Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Monthly archives: June 2006


The Bear
2006-06-27 08:02
by Derek Smart

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
2006-06-15 12:12
by Derek Smart

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
2006-06-12 08:12
by Derek Smart

'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
2006-06-09 08:13
by Derek Smart

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!

  • Were I in the midst of receiving an unanesthetized root canal in full view of a live broadcast of a Cub game, I would be forced to close my eyes and concentrate on the chaos in my mouth in order to block out the pain of seeing that team play baseball.

  • After the root canal was over, I would go home and watch the game on TiVo, just in case I missed something good.

  • That I can admit point two would follow point one is a positive declaration of my self-awareness. However, that point two follows point one in the first place is a sign of mental illness severe enough to make Charles Manson cower in the corner.

  • What Mark Prior will "bring" once he joins the team is unknowable until it's actually brought, but last night's rehab start may have given us a glimpse of what to expect. Prior threw five innings, and over his final four frames he only gave up one hit and two walks while striking out four. However, in the first, he gave up three straight hits with two out, the final knock being a three-run homer that accounted for the only runs he gave up on the night.

    My point, if there is one at all, is this: there was a pattern to the games Prior threw after returning from his elbow injury last year, and they exactly mirrored what he did last night - rough first inning, followed by X innings of solid work. I don't know why they were that way, but they were, and with last night's outing along the same lines, it's worth keeping an eye on.

  • Carbon Monoxide detectors are extremely loud. Particularly when you're asleep. Concurrently, two-year old girls who refuse to take their fingers out of their ears are both adorable and heart-breaking.

  • Kerry Wood is staying put. I just can't see a way for him to raise his value enough in the next month and a half to make the organization willing to bite the bullet and send him on his way. My bet is that the Cubs feel the embarrassment of buying out his contract at year's end and allowing him to ply his trade as a free agent would be far less than the shame of having to secure Wood's assent to a deal that would likely amount to "Former Face of Team" in exchange for the minor league equivalent of Jerry Hairston. Goodness knows, those deals only get made after a full-throttle PR campaign to turn the fans against the player in question.

  • Apparently, according to what Lily Tomlin said last night on the Daily Show, one of my favorite movie exchanges of all time (excerpt: "Put Edwina back in bowl!") was improvised. Having an acting background, and seeing this sort of thing all the time, I think Jon has a hell of a point.

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.

2006-06-06 08:23
by Derek Smart

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.

  • I was concerned after the first inning that Buchholz had found the form that helped him sport a 2.16 ERA over his first 33.1 innings this season. His fastball was zipping, and he had a nice breaking pitch, so worry that he could effectively shut the Cubs down was not unfounded.

    Turns out, I had little cause for consternation. As good as Buchholz looked in the first - and one could see why the Astros wanted him in the deal with Philly for Billy Wagner - he looked horrible from then on, leaving all his pitches in the zone, and often up where a fella could really get a hold of it. Certainly, one can see the potential, but the lack of polish is apparent as well.

  • Was anyone else kinda waiting for Big Z to belt that dinger in the second? I'm not going to say I called it, because I didn't, but I wasn't surprised either. Carlos seems to hit very well in that ballpark, and there was something about the at bat that looked ripe for the dramatics to come. He kept fouling off fastball after fastball, and one could just sense that a breaking ball was coming and that, more likely than not, it was going to be a cookie. Then on pitch seven of the at bat: frisbee time.

    By the way, it's not often you can look at a homer that bounces off the top of the wall to get over and declare that the fella got all of it, but my goodness, Z hit that ball hard. The only ball you could legitimately make a case for being hit harder on the night was Michael Barrett's laser shot to left, and that's saying something.

  • Just to expound on this idea of the failing Astros' offense, since the beginning of May, their best hitter has been Mike Lamb, and it's not even close. His .364/.412/.545 line leads everyone on the team with more than 40 plate appearances in the span, besting the nearest competitor in AVG (Eric Bruntlett) by 68 points, the nearest in OBP (Bruntlett) by 45 points, and the nearest in SLG (Morgan Ensberg) by 87 points.

    Of course, the fact that you could make a reasonable case that Eric Bruntlett has been the team's second best hitter over that period is even more damning. Much like the Cubs over that stretch, the Astros are a least a little better offensively than they've been, but also much like the Cubs, they may not be better enough to matter.

  • Speaking of hitting since May, here's what Jacque Jones has done since his horrid April mercifully ended:


    Zoicks! That's raking, my friends, and while I'm still not a fan of his signing, the bad contract isn't his fault, and a month of that kind of production is good enough for me to declare an end to any cheap shots at his expense for the time being. A few weeks of April-style work and it's back on, but for now, in my eyes, Jacque has earned a reprieve.

  • It got mention on the broadcast, but the play was good enough to get further notice here: in the top of the fifth, Todd Walker's baserunning was as perfect as can be. One isn't often presented with the sort of perfect storm of placement of struck ball and proximity to the base given to Todd in that situation, but kudos to him for recognizing that he had an opportunity to not just go down meekly, but force the fielder to make a decision.

    By stopping in the basepath, yet not backing up too far, he forced Biggio to go for the sure out at first, and for the play on him at second to be a tag rather than a force. Like I said, you have to have a lot of things go just so to have the opportunity to react the way he did, but he saw it was there and made the right choice, and in doing so left me with the question: what would Jerry Hairston have done?

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!
2006-06-05 09:57
by Derek Smart

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.

  • If the Cubs were actually in this thing, the injury to Albert Pujols would be a huge stroke of luck, but they aren't, and even if they were I'd be sad to see him forced to sit in what was clearly shaping up to be his best season, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. No matter who you root for, if you're a fan of the game at all, Pujols going down is terrible news, because you don't often get to see greatness of his caliber at the height of its powers. Best of luck to him on a speedy recovery.

  • The only thing Cub fans should have taken away from the club's 14 inning victory on Friday night/Saturday morning was that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The team did not play well, and as anyone watching the game saw, the only reason they came away with the victory was because, for whatever reason, at critical junctures in the contest, the Cardinals played worse.

    The Cubs left 13 men on base, 8 of them coming before the ninth inning, but that's a deceptively low total, as the Cubs also hit into 4 double plays in those first 8 frames, and got caught stealing twice - once on a fairly legitimate attempt by Tony Womack in the first, and once on a complete knucklehead play by Ronny Cedeno, going too early on an apparent squeeze. That's a total of 14 men the Cubs got on base in eight innings but couldn't get home to score - or a scoring rate of one per eight baserunners.

    The Cardinals, on the other hand, left 8 of their 17 LOB after the ninth, unable to capitalize on bases loaded situations on two occasions. In their defense, one situation had the bags juiced with two out, and the other filled 'em up with one out and Josh Hancock forced to bat, but at some point, when you're continuing to get guys on, you have to get one of them in, and luckily for the Cubs, St. Louis was simply unable.

    It was a sloppy, dull game, and if justice were properly served, I'd imagine both teams would have come away losers.

  • In one of those instances where a performance is helpful in the short term, but potentially damaging in the long term, Glendon Rusch threw a solid if unspectacular game on Saturday, and likely got himself at least one more start, and probably nailed down the gig until Mark Prior returns.

    Granted, it's not like the club is swimming in options at the moment, having seen nearly every pitcher they've brought up for a start mid-year implode in spectacular fashion, but any outcome that prolong's Rusch's stay in a Cub uniform has negative implications down the road, no matter how much fun it is in the present.

  • Despite Glendon's good work, the pitching hero on Saturday was Roberto Novoa, who threw three innings while only giving up a double and a walk, and managing to do it all on only 33 pitches. It's pretty clear, in fact, from watching the lineup the Cardinals were forced to run out there, even before the injury to Pujols, that a large portion of their lineup has hacktastic tendencies similar to those sported by nearly every Cub.

    If you were to take the Cardinals' walk total for the season, remove Pujols' contribution and add back in an optimistic total like that run up by the team's player who's second most likely to stroll - Jim Edmonds - you'd find the Redbirds sitting one walk ahead of the 13th place Brewers in the National League, and only nine free passes ahead of 14th place Colorado. Beyond Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen, St. Louis does not have men who are terribly willing to keep their bats on their shoulders, and that could be one of the major side-effects of Price Albert's owie.

  • Speaking of impressive bullpen work, Carlos Marmol looked like the real deal on Sunday, manageing to both light up the gun, and snap off some nasty breaking stuff, while staying in the vicinity of the strike zone often enough to stay out of trouble. He also had some of that "effectively wild" thing going on, made most clear during Hector Luna's at bat when he buzzed him up and in, causing Luna to look like a man who simply didn't want to die during the rest of his turn.

    If nothing else, I hope the team uses a more conservative approach with Marmol than they have with some of the other youngsters they've brought on board, using him out of the pen for a while during this period of need while Scott Williamson is on the DL, and resisting the temptation to stick him in the rotation.

    I know two innings isn't much to go on, but based on his AA stats, this kid's a keeper, and perhaps taking the route the Twins have used to such success with the likes of Johan Santana, and now Francisco Liriano, would be the most prudent. Then again, that would imply that this organization can learn on the fly, and I've yet to see any evidence of that.

  • It didn't take long for me to become frustrated with Dusty Baker's "Phil Nevin Era" lineup construction, but then, I don't know what else I expected. I understand that Nevin has issues with right-handers, and Tony Womack has actually been less horrifying than expected, so playing Sir Woe in front of Nevin isn't the worst idea ever hatched by Baker.

    However, using Neifi! instead of Todd Walker with a lefty on the mound, simply because there's a lefty on the mound, is pure folly. Not only does it go against the idea that the reason to acquire Nevin in the first place was to allow Walker to play second while somebody who could hit a little took over at first, but Walker's recent splits don't even support sitting against southpaws.

    True, Walker began the year completely unable to connect against lefties, hitting .130/.286/.130 against them in 23 at bats in April, but he's assaulted them at a .333/.393/.583 clip in 24 at bats since the beginning of May. There is no reason short of injury or blackmail for that on-field configuration to be sent out again, and you'd best believe if it is, you'll be hearing me scream about it.

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
2006-06-02 04:15
by Derek Smart

Here's an interesting bit that I missed yesterday from Steve Hensen in the LA Times:

General Manager Ned Colletti is expected to explore acquiring a veteran starter by the July 31 trading deadline. Greg Maddux is a possibility, although the Dodgers passed up an opportunity this week to acquire a different player from the Chicago Cubs.

The versatile Jerry Hairston was traded to the Texas Rangers on Wednesday for infielder Phil Nevin after the Dodgers said they weren't interested. Colletti had discussions with his Cubs counterpart, Jim Hendry, and dispatched a scout to evaluate Hairston, an eight-year veteran who can play outfield and infield.

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.