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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

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.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Jonathan said...

It's interesting to speculate what Kenny Williams would have done in Hendry's place -- maybe pass on Nomar (who I love and think gets a bad rap -- I'd have taken a 1-year roll of the dice with him too) and picked up a (Japanese?) shortstop for $3 mil and a reliever for $5 mil. Of course in the background there's always the Tribune company and its ability to procure a decent reliever at will. Then again I'm one of these loons who thinks converting Kerry Wood to reliever isn't the nuttiest idea in the world (I know, I know...)

10:03 AM, May 11, 2005

 
Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Jonathan,

I don't think it's such a goofy idea to use a guy like Wood as a closer. My only concern is that his control has been so bad that his problems would be magnified by trying to get the ball over in pressure situations. Guys with control problems tend to end up as starters simply because they need more work to get themselves into a groove.

5:09 PM, May 11, 2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stu,

Certainly there is enough blame to go around, but I'd like to throw into the mix one name that I have not heard mentioned as a reason for the Cubs woes. Mr Larry Rothchild, the highly respected veteran pitching coach of the chicago cubs has presided over a starting staff that seems to most fans like the stuff that a pitching coach's dreams are made of, and yet, he has yet to get as much out of them as thier talent sugggests that he should.

Kerry Wood has one of the most electric arms in the game today--a fastball in the mid 90s--and, when on, a breakingball that could stupify even the best of major league hitter--yet he has yet to win 15 games in his career.

Mark Prior came to the league a nearly finished product at 21. In 2003 he went 18-6 despite missing 2-3 weeks after his baseruning collision in August. He is, in my mind, one of the most valuable arms in baseball-yet injuries and soreness have been an issue throughout much of his young career.

Carlos Zambrano--the fiery young kid with dynamite stuff has been as good as any pitcher on this team over the past 2+ years. With the stuff he has, he is a potential 20 game winner for the Cubs.

Maddux and Dempster round out what was the projected starting rotation for this team. Maddux, though not the pitcher he used to be, is good for 15 wins, and Dempster is a former all star, 15 game winner pitching 5th in the rotation. This is a stellar staff--at least it should be.

But, as we all know, the Cubs have been plagued with injuries over the past two years. Wood and Prior both began the season with soreness, and, in wood's case, it persisted until a stint on the DL was called for. Additional bullpen injuries have forced the cubs to shuffle the roles of thier players, and prevented them from establishing any consistency--which is paramount to establishing a positive chemistry. Now, in his last start Zambrano, too, was removed from the game prematurely with soreness in his elbow.

The injuries to the Cubs staff seem not to be structural, as the MRIs tend to reveal nothing. Rather, they are wear and tear, tendinitis, and muscle strains. Larry rothchild regualarly insists that there is nothing wrong with the machanics of his frequently aching pitchers, and yet the manner in which they are throwing is causing discomfort for a disproportionate number of the Cubs hurlers. Might it not be reasonable to conclude that the training and mechanical methods that Larry Rothchild employs for his pitchers is contributing to this problem. At the very least, it seems, his methods are not doing much to stave off injuries.

Perhaps another pitching coach would be able to tap into this staff and get perfomrance to match the talent that it has. Wood has never reached his potential--Rothchild has not been able to bring it out of him in 6+ years working with him. Prior is throwing well now, but something is amiss when a strong, young pitcher, who, as I recall came up touted as having some of the best mechanics people had ever seen in a pitcher at his level, seems to be perpetually dealing with soreness in his arm.

Soon we will have the results of Zambranos MRI. Let us hope it is nothing structural, but, if it is not might that not be construed as one more peice of evidence that there is a fundamental problem with the Cubs piching approach. Zambrano is 23 years old, and as strong as a bull--he should not be having these issues.

I am no doctor--nor have I any experience as a coach. I know Rothchild is highly thought of. Perhaps I am way off on this--but just as you suggested we go to the source, the architect of the team for an explanation of the Cubs problems, I think that when looking at an oft under-achieving--perpetually injured pitching staff, it seems reasonable to turn an eye towards thier captain.

12:07 PM, May 15, 2005

 
Anonymous Jim Garner said...

I agree with Anonymous, and wonder also about the trainers who have been working with the pitchers. When injuries emerge in Spring training, as they have the past couple years, You can't blame Baker for riding his staff hard--something's wrong in the preparation and the ongoing training.

8:58 AM, May 16, 2005

 
Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Hey, folks...

I agree with anon and Jim G about looking more closely at instruction and health management. The Cubs, unlike any other team in the majors, have a former pitcher (Dick Pole) as their bench coach as well as a pitching coach (Larry Rothschild). It's difficult to tell who does what, as neither man makes himself available much to the press, and Dusty Baker doesn't spend much time explaining who does what on the coaching staff.

Some believe that Rothschild, who was there before Baker came along, is Hendry's man; he's the only member of the coaching staff that Baker didn't himself select. Most clubs tend to have one coach who is there as a conduit to the front office (some say a 'pipeline' of inside information), and Rothschild could be that guy.

I'm not convinced that either Pole or Rothschild are endowed with world-class theories on pitching. Both are old-school guys, and they (and Baker) don't have a problem with riding their pitchers hard.

The trainers might be a problem. Last year's trainer, Sandy Krum, was fired after the season and said the organization had failed to give him its full support. Like many teams, the Cubs can be extraordinarily cryptic with injury information, often denying that there are any problems with an injured player until he's forced to the disabled list. That tends to lead the more skeptical among us to fear for the worst any time someone pulls up lame.

Scouting is another problem. The Cubs often seem to think with their hearts instead of their heads. Kerry Wood was worked extraordinarily hard in high school, and the Cubs picked him anyway, and he blew out his elbow in spring '99.

And then there's Prior, a tough guy who plays hard--and gets hurt a lot. A major-league scout whom I spoke with earlier this season said that he thinks that Prior will always be fragile because the finish of his delivery leaves his elbow in a strange spot.

Regardless of what I wrote, Hendry is not the only problem with this franchise. As long as the money keeps rolling in, there's little pressure to produce a winner at all costs.

1:53 PM, June 01, 2005

 
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