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16 Days Till Pitchers And Catchers Report

... and with that, I wanted to pass along the thoughts of one of the readers of this blog, Simon Shuttlewood, who's been following baseball and the Cubs for only a few years, from across the Atlantic in the UK, yet has a keen insight on both the game and our team. I've edited a bit for brevity, and also there are some terms that Simon used that seem to be UK-centric (he says that Ramirez should be a "banker" at third, and I'm not quite sure what that means!), but all told, this ought to get you good and ready for baseball 2004!

As a new follower to the sport I feel as though I come in with a fresh clean page from which to judge all the players and coaches from. I read a lot of negativeness on the baseball forums and even from the press and media and this is all from the advantage of history. Take Dusty Baker; I entered the baseball scene at the 2001 World Series, and generally followed baseball the following season, and it was after the 2002 World Series that I warmed to Dusty, how he conducted himself and how he had the respect of the team and notwithstanding his record with the San Francisco Giants over the preceding 10 years. Yes, he only took the team to one World Series but off the top of my head he did lead the Giants to the playoffs in at least half of those 10 seasons and did win three manager of the year awards. So his move in the off-season to the Chicago Cubs prompted me too give my heart to them. (They did manage to then nearly stop that heart in game seven of the NLCS.......... as we all know) then in the first season in charge, Dusty, with the assistance of the players won the Central Division, beat the supposedly all conquering Atlanta Braves, and came awfully close to a World Series berth losing to the eventual World Series champions. Not a bad first year!

And I have heard all the stories about Dusty over working his pitchers and not wanting to play inexperienced players and like all accusations there are commentaries of fors and againsts. For me his record at this moment speaks for itself.

In this age of free agency it is very rare for one player to stay with a club for a long time (apart from a few figurehead superstars) and even then if a franchise falls on hard times those long-term big-money contracts are sometimes sacrificed. Take Kerry Wood; he has just signed a one-year $9.75 million contract as a precursor for probably a multi-year deal of between 12-15 million dollars per year? For that money I would like to think that he would throw his arm off for the Chicago Cubs! But I would also like him to stay healthy throughout the season and be a little stronger at the end of the season. That is a manager's responsibility to try to achieve that if he can but of course the team has to get to the post-season in the first place. I do not want to pick on Wood and I only use him as an example. In the modern day sports arena winning is everything and because of free agency instant success is demanded. Youthful homegrown talent that might have once stayed loyal to the club for most of their careers has at this moment disappeared. In view of the Cubs history how many fans could look deeply in on themselves and would not swap a World Series victory in 2004 for the possible career ending loss in the future of Wood or Prior or possibly both! Obviously I do not want that the injury scenario to happen and like all Cubs fans want to see them both spearheading the attack for the next half a dozen years at least.

Firstly I would like to comment on how I viewed the Chicago Cubs in 2003. It is obviously a retrospective view and again, apart from Sammy Sosa the only name that I knew of, all the other players started off fresh in my mind.

Firstly with hitting. I do not think that I am too far from the truth to state that Corey Paterson possibly carried the Cubs on his own for the first three months of the season. Sammy blew hot and cold as did Moises Alou and the fact that Corey led off the batting quite a lot at the beginning of the season slightly negated his effect as a left-handed hitter. After Corey the batting lineup was predominantly righthanded and it has been commented upon that this was not ideal, but for me the problem was that batters 7, 8 & 9 hardly seemed to contribute at all. However the pack was shuffled we were very lacking at the bottom of the lineup. I will of course excuse the pitcher but late on in games when pinch hitters were employed the lack of offense remained.

The acquisition of Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon were obviously turning points and apart from slightly reduced role for Randall Simon both the other two had a big impact on the Cubs getting to the post-season. I do believe that Ramirez will become a banker at third base and his defensive work will improve. Lofton had an inspired last two months of the season and post-season. I believe he was very well suited to Wrigley Field and played well for Dusty.

My overall view on the hitting is of a slightly under par performance with a distinct lack of plate discipline but scoring just enough to enable a winning season. The hitting did improve greatly in the post-season but could not be sustained.

Now we come to the pitching. It is often stated that pitching wins games. Well the Los Angeles Dodgers found to their cost that they could have done with a little bit more offense. It was the stellar performances of the front-line pitchers that gave the Cubs the opportunity to gain their first divisional title for many years. One of the things that I have realised and focused on is the relatively young age of the Cubs front-line pitchers. Wood blew hot and cold with absolutely stellar performances interspersed with mediocre ones. Prior had a very successful season as his statistics prove but more than anything he was consistent. Carlos Zambrano also struggled with consistency but after a relatively quiet first half to the season had a very good last two months but appeared to run out of gas or was affected by the pressure of the post-season. In my opinion it was the contribution of Matt Clement in the 3/4 pitching role that tipped the balance to winning the division. It was those interdivisional head to head's in the last month of the season when all of the Cubs pitchers stepped up to the plate and won their individual battles that enabled the Cubs to win their division.

Now let us go forward to the 2004 season. I have no history or opinion of the GM, Hendry, but comments on your blog and others shortly after the season finished made numerous suggestions about how under Dusty's thumb Hendry was and there were an awful lot of suggestions about who should go and who should stay and who should be bought etc etc. Well quite frankly the names that have been signed for next season were never named! And when I look at those signings I only see the bringing of potential quality to the Cubs team. The bullpen has been strengthened with the signing of LaTroy Hawkins, however and in whatever position he is used. First base has been locked up with the signing of Derrek Lee a problem position for the Cubs last season which hopefully will reduce some errors from third base defensively while his arrival to Wrigley Field from the pitcher friendly park in Florida will improve his numbers. I cannot really comment on the catcher, Michael Barrett, as I know nothing of him but in my opinion Miller had a very poor season, especially offensively, and whether Bako takes over as number-one and Barrett as number two we cannot be any worse than last season. One slight positive with Bako as the number-one catcher is that he bats left-handed, and along with the signing of the left-handed Todd Walker does give the Cubs a few more offensive lineup options.

Of those players that remain Sammy Sosa will I believe want to bounce back from a disappointing, by his standards, season even though his stats were not particularly poor. I think that Moises Alou likewise in his potentially last season along with Sammy with the Cubs will be looking for strong seasons as they window shop for new contracts. Mark Grudzielanek had an above-average offensive year and everyone was surprised but there is no reason to suggest that 2004 will be any different. Depending on his and Todd Walker's start to the season it could possibly have a bearing on who plays second base in the majority of the season. Alex Gonzalez had a steady if largely unspectacular season and I do not see any change there.

The largely unchanged front-line pitching staff will I believe be better this season for the experience of winning a divisional title and experiencing a post-season. I believe that Greg Maddux would be a fabulous addition to the pitching staff and the Cubs would probably boast one of the strongest, if not the strongest, attacks in baseball. With Houston acquiring Clemens and Pettitte they will be stronger and St Louis will hope that their acquisitions on the pitching side will improve them from last season but they have certainly tried to improve on an already fantastic offense. Their potential lineup for next season looks very strong.

Because of last season's experiences and the additions of the personnel mentioned I do expect the Cubs to record a 95 game winning season. Whether that is enough to win the Central Division title next season only time will tell. Go Cubs!