Monday, March 23, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The slow Spring Training is really taking a toll on the Chicago baseball writers. They are no longer able to write the same old stuff about what little is actually happening, they are forced into having to speculate on what might happen in our worst nightmares. The other day, the Tribune's Paul Sullivan presented his 9 Reasons to Worry About the Chicago Cubs.

The Cub Reporter has a more tongue-in-cheek version of the many worries that haunt us Cub fans in the middle of the night.

I guess I'm just not that worried about the Cubs this year. I'm not sure where it is written that a Cub fan must be a faithful, drinking-the-Kool-Aid, pro-Cubs zombie who believes every piece of propaganda published in Vineline or a paranoid, conspiracy theorist, bundle of nerves who not only sees the glass as half empty, but sees that the glass has deadly poison in it instead of water.

I'll admit that I tend to be more of the latter, but I'm not crawling up into a fetal position over any of the worries that Mr. Sullivan outlines.

"Harden's shoulder: The Cubs decided to take it slowly this spring with Rich Harden, who suffered a shoulder tear last summer and rehabbed all winter. He has thrown only 4 2/3 innings, or about the same amount as a pitcher in the second week of spring training. After being scratched Friday with the flu, Harden has three starts remaining to get prepared for the season. That's unlikely to be enough time, so expect the bullpen to be taxed if Harden starts the season in the rotation instead of on the disabled list."

We knew Harden has had arm problems since before he was ever a Cub. His injury history is no secret and both the Cubs and their fans knew what they were getting themselves into by acquiring him. If the Cubs had pinned all of their hopes on a rotation anchored by Harden, as they did with Wood and Prior, then not only would I worry, but I would be pissed as hell that Hendry doesn't learn from his past mistakes.

But that is not the case here. Harden is the #4 starter, and in all reality, he will be the #5 because he will most likely have starts skipped instead of Sean Marshall.

Even if he goes down for an expanded period of time, the Cubs have Aaron Heilman waiting for a shot at the rotation and he should perform as well, if not better than most teams' #5 starters. Failing that, Jeff Samardzija can be handed the ball for a start or two

It is shocking to see that the Cubs have more than one contingency plan, but they do, and I'm not overly concerned.

"Lee's age: Derrek Lee is 33 but looks much older this spring. A quad injury has slowed him down, and he was hitting .179 going into the weekend. Lee also had a poor spring last year but hit .364 with eight home runs in April. The problem is he hit only .275 with 12 homers the rest of the season. Lee must prove his poor second-half was an anomaly, not a trend."

Derrek Lee is a victim of his own success with the Cubs. His 2005 season raised the bar of expectations for him. While the lack of power outside of the month of April is a bit troubling, Lee has always been a streaky hitter. Again, we knew that (or should have known that) when we acquired him from Florida. Anybody who played fantasy baseball at all knew that Derrek Lee finished his seasons with an average of about .275, 20+ homeruns, and around 80 RBIs, but that he would have maddening stretches of no production at all along the way, and he would kill your team if you kept playing him during those stretches.

It made him a very good #6 hitter in the Florida lineup, and a poor candidate to be a #3 hitter in the Cubs lineup. Fortunately, he stepped up his production and minimized his stretches of ineptitude with the bat when he came to the Cubs. But now that is the expectation. He is 33 and probably will start having seasons similiar to the .275/20/80 player that we originally acquired.

The solution is to move him down in the order where he becomes a very good #6 hitter again. Ramirez, Bradley, Soto in the 3, 4, 5 slots in the order will provide balance, power, and consistency to a part of the order where consistency is key.

Plus, Sullivan doesn't point out that the .275 "the rest of the way" after April included a .234 mark in May. After May, Lee hit .283 in June, .292 in July, .301 in August, and .274 in September. Lets not put him in his grave quite yet for having one bad month last Spring

"Marmol's psyche: Carlos Marmol said he doesn't even think about his blown save for the Dominican Republic in their elimination game in the World Baseball Classic, and if it bothered him what value would he have as the the club's most valuable reliever, whether in a closing or setup role. It's imperative Marmol has a clear head and confidence in his stuff. As Marmol goes, so go the Cubs."

I'm not sure why Marmol's psyche suddenly is so fragile. Marmol has always worried me a bit because he seems to be so much raw talent and so little baseball instinct. The high-talent, low-instinct guys tend to fall off the table pretty quickly once whatever it was that made them special starts to fade. I don't see any reason why Marmol's talent would start to fade this year in particular. He's young and the league really hasn't shown they have figured him out yet.

He even survived a stretch last year where it appeared he was imploding before our eyes. He hit the All-Star break and came back the dominant guy we had seen through the beginning of the year.

Again, the Cubs come armed with a back-up plan if Marmol falters. They have Kevin Gregg, who has been superb so far this Spring, and is more than capable of filling the closer role.

"Soriano's legs: The Cubs were 69-38 with Alfonso Soriano starting in left field last year. They were only 28-26 when he didn't start because of a leg injury or rest. Soriano began training early this winter because he was disappointed in himself for being injured, and the dividends appear to be paying off. Keeping Soriano healthy is of utmost importance."

The Cubs have been fine the last two years with Soriano's legs not being what we thought we were buying when he signed his contract. The Cubs have outfield depth whether in the form of Micah Hoffpauir or Jake Fox, who both deserve a shot at real major league pitching in a real major league game. The fact that only one (if any) of them will be on the roster when the Cubs break camp in Mesa speaks to the depth this team has at corner outfield.

While neither Hoffpauir nor Fox are going to impress anyone with their defensive prowess, they don't have to because the man they would potentially replace is a brutal outfielder. It would be difficult for them to get worse.

"Fukudome's head: Kosuke Fukudome, the $48 million outfielder, failed to live up to the hype after a good start in April and May. Fukudome hit .235 for Japan in the WBC, failing to show progress from his '08 slump. The Cubs appear intent on keeping him in the majors instead of sending him to Triple-A Iowa, so hopefully he wakes up by Opening Day."

Fukudome will be given opportunities to earn the money in his contract, but if he doesn't show any improvement over the end of last year, Lou will lose patience and you'll see Reed Johnson patrolling centerfield on a regular basis and Jim Hendry on his cell phone asking other teams if they have any centerfielders they might like to trade. Hell, he may give Jim Edmonds a jingle to see whats up. Given the offense that the Cubs have in the rest of their order, having Fukudome or Johnson batting 8th with a collective .260 average will probably be enough to get by.

"Bullpen depth: After Marmol, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman and Neal Cotts, the Cubs' bullpen is shaky at best, meaning more trips to the mound for pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Veterans Chad Gaudin and Luis Vizcaino have had poor springs, and the Cubs may bring up Rule 5 pick David Patton, who never has pitched above Class A. The decision to wave goodbye to Kerry Wood could come back to haunt them."

There are few bullpens in the league where you feel confident handing the ball to guys who are fifth, sixth, seventh deep in a bullpen. As much as the specialists have been developed by the modern game, no kid dreams of growing up to become a left-handed relief specialist in a bullpen. You dream about starting or you dream about closing.

Bullpens are inherently filled with failed starters and failed closers, and those guys are generally only around until someone cheaper shows up to replace them.

If the Cubs get anything useful out of David Patton, its a bonus because they do have some other young guys (Wells, Waddell) and veterans (Fox, Stanton) that have pitched effectively in the spring and could easily fill less pressure-packed roles in the bottom part of any bullpen.

"Soto's durability: With Henry Blanco gone, catcher Geovany Soto will be called on to start 140 or more games, after starting in 131 last year. Soto proved his endurance in 2008, but the Cubs don't have a backup who is a proven hitter at the big-league level. Piniella can't afford to wear him out."

I know there is a lot of Hank White love out there, and I did like him in a backup role, but projecting that Soto will have to catch more this year because Henry Blanco isn't on the roster anymore seems like an awful stretch for something to be worried about. I find it hard to believe that Paul Sullivan really feels that Hank White is so irreplaceable that it will torpedo the Cubs entire year. I think he just needed to fill some space.

"Infield depth: There still is no viable backup third baseman on the roster if Aramis Ramirez misses any extended time. The Corey Koskie experiment was doomed from the outset, and Esteban German isn't the answer either. Mike Fontenot and Aaron Miles can be used in a pinch, but not long term."

OK - finally a real concern. Yes - the Cubs do not have anyone to back up Aramis Ramirez at third base. The problem with this being a real problem is that he is concerned about a long-term answer at third base. Well, its hard to have a long-term replacement set and waiting for your offense's most potent weapon in the unlikely event of something catastrophic happening.

This would be like me worrying that I don't have a parachute for when my plane explodes in mid-air. If something truly bad happens to Ramirez, the Cubs are in trouble. There are no ways around it, but I have dedicated this season to not worrying about the one set of circumstances that could blow up the season.

Plus, the Cubs aren't totally screwed in this area because they are more than capable of making a deal for a veteran third baseman in the case of an emergency. They won't get Evan Longoria, but they might be able to get someone like Scott Rolen or Chipper Jones if they have anything left in their tank.

"Piniella's demeanor: The Cubs manager has been way too calm this spring, meaning the next outburst could be a major eruption. Piniella has not been ejected from a game since June of 2007. Will the old Piniella ever return, or has he mellowed for good?"

I'm not even sure how Piniella not being a frothing lunatic is a reason to worry. I'm not sure why Paul seems concerned that Lou hasn't been throwing bases around in Mesa during games that don't count. It seems to me he has called out his hitters when they weren't giving him decent at-bats so I'm not quite sure what else he would like to see. Piniella has been in baseball for quite a while and I'm sure that we will not all be sitting around a bar in the winter of 2009 cursing Lou Piniella for being too lax in the clubhouse.

Of course, any combination of the horror stories detailed by Sullivan could submarine the Cubs season, and of course, that is why they play the games. But I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I will however be losing sleep over my continuing nagging cough, but that shouldn't have any effect on the Cubs, so the the rest of you can rest easy.


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