Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
by Derek Smart
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.
Leadoff Man (to be co-fulfilled with one of the first three defined needs)
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.