Click here for the Cubs’ 2006 depth chart.
C Michael Barrett: Barrett’s a great case for looking at the very different aging patterns for catchers. He was young, unestablished and injury prone, then quickly became a solid starting catcher as he matured. Barrett gets enough off days to help avoid wearing down. In the thin catching ranks, he’s near the top.
1B Derrek Lee: The shoulder problem is worrisome, not because of any great effect or risk, but because it’s starting to act like a chronic problem. Injuries with insidious onsets like a degenerative shoulder are often compensated and adjusted for, but often start degrading performance as well. Lee’s often passionless exterior leads some to question how well he would play with pain. Don’t make that mistake.
2B Jerry Hairston / Todd Walker: Hairston has shifted all around the diamond and has been hurt at nearly every position he’s played. The torn UCL that ended his season is among the worst of his various problems, but the usage envisioned for him minimizes the superutility role that would help the team most. Playing Hairston over Walker makes sense on days where Maddux or the fifth starter is on the hill; spotting him in at third and the outfield would make him a roster multiplier. There is a danger in an injury-prone multiplier, though; he couldn’t be easily replaced by just one callup.
3B Aramis Ramirez: There’s nothing more frustrating than the Big If. If healthy, players like Ramirez clearly have the talent to be stars, carrying their teams on their back. The problem is that the potential for greatness often makes us overlook the fact that no matter what they’d do if healthy, they aren’t healthy enough to do it.
SS Neifi Perez: Neifi! He’s the perfect example of being fooled by your eyes. He looks great in batting practice and fields with a grace seldom seen. He’s not nearly as good if you watch him over the course of the whole season; in a “web gem-esque dive and throw” or that one AB where he slaps one through the gap to move a runner over, the impression sticks.
LF Matt Murton
CF Juan Pierre: A speed player who’s consistently on the field? That’s gold. He offers slap hitting and steals, so the Cubs’ decision on him should have more to do with Felix Pie than anything he does over anything smaller than the course of his career. That said, there are very few players that have his skill set and have been this healthy. He’s Brett Butler‘s shadow.
RF Jacque Jones: Dusty Baker is having Jones take BP off a lefty, just as Barry Bonds once did when he played for Baker. Jones is no Bonds and if Dusty can’t tell that, then no magic toothpick will help. Getting regular rest when a lefty was on the mound has helped Jones stay healthy.
SP Carlos Zambrano: Some pitchers just handle workloads better than others. We don’t really know why. Zambrano looks like one of those, though a breakdown now would be both understandable and almost expected given the problems that Prior and Wood have had. I think he’ll be fine for the next couple years, but I wouldn’t want to be the team signing him long-term. The Jose Rijo comparison looks about right to me.
SP Mark Prior: I think I’ve covered this elsewhere, but Prior’s been having some arm problems lately.
SP Greg Maddux
SP Jerome Williams: Through no fault of his own, Williams was out of shape coming into spring training. This was due to a run of family problems that we should note when looking at Williams’ 2006 season. As a fifth starter, he’s a solid bet to succeed and to stay healthy.
SP Glendon Rusch / Kerry Wood: Wood isn’t yet ready to head to the bullpen, though he is telling people that he would enjoy the role. When he hits free agency next year, there will be teams willing to pay for the chance to see how he’d do. Fun Glendon Rusch fact: His nickname is “Tits.”
CL Ryan Dempster: Good raw stuff? Check. Can’t handle a starter’s workload? Check. Good makeup and can handle the high leverage situation? Check. Dempster hits every spot on the closer checklist and should benefit from the reduced workload. He’s not going to be another Eric Gagne, but who thought Eric Gagne would become Eric Gagne?
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Every move made by any major league team has both context and its place in the overall organizational plan. Just because those aren’t always discernible from the outside doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The Cubs are no different. No matter the blather, Jim Hendry and his front office staff aren’t stupid, disorganized, or uninformed. So why does it look that way?
The first problem is the medical staff. Since Dusty Baker forced out Dave Tumbas, the Cubs have gone through three different medical staffs in four years. Mark O’Neal seems entrenched now, but the increase in DL days on his watch gives no indication he’s improving the situation. The turnover isn’t anyone’s fault, really. Things like this happen and much of it was unplanned.
The second challenge is understanding the thought process of Jim Hendry. The former college coach thinks like a coach. As a GM, he’s very conscious of making sure that the coach working under him gets the thing he thinks he needs to succeed, whether or not that’s the best case for the team. Dusty wanted Corey Patterson gone and he was gone. He wanted better bullpen help, so Scott Williamson was shunted aside for expensive acquisitions. Dempster was better suited for relief, but Hendry caved to Dusty’s desire and wasted Dempster in a starting role for the first half of 2005.
It is in left field where this is most apparent. Matt Murton established himself as an exciting rookie who deserves the full-time shot that most don’t get under Baker’s handling. Hendry went out of his way to make sure Murton was the only option, in essence forcing Baker’s hand in a way just short of having lineup cards printed up with Murton’s name already in them. Then Marquis Grissom signed. Baker now has his option and Murton figures to lose at bats in chunks, especially if Baker’s notoriously short-term memory latches on to a good day by Grissom and a “rookie moment” by Murton.
The Cubs want to win, but are now ill-suited to doing it Dusty’s way. Brought in to handle a superstar and a losing attitude, Baker’s poor handling of pitchers and the media is well on its way to being counterproductive. Few teams have three legitimate aces, and that one great run in 2003 sucked the life out of two of them. This isn’t the same type of team Dusty was brought in to run; it’s one that needs a steadier hand and a developmental spirit. As the injuries pile up this season, that fact will become clearer and clearer.