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Cubs Roundtable

As many of you know, Christian Ruzich has been conducting a roundtable discussion between many of us who are members of the Cubs Blog Army, at The Cub Reporter.

Since he has finished posting all the responses as of today, I'm going to post here the complete questions and answers that I sent him. There were some questions he originally sent that I answered, that were not included in his roundtable, so I include those answers here.

Q: Most pundits agree that the Cubs have one of the best rotations in baseball. Will the rotation live up to the hype? If so, which pitcher will have the best year? If not, who will falter, and will the team be able to overcome it?

A: You know, it's easy to say on paper that it will live up to the hype, but as we have already seen with the minor injury to Mark Prior, anything can happen during a baseball season and often does.

By all logic, Prior is positioned to have the best year, but with Kerry Wood's contract now signed, he may feel a lot of pressure off and finally blossom, at age 27 (in June) into the pitcher we all felt he would become when he was drafted.

Keep in mind that while Prior has been compared to Tom Seaver, Wood's style is more like that of Nolan Ryan. Ryan struggled with his control in his 20's, as Wood has. But I think Wood has the advantage of having other good pitchers around him, which Ryan didn't after he left the Mets.

Carlos Zambrano seems to me to be the guy who could blow up if things don't go right. He nearly imploded in the playoffs, though that might be simply because he threw many more innings than he ever had before. I still love Zambrano's talent, though, and don't forget he's the same age as Prior.

Q: Which, if any, of the Cubs pitching prospects will make an impact on the team this year?

A: None, unless there are injuries, in which case Angel Guzman might get a shot. I don't think any of the others is quite ready in 2004.

Q: What should be done with Juan Cruz?

A: He's actually in a very advantageous spot. He should be in the bullpen, and he could be a long reliever, setup man if the other setup men have been overworked, or even get a spot start if necessary.

IF everyone performs as expected, and IF it appears that the prospects will be ready in 2005, and IF the Cubs have a mid-season need, he is very good trade bait.

Q: How much better is the Cubs bullpen this season than it was in 2003?

A: Tons. Consider the advantage alone of having LaTroy Hawkins instead of Antonio Alfonseca. Kent Mercker ought to be at least as good as Mark Guthrie.

The biggest wild card here is the uncertain status of Mike Remlinger. But there are pitchers in camp -- Gary Glover comes first to mind -- who could fill that slot on a temporary basis.

Q: While there are very few questions about the pitching, there are plenty of questions about the offense. Will the Cubs score enough runs to hold off the Astros in the NL Central?

A: Yes, but not necessarily because of the offense. It'll be because guys like Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens will find that pitching in Minute Maid Park isn't quite like pitching in Yankee Stadium.

The Cub offense WILL be improved over 2003.

Q: Who will have a better 2004, Michael Barrett or Damian Miller?

A: Barrett, without question. Miller is 35 and didn't have a good 2003 and is going to a worse hitter's park.

Q: Who will have a better 2004, Derrek Lee or Hee Seop Choi?

A: Lee, without question.

Q: Who will have a better 2005, Derrek Lee or Hee Seop Choi?

A: Again, Lee, who will be 30 in 2005, ought to still be at the top of his game. Even if Choi pans out to the top of his potential, he will not quite be at the level of Lee by 2005.

Q: The Choi for Lee trade was a classic example of trading potential for current performance. Do you think it was the right trade to make for this year? What about for the future of the team?

A: Yes, absolutely, because the team truly is thisclose to winning, given what happened last year and the other upgrades made to the bullpen, having Patterson back, having Ramirez for a full season. While Choi might have been a productive regular, having someone who is already so, AND comes from the World Champions to boot, cannot hurt.

For the future, I suppose some will say it sends a message that position players cannot make it through the Cub farm system. But this isn't completely true. Sometimes you produce a position player whose value to the team comes through trade. Choi might be such a player.

If he had been traded for, let's say, a 32-year-old first baseman with the idea that you could squeeze one or two years out of the guy and win now and ONLY now, I'd say it would have been the wrong thing to do.

But Lee is only four years older than Choi and he is already an established major league star, and at 28 ought to have at least four or five productive-to-star-level major league seasons ahead of him, by which time there will be a whole new class of prospects available.

The money it cost to sign Lee isn't that huge, and therefore I'd say well worth it.

Q: Jim Hendry was very active this winter. Everyone expects the Lee and Maddux acquisitions to help the team immensely. Was there another, lesser transaction the Cubs made this winter that you think will have a significant impact on the team?

A: LaTroy Hawkins is arguably the key acquisition of the year. Having him in the bullpen, presuming he continues what he has done the past two years, accomplishes two things:

1) Gives us an outstanding setup man, replacing Antonio Alfonseca, who was absolutely useless.

2) Gives us a pitcher who can close if Joe Borowski gets hurt or fails.

I would also nominate Todd Hollandsworth, who essentially replaces Troy O'Leary on the roster and in that role. Hollandsworth is a much better pinch hitter than O'Leary and can play better defense at more positions, including CF if necessary.

Q: What sort of seasons do you expect Moises Alou and Corey Patterson to have? If one or the other struggles, will Dusty pull them from the lineup, or stick with them?

A: Patterson ought to be able to pick up where he left off. The real question mark is whether he'll have his speed back. Others who have had similar injuries have had mixed results. The advantage to Patterson is that he is only 24, and has worked very hard to get back. His hitting shouldn't suffer -- only his baserunning and defense.

Alou? Who knows? I'd like to think he still has one more salvo left in him, and he didn't have a bad 2003.

I'd think Dusty is under enough pressure to win that he won't stay too long with either one. The best thing is that, with Todd Hollandsworth, Todd Walker and even Tom Goodwin, he has acceptable options to start, which he did not have last year. Troy O'Leary got tons of playing time during Sammy Sosa's injury and suspension and he was a failure. The bench, in this aspect, is vastly improved.

Q: Who will get more playing time at second base, Mark Grudzielanek or Todd Walker? Who should get more playing time?

A: Grudzielanek has already been anointed the starter, and I suppose that makes some sense, since he did have a reasonably productive 2003.

I still have a feeling that there will be scouts around watching him, and there are a couple of teams (notably the Yankees) who could use a starting 2B. He could be traded before Opening Day.

Walker should get the bulk of the playing time, being both a better hitter and lefthanded, but the best thing is that he's not the kind of guy to complain about this. He came here specifically to be on a winner, and knew he'd be going in as the likely backup.

And how often have you ever heard players say that about coming to the CUBS?

Q: How close is Sammy Sosa to being a Hall of Famer?

A: He's a lock, with 539 HR, and I believe he will rebound from his somewhat down 2003 to have another 50-HR season this year, and approaching 600 HR, he's in.

Q: Recently, GM Jim Hendry locked up Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood and Derrek Lee for the next few years. Who on the current roster, if anyone, should get the
next long-term contract?

A: What I would do, presuming he picks up where he left off last year, is try to sign Mark Prior to a contract extension, or even rip up the last two years of his deal and sign him to an entirely new five-year contract. At 23 he is certainly worth it.

Q: As a Cubs fan, are you having a hard time dealing with the fact that the Cubs go into this season as favorites?

A: Yes. I am always looking around me waiting for the other shoe to drop. That is, I suppose, from years of being conditioned that way. As noted earlier, anything can happen, just thinking about the minor injury to Prior, what if that turns into something worse? What if, as happened to Mo Vaughn a couple of years back, Derrek Lee sprains his ankle the first week of the season?

Q: What are you looking forward to about the 2004 Cubs? What are you dreading about them?

A: I look forward to the team playing exciting baseball every day. They did so last year, sometimes intensely so, and that's one of the best things about a Dusty Baker-managed team. Teams like the 2002 Cubs, who quit on two different managers, were painful to watch. Win or lose, Dusty's teams always play hard, and that's one terrific thing about watching them every single day.

I dread the front-runners, the hangers-on, the near-sellouts that will happen every day at the ballpark. Those of us who have suffered through the horrific past, ought to at least qualify for some sort of martrydom, and be able to be first in line to celebrate what we hope is a future filled with many championships.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?