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October 7, 2003
Chicago Cubs vs. Florida Marlins
It's the all-underdog series, where virtually everyone outside of the greater St. Louis and Miami metropolitan areas seem to be entertaining fuzzy Cubby thoughts. After all, the Cubs are supremely telegenic, feature a healthy dose of celebrity, and some of the best pitching on the planet. But there's another organization in this series, one with a recent World Series win a couple of owners ago to its credit, something achieved with almost galling ease compared to the decades of North Side misery. Moreover, these latest Marlins are an interesting collection of homegrown talents, other people's prospects, a rented superstar, and the definitive retreaded manager.
CF-L Kenny Lofton (.296/.352/.450/.280)*
CF-L Juan Pierre (.305/.361/.373/.272)
The Cubs have the star power, and happily enough, most of it actually lived up to its billing. A gracefully aging Sammy Sosa still stirs everyone's drink in Wrigleyville, but he's no longer the team's one power source. Courtesy of general manager Jim Hendry, the in-season gaps were plugged extremely well and pretty cheaply. Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez more than adequately replaced Corey Patterson (lost for the year to injury) and Dusty's daydreams at the hot corner. Elsewhere, Moises Alou has starred in postseasons past, having been robbed of the '97 World Series MVP as a ripple effect of Eric Gregg Creative Interpretation Night at the ballpark. Lofton has given the Cubs a legit leadoff man, while Ramirez joined Alou in providing the lineup a pair of effective second-banana sluggers to support Sosa. And while Mark Grudzielanek and the Karros-Simon platoon don't provide that much offense, they're not offensive zeroes. That's left for the bottom of the order, where the once-better Alex Gonzalez and Damian Miller can be counted on to go to the plate when asked. That said, Gonzalez did claim his little bit of Jerry Dybzinski local grandeur, popping what seemed like more than his share of game-winning hits, so he's got more Bucky Dent potential than Larry Bowa ever did.
However, taking into account the different offensive environments in which the teams play, the Fish have the slightly better lineup. They walk as often as the Cubs' older lineup, hit with as much power, and they have an easily distracting advantage in terms of their speed. They also did a significantly better job than their opponents as far as hitting in the dense dampness of Pro Player. The front half of the lineup does a great job of reaching base, almost everyone runs well, they don't strike out much, and with power all the way through the eighth slot, they're pretty well set up to crank out big innings.
Unlike the Cubs' in-season shopping spree, the Fish had to call up Miguel Cabrera early once Todd Hollandsworth started looking like a bad idea, and their stretch-drive hitting pickup was the sentimental expense of lugging Jeff Conine back. Conine will play some left field if Mike Lowell's injured hand prevents him from contributing regularly, but after a four-hit game in the clincher against the Giants, Miguel Cabrera probably won't get written out of the lineup quite so easily. That highlights a bit of flexibility that the Marlins have that the Cubs lack: If they lose a regular in an outfield corner, or if Lowell can't go, or if Derrek Lee gets hurt, they can fix it by moving Cabrera or Conine around. If the Cubs lose a regular, they'll end up playing short-handed.
A lot has been said and will continue to get said about how the Marlins' advantage in speed will provide the Cubs with headaches all series long. The case has been oversold, and this isn't going to be an exercise in reminding everyone of how neat the '85 Cardinals were. All of the Cubs' starting pitchers control the running game effectively, Damian Miller throws well, and you can't steal if you don't get on base. In a series where six of seven games will be started by people named Prior, Wood, and Zambrano, the Marlins won't have that many opportunities. Where the steal might play an important part is late in the game, where the Cubs have a couple of relievers--Borowski and Alfonseca in particular--who don't do a lot to help Miller out. The Marlins' ability to go from first to third and general advantage on the basepaths could also play a role, just as it did in the Marlins-Giants series.
C-L Paul Bako (.229/.311/.330/.228)
C-R Mike Redmond (.240/.302/.312/.223)
* combined season totals
There are some superficial similarities here. Both teams' benches have a slow first baseman with a lot of regular playing time with a non-contender to his credit. You can count on both Conine and Simon to get plenty of work in the series, starting games or pinch-hitting assignments in key moments. However, Conine can handle left field, while Simon has watched people play left field. Both teams have some speed on the bench, backup catchers who didn't hit, and backup outfielders who don't. Offensively, the advantages are pretty marginal. Ramon Martinez is a handier hitter than someone like Mike Mordecai, and he might come through in games started by the Fish lefties. On the other hand, Brian Banks is a better second weapon on the bench behind Conine than anyone the Cubs have.
Where the Fish have an advantage is that they don't have to carry a gaggle of defensive replacements for the outfield, and at least in the first round, they were smart enough to pack the bench with spare parts instead of spare pitchers. So they can afford to double-switch, pinch-hit, and pinch-run. They can pull their Alex Gonzalez because their utility infielders can play shortstop, whereas the Cubs don't really have a backup at short.
The Cubs really could help themselves by carrying Hee Seop Choi, but that would demand confidence in him that his manager lacks, and the organization has gone out of its way to cater to Dusty in ways most managers only dream of. So instead of a hitter who could provide them with patience or power, it's scratch hitters, pinch-runners, and defensive replacements to the bitter end, just as it was during the regular season.
Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, IP, ERA)
In Prior and Wood, the Cubs probably have the two best starting pitchers not named Pedro left in the postseason. It also doesn't hurt that Zambrano is better than most team's second starters. And while having Kerry Wood start Game Five in the NLDS means he won't start until Game Three of the NLCS, that means he'd be available for a Game Seven if it comes to that. All four Cubs starters cook with gas, all four are relatively young, all four have worked heavy workloads this year, and all four could be completely dominant. All four will be facing the Marlins' overwhelmingly right-handed lineup: unlike 1997, when bringing in Darren Daulton gave them some balance, McKeon's Fish have no lefty power of note. Against the right-handed portion of the universe, the Marlins lose nearly 40 points of batting average, 30 of OBP, and 60 of SLG. That's against everybody, let alone a quartet as talented as the one the Cubs will turn to in this series. Zambrano's sinker is especially tough on right-handers, so when the Fish aren't struggling to get the ball into play against the likes of Wood or Prior, they'll have a hard time getting it out of the infield against Zambrano.
The interesting problem is that this time the Cubs aren't facing a Braves team handicapped by a merely functional rotation, they now have four fresh Fish to face, and the Marlins feature much stronger starting pitching than this year's Braves did. Still, the matchups aren't as promising as you might think, in terms of young talent matched up against young talent. Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis might be fun, but they're still a bit wild, and they're not likely to overpower the Cubs anywhere close to the same degree that the Cubs' front three can dominate games. Redman and Willis need to be particularly concerned, since the Cubs do a very good job of putting the hurt on lefties--although Kenny Lofton disappears, guys like Karros and Alou improve a great deal.
Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, IP, ERA)
RHP Joe Borowski (14.5, 68 1/3, 2.63)
RHP Ugueth Urbina (15.4, 77, 2.81)*
* combined season totals
The Cubs have expensive relievers and good relievers, although not too many who are one and the same. But if Antonio Alfonseca or Dave Veres turned out to be less than wished for, they do both have experience. Because the Marlins don't really have much in the way of lefty bats to call upon, there shouldn't be much matchup chicanery to fuss about. The danger is that Dusty will let the now-standard Chicago frustrations with Kyle Farnsworth get to him, when Farnsworth could be the most important reliever the Cubs have. Borowski should be able to keep doing his thing in the closer's role, but alone among the other options in the Cubs pen, Farnsworth is a righthander who can overpower right-handed power hitters. If Baker instead favors the likes of Alfonseca or Veres because they're gray of beard and long of tooth, he'll be giving the Marlins an extra opportunity to make something of the situations they might have in the seventh or eighth innings.
The Marlins bullpen is a sort of hasty pudding, whipped up at the last moment to suit the needs of the now. Uggy Urbina was a critical in-season add, while Rick Helling and Chad Fox were essentially dredged up on the off chance that something might work out. In both cases, it did. Helling has been outstanding in relief, while Fox has given everyone yet another tantalizing reminder that on those occasions when his elbow works, he can pitch a little. The fun thing about this pen is that with three former starters in it, Jack McKeon should never have a problem if he has to hook somebody early. Pavano or Helling or Tejera could take two-, three- or four-inning assignments as required, leaving the core trio of Urbina, Fox, and Looper for the late innings.
Neither team is considered a great defensive squad, but the Marlins should have a bit of an edge here. Admittedly, that's not particularly because of their strengths. The Cubs' defense has one well-regarded defender (their A-Gonz), and several liabilities. Karros has been a brutal defender for years, Ramirez's arm at third is a bit scattershot, and Grudzielanek isn't blessed with great gymnastic skill on the deuce or notable range. None of their three starting outfielders moves around particularly well, and since the Marlins are one of the league's better teams at getting the ball in play, I think we'll see a couple of triples drop in Florida. Add in Kenny Lofton's noodle of an arm to the Marlins' speed, and the Fish should be able to exploit the opportunities on the basepaths that they do get with balls in play.
The Marlins are generally younger and more athletic, they're a little more solid up the middle, and nobody's a major liability. Well, maybe Conine in left, but it's only left. If Lowell were fully healthy, he'd get to remind everyone that he's one of the best defensive third basemen around, but his health is still in doubt.
Where both teams are well-served is behind the plate, so we probably won't witness some Piazza-style flopping and bobbling in the series. Pudge seems to still have the complete set of defensive skills when it comes to throwing, blocking the plate, and working with his young charges, while Miller has been a nice surprise in terms of his contributions to containing the running game.
It's fashionable to bash Dusty. He works his starters pretty hard, he overvalues veteran relief help, stocks his bench with some of the lightest contributors the major leagues have seen in the last decade, and he's been handed some pretty overwhelming talent to work with and nearly managed to come up short. Against a Marlins team that won't resort to much in-game situational chicanery, he might be in that most dangerous of situations, one where he has freedom of choice due to some appropriately smug defensive indifference. After all, when Dusty calls on a Goodwin or an O'Leary, if you're Jack McKeon, you pitch to those guys.
McKeon isn't exactly a minimalist, but he's experimented with a little bit of everything over the years, and learned his trade well enough to not assume a godlike authority. He runs his bullpen efficiently and well, and his rotation with a sense of the risks and rewards that are in play. He's not as manic about the empty pursuit of stolen bases as Jeff Torborg was, but he's got his own Lenny Harris-sized blind spot. He might outmaneuver Baker once or twice tactically, but the tools available are neither so sharp nor so plentiful as to make it obvious that Baker's a liability or McKeon a tactical wizard, and in this, McKeon will be aided by the choices each man makes before the series even begins. As Joe Sheehan alluded to this weekend, there's an importance to understanding how to design and use a postseason roster. McKeon knows to shorten up on pitchers, and Baker loads up on redundancies. It'll hurt the Cubs if they get into an extra-inning game, and given that this might be a pretty low-scoring series, that's bound to happen once, perhaps even twice.
The Cubs' rotation is extremely well-poised to win the series at home plate, trumping a short lineup, weak bench, various managerial spasms, and some pretty doubtful skills with leather work. So there it is, folks: Cubs, World Series. I know it's probably just me, but I put those things together, and I think of the Mule Haas grand slam in 1929, or the Bambino sticking it to Charlie Root. Not that any of those guys will get to be there, any more than Mike Royko or the original vengeful goat, but in the end, it'll be the Cubs. Because of the aforementioned annoying chinks in the Cubby armor, I expect we'll see a pretty hard-fought series, with a split in the first two games in Wrigley, wins in the Wood and Prior starts in Miami, and a galling loss in Clement's revenge game (we'll blame the pen or Dusty or that goat, whatever suits). Coming back to Chicago, the Cubs win Game Six, setting up Wood for the Game One assignment in the World Series at some famous ballpark or another.