Now that the Red Sox have brought a second championship in four seasons to Boston (after zero in the previous eighty plus), I would like to make a final statement about how far the Cubs came this year. And I will say right at the outset that I believe much of the distance that they journeyed this year can be attributed to Lou Piniella working with and fixing a broken situation that was handed to him by Jim Hendry. Hendry did spend a lot of money in the previous off season, somewhat haphazardly. Throughout the year Lou made adjustments here and there, stood up to some, called some guys out, and eventually made it work, which gives me some encouragement for next year. I will never forget Lou’s press conference where he called Jim Hendry out by saying “Give me some guys who know how to catch and throw the ball (or something to that effect). However, I also fear that the big contracts might be too constricting and the team that got swept from the playoffs is going to pretty much be the team that we will see for a few years to come.
To consider how far the team has come I want to remind you about the opening day lineup from the beginning of this year:
Alfonso Soriano CF
Matt Murton LF
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Jacque Jones RF
Michael Barrett C
Mark DeRosa 2B
Cesar Izturis SS
Think about all of the adjustments Lou had to make and figure out throughout the year with this lineup on paper.
Let’s begin with Alfonso Soriano playing Center Field. It is almost unthinkable that Jim Hendry guaranteed Soriano that he would play Center when he presented him the contract (Again, I still believe that this contract will go down as the worst contract signing in the history of the Cubs. I fear that this contract could be a franchise killer for years to come. I really hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so.) But just look at this outfield defense on paper: Soriano in Center, Jones in Right, and a Murton/Floyd platoon in Left. Again…HUH??? How could a team go into a season comfortable with this defense in the outfield. Lou had to work, along with some injuries, to move Soriano into Left Field where he would not be as much of a defensive liability. Now, I believe, he will work in the off season to move Soriano from the lead off spot.
What more have we learned about Matt Murton this year? We know that he is poor, poor, defensively. Some might not be so hard, but I think so. We know that he has some hitting potential, but can he be counted on every day? We don’t know. It seems that the Cubs need a new outfielder in the off season, unless they are going to trust Felix Pie…who I don’t think we know more about either.
For Lee and Ramirez I just can’t understand where the power went. One of the biggest issues that the team faced was why the home run numbers plummeted from previous years. There were suggestions given about injuries, and wind patterns, and weather issues, and on and on. Whatever the reason, you see what happens when a team is so one dimensional.
The Cubs worked their best to trade Jones and get him out of town. For some reason the trade was revoked, and Jones was changed. He became a team MVP candidate in the second half, and is one of the top three reasons why the Cubs even made the playoffs. I began to love watching him play, and thought that he was the most clutch hitter down the stretch. He is probably the most replaceable player on this team. But he became a hero for a couple months.
Speaking of getting out of town, the trade of Barrett was to me the biggest turning point of the season…I think this is pretty much conventional wisdom. Barrett seemed to be the opposite of what Lou wanted from a player. I think it had to do with his smarts. There was no question that Barrett worked hard and played with heart. It was also painfully obvious that he wasn’t very skilled as a defensive catcher. This one player demonstrated where the team was and where it was going. Barrett is Jim Hendry’s boy. He was probably the player that Jim Hendry was proudest of. He was a diamond in the rough that Hendry found and made a star of. It would be like pulling a tooth for Hendry to move on from Michael Barrett. When Michael Barrett was traded, it was a clear sign that Lou Piniella would be the major voice in giving direction to the team.
I think one of the biggest surprises of the year was the emergence of Mark DeRosa. He is a tremendous utility player who should play everyday. The trade of Cesar Izturis was another move of necessity. It was great to see Ryan Theriot have a chance to become the everyday shortstop. While, I think he was good this year, and could potentially lead off next year, I also think there is the outside chance that the Cubs will make a run at Alex Rodriguez and play him at short stop next year. I do not think this is probable, but mildly possible.
Think about where this team would have been under the Dusty Baker regime. I wonder if some of the criticism of Dusty, was caused by not having as strong a position as Lou. With a new team president, and a clear decision to do what it takes to win, and to build a team that Lou can manage. Lou could demand the trade of players. Could Dusty do the same, or did he not want to? I don’t know. Would Dusty have stuck with Izturis, and continued Soriano in Center? Would Theriot have gotten a chance? How about Marmol? How would Dusty have handled the fight between Zambrano and Barrett? Would the team look like it had given up in May and June and been done by the end of July? How much did the firing of Andy MacPhail and the hiring of McDonough change things around Wrigley? I think all of these things came together and made the situation better.
As I have said before, if you want a reminder of how for the Cubs came this year, just remember that the first Cubs brought in from the bullpen this year were Neal Cotts, Michael Wuertz, and Will Ohman. And one final note, did our year with Carlos Zambrano actually seem like it was ten years long.