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The Disappointment Grows
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.