I did this last year for several series, and many of you liked the format. So with the upcoming four-game series against the now-division leading Reds, I thought I'd do it again, this time with JD from the Red Reporter.
First are my questions for him:
Q: The Reds are challenging for first place in the Central. But they had a good start two years ago, too, and fell flat in the 2nd half. What's different now that would make you optimistic?
A: The pitching is so much better this year than in the past, specifically the starting pitching. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo have both been quite good, and the Reds have had nice surprises so far with Eric Milton and Elizardo Ramirez. Management also seems to have a clue and a desire to win, which wasn't the case in the Dan O'Brien/Carl Lindner era. The Reds offense has been pretty solid for the last few years, but it's always been the pitching holding them down, and for at least the first couple of months of this season they've been a much more complete team.
Q: What are the biggest reasons for the Reds' good start?
A: Their health has been a big plus. The Reds have had a few injuries (Griffey missed a month, Milton spent time on the DL), but for the most part they've been healthy, and I might go so far as to call them the healthiest team in the NL Central so far.
And I can't understate how much better the pitching has been. There are still problems with the bullpen, but the starters have been tremendously improved. Walks are down (I think the Reds are first in walks allowed in the NL) and strikeouts are up. Aaron Harang is developing into an upper echelon starter (don't believe me? look at the numbers, 3.65 ERA, 80 K in 79 IP, 4.21 K/BB) and Bronson Arroyo seems to be taking a step or two forward.
Q: What's gotten into Bronson Arroyo? Do you think he can keep it up -- both pitching AND hitting -- all year?
A: I'm sure coming back to the NL has helped, since hitters aren't as familiar with him, but if you look at his K/9 rate you'll see that it's up quite a bit this year. Last year it was 4.38, this year he's striking out 7.08 batter per nine innings. I think if he keeps his K rate up then he'll be a good bet to continue his early success.
I have no idea what's causing the hitting, but it's certainly nice to see. He seems to own Glendon Rusch.
Q: Which Cub player do you, as a Reds fan, fear most?
A: Derrek Lee for sure. He's a beast, and I think his injury has hurt you guys alot more than the injuries to Prior and Wood. He seems to be the one guy in the Cubs lineup willing to go deep into counts, and his power is pretty ridiculous. It's funny, I didn't really see his career developing the way it has, but he's really thrived in Chicago.
Q:I've read at Red Reporter how much Reds fans seem to resent Cub fans coming to Cincinnati for games there. You'll probably see a fairly large sea of blue at GABP this weekend. Why all the dislike?
A: I think it's pretty natural to hate teams that travel well. You see it in the NFL with the Steelers, in college football with Ohio State ... it's a little annoying to see fans of another team in your "home". Obviously Reds fans only have ourselves to blame, since we're not buying all the tickets, but these things aren't rational. I also think that while there are alot of intelligent and long suffering Cubs fans, there are also quite a few who are just in it for the Wrigley Field experience, fans who don't really care whether the Cubs are winning or losing. They tend to give the rest of Cubs fans a bad name.
Now, JD's questions for me and my answers:
Q: What did you think when the Cubs signed Tony Womack?
A: Like most Cub fans, I was appalled at this signing. It seemed worthless. Womack somehow popped out a decent year for the Cardinals in 2004, and got signed by the Yankees as a result. He was bad last year, and didn't play much for the Reds, which I suppose is why they let him go, especially after they signed Brandon Phillips.
I knew he'd get a lot of playing time, because he is Dusty Baker's "type" of player -- baserunning speed, but no way of getting on base in the first place.
He's been -- well, not terrible. It was still a silly signing; all it did was prevent Ryan Theriot, an actual useful young 2B, from playing.
Q: What on earth has happened to Juan Pierre, and how long are the Cubs going to hit him leadoff when his OBP is at .287?
A: The problem is that the Cubs don't really have any other leadoff options. You're right, the .287 OBP is just about as bad as Corey Patterson's was in the leadoff spot last year. It seems he tries to bunt every single time up, and every team in the league knows it. He doesn't walk, so he HAS to hit to be useful.
I wish they had another choice. But they don't.
Q: Do you think the Cubs made a mistake in getting rid of Corey Patterson? He always seemed to have so much talent to me, and it looks like he might be finding himself a little bit in Baltimore.
A: Patterson's last year with the Cubs was so poisoned that even though he COULD have been a decent fit in right field this year, there's no way he could have had the year he's had so far in Baltimore, in Chicago. He was booed relentlessly -- not just for his performance, but his attitude toward his performance (he was perceived as not caring, not wanting to make adjustments, not take coaching suggestions, or when he did, there were "too many" such suggestions). Had he started slowly with the Cubs this year (as he did in Baltimore), the booing would have absolutely killed him.
Sometimes players have to move on to succeed. I'm still not convinced he's for real, but if so, he may be one of those players.
Q: You guys have been hit pretty hard with the injury bug this season, and the first couple of months haven't gone very well. Do you think the season is over, or do you still have hope that getting Derrek Lee back can get the team into the Wild Card race?
A: Well, obviously after the last two days, getting one run total in two games off a pitcher with an ERA orbiting Mars, and another making his first ML start, obviously the Cubs could use Lee back, especially when you consider this: with Todd Walker playing first base most of the time, the lineup substitution is Womack for Lee. Or Neifi Perez for Lee.
I think you can see how that just doesn't work in terms of scoring many, or ANY, runs.
Lee will help. But the Cubs may be in too deep of a hole to get out.
Q: Is Dusty Baker a plus or a minus? The thing that has really defined the Cubs offense in recent years, at least to me, is their inability to take a walk. Lots of hitters go up and swing at the first thing they see, and the organizational philosophy seems to be okay with that (see the Juan Pierre, Neifi Perez, Tony Womack acquisitions). It seems like Dusty wants hitters to be too agressive, at least to this outsider. And this is without even discussing the pitch count question, and his perceived tendency to ride young pitchers pretty hard. Do you think the Cubs would be better off with someone else at the helm?
A: BCB readers know well that I am NOT an advocate of firing Baker now. Yes, his managerial tendencies are clearly well known -- as you have articulated quite well in your question. He doesn't seem to understand lineup construction -- he keeps putting the "speed guys" in the #2 slot, without comprehending that they can't "steal first base", as the old saw goes.
For this year, I blame Jim Hendry for not putting together a team that could withstand the injuries that have been suffered, and for spending $16 million on Jacque Jones (who is hitting well now, yes, but I'd NEVER have given him a three-year deal), and $2.5 million on Neifi Perez and Glendon Rusch.
I saw what happened in 2003. Baker can be the PERFECT manager, given the right combination of players. He had a similar pattern in San Francisco -- a great first year, then three down years (90+ losses in the third), then suddenly a division title the next.
Right now, firing Baker means nothing. At the end of the season, I'll re-evaluate.