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With no Wrigley games left and Greg Maddux‘ run of 15-win seasons halted at 17, “next year” has set in for even the sunniest Cubs fan. A winning record is out of reach after yesterday’s loss to Pittsburgh. Now aiming to spoil Houston’s playoff hopes, the Cubs would have to sweep four at the Juicebox to finish at .500. Not the most thrilling finale for a non-contender, not like, say, the Brewers, who might be getting the biggest kick out of meaningless September games since the 1998 Cardinals.

Most immediately, Jim Hendry will need to decide if Dusty Baker’s future is in the North Side. The public outcries against Dusty seem to have reached a crescendo. Predicting the outcome of this decision is a futile exercise, but it should be noted that Baker is owed the fattest end of a four-year, $14-million contract in 2006.

As infuriating as many of the Cubs’ decisions may be, there’s not exactly a talent shortage. With good decisions they could still hang with the Cardinals, Astros and Brewers. But if the pattern continues, they could get buried fast. The Cubs don’t shy away from free agents, and this is a critical winter.

Nomar Garciaparra, Neifi Perez and Ryan Dempster are the unrestricted free agents. The club holds options for Jeromy Burnitz ($7 million) and Scott Williamson ($2 million), there’s a mutual option of $2.5 million for Todd Walker, and Glendon Rusch can decide if he’ll take $2 million to stick around (not likely).

At second base, Walker’s option looks like a go for the Cubs, if he wants to stay, but he’s replaceable and plenty of similar players are entering the market if Jerry Hairston doesn’t satisfy Hendry. At shortstop, there are some attractive alternatives to Garciaparra: Rafael Furcal, Julio Lugo if the Devil Rays decline their $4.95 million option. But there’s also a glut of Baker’s type–Royce Clayton, Deivi Cruz, Pokey Reese, both Alex Gonzalezes, and, well, Perez–which probably concerns any right-minded Cubs fan.

The outfield is getting interesting, likely without any position set in stone. Seven million should buy more than Burnitz, and he’s very replaceable via free agency. Brian Giles and Johnny Damon are the cream of the crop (assuming the Yankees re-up Hideki Matsui), but Jose Guillen, Larry Walker (if he doesn’t retire), Reggie Sanders, Preston Wilson, etc., form the head of a long line of middle-class outfielders.

Looking in-house, Matt Murton has been Chicago’s best bat after Derrek Lee. Yes, his stats in the bigs trump what he did in the minors, but his plate discipline should keep him afloat and he’s a reasonably promising hitter who deserves a shot in left field more than anyone else the Cubs have. Who knows what will happen with Corey Patterson, but he’s hit .186/.224/.297 since the All-Star break–Luis Ugueto himself couldn’t even do that. Hairston and Jose Macias offer lots of flexibility, but the Cubs will have to dip into the market to fill their outfield holes if they’re serious.

From the mound, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior and Maddux are the only locks for the rotation. If Zambrano and Prior are healthy, and if the Cubs either re-sign Rusch or go after another free agent starter, Jerome Williams and Rich Hill could fight for the fifth spot–a scenario that could free up Wood for the bullpen. Dempster’s become an extreme groundball pitcher since joining the Cubs. Williamson’s 6.08 ERA isn’t nearly as bad as it looks (22/6 K/BB in 13 1/3 innings; .444 BABIP), and he may be squeezing his way into a larger role next year if and when the Cubs exercise the option. If those two are retained, the bullpen (along with Michael Wuertz, Will Ohman, and possibly Jermaine Van Buren) could probably make do without Wood. Wood’s shoulder, not the relative strength of the bullpen versus rotation, will ultimately determine where he pitches.

Cubs Pitchers Splits As Starters And Relievers, 2005

                    IP   H  HR  BB  SO   ERA
Dempster  As SP   33.2  37   3  22  36  5.35
          As RP   56.1  45   1  25  51  1.92

Wood      As SP   54.0  48  12  21  60  4.67
          As RP   12.0   4   2   5  17  2.25

Rusch     As SP  103.1 121   9  34  72  4.44
          As RP   35.0  47   4  18  34  5.14

Sure, 110 healthy innings from the bullpen would be far more beneficial than 110 strained innings as a starter, but the Cubs haven’t proven they can keep him healthy in either situation yet.

Dave Haller

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                     Games Back   Playoff Odds %
Date      Mets W-L   East    WC   East      WC
8-28-05   68-62       6.0   1.5   11.94    23.43
9-04-05   70-66       7.5   2.5    1.30     7.51
9-11-05   71-72      12.0   5.5    0.02     1.18
9-18-05   73-76      11.5   8.0    0.00     0.03
9-25-05   78-77      10.5   6.5    0.00     0.00

It was not supposed to be like this. The Mets went out and brought in a lovable manager, who if nothing else, gets to joke around with his cross-town counterpart in SUBWAY commercials. They went out in the free-agent market and brought in the big boys; Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and Kris Benson were supposed to be the greatest New York trio since Hill, Conway, and DeVito. Expectations were high, and Mets fans wanted to see the boys from Flushing flush out the hated Braves. Unfortunately for Mets fans, it didn’t work out that way. And though it’s hard to fathom that the Mets could have received better production from Petey this season, the MVP of the Mets this season has been David Wright.

David Wright has yet to do much wrong in his professional career. Whether you want to say that players should be evaluated on five tools or six tools, Wright has them all working in his favor. Let’s take a look:

  • Hitting for Average: In his first two major-league seasons Wright has a raw average of .301. This does not lose anything in translation either, as he still clocks in at .303. His minor-league batting average is a bit lower, but his hitting environment in Capital City was not the greatest.
  • Hitting for Power – Wright’s isolated power is a healthy .202. It’s not rivaling the .291 and .282 ISO’s put up by Alex Rodriguez and Morgan Ensberg, but Wright’s number is good for fifth among his third base brethren and second behind only Miguel Cabrera for those aged 22 and younger. Wright has also been the Mets team leader in extra base hits, total bases, slugging, and OPS.
  • Running Speed: In his minor-league career, Wright stole 71 bases in 92 attempts, good for a 77.2% success rate. With the Metropolitans, Wright has swiped 23 bags in 30 attempts, for a similarly healthy 76.7% success rate. Wright has settled into a nice pattern of attempting between 25 and 35 steals per year and being quite successful at it. Wright also grades out well in other base-running situations, as measured by net speed score:
    Category                Score
    Stolen Base Percentage   6.05
    Stolen Base Attempts     5.02
    Triples                  1.57
    Runs per Times on Base   6.13
    Grounded into DP's       3.76
    Net Speed Score          5.24

    While Wright is definitely lacking in the triples category, he counters that with his efficiency on the base paths.

  • Arm Strength: There’s no metric to measure arm strength. He rates as a solid but unspectacular defender by FRAA and FRAR standards.

  • Hitting for OBP: This is the infamous “sixth tool” talked about in the stats vs. scouts debate linked above. This was a minor concern for Wright coming into this season, as Wright had a K/BB ratio of 2.86 in his Mets debut last season. He has cut that considerably this season, dropping it to 1.59. Wright also sees 3.97 pitches per plate appearance, which puts him at 26th overall and third overall among third basemen.

David Wright should be destined for a long career, headlining a Mets lineup that should see the torch officially passed from Mike Piazza to Wright this off-season, and with good reason. Using Keith Woolner’s newest calculations (stay tuned for more details), we close with a look at the best under-22 seasons at the hot corner since 1960:

Name             Year   Age   VORP   PA @ 3B
Albert Pujols    2001    21   74.9       217
Dick Allen       1964    22   69.2       709
Miguel Cabrera   2005    22   64.5       110
Albert Pujols    2002    22   63.1       155
David Wright     2005    22   52.4       637

Paul Swydan