Monthly archives: June 2006
Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.
And sometimes the bear looks all cute and cuddly and mews and scrunches its nose and waves its paw in the air so you think, "Hey, he's waving at me! He's saying, 'Hi!'" - because, of course, all animals after prolonged exposure to humans adopt their physical signals and modes of communication, doncha know? - so you get closer because there's no reason to think the little half-ton munchkin would be anything other than friendly, what with the cuteness and the gestures and the general feeling of warmness his presence inspires.
Closer and closer, until you can almost touch him, and he you, and the nearer you come the more comfortable you feel, the greater the ambiance of friendship and familial affinity. Now you can see his eyes - ooooo! They're all wet and shimmery, like the wistful orbs of a romantic comedy heroine at the climactic moment of ardor - Conflict resolved! I do love you! Rob Lowe will never come between us again!
Yet you pause, because something in your lizard brain is telling you that bears are dangerous, wild animals, prone to acts of violence that would easily destroy beasts less fragile than yourself. You look even closer, searching for some final signal of either danger or invitation that would send you to scurry or ease your mind. And after a moment, maybe two, you see what you needed to see: his mouth open, his teeth bared, he is smiling at you! He wants you to come be his friend, and who are you to say "no" to such a noble creature. Forward you go, nose to nose, so you can smell his breath and touch his fur, and for a moment you know what it must have been like to be connected to the planet the way your ancestors were, human and animal walking as one on the pristine earth of yore, at peace with nature, and most of all, with yourself.
It is during this romantic reverie, this basking in a n'er extant ideal, that you notice something previously unobserved: a wasp, flying about the bear's gob. You see your new friend's nose curl as the wasp's wings tickle his nostrils, his paw wave as he bats the pest away, his eyes water as the stinger pierces his proboscis, his teeth bare as he snaps at his enemy. It is now, in this moment between contemplation and comprehension, that the winged antagonist departs, and your newfound friend, freshly irritated, turns his attention to the misty-eyed oddity standing inches from his maw.
One can imagine the rest. In fact, we are living it, day by day, for we are Cub fans, lured into the clutches of the bear by our own misguided interpretations of his natural kinesis, fooled into his unforgiving grasp by our dreams of the world as we would wish it. We are trapped, left with two choices, neither of which appeal: attempt escape and suffer certain doom (to where does a Cub fan turn for baseball solace? The White Sox?), or stay and, as best you can, make friendly with the critter. Distract it until rescue can come, perhaps from another bear, who unlike his predecessor, will really, truly smile and wave, will really, truly be your friend.
The Disappointment Grows
The season is lost, that much is clear, but every day it seems there are new items, large and small, to add to the pile of frustrations. Below are a few of the items been floating in my mind of late.*****
A small thing when taking the scope of failure into account, to be sure, but I can't help but be bothered by the recent insistence on not only placing Neifi! in the lineup at all, but on additionally choosing to hit him high enough in the order to be an offensive torpedo rather than merely an anchor.
It's not simply a dose of accelerant on the flaming path to an insignificant loss, it's part of a pattern of incompetence that was clear almost from the moment Dusty Baker took the helm. Even in this, a year of incomparable offensive inferiority, Neifi! has been the single most destructive member of the hitting corps when measuring by VORP (he stands at -8.7 for the year), and when measuring by MLVr (essentially, runs contributed per game assuming an average lineup surrounding the player), Neifi! is second-worst among position players on the club behind only the execrable Henry Blanco, with Neifi! at -.427 and Henry at -.624! To clarify - putting Neifi! in your lineup means you lose nearly half a run on the day. Anyone think this club can afford that at all, let alone for a likely extra at bat?
This is not an indictment of Neifi! True, I take the time to add exclamation points to his name, and I make mention of his historically awful hitting whenever the chance arises, but it's not because he's bad - it's because he's bad and gets repeatedly used in critical spots despite the doing's inherent horror. It's not Neifi! the man, or even Neifi! the player, but the failure of his manager and general manager to recognize his on-field worth and use him accordingly that I decry.
It's a pattern of absolute indifference to easily observable evidence, or better yet, purposeful actions in complete defiance of that evidence. It would be one thing if lineups and rosters were formed through something akin to the throwing of bones, as there would at least be the opportunity for random chance to occasionally smile, but the construction of these entities more closely follows the pattern of a person, clearly in the wrong, desperately clinging to their view of a situation in the vain hope that in the end, somehow, they will be proven right.
That day is not coming.*****
One of the hopes we have as informed fans when confronted with the futility of the season stretching before us is the possibility that parts of the current club, those unlikely to be associated with the next competitive iteration of the team, can be exchanged for parts that, while perhaps not ready to contribute now, have the talent to star for some future version whose exploits might soon capture our imaginations.
What one needs for this scenario to play out, of course, are parts that teams currently in the race are willing to pay top dollar for without hesitation, or parts whose skillsets are unique enough and widely enough in demand to inspire a bidding war. What's sad for us as Cub fans is that with each passing day, it's becoming clearer still that we have neither. Let me expound.
Strictly speaking, the organization has players who could garner a huge return - Carlos Zambrano and Derrek Lee in particular would likely draw both considerable interest and considerable rewards in the form of young players with high potential. However, pitchers of Z's talent are rare enough, and Lee is integral enough to any illusion of near-term competitiveness that dealing them is both unlikely, and inadvisable from a PR perspective. The truth is, without being overwhelmed by the essential emptying of another team's stock of blue-chippers, I wouldn't deal them either.
Z and Lee will stay, which is reasonable and to be expected, but what's been depressing to watch of late has been the way nearly anyone else one might have designs on dealing has managed in some way to significantly reduce their value over the course of the year. Pierre, Wood, Prior, Maddux, Ramirez, all with the potential at some point to net the Cubs some significant gains, through injury or poor play have made themselves less commodities to be exchanged, and more salaries to be dumped.
Even Todd Walker, without whom the Cubs would have been below their already dismal selves, might not be worth much on the market. His average and on-base are solid, but his power has, for whatever reason, been sorely lacking. Minus that extra boost his ability to drive the ball gives him, there's not nearly as much positive offensive contribution to offset the negative of his defense at second. On this team of punchless hackers, he is essential. For a contender, he's just a nice player to have.
Perhaps the most valuable, dealable commodities the Cubs have are the two men they brought on to stabilize the bullpen, Scott Eyre and Bob Howry. They have clearly been Jim Hendry's most successful moves this season, and sadly, that's what's likely to keep them around. Even though the pen has been more solid than great, it's still enough of an improvement on recent relief corps that I doubt the Cubs will have the foresight to unload these men while their value is highest. In many ways, the bullpen has been Hendry's white whale, so expecting rational thought on the subject is expecting too much.
The picture is depressing, but with the men in charge, and the roster as it is, I don't see a deal at the deadline that builds for the future. Certainly, trades will be made, but they will be of the "something is better than nothing" variety, rather than the type of exchanges that bolster hope for tomorrow. Hope, I fear, will have to come from other places.*****
The lone bright spot recently, beyond the occasional good performance by a youngster, has been the looming possibility that the era of corporate ownership of the club could be in its waning days. It's a subject I don't touch on much here, A) because there are others doing a bang-up job, and B) because while I pride myself on being a fairly bright fellow, if I have an intellectual blind spot it is the world of finance, of which the whole potential sale debacle is very much a part.
(Let me put it to you this way: if given endless time to understand the intricacies of our world, and forced to create a list of subjects to tackle, with the ones I find easiest at the top, and the hardest at the bottom, finance would be at or near the list's end, somewhere between the math of quantum physics and the comedy of Pauly Shore.)
The sale of the club is a thing devoutly to be wished, even though we'd likely be sailing into the unknown, but at this point it's clear enough that the thing we understand doth not care a whit for us or the state of the team beyond its financials, so I've become convinced - as many of you long have been - that this organization will not be properly run, will not win, save the very occasional season of random, bottled lightning, without an owner that has an interest in holding its employees accountable for the product on the field.
It's not that I don't believe the front office craves victory, but I do have a hard time believing, were accountability a part of the equation, that we'd be in a position to complain about Jim Hendry's extension or a likely one for Dusty Baker, for were responsibility an ingredient in the organization's recipe for governance, those two gentlemen, along with their boss, Andy MacPhail, would be posting their resumes on Monster.
Thrice Is Nice, But Three's A Tease
'Twas a lovely little weekend in the Queen City. It was the first time the Cubs won three in a row since staving off a sweep in St. Louis, then winning the first two of their set against the Marlins in Wrigley, a sequence which took place from April 23-25. That's over a month since the club had won more than two consecutive games, and only the third time all season.
Sadly, it's also tied for the longest happy streak of the year, and if we're being honest with ourselves, had more to do with the Reds playing poorly than the Cubs playing well. Had it not been for the sun in Austin Kearns' eyes, or the inexplicable decision to use Esteban Yan in a game-crucial situation - ie: a lead of less than ten - or any number of defensive miscues by the home team, the series could easily have gone the other way.
The Cubs took advantage of their opportunities, no doubt, but they were given freely of Cincinnati largesse, rather than extracted by force of talent or will. Even during yesterday's offensive outburst, one's feelings of exuberance are tempered by the realization that 7 of the Cubs' 9 runs were driven in by the power trio of Neifi!, Ronny, and Juan - striking fear in the hearts of banjo owners everywhere, I'd guess.
If there's a mostly positive outcome o'er the span, it's the fine work turned in by Carlos Marmol. It was, in fact, refreshing to see a young Cub pitcher toe the rubber and own the joint, rather than the other way 'round, and while one could perhaps take issue with risking his future for a meaningless June contest in a lost season, the fact remains that he acquitted himself well.
Clearly, Marmol has the stuff to pitch in the bigs, so it will be interesting to see, with Glendon Rusch continuing to be a bust of nuclear proportions (I'd pay money to see little mushroom clouds superimposed on the screen with each opposing hitter's bleacher blast), what his fate becomes when/if Mark Prior rejoins the club. Were I a betting man, I'd wager that he's certainly earned himself another turn, and has a chance to claim the spot in perpetuity, what with Mssrs. Wood and Miller finding surgical recovery more arduous than anticipated, and the spectre of July deals looming ever nearer.
I might not be so ready to install him myself, if only from a desire to preserve what talent the Cubs have for a potentially rosier future, a couple years away at best, but like it or not I think we're going to see what the kid has right now, and if things go well we could be looking at a solid part of future Cub pitching staffs. One that might give the organization the cushion it needs to cut bait on the less reliable men it's leaned so heavily on of late.
Shameless Conceptual Thievery
Unable to force myself to dissect meaningless, excruciating baseball, I'm left with little to do but perform a bullet-pointed purge of my mind in the form of "Things I Learned This Week," an idea that I've not only been beaten to many times over, but which I promise to despoil in various, albeit unintentional, ways. On with the show!
That's all for now. Goodness, there aren't even ten. Just goes to show how these boys can sap one's energy, eh? Have a good weekend, folks.
The Astros' lineup is less than imposing, and starter Taylor Buchholz came into the game having been lit up in his two previous outings, but even knowing that the contest was ripe for the taking, particularly with the Cubs' best pitcher on the mound, that doesn't make the domination that came to be any less satisfying.
To be honest, the near miss on the no-no was something of a relief, even if I would have loved to see it. Zambrano wound up tossing 126 pitches on the night as it was, mostly because his movement was so pronounced that he was going deep into a lot of counts, and only started with strike one on 12 of the 26 batters he faced (only 57% of his pitches were strikes). He also looked less sharp in his last two innings, and honestly, I don't know that he could have finished the game even if he hadn't given up the knock.
Still, it was a completely dominating performance, and only a couple balls, including Preston Wilson's single, were hit with any sort of authority. He may not have ended up with a historic performance last night, but if forced to lay a bet on who will throw the next no-hitter in the Majors, you could do a lot worse than putting your money on Z.
One of the pleasant side-effects of Zambrano's work last night, is that the bullpen comes into tonight's Kerry Wood start well-rested. Even if Wood throws well, they're likely to get three inning or more of work, so the timing couldn't have been better. If the Cubs can get to Wandy Rodriguez - and he sported a 6.09 ERA against the Cubs last year over 24.2 innings - the Cubs could clinch their third consecutive series victory, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Look! Look! A Shiny Thing!
I imagine this will make me something of a wet blanket after a weekend that had some glorious weather in the Chicago area to go along with some pretty decent baseball, but while I like a winning series as much as the next guy, and there's a lot to be said for being 6-3 against the Cardinals for the season, I'm unable to get my optimism tanked up.
One of the things to bear in mind, is that the Cubs got through these last six games without having to face their opponents' best starters, and they'll likely get through the next series in the same shape. That's a huge stroke of luck for a club trying to find any kind of consistency on offense, and something to factor in as you evaluate whether the club has really turned a corner.
I certainly hope the Cubs can continue playing well, because there's nothing I like better than beating the Astros. Seriously. They've been having their issues too, so it looks like an ideal time to be facing them at their place of business. Here's to a win tonight, and a few more going forward.
The Rumbles Begin
Here's an interesting bit that I missed yesterday from Steve Hensen in the LA Times:
First off, I'm curious who the Cubs could have gotten for Hairston. The Dodgers have a fantabulous minor league system, but I don't know enough about specifics to be able to speculate, although, if forced to guess, based on what the Cubs acquired from the Rangers, I'd suppose that the Dodgers' farm system wasn't involved at all, and that the intended target was someone like Olmedo Saenz. No idea if LA would make that deal, again, just pure speculation based on what the Cubs wound up doing.
It is, however, exciting to think that Los Angeles would be interested in Mad Dog, even if this item may be little more than one writer's speculation (although, I'd guess that the use of a specific name like that was driven by something other than imagination). Emotionally, it would be hard to see him go, but as I and many others have said before, this team isn't going anywhere, so handshake no-trade agreement or not, dealing The Professor would be the best thing for the club.
I wouldn't expect such a thing, if it were to happen, to happen for at least a month or month and a half - the club seems bound and determined to shoot for that Astros-esque comeback scenario, no matter how improbable, and besides, it's still early enough in the season that a little waiting should garner you some added desperation from your potential trade partners - but certainly, the Dodgers with their fertile farm are the ideal organization to have these sort of discussions with. Let's hope Jim Hendry actually has the forethought to do so, and the stones to pull the trigger when the right deal presents itself.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com