Monday, April 17, 2006

A Crazy Idea

I'm waiting for the Cubs vs. Dodgers to start from Chavez Ravine, so I have a few minutes to share my crazy idea about how the Cubs can improve their team. In order to fully appreciate this idea, you'll need to have an open mind, suspend judgment, and disregard no trade clauses.

The purpose of this idea is to improve the Cubs position players and to add a player to the team that is an all-star quality player who is a leader and will be a fixture on the Cubs for years to come. Here's my crazy idea:

Step #1 -- Rumors are swirling that the Marlins are taking offers for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. There have been some thoughts that the Cubs could get both players, but I think the Marlins would do much better separating the two and dealing each individually. With that in mind, my crazy idea starts with trading for D-Train. If they can get Cabrera too, that would be great. But for purposes of this post, we'll stick with Willis.

In order to get Willis, it's going to cost us a couple of low dollar, high potential players. Remember, the Marlins are in the middle of their austerity program, so they're not going to be looking to bring in any high dollar talent. In that case, I could see a trade involving Rich Hill and Felix Pie going to Florida in exchange for Willis. Some will argue that Pie is the future of our outfield, but you can't expect to trade guys with no potential when you're going after one of the premier pitchers in the league.

Is this a realistic trade? The Cubs and Marlins have a good relationship and the lines of communication between the two is open. Both Pie and Hill are highly thought of prospects, and because of the Marlins low payroll, they are a team of prospects. I think this deal can get done.

Step #2 -- With D. Willis on the Cubs, they will have a tremendous amount of depth in their starting rotation. Assuming the Willis deal gets done in June or early July, the Cubs rotation should include Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood and Dontrelle Willis (not necessarily in that order), with Sean Marshall, Jerome Williams, and Wade Miller in the wings. The Cubs would have a ton of starting pitching that they could include in a potential trade.

So who needs pitching? The short answer is just about everyone, so let me rephrase the question. Who needs pitching, would be willing to make a trade and has a player(s) that they would be willing to trade and the Cubs would be interested in acquiring? Tops on my list is the NY Yankees.

The Yankees are in desperate need of pitching. They have some of the best position players in the game, but they are going to need pitching in order to make it to the post season. So why wouldn't they just trade for Willis? Good question. I'm glad you asked.

The Yankees are always playing to win now. That means they make a lot of moves and over the years, that has negatively impacted their farm system. In other words, they just don't have the prospects to deal with Florida. What they have are a lot of high dollar players and the Marlins aren't interested in high dollar players.

So who would the Yankees be willing to part with in order to get some top flight pitching from the Cubs? I know it sounds crazy, but how about Alex Rodriguez? That's right, A-Rod.

One of the Yankees top minor league prospects is Eric Duncan, a highly touted third baseman. With A-Rod at third, Duncan will not be seeing the Big Leagues any time soon. And if the Yankees really want to get a top starter (which they desperately need), they're going to have to give up something of value. A-Rod is definitely something of value.

What would this once-in-a-lifetime trade cost the Cubs. Well, we've already determined that it is going to cost us some pitching. First, the Cubs will have to give up either Mark Prior or Dontrelle Willis. My guess is that Carlos Zambrano will be off limits and the Yankees won't be interested in Maddux or Wood. I have lost some faith in Prior this year. I hope he gets healthy and stays healthy, but I have my concerns. I think the trade will cost the Cubs Mark Prior, but I'd certainly be willing to give up Willis in his stead if that's what the Yankees want.

Of course, it's going to take more than just Mark Prior to get A-Rod. Considering how Sean Marshall has been pitching, I'm guessing that the Yankees will want Marshall as well as Prior. I'm still okay with this trade.

Will it take anyone else? Again, thanks for asking. I believe that it will take another player, but who? Honestly, I don't know who it might be, but I'm thinking Brian Dopriak or Todd Walker or Jerry Hairston or Angel Pagan or any combination of these players. For argument's sake, let's say it will be Dopriak and Hairston.

So here's what we have:

Deal #1 -- Cubs get: Dontrelle Willis Marlins get: Felix Pie & Rich Hill
Deal #2 -- Cubs get Alex Rodriguez Yankees get: Mark Prior, Sean Marshall, Jerry Hairston & Brian Dopriak.

I know some people will have trouble accepting two trades that result in the Cubs giving up six players in exchange for two. But look at the two players the Cubs get. I don't understand this concern at all. Looking at these trades from a different perspective, The Cubs will be giving up a top flight starting pitcher, four prospects, and a utility player in exchange for another top flight starting pitcher and the best player in the game. In my mind, that's not too bad. In fact, it's pretty darn good.

I know another concern will be the Cubs giving up Mark Prior. He's a good pitcher and I understand not being overly anxious to lose him, but the Cubs are never going to get substantially better if all of the team's good players are off limits to trades. One of the problems Cubs fans have had in the past is that they fall in love with Cubs players and never want to see them leave, even if it means it will improve the team. The Cubs have to be willing to move some of their better players in order to build a better team.

Some people might wonder why the Cubs would want A-Rod. After all, we already have a pretty darn good third baseman in Aramis Ramirez. What? Have you forgotten? Before being traded to the Yankees, A-Rod was considered one of the best shortstops in the game. Ronny Cedeno has shown a lot of promise, but come on. A-Rod is a proven all-star caliber shortstop and the Cubs would be foolish to give up on his proven ability in favor of Cedeno's potential. After all, Cedeno would have to turn himself in to one of the greatest shortstops in history in order to just be as good as A-Rod. A-Rod has already done it.

That's my crazy idea. Let the ridicule and name calling begin.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Beating the Bad Teams

In my last post, I promised to share a ridiculous idea I have for improving the Cubs. However, I'm not ready to share it yet. It's not that the idea isn't fleshed out. I'm just not ready for the ridicule that will surely follow my sharing of this idea. Maybe soon...

Instead, I want to talk about the Cubs penchant for playing poorly against clearly inferior teams. This has been going on for a few years. In fact, I just had the thought that this penchant may coincide with Dusty Baker's tenure, but to be honest, I'm not sure.

Anyway, for the past few years the Cubs have had a difficult time beating some of the worst teams in the NL. For instance, they have played poorly in recent years against the Expos, Brewers, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Some of these teams are improved, but I'm talking about when they were really bad.

If the Cubs are going to be a legit contender this year, they are going to have to beat these types of teams. Unfortunately, after losing two out of three this week to the hapless Reds, it looks like history may be repeating itself.

Tony LaRussa has a philosophy that he uses to approach each series. He doesn't expect to win every game. In fact, he knows that no matter how good his team might be, they're still going to loss a good pecrcentage of their games. Instead, LaRussa sets out to simply win each series. For instance, in a three game series, LaRussa sets out to win two games. He's not opposed to sweeping the series. He just doesn't expect it. Think what you will about Tony LaRussa, but it seems to me that this philosophy has served him pretty well over the years.

Now it's on to Pittsburgh. Let's win two out of three.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

My Beef With Jim Hendry

I've been thinking recently about why I have become disenchanted with Jim Hendry. Over the past few years, I have been a fan of Hendry. I thought bringing in Aramis Ramirez was a great move and I was excited when he traded for Nomar Garciapparra (although it didn't turn out so well). I also thought his signing of Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre this past off-season were very good. But things have changed. When I look at the Cubs roster and consider how much money the organization is spending, I'm afraid I can't give Hendry a very good grade.

As an aside, an Associated Press report has listed the total payroll for each MLB team. As you'd expect, the Yankees lead the way with a payroll of $198.6 million. Boston is second with $120.1 million and the Los Angeles Angels are third with $103.6 million. The remaining top ten teams are:

4. Chicago White Sox -- $102.8 million
5. New York Mets -- $100.9 million
6. Los Angeles Dodgers -- $99.1 million
7. Chicago Cubs -- $94.1 million
8. Houston Astros -- $92.5 million
9. Atlanta Braves - $92.4 million
10. San Francisco Giants -- $90.8 million

This list leads right back to my disenchantment with Jim Hendry. The Cubs spent the 7th most in payroll of all MLB teams, but they don't have any "big name" position players. The same can not be said of the the other teams at the top of the list.

The most notable example of what I am talking about is the NY Yankees. The Yankees have a perennial all-star at almost every position. In the outfield they have Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Gary Sheffield. At 3rd base they have Alex Rodriguez, SS Derek Jeter and 1st base Jason Giambi.

In Boston they have David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The Angels have Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson. The Mets have Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran. And the Dodgers have Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent.

Obviously, I didn't say anything about the White Sox. They are the exception. The White Sox don't have any really big name players, with the exception of Jim Thome, and he is on the downside of his career.

Look at the Cardinals. For just $88.4 million, the Cardinals have Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols. Who do the Cubs have?

Obviously, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramiz come to mind. They are both fine players, but they are not perennial all-stars. In fact, the Cubs do not have any perennial all-star position players on their roster. This leads me to my point.

To me, the Cubs seem like a mish mash of players rather than the result of a well thought out plan. Considering the amount of money the Cubs spend (and I could make an argument that they should be spending more), the fan base they have, and the need the team has to win a World Series, the Cubs should be better. The team should be stacked from top to bottom and they should have two, three or four shoe-in all-stars. There shouldn't be any question marks. Instead, the Cubs have question marks at shortstop, second base, right field (at least against left handed pitchers) and to a lesser extent in left field and closer. For a team like the Cubs who spend the kind of money they are spending, this should not be the case.

I have argued for some time that the Cubs should have a top-shelf shortstop. In the off-season, I felt that was the most pressing need the Cubs had. Hendry addressed the bullpen, right field and the lead-off hitter positions (all of which needed to be addressed), but he failed to sign or trade for a top-shelf shortstop and he failed to answer the other question marks this team has. Because of that, Hendry gets a "C" at best for his off-season moves.

I have a suggestion, as ridiculous as it may be, that could land the Cubs a player that is a great defensive shortstop and great hitter. More on that in a future post.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Play Ball!

Opening day in Cincinnati was exciting. Juan Pierre had an exciting triple, Todd Walker followed that up with a double, Derrick Lee had a double and young Matt Murton had a 3-run HR and made a great catch up against the left field wall. And that was just the first inning.

The Cubs offense looked potent, although it was aided by a hitters park, a 20 mph wind, and Adam Dunn in LF. Carlos Zambrano started the gane and was staked to a 5-0 lead. Even so, Z struggled to find the strike zone and ended up leaving with the game tied. The bullpen looked decent for their first outing of the season, and the Cubs defense was strong, with the exception of a rare gaff by gold glove first baseman Derrick Lee.

All in all, it was a great start to the season. Zambrano will bounce back. Other than his performance, nothing else could have been asked from the Cubs.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Prediction: NL West

In 2005, the NL West was baseball's weakest division. It was up for grabs all year, but no one wanted to take control. 2006 will be different.

The Padres have put together a very formidable team. They have a strong pitching staff, led by Jake Peavy and closer Trevor Hoffman, and they have good players at every position, including Mike Cameron in centerfield, Brian Giles in right and the Padres catching tandem of Doug Mirabelli and Mike Piazza. The Padres will be a contender in the NL West.

The Dodgers are a much better team in 2006 than they were in 2005. Their pitching staff should be formidable, led by Brad Penney and Derek Lowe. In the field, the addition of Nomar Garciappara should pay huge dividends. Because of his past two injury plaqued seasons, people have forgotten just how good Garciappa can be. I expect him to return to his pre-injury hitting groove and I predict that in the not too distant future, Nomar will be a gold glove first baseman. The Dodgers will be the team to beat in the West this season.

I expect the Giants to be a mess this year. Their team has some talent, but they are the oldest team in all of baseball and I expect the Barry Bonds saga to be a year-long distraction for the Giants. It's going to be a long year in San Francisco.

What can we expect from the Arizona Diamondbacks? I've struggled with this one. The D-Backs could go either way. They have some decent pitchers, but do they have enough? I expect Miquel Batista, Juan Cruz, Orlando Hernandez, Russ Ortiz and Brandon Webb to be good, but not great. The D-Back position players, led by Shawn Green, Luis Gonzalez and Tony Clark, to have good years, but not great years. Does this sound like middle-of-the-road mediocrity? That's what I expect.

Finally, the Colorado Rockies are coming off of a bad year in 2005. Expect more of the same in 2006. The Rockies have almost no pitching, although it matters less in Colorado because even good pitchers get beat up at Coors. With the exception of Todd Helton, the Rockies have very little offense. Their hitters may put up some decent numbers, but that will be more an indication of what a great hitters park Coors Field is than how good the Rockies hitters are. On the road, those hitters will disappear.

Come the end of the season, this is what the NL West will look like:

1) Los Angeles Dodgers
2) San Diego Padres
3) San Francisco Giants
4) Arizona Diamondbacks
5) Colorado Rockies

All that's left now is Opening Day. Play ball!

Prediction: AL West

The Oakland Athletic's are an amazing team. With a rather limited budget, the A's have put a competitive team on the field year after year after year. Billy Beane gets much of the credit, and it's probably deserved. They've reloaded for 2006 and they'll be competitive again. They seem to lose all-star caliber players every year, yet come back with a team that is just as good. This year, Barry Zito is on the trading block, but I have no doubt that whatever happens with Zito, the A's will still be competitive.

The Angels have a very good team on paper. But unlike the Cincinnati Reds (see previous post), the Angels should be able to convert that paper potential into wins on the field. Leading the Angels again this year will be Mike Scioscia, one of the best managers in all of baseball. Vlad Guerrero, Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad make for a potent outfield, and the infield, anchored by Orlando Cabrera at SS, should be formidable. The Angels pitching, led by Bartolo Colon, should be one of the better staffs in the Bigs. The Angels should contend for the NL West.

The Rangers surprised a lot of people in 2005, but in the end, they just didn't have the pitching to close the deal. They've made some changes in the off-season, including adding Kevin Millwood to their starting rotation. The Rangers will be able to score runs, with an offense led by Hank Blalock and Mark Texiera, but their problem in 2006 will be the same as it was in 2005: too little pitching.

The Seattle Mariners are in for a long season. They have Ichiro Suzuki, one of baseball's best players, and then it goes way down hill from there. The Mariners won't pitch very well, but that's okay because they won't hit very well either.

In October, the NL West will look like this:

1) Oakland A's
2) Los Angeles Angels of Anehiem
3) Texas Rangers
4) Seattle Mariners

Next up: the NL West.

Prediction: NL Central

The Cardinals have been the class of the field the past few years. They have had great offensive players, great defense, and a world-class manager and GM duo. They have also had very impressive pitching performances over the past few years. Most notably was the performance of NL Cy Young Award Winner Chris Carpenter in 2005.

Having said all of this, the Cardinals of 2006 are a different breed from teams of the recent past. Their pitching will be at least a notch lower in 2006 as compared to 2005. Carpenter will likely not have a year to equal his Cy Young year, Matt Morris, a Cardinal favorite, is now with the Giants, and the Cards are relying on Sidney Ponson, which is likely to backfire on them. Cardinal position players are also not what they used to be. Albert Pujols will probably still be a monster, but Scott Rolen is a question mark, Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders are both gone, Jim Edmonds (one of my favorite players) is getting a little long in the tooth, and the Cards don't have a left fielder to speak of. In a nutshell, the Cardinals have come back to the pack.

The Astros have also come back to the pack. Jeff Bagwell is gone and will be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field. Roger Clemens will not be with the team at the beginning of the year and may not be part of the team at all. The Astros should be good, but not as good as they have been over the past two years. They also don't have the financial flexibility they have had in the past, so don't expect any mid-season trades, ala Carlos Beltran, to get them over the hump.

The Brewers were good last year and will be better this year. Doug Melvin has done a terrific job building a competitive team on a limited budget. Ned Yost has done a great job with a lot of young, inexperienced players, not to mention his handling of the pitching staff. Expect the Brew Crew to compete for the NL Central in 2006.

The Cubs were a big disappointment in 2005. Injuries to their starting pitchers combined with a very weak bullpen and an inconsistent offense led to a year of underperforming. Happily for the Cubs, things should be better in 2006. Although 2006 is starting with both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the DL, that should be a short-term problem. The Cubs bullpen is significantly improved, particularly with the signing of Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry. On offense, the Cubs added a true lead-off hitter when they traded for Juan Pierre. The Cubs will be better and should be at or near the top of the Division come October.

The Reds have been better on paper than they have been on the field. Maybe it's very basic to say, but the Reds should be better than they are. Part of the problem is a rather weak pitching staff, both starters and relievers. As in years past, the Reds should be able to hit the ball, but probably not enough to compensate for the runs given up by their pitching staff.

Pittsburgh is an interesting team. I don't expect much out of them in 2006, but they seem to be heading in the right direction. Decent pitching, some bright spots among their position players, and a commitment from the front office to build for the future without breaking the bank. Expect an "interesting" season from the Pirates.

When the 2006 season comes to a close, here's what the NL Central standings will look like:

1) Chicago Cubs
2) Milwaukee Brewers
3) Houston Astros
4) St. Louis Cardinals
5) Pittsburgh Pirates
6) Cincinnati Reds

Next time: The AL West.