August 29, 2005
North Side Blues
Over the weekend, the Cubs acknowledged that they would not be making a charge into the wild-card chase by swapping Matt Lawton to the Yankees for an A-ball pitcher. The Cubs may make another deal or two before Wednesday's trade deadline, and will be making other moves, like shutting down Kerry Wood, shortly.
This has been another disappointing season on the north side of Chicago. The Cubs, expected to contend for a division title and a World Series crown, will be fortunate to finish over .500. For the second straight year, both Wood and Mark Prior missed substantial parts of the season, the former with shoulder problems, the latter with a fluke broken arm. With the team's greatest strength sapped, the flawed roster--mediocre relief pitching, terrible corner outfielders, major OBP issues--sunk the Cubs' ship, even as Derrek Lee was putting together a career year and chasing a Triple Crown.
A peek at the old format EqA Report shows that the Cubs are actually fourth in the NL in Equivalent Average, an indication that the offense hasn't been the problem. Peeking to the rightward columns, though, and you see one major problem: the Cubs have scored 40 runs fewer than Clay's formulae predict, the biggest shortfall in the NL. That's a reflection of the offensive dysfunction the Cubs have played with all year long, thanks to Dusty Baker's inability to assemble a lineup.
Baker wasted strong seasons from Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Barrett by stubbornly batting OBP sinks Corey Patterson and Neifi Perez in the top two lineup spot for much of the season. The Cubs have gotten a .306 OBP from their leadoff hitters this year, despite Jerry Hairston Jr. leading the team with more than 250 leadoff PAs and a .360 OBP. Patterson had a .268 OBP batting #1, and Perez a .253 mark. Most of their ABs came during May and June, when Lee was at his hottest, putting up huge rate stats and so-so RBI totals because he batted so often with the bases empty. Cubs' #2 hitters have a .310 OBP, with Todd Walker's good work (.340) being cancelled by Perez's typical work (.318) and Patterson's nightmare (.220)
It's dangerous to oversimplify this, but so much of the Cubs' deficit in the wild-card race can be traced directly to their shortfall in runs, and that deficit to poor lineup construction, that it's hard not to just level a finger at Baker. Watching what he's done with his left fielders doesn't help his case. Here are the Cubs' left fielders in 2005, by overall OPS for the team:
Matt Murton 880 Jason Dubois 761 Todd Hollandsworth 697 Matt Lawton 597 Jody Gerut 330That same group, by plate appearances for the Cubs:
Todd Hollandsworth 287 Jason Dubois 152 Matt Lawton 83 Matt Murton 66 Jody Gerut 16Baker was given a good young option at the start of the season in Jason Dubois. He platooned him, then not even that, even as he was the most productive left fielder on the team. Given Matt Murton, he played the prospect sporadically, even as he hit .441/.524/.599 in July. Once Matt Lawton was acquired, Murton's playing time--then his roster spot--vanished. Baker gave his two best left fielders less time combined than he did his third-best, in part because Baker values Hollandsworth's defense. The decision was one of many that kept the Cubs' offense from being a force.
Left field is where Jim Hendry has made his strangest contribution to the collapse. He dealt Dubois to Cleveland for Jody Gerut, who barely played before his surgically-repaired knee forced him to the disabled list. At the trade deadline, Hendry sent Gerut to the Pirates for Lawton, an older version of a comparable player, but one who could actually take the field. I defended both of these deals, especially the latter, because of the Cubs' desperate need for OBP atop the lineup. Lawton was a disaster, putting up a .244/.289/.308 month before being sent to the Yankees. While Hendry's intentions were good and his execution reasonably effective, had Baker simply used Murton, the rest of the sequence after acquiring Gerut might never have been necessary.
Baker was also largely responsible for the mishandling of the pitching staff. He can't be blamed for Prior's broken arm, of course, but his inability to identify Glendon Rusch as one of the team's best starting pitchers cost them a number of games during the year. Rusch opened the season in the bullpen, watching as Ryan Dempster made six starts with a 5.35 ERA. Allowed to start in early May, Rusch made ten starts through June 23, posting a 3.22 ERA in that time. He was the Cubs' second-best starter in that period, but was jammed back into the bullpen so that Baker could mess around with Rich Hill (8.57 ERA) and John Koronka (7.47), while misusing Rusch in a role--lefty specialist--for which he's never been equipped.
The gap between Cubdom and contention is wide, but so much of it is contained in three Baker mistakes: using Neifi Perez and Corey Patterson atop the lineup, refusing to play his better left fielders, not keeping Rusch in the rotation. He made other errors--continuing to misuse Mike Remlinger as a specialist, and subsequently discarding him; using the fragile Chad Fox on three straight days in April, essentially breaking him; burying Todd Walker in the #6 spot for a month--all of which pushed the Cubs a bit further and a bit further from success, until they were reduced to an afterthought by the end of August.
In the wake of the 2003 NL Championship Series, in which Baker made a series of bad decisions that cost the Cubs, I wrote: "The Cubs will never get this close again with Baker as their manager." I see no reason to back away from that statement. Baker continues to show little understanding of how an offense works, of how to fit his players' skills to the proper roles. Worse, he shows little desire to learn these things, making the same mistakes repeatedly while taking little criticism for his decisions, and deflecting what criticism comes in a manner that has nothing to do with baseball. Whatever his leader-of-men qualities may be, it's increasingly clear that they're not enough to make up for his decisions.