Five Questions: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs landed in fourth place in 2005, stumbling to a 79-83 finish. Cubs fans are no longer tolerant of losing, no matter how lovable. There’s some room for optimism in 2006, but it still feels like deja vu all over again. Five burning questions remain for the upcoming season.

1. Again, how many innings will the Cubs get out of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood?

Who would’ve thought the Cubs’ tandem of aces would seem like more of a curse than a blessing? This is the third consecutive season in which the Cubs’ playoff chances rest squarely on the shoulders of this pair, literally.

On Mark Prior‘s shoulder—he’s got a mild tear/strain/whatever the Cubs are calling it these days, and we have no idea how much of the regular season he’ll miss. Could be two weeks, could be two months. Jose Contreras missed two months with a similar injury. I think the Cubs and their fans would be more than satisfied if he can muster up 180 innings in 2006. Maybe knock the home run rate down a bit, get his ERA back into the low 3s like we know he can.

Lately, Dusty Baker has been saying crazy things along the lines of Kerry Wood returning from shoulder surgery in late April. Using the typical Cubs pitcher translation, I’ll go with late June. While it’d be a disappointment if Prior can’t manage 180 innings, expectations from Wood are much smaller. 180 innings from him would be a pleasant surprise. 29 starts, that would be a nice boost from the $11 million dollar strikeout artist. He could still win 11-12 games and perhaps set himself up for a nice free-agent payday. Wood’s contract includes a full no-trade clause, so he’ll probably play 2006 out as his last season with the Cubs.

So 360 innings, is that too much to ask? Hell, ol’ Hoss Radbourn once threw 678 innings in a single season and he didn’t complain about his shoulder. Now that’s a horse. Of course, that was in 1884 when there was six balls to a walk and the batter called whether he wanted a high or low pitch. Anyway, if either Prior or Wood is going to miss more than a month, Hendry needs to overpay for Barry Zito to compensate. Or at least bring in a John Thomson type.

2. Do the Cubs have the starting pitching depth to sustain the inevitable injuries and setbacks?

Let’s be realistic—the Cubs simply cannot count on Prior and Wood. Fans don’t want to hear about one more twinge, surgery, or sprain. The frustrating lack of durability is why Cubs fans lust over a guy like Zito. Even if he doesn’t have Wood’s stuff, he always, always takes the hill.

Jim Hendry has amassed a sizeable group behind Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux. This year, the Cubs can turn to Angel Guzman, Rich Hill, Sean Marshall, Glendon Rusch, Wade Miller, and Jerome Williams. Should we breathe a sigh of relief with six backup starters? No. This staff isn’t nearly as deep as it appears on the surface.

Guzman, Hill, and Marshall make for a solid group of kids. But they all have their flaws. Guzman, once a can’t-miss prospect, has barely pitched in 2004-05 with a litany of injuries. Marshall’s had injury problems of his own but has posted a sparkling spring. Hill throws a Major-League ready curveball but is still trying to overcome major control problems. At least one of the three should prove valuable for the big club in 2006, but it’d be folly to count on more than that.

Rusch and Williams are solid back-rotation guys, capable of keeping a team in the game, but not players you’d consider starting in the playoffs. The Cubs don’t have the offense to win games with more than one of these types in the rotation.

Miller is a huge question mark, coming off labrum surgery. He’s throwing off a mound already, but any sort of contribution would be a bonus.

If the Cubs have to rely on a rotation of Zambrano, Maddux, Rusch, Williams, and a rookie for even half the season, they’re probably not a playoff team. Look to teams like the White Sox and Athletics if you want to see true depth—the Cubs added Wade Miller, not Javier Vazquez.

3. Will the outfield acquisitions pay off?

Jim Hendry bet three promising young arms on Juan Pierre after missing out on Rafael Furcal. Despite his flaws, Pierre will help this team. If anything, it’ll just be soothing to see the leadoff hitter putting the bat on the ball 93% of the time. As opposed to 74% of the time with Corey Patterson. Pierre won’t wow you with his defense, and he needs to improve his success rate to add significant value from his basestealing. Still, he’ll probably be on base 35% of the time and that’s a step in the right direction.

One guy who won’t be getting on base 35% of the time is Jacque Jones. Jones handles the glove OK and will only be paid $3 million in 2006, so it’s not the end of the world. But there’s a difference between bringing in a right fielder who won’t hurt you and one who will add several wins to your team. This was a safe signing, seemingly done because there was nothing better out there.

The Cubs will field one of the game’s least productive outfields in Jones, Pierre, and Matt Murton. With no power in the middle infield either, the Cubs need All Star seasons from Michael Barrett, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez. Watch out for a hilarious all-French outfields when Pierre, Jacque, and Marquis Grissom take the field.

4. Can the bullpen be one of the league’s best?

Call me crazy, but I think it can. One of Hendry’s hallmarks is to buy high on relievers, resulting in three-year deals for Mike Remlinger and LaTroy Hawkins. He did it again this year, purchasing Bob Howry and Scott Eyre. Neither can match their 2005 season, but in year one of their deals, both figure to be helpful additions.

Ryan Dempster, that crazy Canuck, doesn’t have a long track record of closing. But he got the job done in 2005 and Hendry rewarded him with a three-year deal. Scott Williamson has the ability to be lights out, so it looks like the Cubs could boast four solid relievers in 2006. Most good bullpens aren’t assembled in this manner, but there’s a first time for everything. The ‘pen could be awesome if the Cubs somehow found themselves with enough healthy starters to move Wood to the pen for 100 innings of dominance. At this point, why not?

5. What does the latest keystone combo look like?

Right now, it looks like a misshapen blob. We’ve got a three-headed monster of Todd Walker, Neifi Perez, and Jerry Hairston Jr. at second base. At shortstop we have the promising but unproven Ronny Cedeno, with Neifi lurking close behind if he falters. How’s this mess going to sort out?

First, the Cubs are desperately trying to get anything of worth for Walker. He’s got a great bat for a second baseman, but his defense is much maligned. Walker is signed cheaply and may be dealt within a week or two, perhaps to the Orioles or Mets. This isn’t a groundball staff and the Cubs don’t have a potent offense, so the desire to send him packing is a curious one.

If Neifi bats 8th in the order and has his glovework on display when Maddux, Zambrano, and Dempster are on the hill, the Cubs should be better for it. If his usage exceeds that, it will be detrimental to the team.

Hairston is a versatile injury prone player, a useful bench guy. But he doesn’t really excel in any one area and probably shouldn’t be starting games regularly at second base.

The idea to let Cedeno start at shortstop after failing to sign Furcal is a prudent decision. While he may not have the OBP for it, Cedeno doesn’t strike out a ton and could make an OK number two hitter eventually. Reports on his defense are very positive. At the league minimum, he’ll probably be the best bargain on the team.

In a perfect world, Neifi would play second for 30-40% of the time in situations where defense is crucial. Walker would get the majority of starts. Dusty Baker would be patient with Cedeno and let him blossom into … Jack Wilson? The Cubs could get by with that arrangement.

What Cubs fans fear is that Cedeno will be demoted after his first 0-for-4, Walker will be dealt and hit .290 with 15 home runs elsewhere, and the Neifi/Hairston combo will drain the offense.

In conclusion …

The Cubs have a potentially dominant pitching staff and a potentially tolerable, OBP-starved offense. It sounds almost like the 2005 White Sox, without the great defense or durability. With a weakened Cardinals squad and the possible retirement of Roger Clemens, it’s possible the Cubs claw their way to a division title. Otherwise, the writing is on the wall for Hendry and Baker.

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