, all in white, and all made of or upholstered with extremely delicate and easily ruined materials. Once these tasks are complete, add to the mix one toddler, dressed in the finest white linen.
Imagine, if you will, the resulting carnage. Stain upon stain upon stain, so deep and intractable that Mr. Clean himself would faint upon discovering them. Can you see them, all purple and red? Can you smell them, all putrid and foul? Can you feel them, all sticky and slimy?
Now take those images, horrific and shocking, take them in, feel the dismay, feel the disgust, feel the dread, and then take a moment from this pursuit of pain, take some time out to realize that even this most harrowing of scenes pales in comparison to the gruesome mess that was the Cubs' starting staff in 2005.
Or at least, that's what one would think if the reactions of Cub fans throughout the season were to be taken as gospel. However, look at the numbers, and things aren't nearly as bad as they might seem.
The Cubs fell squarely in the middle of the National League in starter's ERA (they were 8th with a 4.17 mark), were third in batting average against (.252), fifth in OPS against (.722), fourth in K/BB (2.38), fourth in WHIP (1.29), and first in K/9 (7.24). Compared to the really awful work turned in by teams like the Reds and Rockies - the latter aided by environment, the former by abject incompetence - there's little to be concerned about.
The problem is, there's not a Cub fan alive, myself included, who is using that as a standard. What we have come to expect, indeed, demand, is a dominant, destructive pitching staff that brooks no quarter and takes no prisoners. What we got last year was a damaged, debilitated, and often raw group that saw eleven different men begin a game on the bump.
Still, despite the disparity between expectation and reality, the results are not reflected in the peripheral stats in the way one might expect. With the fine work they did striking men out and keeping hits down, you'd think more fruit would be borne in the realm of actual run prevention. That's until you understand where the club fell in two key peripheral stats not mentioned above: walks issued, and home runs allowed.
In order to make the whole thing a little easier to understand we'll put a quick table together with key stats and where the Cubs ranked in the NL. Below are the goods.
Clearly, the Cubs' issues were walks and bombs, and for those in the organization who don't see the offensive utility of the free pass in tandem with balls leaving the yard, I'd point to the damage done to the team by exactly those factors as a counter-example.
The issues with homers are due, in large part, to multiple men having the wrong kind of career years in that regard. Carlos Zambrano gave up 21 dingers, 7 more than his previous high. Mark Prior coughed up 25 round-trippers, 10 more than the high he reached in a year (2003) where he pitched an additional 44.2 innings. Kerry Wood lost 12 balls in the stands over a mere 54 pitched frames as a starter.
If one assumes that the 17 extra bombs between Zambrano and Prior are anomalous, once removed from the equation you find that the Cubs' starting staff has moved into a tie with Houston for sixth in the NL in home runs allowed, with four out of the top five teams playing in parks that severely depress the long ball. In other words, this issue is one, at least as far as the starting staff is concerned, that might just go away on its own.
The walks are a different matter, and with the composition of this starting staff I'd wager it's unlikely they'll ever move beyond the middle of the pack as far as league rankings are concerned. However, as long as they improve on keeping the ball in the park and continue to whiff their opponents at an appropriately high rate, it's merely something that comes with the territory - the trade-off, if you will, for overpowering more hitters.
But, enough of the group-think, it's time to look at the individual work the staff turned in. I'm going to alter the format a bit here, and rather than going over various Cub options (barring something extraordinary, I think all the Cub options are in house), I'll instead take a moment to combine comments on most of the Cub starter's performance last year with some thoughts on what might be in their future for 2006. Let's get to it.
So those are most of the ingredients the Cubs will throw in their proverbial chambre du blanc in 2006. Like it's been for the last few years, it's a group with tremendous potential that still needs to figure out how to get over the hurdle that separates good from great, but while they're unlikely to leave the couch stain-free, I think the room will be a darn sight cleaner.
Those of you prone to squeamishness may want to look away:
In case I wasn't clear the first time, let me reiterate my position when it comes to Mr. Jones.
The bad news here beyond the mere fact that Jones is even being considered is that Hendry has been very vocal about his intention to fill the remaining position player holes via trade, and his turning to a free agent option, even as a bargaining ploy, indicates that not all is moving swimmingly on that front.
However, there is a bit of relief to be had from this statement in the Sun-Times piece:
Hendry won't offer Jones a long contract because he doesn't want to get tied up with anyone too far into the future with outfield prospect Felix Pie possibly a year away -- or less -- from being inserted into the Cubs' lineup.
Okay, so the idea that the club still thinks Pie is almost ready is troubling, but the thought that they're unwilling to go for a longer-term deal with Jones essentially takes them out of the running - or at least one would think so - and there's nothing but good in that.
Still, if you're like me, you're bothered by the implied lack of progress in acquiring players who could truly help this team, and nasty thoughts of Jones or not, that's what's really scary.
No News is...No News
As of this morning, we have officially entered the portion of the offseason where there is so little real news to report or actual moves on which to comment, that grown men are left with little alternative but to concoct spectacular scenarios meant to tickle the reader's fancy like a child's visions of proverbial sugar plums.
Witness as the first example, Phil Rogers' column in the Tribune today, advocating that the Cubs offer up Carlos Zambrano as the ducat of choice to purchase a shiny new Tejada for the club's infield:
Hendry should offer Zambrano, center fielder Corey Patterson and shortstop Ronny Cedeno for Tejada and right-hander Daniel Cabrera or one of the Orioles' pitching prospectsHayden Penn, John Maine or Adam Loewen. He should tell him the offer is good for only 72 hours, and then he should use those hours burning up the phone line to Scott Boras, who represents Millwood, Washburn and Weaver.
I'm honestly not in the mood to construct an in-depth argument detailing why this is silliness incarnate (anyone wishing to do so below is more than welcome to do their worst), but I will mention two things: first, that while Tejada will be 34 when he is next a free agent, that same year, four seasons in the future, will see Zambrano be all of 29 - Tejada's playing age last season - and second, that there has only been one player since 2003 to throw at least 200 innings with an ERA of 3.50 or better in each of those three seasons. His name? Carlos Zambrano.
Today's other bit of idle chatter comes from The Daily Herald's Barry Rozner, and while his thoughts are no more based on fact, they are more grounded in reality:
More grounded in reality, that is, until we arrive here:
Here's how this goes: in order for the Cubs to do this deal they'd have to be reasonably sure that Vidro was going to be healthy, which he hasn't been for two years now. But in order for the price to be as low as Rozner believes it could be, Vidro would have to be considerably less than whole. The math on his proposal just doesn't work out.
Still, the idea of dealing for Vidro is kinda fun - I've always liked him a bunch, and if healthy, he'd be a great fit with the club's needs. Still, something tells me that either Soriano will be convinced to play somewhere other than second, or Vidro's condition is bad enough that doing a deal wouldn't be in the Cubs' best interests.
Either way, it's just speculation, but with winter's grip tightening by the minute, and little promise of movement in the days to come, that might be all we have left to keep us warm for a while.
An Humble Proposition
As I'm certain you've read by now in other more prosaic sources, one Mr. Miguel Tejada, All-Star shortstop of the Baltimore American League Baseball Franchise, is heartily displeased at the direction in which his financial benefactors are progressing, and had he his druthers, would be traded forthwith to a patron more likely to aspire to the lofty heights of laurel heaps he so desperately desires - even more than the massive money mounds he so valued in years past.
It just so happens, the Chicago National League Baseball Franchise has something of a vacancy in their middle-infield (perhaps even a vacuum, should the batting prowess of one Mr. Perez be given full consideration), and in the right circumstances, could be persuaded to conceive of a way to accommodate Mr. Tejada.
It, therefore, seems appropriate at this juncture to offer a suggestion for how such an arrangement might transpire, the inspiration for which stems directly from erstwhile dealings between these two proud organizations less than one year previous.
The Chicago ball-club would send one Mr. Jerry Hairston, a diminutive but versatile sprite, back to his former climes, and in exchange, the Baltimores would pack Mr. Tejada in a well-ventilated crate with 90% of the sizable salary he's owed during the next four calendar turns, and ship it to the City of Broad Shoulders post-haste.
It only seems the right and proper thing to do. After all, these friendly fowl let their oh-so hospitable nature shine through when their cuddly brethren sadly found themselves in dire need of liberating one Mr. Sosa from his furry shackles. Returning said favor is the least that is owed.
Assuming The Position 2006: Catcher
After the disappointment from the calamitous ending to the 2003 campaign wore off, one of the priorities for the Cubs was finding a solution at catcher who would be better able to produce on the offensive end, cheap enough to allow for expenditures in other areas, and young enough to be in the fold for an extended period.
It wasn't that Damian Miller wasn't useful - he did a great job defensively - but after the Cubs had so many issues with the bottom part of their lineup both in the run-up to the postseason and in the playoffs themselves - a problem that Miller bore no small responsibility for - the team was willing to make a trade-off of defense for offense.
Enter Michael Barrett, who at best, seemed an odd choice, and at worst, looked to be a disastrous gamble. It's true, he fulfilled the cheap and young portions of the bill, but with his best offensive seasons being barely average, and his most recent work at the plate a Grand Guignol horror show that would force DVD's of Hannibal onto the kiddie shelves, the chances that he would be the man the Cubs sought looked remote.
Yet Jim Hendry saw a player with power potential, solid contact skills, and decent plate discipline who had not only been yanked around in the field during his time as an Expo, but had his 2003 season rendered ineffective by injury. With all of these ancillary factors contributing to his failures, the signs that turnaround was possible, and what would appear to be the approach of his peak years, Hendry thought Barrett a better risk than some of the pricier alternatives.
As it turned out, Hendry was right, and following a solid campaign with the stick in 2004, Barrett was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $12M. The lingering questions presented by this deal were whether his offensive work would continue on the same level, and perhaps of greater concern, whether his unspectacular defense could be improved, or at the very least, prevented from regressing.
For starters, let's take a look at what results we get when we pose the first query.
One of the things that becomes clear when looking at his stat line from year to year is how Barrett's career before his time as a Cub was marked by wild inconsistency. It is, in many ways, similar to the high degree of variability shown by Aramis Ramirez before he came to Chicago, except that Barrett hadn't had that one exceptional year to make people sit up and take notice.
Which is why giving Barrett the three-year deal was extra risky. In the case of Ramirez, there was at least some support for the idea that his 2004 was the culmination of a previously ordained excellence, while with Barrett, his 2004 seemed a lot closer to a thing you find reasons to dismiss.
Yet, more rigorous inspection of this series of numbers reveals that, if one were so inclined to remove the 2000-2003 seasons from his record, you'd be looking at a progression that seems far more linear and logical than the scattershot meandering of his performance during his mid-twenties.
As for reasons why this might be, a close look at the 2000 season reveals that Barrett began the year, to put it diplomatically, in rough fashion, making six errors in his first five games at third, promptly earning himself a spot on the bench. He was given occasional chances after that, but his defense continued to be poor while his offense suffered mightily, and he was eventually sent to Ottawa in mid-May.
A month later he was recalled to the big club after tearing up the joint in AAA, but then the team immediately began to tinker with him, playing him at third while working on his catching skills in an attempt to get him ready to more frequently don the tools of ignorance. This eventually led to yet another trip to Ottawa at the beginning of August to give him a chance to play behind the plate full time without the pressure of being in the Majors.
A mere eight days later, he was back with the Expos and suddenly anointed as their everyday backstop, only to be sidelined a month later with a sore elbow which kept him out for two weeks. He made it back, but by then it was the end of September. He played in only five more contests.
Needless to say, it was a bumpy beginning to his career as a full-time catcher, and while it doesn't totally explain why his work at the plate was less than stellar in 2001 and 2002, it helps give us an idea of how he could have veered so far from the track he seemed to be on before. It's hard enough for a young player to perform without being bounced around like a superball in a cobblestone room.
So, with an understanding of his wacky past, and a little faith, one could have reasonably concluded that his offensive work would remain consistent for the life of his contract, and thus far that faith has been justified. What changed dramatically last season, and not in a happy way, was his defensive work.
Never a strong point - in part because one could make a case that he was still learning the position - if you place much stock in Baseball Prospectus' RATE2 statistic, Barrett's glove fell off a cliff in 2005 (for the uninitiated, an average defender's RATE2 will be 100). Below lie the unhappy figures.
After settling in just below league average from 2002-2004, things got incredibly ugly last year. Bear in mind, this stunning patch of incompetence includes the first 13 games he played in 2005 where Barrett threw out an amazing 9 of 14 would-be basestealers. In fact, during the season's first month, he looked like he had really turned a corner when it came to nailing runners.
However, for those of you keeping score at home, that means of the 77 stolen-base attempts he faced after April 21st, Barrett managed to throw out only 12 of those men. That's good for a 15.6% success rate and a free trip to the Mike Piazza Center For Guys Who Can't Throw Good.
If there's positive news to be gleaned from these relatively dismal tidings, it's that some of his poor performance in the throwing department can be attributed to a shoulder injury that started bothering him early in the year, which eventually morphed into a groin injury that was troubling from around mid-season on.
In other words, while we didn't see it after April, Barrett may well have made some good progress that was unfortunately masked by a state of physical impairment. It could have simply been luck and sample sizes too, but from what my paltry memory recalls, there was a significant difference between the strength and crispness of his throwing early on compared to the middle and end of the season, so there may, indeed, be reason for hope.
Of course, there are other sources of concern with Barrett's defense. He is still sub-par on blocking pitches in the dirt, and while his apparent inability to properly execute a rundown is a minor quibble when considering the number of opportunities one is afforded for such things, it is still deeply maddening. It's true that he hasn't had the same serious issues with footwork that plagued him in 2004, but he needs to continue to work to keep this and other things under control in order to not be a liability in the field.
The discussion of Barrett raises the question, and a particular classic among catchers, of how much of a player's value comes from their fielding contributions versus their offensive production. Statistics like WARP do a solid enough job of quantifying a player's total value, but it's reasonable to be wary of any metric that takes defense into account, and to be doubly so when they're used to measure backstops.
No other position on the field has so many, dare I say, intangible aspects that we simply haven't a clue about the impact of - they are intangible, after all. The most troublesome example being game-calling, which seems to combine strategy, skill, luck, and the personal interplay between pitcher and catcher into an inextricably tangled hash whose component parts couldn't be separated with a superconducting super collider and the staff of Fermilab (if you've ever heard announcers praise a backstop's game-calling ability, while in the same breath condemning a pitcher for falling in love with his slider, then you've had a small glimpse into this mess).
So in some ways, I'm forced to pull up short when it comes to evaluating Barrett - or any catcher, for that matter. Offensively, he seems on a solid path, and one that puts him easily into the upper echelon of the admittedly depleted ranks of Major League catchers (he was fourth in MLB in VORP, for example), and while he has some obvious weaknesses on the defensive end, it's unclear how much of his problems were due to physical issues, and how much was simply the nature of the beast.
When it comes to his game-calling, I'm at a loss as to where to begin, not just for the reasons I stated above, but because the plague of ouchies that visited itself upon the Cub pitching staff makes such an evaluation for 2005 exponentially more difficult.
So in the end, my thoughts go thusly: Barrett is an offensive asset at a more than reasonable price, who if he wants to really give his team an advantage in 2006 will do whatever it takes to ensure that his defensive contribution returns to levels that are merely sub-par. Perhaps it it sets the bar kinda low, but it would still be a step up.
Further Pierre Thoughts
Having shaken some cobwebs from my noggin, I can now take a closer look at last night's deal.
An admitted weakness of mine is the minor leagues (let's try to restrain ourselves from listing the rest of said weaknesses in comments, shall we?). I often simply haven't the patience to keep fully abreast of goings on and current opinions of specific players, much as I might try. Luckily, there are folks like Bryan Smith of Baseball Analysts, Cub fan and minor league expert extraordinaire, to help me along. Here's a snippet from his take:
That makes me feel a bit better. I was never concerned about the inclusion of Mitre, who while he may have evinced hints of sparks of brilliantishness, has never shown anything close to a consistent ability to get Major League hitters out. Either he has his sinker working exactly as he wants it and can work guys over, or he's deeply, deeply, hosed. I honestly don't need that kind of flakiness around.
My main issue was with the inclusion of both Pinto and Nolasco, and while I'd still read the inclusion of both players as overpayment, the fact that they are both a bit flawed makes it more palatable. The other thing that makes the deal easier for me to stomach is that it is a heretofore rare example of Jim Hendry dealing from strength in an attempt to bolster weakness.
One of the traits that serves as both a positive and a negative for Hendry is his relative caution when trading from his minor league system. On the good side, it generally keeps him from making deals that end up burning him, but on the bad side, he also winds up hanging onto prospects - particularly on the pitching side - until they have little to no value left. There seems to be a skill gap in the Cubs' ability to evaluate their own minor league talent and get a handle on when players have hit their peak value, a knack that has kept the Braves afloat for much of their run.
So, argue if you will about whether Nolasco or Pinto were the right men to ship out, of if, indeed, Pierre was the type of player you ship them out for, but at the very least, the idea is the right one. The Cubs have been too precious with some of their young'ins in the past, so the fact that they're willing to be more aggressive with using them as trading chits is a positive.
That said, in order to get close to the value the Cubs desire from Pierre he will have to hit at least .300, and substantially above that in order to really "solve" the club's leadoff issue. His complete lack of power, inability to walk, and marginal defense demand it. Yes, he's done it before, but doing it previously is no guarantee of doing it again, particularly after the rough year he had in 2005.
Still, the Cubs have adopted a solid approach with this deal. Your minor league system is there to funnel talent to your Major League squad, either directly or through trade, and in using the type of players they have in surplus to address an issue, they have attempted to do just that.
Pierre is far from perfect, and to my mind including the quantity of talent the Cubs did in this deal was overkill, but he does address a need better than the other available options, at least while staying realistic (rail all you like about the superiority of non-prototypical lead-off alternatives, the fact is, with Dusty at the helm, all attempts to go down that road lead to Neifi! getting 700 at bats at the top of the order).
This is not a great deal, this is not a terrible deal. It is, instead, a trade that makes something livable out of a potentially unlivable situation, and while that may not be a thrilling result, it has its value.
Cubs Getting Pierre
The Cubs and Marlins have tentatively agreed to a deal that would send Juan Pierre to the Cubs in exchange for some minor league pitching. The Cubs.com piece has them trading a package that includes Renyel Pinto and Ricky Nolasco, while Jayson Stark of ESPN names those two players and specifies Sergio Mitre as the other piece of the puzzle. For now, I'll assume the more specific report is the most accurate.
Having essentially just awakened to the news, I've yet to fully digest it, but my initial reaction is that the team has paid too much for a drastically overrated player who stands a decent chance of being a one-year rental. Allow me, if you will, to re-hash my comments on Pierre from Assuming The Position:
It's still not pretty to see, yet in spite of that I'm inclined to consider Pierre an acceptable stopgap, if that is, indeed, how he's used. My issue at this point stems more from the price paid than anything else, and as I said, I'm not sure how much of that is logic and how much is being groggy and grumpy in the light of morning.
Hopefully, more later when I'm more awake and better able to form a reasoned opinion.
Assuming The Position 2006: Second Base
Like so many other counties in the Land of Cub, Second Base Prefecture suffered from a severe state of flux in 2005. In fact, outside of left field, no other non-pitcher position on the diamond saw fewer innings from their most used man, or saw more different players don the glove.
Of the 1,440 defensive innings the Cubs played last season, the man most often in the lineup, Todd Walker, only played in 797 of them. The next highest contributor was Jerry Hairston with 331 keystone frames, followed by Neifi Perez with 160, Jose Macias with 112, and Enrique Wilson, Ryan Theriot, and Ronny Cedeno sharing the remaining 37 innings between them.
That's seven different people getting time at second for the Cubs last year, a figure outpaced in the NL only by the eight second sackers fielded by the Reds and Nats. Constancy isn't necessarily a sign of quality - we've all seen bad players as fixtures in the lineup - but in most cases, having so many players working at a position, and not one of them taking a sizable majority of the available time, is an indication of plans gone awry. In the Cubs' case, the plan was to have Todd Walker start every day, unfortunate defense be damned, in order to have his power and OBP in the lineup.
The irony, of course, was that the Cubs chose Walker over fellow free-agent and incumbent starter, Mark Grudzielanek, partially for Walker's offensive superiority, but mostly due to the injury issues Grudz suffered during his time with the club. Naturally, they wanted their starting second baseman on the field more than off it. Naturally, Walker had two injuries on baserunning plays that limited him to the 797 fielding innings mentioned above, while Grudzielanek spent over 1,158 frames in the field for the Cardinals. Go figure.
In any case, Walker was, when in the lineup, very productive, particularly for his position. In fact, he was 12th in the Majors in VORP for second basemen, despite having only 433 plate appearances on the year (eight of the players ahead of him had over 150 additional PAs, and only Placido Polanco had fewer with 378). In that regard the Cubs certainly were getting what they expected.
Unfortunately, they were also seeing their expectations met on the defensive end, where Walker continued to struggle, although his issues, as always, had more to do with range and quickness on double-play turns than with errors. Walker, in fact, is a poster-child for the inadequacy of fielding percentage in describing a player's defensive abilities, as Walker has a lifetime fielding percentage exactly equal to the league average over his career.
But let's be fair: though Walker had a lot to do with the sadder than sad displays of skullglovery at the keystone, he was not alone in bringing a heavy dose of the shank 'n clank, as this quick gander at the team's collective RATE2 stats shows:
I know I've thrown some new stuff in there, so I've got some 'splainin to do. AdjG is "Adjusted Games," and it stands for just what your intuition is telling you: the approximate number of games the player in question spent fielding his position. RAA2 is fielding runs above average, normalized over time, and EQR is Equivalent Runs (a counting stat that measures a player's overall offensive contribution and is associated with Equivalent Average), which in this case, deals with the estimated offensive contribution by the player while at the fielding position in question.
While it's clear that Walker was quantitatively responsible for much of the defensive damage at second, it's also clear that no one else was helping much (unless you count the spifftacular two games worth of Enrique Wilson, at the cost of a heapin' helpin' of outs).
Of particular note is the lack of contribution from Neifi!, who was inexplicably bad. Don't, however, take this as an indication that the above is what one could expect were he to man the position (shudder) full-time. His RATE2 at second base over his career - nearly a full season's worth of work - is 107, which ain't half bad if you can bring yourself to ignore the inherent bat-foolery.
The overall point is that, as a group, assuming the "10 runs equals a win" standard, Cub second basemen essentially cost their club a victory with their gloves alone, when compared to an average second baseman (of course, Cub third basemen more than doubled that, but we're not here to talk about them).
Up until now I've ignored the EQR numbers I posted along side what are, otherwise, defensive statistics, but there's an important point to be made about Walker's overall contribution.
While it's true that an assumed full season of Walker would have docked another 4 runs from the defensive contribution at second, leaving it at an unpleasant -13, that's not taking the full picture into account. Do the same to his EQR, and you pick up 15 runs on the offensive end for a total of 101 EQR at the position, making 162 games of Todd Walker a net gain of 11 runs - and one win - over what the Cubs were forced to run out there.
These things are not black and white. Bad defense does not equal bad player, in the same way that good offense does not equal good player. We have to look at the entire picture in order to fully understand the impact on a ballclub, and in the case of Walker, while his defense might be difficult to live with, his production with the bat sure makes it easier.
But will the Cubs choose to endure his shortcomings yet again, or will they go in a different direction? Let's take a look at the club's likely options.
I leave it at that because, while there are other theoretical options, none of them are ones I realistically see the Cubs pursuing.
So, what will the Cubs do? Or more importantly, what should they do. Supposedly, the word is that the Cubs' interest in Soriano has been mostly as a backup plan should they fail in their quest to sign Rafael Furcal, and since that failure is now a fact, it could make such a deal more likely. What the two things have to do with each other is anyone's guess, but it's my opinion that any deal that could possibly garner Soriano's services would be far more expensive than what his true production level should demand.
Add in that the similarities between him and Todd Walker are such that I now have a much clearer understanding of the old saw about birds, hands, and bushes, and I simply can't see any sense in dealing anything useful beyond Walker himself for the Rangers' keystoner. Besides, as I alluded to above, given the choice between Soriano's additional power and speed, and Walker's far superior (and far cheaper) on-base skills, I'll go with Walker every time.
Yet, although I do adore Todd with his walking and his popping and his charming scruffiness, I was still driven fairly insane by his basic inability to field his position, and if there's something unnoticed that could help the team tremendously, it would be giving the club's young starters a defense behind them that would give them the confidence to let some balls get hit and, by extension, give them the excuse they need to work more efficiently.
Neifi! would be the best choice in that regard, but since baseball hasn't seen fit to create a "Designated Fielder" rule, a balance must be struck. So, since Hairston may be balanced, he's simply not very good at anything, Cedeno it is, fraught with risk offensively, but with enough hitting potential and defensive chops to achieve the desired ancillary side-effects. Thus I say, long live Ronny, the King of Keystone County!
But that's not all. There's a wildcard in this, and it's whether Jim Hendry will acquire a shortstop at the Winter Meetings this week or not. He seems to be on Julio Lugo's tail, as are the Braves, but if that falls through things change in a big way, and unless he can be used in a package to significantly upgrade the outfield, the Cubs should bite the defensive bullet and stick with Walker, even if it's only to keep Neifi! on the bench.
A Cub Fan's Sunday
The day began simply enough, with a girl showing support for her team.
Then came time to read the morning paper, starting with the sports section. A day of happy leisure had begun.
But when she saw the news that Rafael Furcal had signed with the Dodgers, the day took a decidedly difficult turn.
Later, of course, the madness came.
Well, if nothing else, I suppose the suspense is over. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Rafael Furcal will be accepting the Dodgers' offer of 3 years and approximately $40M, and really, who can blame him?
Not only is it more money over less time than what his old team was offering, but it was only about $10M less than what he would have received from the Cubs over the course of two more years. One has to figure that, at 31, Furcal will be able to get something better than 2 and $10M when this deal has expired, assuming he has not, literally, imploded.
It's a shocking turn of events, not just because the Dodgers were such late entrants to Furcal-Fest '05, but because I can't recall a team effectively employing this strategy with a top-of-the-line free-agent before - namely, overpaying in the here and now to avoid being over-extended in the future.
As Jon Weisman alluded to on Friday, there's a degree of savvy in paying big up front rather than over a number of years, and to my mind, it's particularly true of teams that have some financial wherewithal. If you're a club with big pockets, spending money is one of your super powers. What's a more effective way of employing that super power? Paying $10M a year for 5 years, or $13M a year for 3 years? Which strategy allows more teams to stay in the hunt for that player's services?
A team with a mid-sized payroll simply can't afford to spend huge gobs of cash on one player for a single year, but they can hang around if you're talking about spreading the payments out. It may not be smart, but they can do it. That's reason one of why it makes more sense, if you're really after a guy, to pay big and quick - to push out your competition.
The other reason is because such an arrangement, while costly in the near term, allows you much more long-term flexibility. Say this player sustains a career-ending injury at the end of season two, or you have a great young player at the same position moving up through your system and other issues that could use the financial attention. Would you rather be on the hook for $13M next year, or $30M over the next three?
The great thing is, it's also a relatively low-risk way for the player to make more money. Like I said above, barring injury, there's very little chance with his age and skillset that Furcal won't end up raking in more moolah over those five years. Whether you believe they really needed him or not, the mechanics of how the Dodgers got Furcal were solid.
So where does that leave the Cubs? Disappointed, obviously, and in greater need than ever to be creative in meeting a whole host of unresolved issues. But if there's something positive to be gleaned from this, it's that I think by the end of this winter we'll finally know once and for all what kind of a GM the club has in Hendry. After all, the measure of a baseball executive - or any leader, for that matter - isn't how he builds his team does when all goes according to design, it's how he reacts when that design is in tatters.
Van Buren to Boston
According to a report in the Corporate Stooge Gazette, the Cubs have just completed a deal that sends Jermaine Van Buren to the Red Sox in exchange for the infamous PTBNL.
Like the deal the sent Jon Leicester packing, this is pretty clearly a move to free up roster space, thus ending the mystery of how the team would get from 41 to 40. Of course, we're still left with the question of who goes when the Mabry deal's official, and who else goes if the team signs Furcal, but I suppose that's for another day.
Based on their free and easy distribution of cash to any veteran relievers who happened to be wandering by, it's easy to see that Van Buren simply wasn't in the team's plans, and since he had reached a point in his development where he either needed to be used at the Major League level or dealt, the club decided on the latter approach rather than let him spend another year in Iowa.
It's hard to know how to rate the trade without knowing who the other player is, but with the approach the club is taking to the bullpen this year, it's at least defensible (whether the approach itself is defensible is a better question, but I'll back off for the moment). If I had to make a guess, though, I'd say that the player coming back is likely someone who's Boston's non-roster version of Van Buren V2004.
This certainly is a different offseason. Where last year I could have sworn that most major free agents didn't sign until sometime in mid-June, yesterday we saw two of the biggest names out there, Paul Konerko and Brian Giles, end the suspense before we'd even reached December.
There's something refreshing about not having to wait until flowers re-bloom in earnest before seeing some results burst forth from their rumor-soaked netherworld, but if anything, yesterday's doings have made me more twitchy than before.
My anxiety uptick can be traced directly back to the fact that both of the big fish in question not only dotted i's and crossed t's with their old clubs, but in doing so, turned their backs on offers that were more financially lucrative - a series of events that eerily parallel to the Cubs' battle with the Braves for the rights to Rafael Furcal.
Now, I realize that we're dealing with individuals here, and that each of these individuals had their own reasons for doing what they did, but at the same time I can't help but see the similarities between the situations. This means that every moment a decision is delayed makes me less and less certain that Furcal will end up a Cub.
I'd liken it to being a defendant in a big court case (I'll let you decide what crime I've committed), sitting and waiting for the jury to reach a verdict - not just in relation to the waiting and suspense, but in the way it's possible to rationalize what the outcome might be based on the length of time it takes for a decision to be rendered.
Example: if Furcal hasn't made a choice by the time the Winter Meetings begin, then it must mean he's having difficulty because of some factor or other. If I'm optimistic, I say it's because he wants to accept the Cubs' offer but needs the time to overcome his sense of loyalty to the Braves. If I'm pessimistic, I say it's because he wants to stay with the Braves, but needs time to work up the courage to turn down the extra money. Take a wild guess where I'm at right now.
At least I can take solace in the knowledge that something should be happening soon - if not today or tomorrow, then certainly within the next week or so - and one way or the other I can aim my botheration at other targets. It's winter and I'm a Cub fan, so what better thing to keep me warm than my own burning angst?
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03
Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com