Tagged: Lou Piniella

Looking Ahead to 2011: Finding a New Manager

Today I am starting a series on the future of the Chicago Cubs, and will be focusing on various aspects of decisions that need to be made before the start of next year, as well as decisions that may need to be made. Obviously, the first and most demanding need is who will replace Cubs Manager Lou Piniella as we look to 2011. That is what I will be looking at today, focusing on three of the more talked about names to replace Piniella and why they should be looked at as a manager, and why they should not be given the job.

 

With Piniella making things official that he will retire at year’s end, something we all knew would happen anyway, there has been plenty of speculation as to who should replace him at the Cubs helm, and who will replace him. There are several names that have popped up and have been named as candidates already, but who would be the right fit? Who would be the manager most likely to finally give the Cubs and their fans their long overdue reward?

 

The first name on the list, who I believe to be the favorite, at least among fans, is Cubs legend and Hall of Fame player Ryne Sandberg. He first showed interest in managing the Cubs after the2006 season when they decided not to re-sign Dusty Baker. At the time, General Manager Jim Hendry felt that Sandberg was not qualified to do the job, and suggested that he work his way up the system to prove that he was not only capable to manage the big league club, but that he was willing do to what he needed to do in order to get the much needed experience. Whether or not Hendry thought making him earn his spot by managing in the bus leagues would make him change his mind, I am not sure. All I do know is that Sandberg did exactly what he was asked to do, and did so without complaint. Now, with Piniella acknowledging that he would not return, Sandberg has already been named as a legitimate candidate for the job.

 

Before I go any further, and get labeled a Sandberg hater I must admit that he is my all time favorite Cub player. I idolized him as a child, and he was one of the main reasons I became a Cub fan. That being said, I do not feel that he is the right man for the job, at least not at this point in time. Yes, he has done everything that has been asked of him and more. There is no doubt that he has earned an interview, but that does not mean that he should be the front runner for the job. However, there is a massive difference between managing in the minors and managing in the majors. In the minor leagues, while you always try to win, you put a bigger emphasis on developing the talent for the majors before you try to win. Once you get to the majors, the developing is all over and you need to win.

 

There are reasons why he should be looked at as a possible manager for the ball club. He knows what winning in Chicago would mean to the city and the fans. He is a player who knows how to play the game the right way, and would not put up with players lollygagging things around the field. He would hold every player accountable for their mistakes, and ensure that they learned from them, or they would sit out until they did. Those qualities would tend to make you think that someone has the mindset and the right attitude to manage the club. He is by far the popular choice among fans, but that doesn’t always mean that he is the right choice.

 

However, when you look back at his playing career, what do you remember about him? He was an all around great player who became a legend in Cubbie Blue. What people tend to forget, is that he was a very silent player who always led by example. He was never one to speak his mind during his playing career, and could be compared to Derrek Lee as being the silent leader in the club house. One thing I have noticed about Chicago fans (not just Cub fans) they want a manager who is filled with the “fire and the passion” leading their clubs. Sure, as the years have passed Sandberg has become more vocal and has shown more “fire” than anyone could ever have expected out of him based on his playing career. However, in an honest moment no one would have looked at him and thought of him as being a future manager. Take away the name Sandberg, would you look at him as being a great manager? Separating your feelings about someone as a player, and what you feel they can do as a manager is not easy.

 

In an honest moment, I do not think that he should be the manager of the Cubs for the 2011 season. I still think that he needs a little more seasoning before he is ready. Try and convince whoever you hire to make him the bench coach. Let him see the game in the big leagues at full speed. Yes, he has seen the game at full speed as a player, but as a manager, things are completely different. You have a completely different point of view of things. There is only one problem with having him be the bench coach for your new manager. That new manager, whoever he may be, may view the situation as training their own replacement. Not too many people would be too fond of doing that.

 

If Sandberg does not get the job, there are three outcomes which could come of the decision. He may decide to walk away, and give up the idea of managing in the big leagues, he may get hired by another team to become their manager, or he may stick to his guns and stay at Triple A.

 

Another popular choice is current Manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi. With his contract running out at season’s end, there is plenty of speculation that he is on the Cubs radar. He very well may be on the radar, but that does not mean that they will even have a shot at signing him. He has had a lot of success with the Yankees, so why would the Yankees be so willing to just let him walk away? In my mind, they would be idiotic not to keep him around since he has proven himself to be a capable manager of the Yankees, as he has already won a World Series and may be well on his way to winning a second. I don’t believe we have a real shot of hiring him as the manager of the Cubs for 2011.

 

There are reasons why he should be given a look though, if he becomes available. He has the major league experience, which Sandberg lacks. He has managed in the big leagues for four seasons now. He has seen what the game looks like in the big leagues from the sidelines, and has also shown the baseball smarts that we all knew he had from watching him as a player. Everyone knew he would be a good manager at some point down the line; the only question was where and when. But is he the right choice for the Cubs? Like Sandberg, he knows what winning in Chicago would mean for everyone involved. He loved his time in Chicago and would love to have the job. However, how good of a manager is he?

 

In his one year managing the Florida Marlins, he showed that he has a temper when he yelled at their owner on the field. He almost got fired for that when the incident took place in August of that year. While he may have ultimately gotten fired for that, he only lasted one season with the Marlins. That isn’t exactly a qualification that most owners like to see in a future employee.

 

While he does have a World Series championship under his belt already, with a second seemingly well on the way, does winning with the Yankees even count? They have the largest payroll in baseball and have all stars at nearly every position. Of course he should have won that World Series, and should win this year’s championship as well. With the players the Yankees have, they should never lose a championship. How will he fare with a team that doesn’t have all stars all over the diamond? Perhaps eight games under the .500 mark as he did in his only year with the Marlins? People will point out though, that his team came roaring back from being 20 games under the .500 mark early in the season. Sure, he got his team to come roaring back, after the season for them had already been dead and buried. He got them to play when things didn’t matter anymore. Is that enough to make him worthy of being the next Cubs manager? I am not so sure.

 

The last name I will bring up is the Cubs very own television broadcaster, Bob Brenly. He would be my top choice out of the three, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I think he is the right man for the job either. But out of the three men that get mentioned the most, I think he is the better fit to manage this club for the next few years.

 

No one in baseball knows this team better than Brenly. He has been watching these guys play for the past few years, and always has something to say about what they did or did not do. Yes, that is his job, but he has also been pointing out why they should have done this, or should not have done that. He knows better than anyone what flaws each of these players have, and how he feels they can and should be correcting them. You will not be able to get immediate ideas on how to improve various players from Girardi or Sandberg, at least not like you will from Brenley. He also has years of managerial experience and has also won a World Series ring. He knows how to manage a club to a championship, without a massive payroll, or an all star at every position.

 

No, he did not have an all star stacked team when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series; but he did have a damn good team. However, he just had two of the best pitchers in baseball that season, which could never hurt your chances of winning. Even with that team and those pitchers, he still needed a broken bat single in the ninth inning to win the World Series. Granted they got that win over an all star packed team of the Yankees, which is still an amazing accomplishment. While I was able to give various reasons why I felt that Girardi or Sandberg would not be right for the job, I cannot really do that for Brenly. But, there is one thing that gives me second thoughts about hiring him as the next Cubs manager. Ask yourself this, if he is such a good candidate to fill a managerial position, then why hasn’t he been given any serious consideration for an opening over the past five or six years? There has to be a reason why he hasn’t been invited to interview for any one of the numerous openings over the years. I believe his name was only brought up once during his tenure as the Cubs Analyst, and that was when the Milwaukee Brewers had an opening.

 

Perhaps he was over looked for those other openings, or perhaps the other teams did not see him as all that great of a managerial candidate. Don’t even say that maybe he did interview and we just didn’t hear the news. In today’s day and age, you hear everything. If he was invited to interview, there would have been something that was said. Perhaps he was asked to interview and he turned down the job because he wanted a mental break from the daily grind, and the stress that comes with managing in the big leagues. We may never know exactly why he is still broadcasting games and not managing somewhere, but this is a reason why you have to have second thoughts, as a fan, before you give him the job. Otherwise, he would be the perfect candidate to fill the opening going into the next season.

 

There are several other options to fill the opening, such as maybe Tony LaRussa or Joe Torre, or any number of other experienced managers out there, but the three I mentioned seem to be the three front runners to the job. At least they are the three top names mentioned in the fan base. If I were a betting man, I would say that Tom Ricketts will go with the fan favorite and name Sandberg manager of the Cubs. If he lets his heart over power his head that is exactly what will happen. That’s not to say that Sandberg won’t make an excellent manager, or that the other two wouldn’t either. However, I do not want to see one of these three men hired to replace Piniella, not unless there are not any other more qualified candidates. Out of the three, I would select Bob Brenly immediately, if I was limited to this group. The only way I would hire Sandberg to be anything more than my bench coach going into 2011, is if the Cubs went with a youth movement and got rid of most of their aging stars, which is a lot easier said than done.

 

All I know, is we have two and a half months left in the Piniella era, and then two months for General Manager Jim Hendry to find our Cubs a new manager. He said he wants one in place before the winter meetings, which are in December. Two months after the season ends, is plenty of time to find a new captain of the ship, though I would not be surprised if Hendry already has a man in mind.

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Fire Sale Series: Lou Piniella

As the Chicago Cubs continue to find ways to give away ballgames, and to fall further in the standings, some fans are beginning to call for a total house cleaning. All across Cubbie-Nation, you will hear some fans demanding that Manager Lou Piniella be fired, and for a majority of the team to be traded away. My goal at the end of this series, is to explain why a total and complete house cleaning is highly unlikely to happen, no mater how much fans beg, plead or demand. While they may get a few names off the roster by seasons end, getting rid of everyone they want gone, is just not a possibility. There are far too many obstacles which are standing in the way of fans getting their ultimate wish of a total fire sale.

While I was originally planning on starting off this series with Cubs Left Fielder Alfonso Soriano, something took place yesterday afternoon to make me decide to push him back a day. Today, in place of Soriano, I am going to focus on the veteran manager of the ball club. That’s right “Sweet Lou” is on the hot seat now. I have been defending him all season for a number of reasons, which I will get into today, but yesterday afternoon he lost me.

I have always been of the mind that managers in baseball, and practically all sports, that managers always get too much of the blame when teams lose, and too much credit when they win. While they put the pieces in place, the players are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the games. The manager can only do so much to help a team win, or in some cases lose. The same goes with hitting and pitching coaches, there is only so much they can do to help players. This is why I have never been an advocate of firing a manager in order to “jump start a team” and see if a shake up like that will motivate a team to play better.

While I was against the firing of Piniella, all the way through yesterday’s game, what he said in the post game press conference made me quickly change my tune. There is a vast difference between the fans of a team and a manager, besides the obvious difference of control over a ball club. While fans are allowed to throw in the towel and give up hope, a manager should never utter the words Piniella did.

As quoted in the Chicago Sun-times, Piniella said We’ve tried everything we have. We’ve pitched everybody. We’ve played everybody. We’ve changed the lineup. We’ve done everything I can humanly do to get this thing turned around. That’s all I can do.”

This is something a manager should never say. Words like this show weakness and resignation. When Piniella said this, he might as well have been telling General Manager Jim Hendry that he was ready to be fired, because he sounds like a broken man. You never come out in public and say that you are out of ideas, that there is nothing left that you can do to try and turn around the season.

I do not want the manager of my ball club to throw in the towel, even if all hope is lost, in the middle of June. There are still three months left to play in the baseball season, and three months for Piniella to show that he still gives a damn about what happens on the field. While things look remarkably bleak for the outcome of the season, anything can happen with three months left to play. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez can find their swings, Carlos Zambrano can remember how to pitch, and Fukudome can pretend that he is still playing in the first half of the season. While these things may not fall under the category of things that are likely to happen, they are possible.

Fans are supposed to be able to look to the manager to talk them off the ledge when things look their darkest. They are supposed to be able to depend on the manager to give them insight into what is going wrong with the club so we do not make up our own minds, even though everyone does regardless of what the manager says. When a manager comes out and says he is out of ideas, he gives off the signal that he is out of hope. He is not giving the fans any reason to believe the team can turn things around. If he truly believes that there is no hope, and there is nothing he can do to even attempt to turn things around, then the time has come for him to either be fired, or for him to gracefully retire and ride off into the sunset.

This would be the easiest move to make for the Cubs, especially because Piniella’s contract is up at years end, and his services will not be retained. What’s more, the removal of Piniella would give a clear indication to the players on the team, as well as the fans, that the Cubs management is serious about winning. They would send the message that changes are coming. If Piniella has truly given up on the team and the season, whether or not the team has any realistic chance of competing or not, he must be the first person to go.

There is no longer a question of if, but when, Piniella leaves the Cubs, they have several well qualified people to take his place. On the list, are: Alan Trammel, Bob Brenly and of course Ryne Sandberg are all on the list of people who I would rather see managing the team over a broken, beaten and resigned Piniella. Both Trammel and Brenly have seen this team day in and day out for several years now, and they can see what Piniella can not. They may be able to get the players to play the game the right way, while not showing signs of quit.

While Hendry continues to say that he has no intention of firing Piniella, you can never be too sure. The dreaded vote of confidence usually comes before the fall. If Piniella finishes the season, I would be very surprised. Personally, I predict his departure will come during the All Star break, unless he quits before then.

If a fire sale is even possible, Piniella must be the first log tossed onto the fiery inferno.

the 2009 Cubs were better then you think

Now that there are no more games to be played in the 2009 season, at least not for the Chicago Cubs, we can take a better look at this ball club and the failure of a season they had. Yes, I said failure. Take any stats you want, if you do not win the World Series, your season was a failure. The goal of every team every year is to win the World Series. The season is, in essence, a one question test. You either answer the question correctly, or you fail. Unfortunately, for the 101st straight time, the Cubs season ended in failure. Don’t get me wrong, you can have a good year, and a good team in years that you don’t win the World Series, but the season still amounts to nothing if you don’t win the whole thing.

Take this years Cubs team for example; many fans will say that this ball club was a complete disaster. They will say that General Manager Jim Hendry blew up a World Series contender, turning the Cubs into a joke. Fans are also blaming Cubs Manager Lou Piniella for not doing a better job of managing the team, or for playing the wrong players at the wrong time. While both Hendry and Piniella could be to blame for the demise of the 2009 Cubs, ask yourself this question. Just how much worse was this years team compared to last years?

When looking at the two teams, the 2009 Cubs ended the season with 14 fewer wins then the 2008 ball club. That is a horrible stat, but there are many things to keep in mind when looking at the record for the 2009 Cubs. During the 51 games that Aramis Ramirez was on the disabled list, the Cubs went 25-26. Are you telling me, that if Ramirez was healthy, we wouldn’t have won more then those 25 games? I am not saying that the Cubs would have won 14 more games in that stretch to match their 2008 record, but that would not be out of the realm of possibility. Don’t forget all the games he sat out as well because his shoulder was giving him problems after he came back. The entire season, he only played in 82 games. Had he played the whole season, or at least the average number of games he usually does anyway, the Cubs would have won at least the 14 games they needed to match last years record. While the Cubs did not lose all the games that Ramirez missed, he would have helped them win some of the games they did lose.

Do you need more proof that this years team is not as bad as fans have made them out to be? Look at our pitching staff. This years pitching staff, as a whole, were better then the 2008 team’s, even with Kevin Gregg blowing saves. The ERA was slightly better this year, posting a 3.84 ERAA, as opposed to an 3.87 the year before. This years club also struck out eight more batters, in one less game. Keep in mind that the Cubs top four starters each missed at least two starts, some missing more. As a whole, they likely missed about 12-15 games combined. While they didn’t lose all the starts that their replacements made, they would likely have had better outing and brought the team a few more wins.

Am I being a bit of a homer here? You could easily say that I am, But at the same time, I am being completely honest. This ball club was nowhere near as bad as people are saying. Sure, Hendry traded away some fan favorites and made a few mistake signings, but they did not make this team bad. This team had the talent to compete, and would have lasted a lot longer in the divisional race had they not been completely decimated by injuries. You can say that the Milton Bradley signing doomed this years ball club, you can say that the trade of Mark DeRosa killed this ball club, but that is not the case whatsoever. This years team was just as good as last years team. In fact, you could even say that this years team was, in fact, better then last years team. If Ramirez, Soriano and all the pitchers were healthy all year, the Cubs would have surpassed last years win total. You can deny that all you want, offer up all the reasons and all the excuses you can think of; but you know that I am not far off base.

The end justifies the means, so yes, this years team was worse then last years. You can also use what ifs for every team in baseball to get whatever message you want across. Perhaps that is what I am doing, but my logic here is very realistic. The 2009 Cubs should have had a better record then the 2008 version.

With the Cubs Season All but Over, Let the Autopsy Begin

Now that the Chicago Cubs season has officially ended, or at least realistically, lets look back and see where everything went wrong. You can point fingers at whomever you wish, but you would still only be partially correct in your assumption. There are several factors which by themselves could have been enough to cripple a team for the year, but when you put them all together you get sure fire disaster. While I am sure that I will overlook a few things which added to the failure of the 2009 Cubs, I believe that the following is what contributed the most to the demise and heartbreak.

In order to properly start the autopsy of the 2009 Cubs, we need to go back to the end of the 2008 season, when the Cubs were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not long after the series ended, Cubs Manager Lou Piniella threw out a statistic which showed that not one time in the entire season, including regular season games, did the Dodgers use a left handed pitcher against us. Using that as a jumping point, he claimed that the Cubs were too right handed, and he wanted to add some left handed bats to the lineup. One of the casualties of this statement was Mark DeRosa who quickly gained popularity with the Cub’s faithful fans. With his departure, the Cubs lost a big part of the clubhouse, and in the long run, helped to strengthen the competition when the Cleveland Indians traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There are a few reasons why DeRosa was traded, one of which was that Piniella wanted to become more left handed in the batting order. Other then the desire to become more left handed, one factor which was rumored, was that Piniella wanted DeRosa gone because of his comments after the Cubs lost their second game in the National League Division Series, where he said that the Cubs backs are “against the wall”. That statement upset Piniella. Whether or not that rumor is true, I don’t know. Another reason why DeRosa was looked at as being dispensable was because of the surprising play of Mike Fontenot. The way he played throughout the 2008 season in limited playing time, fans were clamoring for him to get more playing time. When he was given that chance this year, he showed that he is not an everyday second baseman, as his batting average plummeted into the low .200s. If Fontenot had performed up to expectations, there would be a lot less fans disappointed that DeRosa was traded. Finally, the financial reason for his trade has to be mentioned. They had to trade him to free up some room in order to have enough money to sign a free agent who could bat left handed. While Cubs General Manager will ultimately get the blame for the trade, he was only doing what a good GM will do. Give his manager the team he wants.

Another loss, which hurt the Cubs and helped the competition, was the trade of Jason Marquis. While there was a good majority of fans who disliked Marquis, he was a big loss. Not even taking into account how good of a year he is having with the Colorado Rockies, he was a big part of the team the two years he was here. Even though his ERA was in the mid 4s, he was above .500, and a big innings eater. What more would you want from your 5th starter? While the Cubs could have used him, there was some good which came out of his departure, and that’s the emergence of Cubs rookie right hander Randy Wells. If Marquis was still a part of this ball club, we may never have known about this talented pitcher, who will hopefully be able to continue his success next year.

In what could have been the biggest mistake by Hendry in the offseason was replacing Kerry Wood with Kevin Gregg. The mistake was not in letting Wood go, but in trading for Gregg to replace him. While I will freely admit that I was one of the defenders of Gregg for most of the year, he blew up at the end of the season beyond anything I could defend. Thankfully, this is a mistake which the Cubs don’t have to live with for long. Gregg is a free agent at the end of the year, and he will be someone else’s problem next year.

I said the trade for Gregg could have been the biggest mistake Hendry made in the offseason; the reason that wasn’t the biggest, is because he also signed Milton Bradley. This was the biggest mistake Hendry has made since becoming the Cubs General Manager. I won’t buy into all the fans complaining about the failure to sign Raul Ibanez, because who could have envisioned he would be having a career year at this stage in his career? However, there were plenty of other options who should have been signed over Bradley. While the fans were against him from the start, he never did anything to win them over. From having a horrible April, to forgetting the number of outs there were in an inning, to the bickering with the fans and media he dug himself into a hole that no one could have gotten out of. Things got so bad with Bradley, that even on days he collected hits on his first two or three at bats, he got booed when he made an out in that same game. Now, he has been suspended for the remainder of the year, and will likely be traded after the season. Now, we can fully understand why Bradley has been on so many different teams in his career. Bradley does have talent as a ball player, he just needs to learn to shut up.

The trades and free agent signings aside, what really cost the Cubs their season were the injuries. I know the old cliché says that you can’t use injuries as an excuse, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Cubs have suffered through more injuries then any other team in the Majors, with the exception maybe of the New York Mets. Nearly everyone on the Cubs starting 25 man roster spent at least two weeks on the disabled list, if not just sitting out for a week. The stat has been mentioned several times, the Cubs only had their desired roster together for a total of two games the entire season. That is a very tough obstacle for any team to overcome.

I wont mention every injury the Cubs faced this year, because that could take forever; however , the biggest and most damaging injury for the Cubs, was the loss of their best player for two months. When Aramis Ramirez left a game in mid May with a separated shoulder, Cub fans everywhere knew the team was in trouble. You cant lose your best player, and biggest run producer and survive easily. Sure, there were mistakes that were made immediately following his injury, such as the failure to bring up Jake Fox to fill the void, but nothing could have completely covered for the loss of Ramirez. As good as Fox has shown to be with the bat, he is no Ramirez. He has also shown that he is limited defensively, which has limited his chances at an every day job.

Along with the loss of Ramirez, our top four pitchers all spent time on the disabled list as well. The injuries to the pitching staff this year brought back bad memories of the 1985 Cubs season where every member of the starting rotation was on the disabled list. While I was not old enough to witness the season, I have read and heard a lot about what transpired. When you lose one of your starting pitchers for a period of time, you are bound to struggle. When you lose all of them, you are in for a long and stressful season. The Cubs have a tremendous pitching staff, and was supposed to be the strength of our team. However, the injuries to the starters hampered our success, even though I believe we are still near the top, if not at the top, in the quality starts category. While their injuries hurt us, they did everything they could to keep us in the games.

The other injury which caused our season to fall apart, was Alfonso Soriano’s bad knee. Soriano has had the worst season of his career, and fans wouldn’t let him forget how bad he was playing. I give Soriano all the credit in the world for trying to play through the injury and help the team in anyway he could. Unlike some other players, he wanted to stay on the field and earn his money. Sadly, his play suffered as the season went on. Love him or hate him, Soriano is a big key to the success for the Cubs winning. When he struggles, the team struggles. Despite his poor defense in left field, his bat is a key ingredient if the Cubs are too succeed. Over his first two years here, Soriano has played very well for us giving us what we expected, except for the speed. He has given the Cubs his career average in homeruns and in batting. He has admitted that he had a bad year, and I believe he will be better next year, now that he is having the knee taken care of.

Speaking of having bad years, two players come to mind other then Soriano. They would be Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto. In regards to Dempster, he has not been close to what he was last year, and that hurt us. The Cubs were expecting him to come close to what he did to earn his new contract. While he hasn’t been horrible, he has been less then what was expected. You can partly pin that on what was going on with his personal issues and his newborn daughter’s complications, but he would never use that as an excuse. However, you should note that once those complications were resolved he started pitching better, and as we had hoped he would all season long. Does that mean he is back to form and we can expect this from him next year? That remains to be seen, but you are seeing signs that would point to the answer being yes.

With Soto, there are a few things you can point to with his season falling off after his Rookie of the Year campaign. For starters, he participated in the World Baseball Classic. For the record, and if you read one of my earliest blogs you would know this, I hate the fact that these players miss Spring Training to play in this event. If the competition doesn’t help us win the World Series, I don’t want our players anywhere near those games. Soto played in the WBC and missed a lot of time in Spring Training, and when he did show up, he was out of shape. To start off the season, he also suffered a shoulder injury which placed him on the shelf for a good stretch of games. I am not willing to write off Soto after one bad year, and I feel he will return to form next year. His not playing up to expectations was a major blow to the Cubs offense, as he did not give us anything close to what he thought we would be getting from him.

These are the things that I look to when I think about what went wrong with the 2009 Cubs. I remember, way back in Spring Training, we were picked to win the division easily “Unless everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.” Well, that is exactly what happened this year. The Cubs faced adversity from all sides, in the end they were not good enough to overcome. All we can do as fans, is look forward to next year and hope for the best.

The Big Blue Train Wreck, and What Can Be Done

I love the Chicago Cubs, and I also love my fellow Cub fans. As a whole, I would have to say that I believe that we are the most passionate, devoted and loyal fan base in all of sports. You would have to be in order to follow a team which has not won a championship in over 100 years. There is only one problem that I have with Cub fans as a whole; and that’s when they allow their passion to overtake their common sense. When they start thinking with their heart, instead of their heads, that is where the problem comes in. Don’t get me wrong, they do this because they are so passionate that they overlook such things as reality at times. This mainly comes into play when the discussion moves to the Cubs and changes that they say need to be made. At times, I find myself as a part of this very same group on fantasizing fans hoping and pleading that certain things can be done to improve the team that I love so dearly. Discussions with a few of my fellow fans have inspired today’s blog.

In an honest moment, any Cub fan would have to admit that this season has been nothing short of a train wreck. All of the baseball analysts said, at the beginning of the season, that the Cubs would win this division unless everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. As a matter of fact, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. I know that the old cliché is you can’t blame injuries, and use them as an excuse, but sometimes, that is exactly what has derailed a season. Look at the Cubs, how good could you expect them to be when they have lost 4/5 of the starting rotation for a period of time?  I don’t know many teams that could survive the season after such a disaster. On top of that, we lost our best hitter in Aramis Ramirez for two months. Injuries cannot be used as an excuse, but they sure make one hell of an alibi. When you don’t have your expected 25 man roster for more than two games by the time August has reached the end, you will be in bad shape. I don’t care how deep of a team you have. Back up players are nice, but not if you have to watch them every day. There is a reason why they are bench and platoon players.

Several fans are pointing fingers at various people for the Cubs failures. Some blame Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry, while others blame Manager Lou Piniella, with the rest pinning the blame on the players, who are actually the ones who have the most to say about what happens in a season. The truth is, all three are to blame for the mess that the Cubs are in. This is why several Cub fans are demanding change to take place before next season takes off. They are hoping and praying that when the sale of the Cubs to Tom Ricketts is official, that these changes are going to be made. The firings of Hendry and Piniella are high on that list, as well as the trades or departures of several other players. The question that arises from these wishes though, is how likely are the chances that Ricketts will pull the trigger and makes these changes that many fans are calling for? In my opinion, the chances are slim, but I am just like you, only a fan. Let’s take a look at why I think these changes will likely not get made.

For starters, how about we look at Hendry and Piniella? These two men are first on the list because they are the management team of this club. Before the 2009 season began, Hendry was signed to a four year extension, which means he is under contract until the year 2012. If Ricketts chooses to fire Hendry as one of his first orders of business, he would be stuck with paying him for the remaining three years of his contract. I am not saying that this won’t happen, I am just using a little bit of logic. With regards to Piniella, the Cubs already picked up his option for the 2010 season, which is worth $4 million dollars. I believe that the only way Piniella doesn’t come back next year is if he decides to walk away and retire. By the way he has looked this year, so broken and unmotivated, I would say that would be about a 50% chance. You never know though, maybe Ricketts wants to have a fresh start with a fresh management team. If that’s the case, he will have to own up to eating a lot of money that will be going to people for doing nothing. I honestly can’t see that happening, so the Cub fans may have to be stuck with both Hendry and Piniella for at least one more year.

As I have stated in the past, if Hendry is fired, who would want to take over the job with the mess that we are left with as far as payroll goes? Breaking down the contracts for next year alone, we have eight players who are more than likely guaranteed to be on the club next year making a total of $99.125 million dollars. Yeah, that math is correct. That means the Cubs will have a very high payroll next year, much higher than this year, even if they keep the same 25 man roster they planned to keep this year. I know what many of you are saying though. Why don’t we trade some of these over paid bums and get some salary relief? Which of them would you like to trade? These nine players will be very hard to move, and mainly because of the contracts that they have.

Three of the eight players are in the outfield, Milton Bradley makes $9 million next year, Kosuke Fukudome makes $13 million, and Alfonso Soriano will make $18 million, which makes him the highest paid Cub for 2010. These three players will likely still be here next year, as their contracts will make them near impossible to move. Soriano has a full no trade clause, and still is owed $90 million over the next five years. I cannot imagine any team that would be willing to pick up that contract. If the Cubs wanted to move him, they would have to pay a good portion of that salary. Having paid $900 million for the team, can you see Ricketts picking up maybe another $50 million? Easy for us fans to say that he needs to, but that’s because we are not dealing with our own money. Even if we do find a team willing to take him, if Soriano does not want to be traded, he won’t be.

How about Fukudome? He has two years and $26.5 left on his contract, which also has a trade protection clause built in. I cannot find out what that protection is, but I am sure this will make him harder to move. He has been playing well, so the Cubs might get a few calls about him, but the Cubs may need to eat some of his salary as well.

Bradley may be the easiest to move because he does not have anything in his contract to prevent a trade. The only thing which may keep him from being traded is his ugly history in baseball. This caused many teams to shy away from him during the offseason. He will make $9 million this year and $12 million next year. If he was playing better this season, without that ugly start of the season slump, the Cubs may have been able to move him easier. With his playing the 70 plus games this year, he guaranteed the final year of his contract, though if he ends the season with an injury and is not on the 25 man roster by April 15 of the following year, the option year goes way and has to be earned again in a much harder way.

With the infield, we have Ramirez and Derrek Lee on the list. Would you really want to get rid of either of these players? Ramirez is our best hitter, and Lee is a gold glove caliber first baseman. Both are keys to the Cubs success, but they could both likely gather interests from other clubs. Their salaries are reasonable; Lee has one year left on his deal and makes $13 million next year, but also has a no trade clause. Teams would line up for him, maybe give us a good prospect or two back for him, but would he want to go?

With Ramirez, he has $15.75 due to him next year and 2011 is a player option which also has a million dollar pay cut, which makes you wonder if they want him to option out of that year. If he decides to stay, 2012 is a team option which brings him back up to $15 million. His no trade clause expires at the end of 2010, but that’s because he can become a free agent. Will teams want him if they may be on the hook for over $44 million? Perhaps, but you can never be too sure.

That brings me to the pitching staff. These contracts are led by Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster. Obviously, Lilly would be the easiest to trade, as he is worth every penny of his $12 million he is set to earn next year. However, the Cubs would be stupid to get rid of him. He has been our most consistent pitcher since he was signed. But he could get us some decent prospects in return.

Dempster on the other hand, has had a horrible season. This makes his $12.5 million for next year look to be a bad figure. He has a total of $40 million left of his contract over the next three years. With how he has pitched this year, I cannot see too many teams knocking on the Cubs door for his services.

Finally, we have Zambrano, otherwise known as “El Torro Loco”. His antics have gotten on Cub fans nerves the past few seasons. A lot of fans are want him to go, but his contract will make him next to impossible to move. Next season alone, he will make $17.875 million dollars, with another $35 guaranteed in the two years that follow. He has a vesting option for 2013 if he gets enough consideration for the Cy Young award in either 2011 or 2012. Like most of the players listed, he has a full no trade clause. We would have to find a team he was willing to go to, as well as convince them to pick up his whole contract. If they did, don’t expect to get any decent prospects back.

These are the eight players who will be on the team next year, unless they are somehow traded. Don’t count on them being moved though, as their contracts are not too attractive to other teams. We will have them for the long haul. You can call for their heads all you want, but they will be here no matter how much you complain. That means, we are limited to three position players, and two starting pitchers and our entire bullpen which can be replaced fairly easily.  All of them are either on one year deals or their rookie contracts.

If 2009 was a train wreck with these players, we may very well see the same outcome next year. Though maybe not. Perhaps this was just a bad year for Soriano, if he can return to what he did his first two years here, we will be in good shape. Fukudome is starting to play the way we had expected, and Bradley has even started playing well. Ramirez is a stud, when he is healthy and Lee will start out slow as he does every year, but will put up his typical numbers. Maybe Dempster will pitch like he did in 2008, and Zambrano will actually start taking care of his body and be in shape. I think Lilly is the least of our concerns, as he has been very dependable. If Ryan Theriot plays as he has and Geovany Soto breaks out of this ugly mess of a season and shows up prepared next year we will be in good shape. I know I am talking about a lot of what ifs, but they are all we have to go off of. I am not going to write off Soto, because of a bad year. Perhaps last year was lucky, but on the same note perhaps this year was unlucky. If he can get in shape and stay that way, I have no doubt that he will be a fine player for us next year.

I am not sold though, however, on the various players some fans are falling in love with. They are Koyie Hill and Jeff baker. Hill has a good story, but as a .200 hitter you don’t want to see him in the lineup every day. As far as Baker goes, do you really want to depend on another player who has had a good half a year? How did that work out with Mike Fontenot?

Ricketts has a lot that he needs to do, but very little wiggle room to do get things done. He must get us a real second baseman, and rebuild the bullpen with guys that can be depended on. Those are the main two areas that I think need to be updated. As much as fans want other changes made, you may have to be happy with just these changes. Others may come in time, for the immediate future you may have to settle for these and these alone.

Gregg gets hung with the loss, but Piniella should get full blame

Last night the Chicago Cubs lost a game to the Philadelphia Phillies, which they should not have lost. Now, fingers will be pointed directly at Cubs closer Kevin Gregg for giving up the game winning homerun, but I am here to tell you that if he is who you are blaming, then you are way off base. I am not defending Gregg because I like him, or think that he is a stud closer. I am defending him in the here and now, because he is not the culprit that is responsible for the Cubs loss. Yeah, Gregg gave up the homerun which put the game out of reach, but that situation should never have even arisen.

In his first inning of work, Gregg faced three of the top hitters in the National league in Chase Utely, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez getting them out in order. Any manager who isn’t fast asleep on the bench knows that if a pitcher has been struggling lately, you let them leave the game on a high note. You cant get much higher then that. I can understand why he was left in though, you get out of a tough spot against a teams best three hitters, and you figure the next few batters will be a breeze to get though compared to the previous inning. With the game still being tied, you need to save as many pitchers as you can, just incase you need them. Trying to get another inning out of Gregg was the final nail in the Cubs coffin, but the game started slipping away a few innings earlier.

What I will look back on as what really lost us the game, that moment would come in the eighth inning, with Carlos Marmol on the mound. Sitting there at the game, when his name was announced as the new pitcher, you knew the game was in serious jeopardy of being lost. As you can usually expect out of an inning that Marmol pitches, anything and everything usually can and will happen. He walks the leadoff hitter, as he has done more often then I care to remember, but then seemingly settles down, and retires the next two batters. With getting them out, you started to feel more comfortable. Thoughts that he would be able to get the Cubs out of the inning seemed like a real possibility. Sadly, we were fooled again as Marmol hit the next batter. This is where I feel the game was lost, not in the 12th when Gregg gave up the game winning home run.

Can someone tell me, why after hitting a batter did Cubs Manager Lou Piniella not get John Grabow up in the bullpen? Instead, he waits to get Grabow up and into the game until Marmol walks the next two batters, walking in the go ahead run. There was plenty of time to get Grabow up. Stall for time, send the catcher out to make small talk with Marmol. But no, they let Marmol try to get out of the inning, and allow him to face Howard with the bases loaded. Sure, walking in the go ahead run is better then giving up a grand slam, which is what I feared, but Howard cant hit lefty pitching. This was the spot Grabow should have been brought into the game. I am not saying Grabow wouldn’t have given up a bigger hit, but at this point in the game, I would have had more faith in him getting Howard out then Marmol.

Today’s game wont be much better though. The pitching match up of Jeff Samardzija and Pedro Martinez is sure to be a bad game. Samardzija has yet to show any signs that he can get major league hitting out, and he will be our starter? Something tells me that the Phillies will be scoring at will tonight. Though, they have Martinez starting, who is far from the dominating pitcher that he once was. The Cubs would hopefully be able to touch him up a bit as well. We could be looking at a very high scoring game, though if you look at past baseball logic things always work in reverse, so expect a low scoring game. Then you have to take into account that the home plate umpire for the game will be the blind as hell ump who called a foul ball a home run, you cant like the chances of an accurate or consistent strike zone.

Fuld adds a much needed spark, but roadblocks will keep him from sticking around

Last night, the Chicago Cubs exploded with an outburst of offense that reminded us of the 2008 season. They were led by Derrek Lee who had a two home run game, while driving in seven runs, which gave us a glimpse of his 2005 form. We also saw a second straight game, which included a very impressive performance from recently called up Sam Fuld who batted in the leadoff slot for the second game in a row. This brings us to the current problem that is facing the Cubs, and the likely idiotic decision making of Cubs Manager Lou Piniella. I cant say for sure if he will make the decision I am thinking about, but more then likely my predicition will become reality when the Cubs take the field for game two of the four game series with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Since being recalled from the minors a few days ago, and getting his first start of the season on Wednesday while the Cubs were in Pittsburgh to play the Pirates, Fuld has made his presence known. In both games that he started for the Cubs, Fuld has been batting leadoff and racking up four hits in his eight at bats. He also drew two walks these past few games. Granted, two good games does not make a career, but he has looked good in the limited time he has been given while Alfonso Soriano has been sitting on the bench. If I were Piniella, I would not change much when making out the lineup card. Until Fuld gives you a reason, you should keep him in the leadoff slot, and bat Soriano lower in the order. Where there is a will, there is a way.

If Soriano is to play everyday as he is being paid to do, then the solution is simple. Have Fuld doing a double platoon with both Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley. As the numbers will show, Fukudome struggles against left handed pitchers and Bradley struggles against the right handed pitchers. Until he gives Piniella a reason to remove him from the lineup, he should be kept in the mix. He has done everything you would want your leadoff hitter to do, and has added a spark to the Cubs; a spark which has been missing for the majority of the season. However, there are quite a few roadblocks standing in the way from this ever becoming reality.

Two of the roadblocks facing Fuld can be tackled at the same time. Those are Piniella and Soriano. For some reason, Piniella refuses to take Soriano out of the leadoff spot for a period of time that lasts more then a few days. He has been our leadoff hitter ever since he was signed, and while he has seen very limited time lower in the order, he has yet to hit lower in the order for more then a three day stretch. No matter his struggles to get on base, Soriano is consistently written into the lineup batting leadoff. Whether there is some unknown clause in his contract, or a comfort factor for Soriano, Piniella refuses to move the slumping outfielder out of leadoff.

Maybe Piniella just lost the edge that once made him one of the best managers in the game. I know he got thrown out of a game three days ago, but that does not mean he still has the “fire” he once had. In fact, he even said that he would not getting tossed again any time soon, because this argument took a lot out of him. The old Piniella would have stood up to Soriano and told him that he was going to hit lower in the order because he was not getting the job done. But not this version, he seems to be overly complacent, and uncaring that his leadoff man is far inferior to what you want out of your leadoff man. Piniella should tell Soriano that he has two choices, either hit in the fifth or sixth slot in the order, or ride the bench until he is ready to accept his new role. But we all know Piniella will not make this move, and Soriano will once again be hitting leadoff. Whether he returns today or tomorrow, he will be shoved down our throats as the leadoff hitter. Piniella refuses to even talk about the possibility of Soriano being taken out of the leadoff slot.

The final roadblock that is keeping Fuld down, is the pending return of Reed Johnson. Once Johnson returns from the disabled list, he will take over the roll of the fourth outfielder. When he returns, that ultimately leaves Fuld as a spare part, and he will more then likely be sent back down to the minor leagues, where he will be wasting away, unable to break through the gap. I can not see the Cubs carrying both Johnson and Fuld, even though that would give them the typical five outfielder set that is carried on most teams. The only other option, would be to get rid of one of the young infielders. Don’t forget, that once Aramis Ramirez gets back, one will be sent down as well.

There are many young players who we want to keep, but we cant keep them all. We have Andres Blanco, who shines with the glove but is limited offensively; even though he is starting to hit. He could be expendable. Jake Fox, is quite the opposite of Blanco. He knows how to hit the ball, but isn’t all that great with the glove. Then you have Micah Hoffpauir who is pretty much a left handed Fox, though he isn’t hitting quite as well as people had hoped. Don’t count on Jeff Baker to be sent out either, with the Cubs just acquiring him in a trade, his being sent down is highly unlikely. That brings me to Mike Fontenot, who has not lived up to the hype. If the decision was mine, I would send Fontenot down when Ramirez comes back, with Blanco taking over the everyday second base job. To keep Fuld, you will have to chose between Hoffpauir and Fox. Which would you rather keep?

With all this being said, the Cubs are off to a good start on this home stand. They took the first of four games from the division leading Brewers, and while they are still in fourth place, they are now only 2.5 games out of first. A win today, would bring us to 1.5 out and leave us well within striking distance. As poorly as the Cubs have played this season, they still have a shot to win the division. They just need to take things one game at a time. Game two of this series is just over three hours away, and by then we will know the fate of Fuld, and his place on this roster. If Soriano is leading off again, we know he will be sent down with Johnson’s return.