Who's to Blame for This?
The Cubs are 14-18, in third place in the National League central, six games out.
Who's to blame?
Is it Latroy Hawkins, asked to close when others proved physically unable, and who has blown several key saves and is routinely booed at Wrigley Field when he comes into games?
Is it Kerry Wood, the perennial talisman of Cubs fans who has never enjoyed success equal to the quality of his raw stuff?
Is it the immensely physically gifted Corey Patterson, the center fielder who has barely progressed as an offensive player since taking over as a regular in 2001?
Is it the decaying old corpse of some billy goat, as one much-advertised brewery that produces tasteless, "beer"-like swill, would have you believe?
Is it Dusty Baker, the formerly successful manager of the Giants whose cool, collected Buddhist/John Lee Hooker/everpresent toothpick/motorcyclist aura hasn't held off the fans who now boo him when he leaves the dugout?
Is it God, who has sent the Cubs a series of injury plagues affecting Nomar Garciaparra, Wood, Joe Borowski, and Todd Walker?
How about General Manager Jim Hendry?
During the Cubs' mediocre first five weeks, Hendry has escaped criticism, largely because there are so many other easy targets. Hawkins has been brutal; Wood didn't pitch well even before he was hurt; Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano have been inconsistent. Chad Fox' elbow gave out again, and Mike Remlinger hasn't picked up the slack. Walker's been out since the first week. Jerry Hairston has been worse than average at second base, a complete non-factor. Patterson has eight homers, but just one double and eight walks. Michael Barrett's on-base percentage is a robust .272.
Sure, a lot has gone wrong at Wrigley Field. But nearly every team gets hit hard by injuries; the difference is whether a team has the depth and ability to make up for it. The Cubs entered this year with a bench even thinner than it had been in 2004, when it was already mediocre. Many players Chicago was counting on were either historically or in the very recent past injury-prone (Wood, Mark Prior, Fox, Borowski, Ryan Dempster, Garciaparra, Hollandsworth), unproven when asked to do critical jobs (Patterson, Hawkins), or of questionable value even when healthy (Jose Macias, Henry Blanco).
Let's start with the starters. The decision to let free-agent hurler Matt Clement leave for Boston was fiscally motivated, but carried with it the assumption that 1)Dempster was fully recovered from his elbow surgery and ready to start, 2)Wood and Prior were healthy, and 3) the bullpen wouldn't require endless reinforcements. Strike one, strike two, and strike three. Dempster isn't back in his rhythm, and has been even wilder than Clement was ripped for being; Prior, while back and dominating now, is a ticking time bomb; Wood isn't even on the radar; and the bullpen has required help from both putative swingman Glendon Rusch and, lately, Dempster. Matt Clement, meanwhile, is alive and healthy in Boston. Rule one would seem to be to hold on to healthy pitchers with good stuff. Can that be overstated??
The bullpen has been horrific, but a sober examination of the pre-season evidence would have suggested a cocked eye. Joe Borowski missed most of last year with shoulder troubles; Latroy Hawkins was only adequate as his fill-in. Mike Remlinger was troubled by a sore shoulder much of 2004, and is 93 years old. Well, not quite. Chad Fox, a non-roster invitee, had been disabled with elbow troubles in 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2004. The rookies of 2004, Mike Wuertz and Jon Leicester, were often impressive but struggled with control.
Hendry's moves to improve the bullpen included...signing Fox as well as other free-agent jetsam like Stephen Randolph and Eddie Oropesa--in other words, nothing at all. Hendry crossed his fingers and hoped that everyone would be healthy. Unfortunately, crossing one's fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy is not really a strategy.
It's almost a truism to point out that Cub hitters don't work the strike zone, don't draw walks, and as a result have low on-base percentages. They don't score very many runs, largely because when they hit homers, they tend not to have as many men on base as you'd like. In general, Wrigley Field is still a good hitter's park, and the Cubs suffer from a park illusion--they seem like good hitters in home games, but aren't really scoring enough, and on the road, they're just not effective.
The poster boy for this is Corey Patterson, who despite endless tutoring on bunting, pitch recognition, and the like, has not developed into a leadoff hitter. Of course, this is hardly his fault; when Patterson was rocketing through the minors--he played fewer than three full seasons before graduating to the majors--he didn't walk much either, and apparently nobody thought this was a problem. The major leagues are not a tryout camp; you can't "learn" to walk when you're facing the best pitchers in the world. Chicago Cubs management, historically blind to the value of patience at bat, might want to stop banging its head against the door waiting for Patterson to become a top-flight leadoff man. It ain't gonna happen.
Other Cubs, even the quality ones, struggle with this. Garciaparra and Ramirez don't walk much; left field platooners Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois don't draw passes either. Michael Barrett's career high in walks is 40. Neifi Perez, who's been surprisingly effective, walks about as often as a newborn. Only Derrek Lee and Jeromy Burnitz, the Cubs' big-name free-agent acquisition for 2005 (a 36-year-old outfielder who hit .244 with 13 homers in road games in 2004), are patient hitters who work the count.
The result? The Cubs don't score many runs despite high enough batting averages and impressive home run counts.
And the bench? The less said, the better. Outfielders Ben Grieve and Hollandsworth are hardly game-breakers, and infielders Ronny Cedeno and Jose Macias are rarely used. Macias, a favorite because he is willing to play several positions, provides nothing but speed.
It's not as if the Cubs haven't had lousy benches in past years. Remember the 2003 pinch-hitting struggles of Lenny Harris, or the 2004 nightmare that was Tom Goodwin? Quality reserves are available every off-season. The Cubs even signed a professional pinch-hitter, Dave Hansen, and invited him to spring training. He didn't make the team, apparently because all he could do was hit. At least that quality could differentiate him from the rest of Chicago's bench.
So...an injury-prone starting staff prone to wildness even when healthy...a bullpen full of reclamation projects with questionable arms...a lineup with utterly predictable career patterns and an out-of-date offensive philosophy...and a mediocre bench. While Dusty Baker doesn't always make good decisions, what more, exactly, is he supposed to do with this team? As Hendry congratulated himself for inking Nomar Garciaparra to a one-year deal, the holes created by the departures of Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa have gotten bigger and bigger as Ramirez has slumped and Garciaparra went down.
It isn't all hopeless. Derrek Lee has been great, though he will soon come back to this solar system. Perez has hit better than expected, but that's probably a short-term effect. Jason Dubois, the only quality position player the minor league system has produced recently, may get a full shot now that Hollandsworth has regressed to his non-Coors Field level. Ramirez ought to be better as his groin recovers. Pitchers Zambrano, Maddux, and Prior are still a solid top three, and Hendry may be forced to make a move to bring in a genuine major league relief pitcher.
With the Cubs struggling just to reach .500, you can rip the players all you want. Rip Dusty Baker. There's enough bad performance to go around. But one man is the architect of this team: Jim Hendry. Remember him, and his curious actions and inactions, when passing around the blame.