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Cubs Pre-season Position Breakdown

Byron Clarke
March 7th, 8th 2004

This material was originally written for a weblog, and is presented here as some of my thoughts going into the season.

Wow, the website has grown tremendously since I first wrote this in March 2004. The 2005 Season Preview is much more in depth.

March 8th, 2004

Good afternoon world, I am back to post another entry in my baseball blog, despite the fact that I should be studying for an upcoming exam. I decided to take half an hour or so and continue my posts because I just had a really good discussion about baseball with one of my fellow IU students.

Anyhow, yesterday (which was actually very early this "morning") I finished at the shortstop position, so I will begin at third base where the Cubs have Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez is in the final year of his contract and will earn approximately $6 million this year. These two facts, along with his typical statistical output will likely keep Ramirez at the hot corner for the duration of the 2004 season. I don't believe there is a groundswell of fans pleading for trading him away, and I have a feeling that the Cubs may look to sign him to a long term deal during the season if he is performing reasonably well. I am not a huge Ramirez fan because of his occasional defensive woes, but a steady everyday thirdbaseman with a good bat is one less question for Jim Hendry to answer. Rather than focus on Ramirez' future, I want to talk about his recent past. Specifically, Jim Hendry's trade of Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and one other minor league prospect for both Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez is one of the defining "Jim Hendry moves" that has helped turn the Cubs organization around. This trade exhibits many of the characteristics that have made Hendry one of the top tier GM's in MLB.

Hendry is well known for his patience. When he fired Don Baylor midway through the 2002 season, Hendry passed on all of the available candidates at the time. These candidates included Buck Showalter, Felipe Alou, and Jack McKeon, as well as Jim Fregosi, Cito Gaston, and a few other viable candidates. When he hired Bruce Kimm as the interim manager for the remainder of the 2002 season, I was quite disappointed because I had my heart set on Felipe Alou. However, Hendry understands winning ball clubs, perhaps better than I. The dynastic teams of the 1990's were characterized by long tenured managers such as Joe Torre (Yankees), Bobby Cox (Braves), Mike Hargrove (Indians), and Tony LaRussa (Cardinals). None of the managers available during the 2002 season were young enough and of a sufficiently high caliber to place themselves in the above category. It is my totally unfounded belief that Jim Hendry had some inside information on the Dusty Baker - Peter McGowan situation in San Francisco, and thus passed up the greying Felipe Alou for a shot at the spry Baker.

This same brand of Hendry patience repeated itself in the Ramirez and Lofton acquisition. During the 2002 offseason, Jim Hendry decided not to upgrade at the third base position. While he was clearly incorrect, the situation as it stood made perfectly reasonable sense. For starters, Mark Bellhorn was one of the few Chicago Cubs to perform well in 2002. During the 2002 campaign, Bellhorn hit 27 homeruns while carrying a .374 OBP. Although his RBI's (56) were considerably lower than one would expect from a 27 homer player, most big league teams would salivate over a pre-free agency third baseman with 27 homers and a .374 OBP. However, the Cubs began to show promise in 2003 and young Bellhorn's bat failed to produce, GM Hendry was forced to move Bellhorn. His first trade sent Bellhorn to Colorado for Jose Hernandez, a former Cub who had produced significant numbers for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2000 and 2001. However, Hernandez was never considered the stopping point at third base, largely because he was past his prime, and added significant number of strikeouts to the Cubs lineup.

In the meantime, the Florida Marlins had gotten off to a dismal start and the trade rumors began circulating that the Cubs would try to land Mike Lowell from the Marlins. When the Marlins declined, Hendry was patient and allowed the market to shape itself. By being patient, Hendry was able to address both the Centerfield opening (which occured when Corey Patterson tore his ACL), and the thirdbase blackhole. All of this is to say that Jim Hendry has an uncanny knack of knowing when to make a move, and when not to. In one application of this theory, despite my pleadings with the god of the Cubs, Hendry never pursued Ivan Rodriguez this offseason. While I have no basis for saying this, it would not suprise me at all to see the Tigers find themselves in a similar position to the Pirates in a few years. A single player (a catcher) making about 25% of their player budget who only produces human numbers. Simply put, Jim Hendry who knows the baseball market believed that Pudge Rodriguez' asking price was so far over his true value that he didn't even bother to negotiate.

Well folks, times up for now, so I will leave with this: The Cubs are pretty well set at the hot corner this year. My gut tells me Aramis Ramirez is going to have a down season, but my head tells me that we are in for some monster numbers as Ramirez approaches free agency. Look for the Cubs to ink Ramirez to a three or four year contract at about $26 million during midseason if his numbers are looking good.

Peace Out my loyal following... of one? email me if you read this so that I know I got some of my friends to read. byron@thecubdom.com

March 7th, 2004

Good morning world. I am taking a study break, so why not get the baseball blog going again. I have so much to say, but since I am limiting today's post to twenty minutes, we'll see how far we get.

The Cubs had a good offseason this year, not great, but good. The most important move in my opinion will be Jim Hendry's acquisition of Derrek Lee at first basebase. His mature bat will be invaluable this year, our year to win. When I first heard about the trade, I was a little disappointed because I am pretty high on Hee Seop Choi. However, if I truly want to win, I have to recognize that this is our year to win.

I have long maintained that Cubs brass shouldn't make shortsighted moves to win "right now" because we have not had the organizational base to win. This has been true since the very early '90s, and most definitely the case since the current McPhail regime began in 1995. However, this year is our year to win. We have the organizational depth, and the major league roster to win this year. The key to a winning organization is depth, because the real value of a young prospect is literally millions of dollars. The Cubs organization is deep enough this year that we could justify a blockbuster mid-season trade which would deplete our minor league system in order to bring in an August-October rent-a-player, without jeopardizing the next two or three years.

In other moves this offseason, General Manager Jim Hendry re-sighned Mark Grudzielanek to play at second base this year. I was originally opposed to bringing him back, but under the circumstances of the offseason, Hendry did quite well. First, I was hoping to acquire a young, stellar secondbaseman along the lines of Jose Vidro or Luis Castillo. However, since neither of these players came on the market, and Hendry was able to sign Grudz at about a 50% pay cut, the price was right. Furthermore, by signing Todd Walker to be the backup at secondbase, the Cubs are well situated on the right side of the infield.

At shortstop, Alex Gonzalez will be back for his final year of his contract. Unfortunately, we are not likely to see any significant change at shortstop because Gonzalez was signed at the height of the player market and will earn $5.5 million this year. The only way that I can foresee a trade for a new shortstop would be in the event of an injury, or in the event that Gonzalez has an absolutely dismal beginning of the year and is the one failing component on the roster. Under the two situations, Hendry and the Tribune company might start looking for a deal similar to the Derrek Lee and Alfonseca and Clement trades. In this situation, the Cubs send a servicable major leaguer (maybe Ramon Martinez) and a mid-level prospect to a small market team looking to get out from under a big arbitration payday coming due. I haven't put extensive thought into this, but I don't really see any shortstops out there who fit that bill... with the possible exception of Rafael Furcal in Atlanta. Whatever the case is, I don't expect the Tribune company to reverse its policy of paying other teams to take contracts off their hands, so we are probably stuck with the light hitting Gonzalez at shortstop.

However, before I leave you all hanging on the Furcal issue, I will explain a bit. (I will first start by saying that some of this should be credited to my friend Chris who brought this up.) So, how do the Cubs get Furcal you ask? Well, the Braves are a team that are on the decline this year. As foolish as history has proven for folks who predict the demise of the '90s Braves juggernaut, I am going to predict their demise for the first time. Why? no Greg Maddux, no Tom Glavine, a broken John Smoltz, no Javy Lopez, and many more smaller issues. The vaunted Braves pitching is left with their Patton in rockin' Leo Mazzone, but they no longer have any Private Ryans. I am not, and have never been a big Mike Hampton fan. Russ Ortiz has never excited me, and frankly if you look at their rotation its not all that impressive. Throw in a bullpen that has traditionally been their weakness, and is no different this year, and you have a weak hitting team. Their bats are still good, but I don't expect the Jones boys sans Sheffield will be able to overcome a very strong Philladelphia team. In the NL Central, the Cubs and the Astros both figure to have playoff caliber years, which makes me guess that the wildcard will come out of the central this year. Moreover, we should all be careful in discounting the Marlin's ability to win with their young... albeit less formidable 2004 version.

Thus, if July comes along and the Cubs are in a tight NL Central race, neck and neck with the Astros, Cardinals, and maybe the Pirates or Reds, the pressure might turn up to find a better shortstop. In this same July, I think the deity known as John Schuerholz will concede that even Budda couldn't put together 14 consecutive NL East titles. He will look to re-tool his team and recognize that he is short of the ingredient which brings success, pitching depth. On top of that Schuerholz has been forced to cut his budget recently and will be looking to trade a shorstop who will be in his fifth service year during 2004. He is currently making $3.75 million this year, and will probably be looking at a minimum of $5-$6 million for 2005. For the Braves, a trade of Rafael Furcal to the Cubs for Alez Gonzalez and a top line pitching prospect (Juan Cruz, Todd Wellemeyer, Angel Guzman) and a second tier prospect (perhaps Sergio Mitre) with about $.5 million thrown in from the Cubs would make a lot of sense. This would give the Braves about $5.5 million in salary flexibility going into 2005 with two pitching prospects to help retool a minor league organization which has often had a lot of hype on its pitchers, but rarely pans out... (think Bruce Chen, Ruben Quevedo, and a few more.) For the Cubs, this gives them some more speed, comparable power, a few more errors, and about 60 more points in OBP. Additionally, batting Furcal as a leadoff hitter would allow Mark Grudzielanek/Todd Walker to hit in the more appropriate 8 hole.

OK, I gotta go... because this got a lot longer than I planned, but think this.

  • 1. Rafael Furcal, SS, Switch
  • 2. Corey Patterson, CF, Lefty
  • 3. Sammy Sosa, RF, Righty
  • 4. Moises Alou, LF, Righty
  • 5. Derrek Lee, 1B, Righty
  • 6. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Righty
  • 7. Michael Barrett, C, Righty
  • 8. Mark Grudzielanek, 2B, Righty
  • 9. Pitchers, Righty

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