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.
Mark Prior - In April and May, it looked for all the world like the Prior of 2003 was back and ready to own the league again. If you remove the 5 embarrassing innings of 8 run ball Prior threw on May 1st against the Astros, The Franchise tossed 53.1 frames with a 1.86 ERA over the first two months of the season. Don't know about you, but based on that, and what I saw in those early contests, he was done being fragile and inconsistent, and was ready to take his place, full time, among the elite pitchers in the game.
That, of course, was before Brad Hawpe sent one of Prior's offerings careening off his elbow so hard it was shocking not to hear the TV-esque sound of a ricocheting bullet. It was a sickening moment, for not only did one see a man in tremendous pain, but it was obvious from the location and apparent severity of the injury that his career was in the balance.
The good news was that Prior was lucky enough (if that's the right term) to be hurt in a way that allowed him to return extremely quickly, throwing 6 innings of shutout ball against the White Sox a mere 30 days after rolling on the Wrigley Field grass, watching his baseball life flash before his eyes.
However, despite the drama inherent in his quick return, it was clear he wasn't quite right during those final months of the season, and one has to believe that he was affected in some way by lingering issues linked to his injury. His location was off, and it took an inning or three in every outing for him to settle into a groove - the outcome of his starts often decided by how much he could limit the inevitable damage in the opening frames.
Still, there is no reason to believe this will be an issue going forward, and barring some unforeseen problems, this spring promises to be the first time since the opening of the 2003 season when Prior will be both fully healthy and on schedule. Whether he can stay that way is still an open question - for although it would be foolish to challenge his fortitude, his luck is another matter - but if he can, it will go a long way toward making the Cubs a success.
Carlos Zambrano - As I pointed out earlier in the week, Big Z is the only pitcher in the Major Leagues to have each of his last three seasons end with his having thrown 200+ innings while sporting an ERA of 3.50 or below. In fact, Carlos hasn't risen above the 3.26 mark, his posting for last year.
It has, therefore, become abundantly clear that, despite all the potential wrapped up in the arms of men like Prior and Wood, that Zambrano is the most dependable, most consistently excellent pitcher on the Cub roster. He is the Ace, and any attempt to designate him otherwise is nothing short of willful obfuscation of readily available facts.
The truth is, he might very well be the Ace in a perfect world where Wood and Prior are completely healthy and able to pitch to their abilities, because even when those two talented men are at their finest, their stuff is, at best, a match for the arsenal deployed by the U.S.S. Carlos (for he is, in physicality and mentality, pure battleship), and more likely, a hair or two short.
Carlos even made strides last season in curtailing his famously over-the-top temper. So much so, that I think it's fair to believe that the only thing keeping him from a very serious run at a Cy Young award is the ability of his position-player helpmeets to score when he's on the hill. Put a decent team around this man, and he'll be bringing home some hardware.
Kerry Wood - One of the reasons I think I've grown so attached to Wood is because he is the current Cub organization in microcosm. Potential always seemingly there, always just one step away from full realization, until tragically, inevitably, he/they fall short, breaking our hearts and theirs.
That the script for Wood this coming season, as it has been revealed to us thus far, is tailor-made for this sort of maudlin journey toward unavoidable calamity should come as no surprise. Here he is, Kid K, a kid no more, surgically repaired yet again, embarking on what may be the most pivotal season of his career - one in which it will likely be decided for all time, fairly or no, whether he is to be given the chance to fulfill his promise as one of the game's elite starters, or forced to re-make himself as a dominant, if inherently reduced, Master of the Pen.
Not that there's anything wrong with 70-80 innings of electricity per year - and that's certainly what we all saw the potential for during that short time when he was, perhaps, the most intimidating reliever the Cubs have fielded in ages - it certainly worked for Dennis Eckersley.
Still, I've never gotten the feeling that Eckersley was a tragic figure of any sort, while Wood is undeniably so. The heir apparent to Nolan Ryan wasn't meant to toil at the back of the bullpen, no matter how much flourish and fame is involved in walking off the field, having recorded the final, triumphant out of an important contest.
Yet, much as I might wish differently, such may be his fate, and the organization is in no position to allow themselves the luxury of believing in his capacity for happy surprises. He will, and should, be given every chance to succeed, but contingency plans must be made, because one has to believe that this is his last chance to transform what was meant to be into what is.
Greg Maddux - Remind me, now, is part of the story of the Prodigal Son that when he finally returns home and has been around for a while - drinking milk from the carton, eating all the good chips, leaving the remote between the couch cushions - that his family realizes he's either changed a lot or that their memories of how wonderful he really was were all romantic and hazy at best?
Not that Maddux hasn't been useful - pitchers who throw 200 innings of above league average ball are that by definition - and not that anyone expected him to essentially return the 11 years he spent with the Braves intact and in the original packaging, ready for easy sale at a tidy profit on eBay, but I think it's natural to expect things above and beyond what reality is likely to grant when there is so much emotion wrapped up in the deal.
To that end, Maddux can get short shrift with regard to his recent work, especially in light of the ridiculous standard for fortyish folk set by Roger Clemens of late. In fact, understanding what the current market bears for pitchers makes Maddux and his $9M salary seem, at worst, in line with what's being given, and at best, a bit of a bargain.
Whether that's an indictment of said market, praise for Maddux, or a little of both, I'll leave for you to decide, but there's nothing wrong with being able to pencil in an ERA around 4.00 over the course of 600+ outs, and there's even less to be concerned with when you get to watch an old friend doing it.
Jerome Williams - If rumors are to be believed, the Cubs have been willing to include, or at least speak of including Williams in any number of permutations of trades for various and sundry parts of interest, the reasoning being that most potential trading partners are looking for Major League pitching in return, and with Prior and Zambrano off limits, Wood with his no-trade clause, and Maddux being in what is likely his final year, he's really the only Cub hurler available.
If, however, the Cubs are able to fulfill their various needs without using Williams as part of the payment, they'll likely have themselves a nice, cheap fifth starter who's a solid bet to be more productive than nearly anyone they're likely to pick up in the current free agent market.
Glendon Rusch - He floats, like a spirit in purgatory, between rotation and bullpen, never certain where he might land, or when he does, how long he might stay. It's a none too pleasing existence, but with a team like the Cubs, so sorely bitten by injury over the last two seasons, such disconnected shades are more necessity than luxury.
Unfortunately, at least during his time in Chicago, Rusch has only been really useful when he has begun the game, and even then he is in many ways living off his rather startlingly good performance in 2004 wherein he posted an ERA+ fully 41 points above his career numbers (an excellent 131 versus an unpleasant 90).
It is for these very reasons that one must hope, despite his two-year, $6M deal, that he is in the fold only for indemnity purposes and that, like any truly successful insurance policy, he never need be used.
Rich Hill - Among Cub prospects he has reached, if not the realm of the Untouchables, certainly the general vicinity of the province of Less Available. This status is due entirely to the accident of his left-handedness, coupled with a true, knee-buckling curveball that makes right-handers whiff, and lefties duck for cover. It is a tremendous asset, as any pitcher without a real out-pitch will attest.
That said, while the offering in question is certainly a dangerous beast, it is the only weapon in his arsenal that deserves the description. Of particular concern is his lukewarm, relatively straight fastball, which would be passable had he tremendous control, but lacking that, becomes a source of distress.
In fact, control is an issue with everything he throws, and without anything else to compliment or properly set up his evil bender, Hill becomes quite ordinary. If he can master the ability to put the ball where he wants it, learn another variety of fastball, or both, he'll be in position to be a very good pitcher. Otherwise, he'll just be a guy with one great pitch, and dreams of what could have been.
John Koronka - Rich Hill might only have one pitch, but that puts him light years ahead of Koronka, who in his three starts for the club last year showed a complete lack of even a single above average offering. From what I saw during those games, the only chance he has to be a Major League starter is to sharpen his control, and do a better job of keeping hitters off balance using his changeup.
Yet, that may not be his only path to a career in the bigs, as his time in the Arizona Fall League attests. While there, he threw 13 innings out of the bullpen against many of the better hitting prospects in the game, limiting his opposition to 8 hits, 5 walks, and no runs while striking out 11 men.
Granted, it's a super-small sample size, and without bearing witness to any of the proceedings it's impossible to tell if the sudden success is due to some new level of ability, or merely blind luck, but if nothing else it should encourage the Cubs to see if Koronka can, in fact, re-make himself as a middle reliever, because he has practically no shot as a starter.
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.