The Cubs have won 182 games over the past two regular seasons, but they are 0-6 in the last two postseasons, having been swept in the NLDS by the Diamondbacks in ’07, and then by the Dodgers in ’08. In today’s baseball climate, where it seems that anything less than a World Series title is considered a failure, those six post-season games tend to wipe away all of the good the Cubs have done while winning the last two National League Central Division titles.
General manager Jim Hendry has stepped forward and renovated the roster in response to those post-season goose eggs, The Cubs had been the favorites to win the NL pennant and get to the World Series for the first time since 1945, and were at least an even-money proposition to win the Fall Classic for the first time since 1908, which would have made a nice, round 100 years between titles.
Manager Lou Piniella, however, can’t help but recall what happened last October. “Look, we won 97 ballgames, that’s a lot of games, and had a lot of success during the course of the year,” said Piniella. “It just so happened that the postseason didn’t go well. I can give you about three different explanations. For one, everybody jumped on our bandwagon. Everybody played the underdog role, and was able to sell that. Everybody talked about 100 years, it was supposed to happen on the 100th year. Well, when something is supposed to happen and it doesn’t… I just think our guys carried a little burden going into the postseason.”
Piniella continued by noting, “Then, the second thing that happened that wasn’t mentioned is we got caught at the end of the year where we were playing teams [the Mets and Brewers] that were still in contention. We had clinched. We had to play our lineup for the balance of the season. We just couldn’t put any lineup out there and rest guys. And then third, [second baseman] Mark DeRosa and our catcher [Geovany Soto] didn’t go into the postseason exactly healthy. But I have to prepare them better as a manager. We have lost six in a row in the postseason. I think I’m going to go to a sports psychologist and see what goodies he’s got in his bag.”
Piniella hasn’t gone quite that far, but he does plan to spend some of his free time during spring training reading up on how coaches in other sports have attained post-season success. He plans to study the NBA’s Phil Jackson, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers, and owner of nine league championships. “I’m not a Zen guy, but if it helps us win a world championship, I’ll become one,” Piniella cracked.
Piniella, who has won one World Series in 21 seasons as a manger (with the 1990 Reds), also wants to delve into why retired UCLA basketball coach John Wooden won 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span. “I want to read Wooden’s book on winning, and buy a couple of sports psychologist-type books,” Piniella said. “I have to take it upon myself to do things a little differently when we get to the postseason, and I will. I don’t know exactly what, but I’ve been searching. I’ve been talking to my coaches about it. The fact that this team hasn’t won in so long, it’s going to take a little different approach, as opposed to just letting them play.”
The chances seem good that Piniella will have another chance this October. The Cubs appear to be the clear-cut favorite to win a third straight NL Central title in a division where few teams have done much to improve themselves this winter. Whether the Cubs have improved or not remains to be seen, but they will have a new look, despite having won back-to-back division titles.
Piniella’s greatest desire heading into the offseason was to find a lefty-hitting right fielder, and the Cubs signed free-agent switch-hitter Milton Bradley to a three-year, $30 million contract to fill the bill. Kosuke Fukudome, a disappointment last year in his first season after being signed as a free agent from Japan, will move into a center-field platoon with Reed Johnson. DeRosa was traded to the Indians to clear payroll for Bradley, and a combination of holdover Mike Fontenot and Aaron Miles (signed as a free agent), will take over at second base. The Cubs also decided not to re-sign closer Kerry Wood, and will instead have set-up man Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg, who was acquired from the Marlins in a trade and has some closing experience, compete for the job in spring training.
Piniella is hoping that the Cubs might have a little bit more of an edge to them with the new additions, particularly in Bradley, who has become more famous for his temper-related outbursts than for being a first-rate offensive player. Piniella, of course, is famous for showing his emotions as well. “All I heard last year from all the writers was that we had the nicest clubhouse in baseball,” Piniella said. “Maybe this one won’t be quite as nice.”
The recently launched MLB Network took advantage of the winter’s slow free-agent market and landed a color analyst Tuesday when they hired Sean Casey. The veteran first baseman became a free agent after spending last season in a reserve role with the Red Sox, and he decided to retire when MLB Network made him an offer to work on its studio shows. “It’s kind of weird, because I don’t feel like I’m retiring,” Casey said. “I’m still going to be in the game, just in a different capacity. I’m looking forward to it, though. It should be a lot of fun. A lot of people I respect in the media, guys like [Reds television play-by-play announcer] George Grande, have told me I would be good on TV, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a new challenge.”
Casey had been hoping to land with a contending team that would give him significant playing time, but an offer never materialized. “I didn’t want to go through the grind of another season if I wasn’t going to play much,” Casey said. “This is perfect, though. Being a broadcaster will be something I think I’m going to enjoy a lot, and I’ll get a chance to spend more time with my wife and our three children.”
Casey finished his 12-year career with a final line of .302/.367/.447 while hitting 130 home runs. He’ll be best remembered, however, for being one of the friendliest players of the modern era, a guy who became a big favorite of his teammates, opponents, the media, and the fans. “It means a lot to me that I’m looked at as a good guy in the game, and I was also a pretty good player, so that’s a pretty good combination,” Casey said. “I’m as proud of the way I was able to be with teammates as I was of the things I did on the field. I just did what my parents always taught me growing up in Pittsburgh, and that’s treat people the same way that you would want to be treated.”
Mets COO Jeff Wilpon continues to insist that his team has no interest in signing free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez. Apparently Wilson hasn’t spoken with manager Jerry Manuel lately, who did not toe the company line on the Mets’ non-interest in Manny during a recent interview with team-owned SportsNet New York. “To have a shot at managing Manny would be exciting for me,” Manuel said. “I’d love to have the opportunity to watch Manny hit every day.”
He also dismissed the idea Ramirez would be a problem in the clubhouse. “I don’t have a problem with people who produce in the form and fashion that Manny Ramirez produces,” Manuel said. “We don’t spend, shouldn’t spend, that much time in the locker room, anyway.”
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Red Sox continue to pursue a deal Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but they’re still refusing to give up right-hander Clay Buchholz in a potential trade. … Royals infielder/outfielder Mark Teahen is working out at second base in hopes of competing with Willie Bloomquist and Alberto Callapso for the starting job in spring training. … Newly signed Brandon Lyon will compete with holdover Fernando Rodney for the Tigers‘ closer job this spring. … Following the re-signing of lefty Andy Pettitte, Yankees left-hander Ian Kennedy and right-hander Phil Hughes are headed to Triple-A to begin the season.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Diamondbacks continue to show interest in free-agent starter Jon Garland, despite his turning down a contract offer from them earlier this month. … The Pirates would like to sign a veteran outfielder, either Luis Gonzalez or Eric Hinske, to pinch-hit and spell right fielder Brandon Moss against tough right-handed starters. Hinske would also give the Pirates insurance at third base if Andy LaRoche is unable to handle regular duty. … The Reds are leaning toward platooning Chris Dickerson in left field with either Jonny Gomes or Jerry Hairston Jr. … The Dodgers and Cardinals are pursuing free agent Kris Benson, who last pitched in the major leagues with the Orioles in 2006. The Diamondbacks, Indians, Padres, Rangers, and Blue Jays are also in the mix.