Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
by Alex Ciepley
The Cubs enter the 2005 season not as the prohibitive favorites of yesteryear, but as mere contenders. How many starts will Prior and Wood give the Cubs? Will Nomar for a full year be enough to offset the losses of Sosa and Alou? Will Hawkins continue to blow it in the closer role? The questions this team brings with it onto the field are big ones. The answers start coming today.
The Cubs open this year where they've spent all spring: Arizona. This year's Diamondbacks team features a new-look lineup, with the Snakes hoping their new Killer Gs--Glaus and Green--can provide some much-needed power. The rotation has seen a makeover as well; most notable is the departure of a certain tall Cub Killer, a left-winger Chicago fans aren't sorry to see leave the league.
Wanting to learn a bit more about the Cubs' first opponents, Derek and I asked a few questions of Jim McLennan, who writes about the Diamondbacks at AZ Snake Pit. Jim was nice enough to provide Cub Town with a taste of what to expect in the opening series.
Alex: I love me some Javy Vazquez. No, he's not Randy Johnson, and yes, he destroyed my fantasy team last year, but I've kept root, root, rooting for him through his Wilderness years in Montreal and his Massacre year in New York. What do you expect from him?
Jim: I certainly don't think he'll be as bad as the second half last year, where he seemed to do all but implode. There's a lot less pressure on him in Arizona: sure, he's stepping into the Big Unit's shoes as the staff ace, but every fan knows deep down that Johnson is the kind of pitcher your team gets once in a generation. I think Vazquez has every chance of coming back to his first-half form, though I'd settle for anything even approaching that.
The issue is really whether he decides to stay in Arizona or exercises his right to leave at the end of the season. I don't expect us genuinely to contend this year, but I think if we're around the .500 mark, that'll be enough improvement to convince him we're serious about rebuilding, and give us a shot at retaining his services. If we're to contend in 2006 and beyond, a pitcher of his caliber is definitely needed, and isn't going to pop out of Triple-A for us.
Alex: I love me some Shawn Estes. Or not... what's your take on the rest of the pitching staff beyond Vazquez?
Jim: It'll be better than last year, where the chasm in results between Johnson and, in particular, the starters after Brandon Webb, yawned like the Grand Canyon. Slots 3-5 in the rotation went an average of 4-17, with a 7.22 ERA--this year HAS to be better than that, simply by blind luck. Webb will be helped by the improved defense up the middle behind him, but he needs to cut back on the major-league leading walk total he posted in 2004.
We overpaid for Russ Ortiz, and while he may become a future liability, I think he'll still be around a .500 win percentage and will save our bullpen from burn-out. Estes is undeniably the one I'd vote Most Likely To Suck, though he's a ground-ball pitcher, which might help. Or not... At time of writing the fifth spot will go either to Brad Halsey or Mike Gosling: either should be adequate and might even surprise. They've been fighting each other, start for start, in spring training, and neither has cracked much. Mind you, last season, Casey Daigle had a fine spring, and ended up with a 7.16 ERA in ten D'back starts.
Derek: The Diamondbacks acquired some new bats this offseason. Which one excites you the most? Least?
Jim: If Glaus can remain healthy - something that has eluded him since the 2002 season - he's going to be a potent power threat, something Arizona lacked entirely last year after Sexson went down (no-one hit more than 23 HR). He's been knocking the cover off the ball this spring. Shawn Green also has upside, though I do wish we hadn't signed him to a long-term contract, given the prospects we have coming up. Green may end up moving back to first base in 2006, and if that's the case, Chad Tracy could be on his way out.
Signing Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton was very questionable, and it looks like they'll be 1-2 in the lineup, which is even dumber. Although both are good defensively, having both playing regularly won't help a team which finished dead last in runs scored last year. I don't like to wish ill on anyone (okay, save Barry Bonds, perhaps), but if aliens were to abduct that pair on Opening Day, I'd send a warm note of thanks. But as mentioned, I don't expect us to contend, so there's no major harm done
Derek: Young catchers Koyie Hill and Chris Snyder will both be staying with the big club, although Bob Melvin has yet to reveal who his starter will be. Both have had very nice springs. Who would you like to see get the bulk of the time? Or would you like to see more of a platoon? Why?
Jim: I'd like to see them split the time 50/50. Snyder skipped Triple-A last season, and really does not need to be sitting on the bench all season. He's probably got more long-term potential than Hill, being a couple of years younger, but almost equal in terms of tools, both offensively and defensively.
Before this spring, there was a feeling Hill was better at the plate, and Snyder behind it, but you'd be hard pushed to separate them now. Snyder sprained his thumb last weekend, but has had a splint fitted inside his glove and it should hopefully have little or no impact on his performance come Opening Day and thereafter.
Cub Town: Your predictions for the opening series?
Jim: There isn't much home advantage to be found in Phoenix when the Cubs come to town. There are a lot of Chicago expats here, especially at this time of year, when our honored winter visitors (or, as we locals call them, "goddamn snowbirds") have not yet been driven away by the first 100-degree day. So Bank One Ballpark will likely be closer to a neutral venue, perhaps even skewing blue rather than purple.
Still, the Cubs were the only NL team against whom the D'backs had a winning record last year; we took four of six. Our almost-entirely new team (eight starting position players and 4/5 of the rotation will be gone from Opening Day 2004) has a lot to prove, and the first series of the season is the best time to do it--hey, we'll be tied for the lead in the NL West on Monday morning!
The injury-enforced changes to the Cubs rotation makes a big difference - not having to face Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, in my opinion, tilts the balance of this series towards Arizona. Against them, it's very easy to see us losing two or possibly even getting swept. But facing Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster (or whoever) instead is a different prospect altogether: I think we'll take the first and third.