Five Questions: Chicago Cubs

The ’07 Cubs were pretty darn good. They were clearly better than such traditional rivals as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. They had a little dropoff in power at third base, and their best-hitting outfielder missed some time. But the starting pitching was better than in ’06 and the last day of the regular season found Chicago in first place.

With all the key players back, why not a world championship in ’08? Bet money on it!

So much for the Cubs of Frank Chance and Wildfire Schulte and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and the last Cubs World Series winner. What of the century-later Cubs of Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano and Carlos “Two Fist” Zambrano?

The relevant questions:

1. Will youth serve?

Used to be, baseball people talked about the importance of strength “up the middle.” A line through the middle of the diamond starts with the catcher and ends with the center fielder. The Cubs figure to start the season with a catcher, Geovany Soto, who has 30 games of major league experience; his backup, Henry Blanco, never a major league starter, was healthy enough to play in just 22 games last season.

The apparent starting center fielder, Felix Pie, can count his major league hits on his toes and fingers and yours, and have a couple of digits left over. The team’s fallback is rookie Sam Fuld, whose cup of coffee with the Cubs last September barely had time to cool.

Soto had a hot bat in the minors and (briefly) majors last year. Blanco is a respected vet. Pie, with good speed and strong glove, has been regarded, seemingly forever, as a star in waiting. Fuld quickly made an impression on fans and Wrigley Field’s brick walls with spectacular catches. But is this a lineup for a team with championship ambition?

Precedent says no. Soto’s a rookie. In the wild card era, only one team with a rookie catcher starting the majority of its games has gone on to win the Series. (Terry Steinbach’s rookie season with the 1989 A’s was the best of his 14.) Pie has barely more than rookie experience; Fuld doesn’t. In the wild card era, only one team with a rookie center field regular (St. Louis ’82, Willie McGee) has won the Series. (Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury took over only late last season.)

Winning it all with inexperience in both spots? Winning it all with a center fielder (Pie) who’s labored in the minors since 2001 and had a .604 OPS last season? Well, the previous ’08 Cubs had light-hitting Johnny Kling and Jimmy Slagle at catcher and center field. That turned out okay.

2. Who’ll finish when the finisher starts?

So you have an establisher closer—not the greatest, not the most consistent, but good enough to have been the ninth-inning man for the past three seasons. Keep him there, or try for better?

Ryan Dempster never was one of the automatic, he’s-in-you’re-out guys. His ninth innings were usually an adventure, as attested by his high-fours ERAs and 16 relief losses the past two years. Still, he has 87 saves in 101 career tries; that 86 percent career success rate matches, say, Jason Isringhausen, who’s been a pretty decent reliever.

But the Cubs are gambling they can do better than Ryan’s hope, ditching the known and gambling they can do better with one of three pitchers who aren’t exactly sure things as closers:

  • Kerry Wood, who needs no introduction to baseball fans or orthopedic surgeons. It seems clear that his right arm isn’t up for more than an inning’s exertion at a time, so the Cubs figure that inning might as well be the ninth. Career saves on his resume? Uh, none.
  • Bob Howry, whose last stint as primary closer was with the White Sox in 1999. Since then, he hasn’t had double-digit saves in any season and hasn’t sparkled in that category: He’s blown almost as many chances as he’s converted (25 of 53).
  • Carlos Marmol, who has the potential to be the best of the lot. His numbers last year, at age 24, were Joba Chamberlain-like, and he did it over the whole season. Strikeouts per nine innings: 12.46. Hits per nine: 5.32. Opponents’ batting average: 1.69. Saves? You would ask. One.

    Dempster, meanwhile, is presumed to be a member of the starting rotation, leading a pack of candidates, but not a lock to join Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill.

    3. Will the Cubs land Brian Roberts?

    Talk of the potential trade with the Orioles has been going on approximately as long as the Mideast peace negotiations. The idea is that the Cubs would give Baltimore some youngsters in return for one of the Orioles’ few players who isn’t too young or too old. This would allow the O’s to finish last in the American League East cheaply rather than expensively.

    The deal would give the Cubs a genuine leadoff man to supplant high-strikeout, low-OBP, big-power Soriano. And they’d get a competent second baseman, freeing versatile incumbent Mark DeRosa to fill in elsewhere when the inevitable injuries hit. Moving Soriano and DeRosa around also would upset the routines and egos of those two worthies, but if it ain’t controversy, it ain’t the Cubs.

    Aside from that, there’d be no downside. The proposed deal involves the Cubs giving up only replaceable spare parts, and Roberts would be a boost to an offense that has too many soft spots even if Soto is better than anyone has the right to expect.

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    The Hardball Times Season Preview projects Roberts for an OPS of .800 (only Lee, Soriano and Aramis Ramirez among the regulars last year exceeded that), 36 steals (more than any 2007 Cub) and 66 bases on balls (only Lee topped that for the traditionally swing-at-anything Chicagoans).

    4. Will we root, root, root for the homer team?

    For much of last season, the Cubs had a misdeameanor offense—nothing big. They had four players in double figures in home runs, and one of them, DeRosa, sneaked in with No. 10 in late September.

    Despite playing half their games in the supposedly homer-friendly confines of Wrigley Field, Alfonso Soriano hit no home runs in April and four in May, Derrek Lee went the first three months with six homers total and Armais Ramirez hit three out of the park, total, in July and August. These are hitters who’ve hit as many as 46 (Lee and Soriano) and 38 (Ramirez) in a season.

    The Cubs stayed within sniffing distance of the Central Division lead for much of the season because the pitching was decent and because, well, because it was the NL Central—think NCAA basketball’s mid-majors. Then, September. Boom. Soriano, back from a month off after pulling up like Barbaro, 14 homers. Lee seven. Ramirez eight. The team hit 45 that month, a pace that would break the major league team record if kept up for a whole season.

    Since last season, the Cubs have added Japan baseball veteran KOH-skay foo-koo-DOUGH-may (pronounced Kosuke Fukudome), who has twice hit 30-plus homers over the Chunichi Dragons’ short home fences (328 feet down the lines). And they may wind up with Roberts. Both are projected to produce double-figures homers.

    With their September power surge, the 2007 Cubs won 17 games, matching their season high for one month, and qualified to get swept in the NL Division Series by Arizona. Three games, one Chicago homer.

    Which team is real? That’s the question, right?

    5. Will Zell sell (and what)?

    CHICAGO, Oct. 1, 2008 – If the Cubs make the World Series, they won’t be able to play in the stadium formerly known as Wrigley Field, owner Sam Zell announced today. They will play their home games in Milwaukee.

    The Cubs’ home park, recently christened Preparation H Park Presented by Flomax, will be used during the week of the Series for a rap concert. That, said its plainspoken owner, will enable him to pack far more people into The Prep.

    “It’s my @#$%^& business,” said billionaire Zell. “Every Fifty Cent counts.”

    Zell, who bought the Cubs and their nearly century-old Wrigley Field as part of a media conglomerate, has said he’ll sell the baseball properties. First, though, he clearly intends to bleed all the dollars he can out of those disposable items, with naming rights to the iconic stadium as one opportunity.

    A Chicago Tribune reporter pointed out that Cubs fans haven’t seen their team in a World Series in 63 years and might be a trifle upset with him for shipping the Series games out of town. “@#$%^& them,” explained Zell, displaying the characteristic command of the language that has charmed his new newspaper employees. “And @#%^ you, too. Do I tell you how to run your business?”

    “#$%^&* right I do.”

    Zell owns the Tribune, too.

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    Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.

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