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Where We've Been, And Where We Are Going

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Well, we know where we're going
But we don't know where we've been
And we know what we're knowing
But we can't say what we've seen
And we're not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
-- Talking Heads, "Road To Nowhere", 1985
I was asked by the crew at The Cub Reporter to participate in an All-Star break roundtable discussion of the season so far, and what is to come in the future.

Here are the questions asked, and my answers. Sometime in the next day or so, you can read the entire roundtable, featuring my answers and those of other Cubs bloggers, at TCR.

Q: Before the season started, it was probably Dusty Baker that most divided opinion among the Cubs faithful, but Corey Patterson has been staking claim to that dubious honor of late. Now that he's in Iowa, the question is this: Can This Career Be Saved? And, if so, should it be in a Cubs uniform, and I-Cubs uniform, or just any other uniform as long as he's not our problem anymore?

A: You know, Corey Patterson should be one of the ten best players in baseball. We kid around about him being a "five-tool player", the tools perhaps being a socket wrench, ball-peen hammer, chainsaw, Phillips-head screwdriver, and power drill, but seriously, this man is talented, and speaking of screws, his head is so screwed up right now it's no wonder he can't hit.

The problem is, he doesn't fit into normal baseball pegs. He's fast, but he's not a prototype speed player. He can hit for power, but with his size he's not really a power hitter. So various managers and coaches have tried to mash this peg into holes that he's ill-suited to fit.

I have to say part of it is Corey's attitude. Whatever his teammates and coaches think of him, his public persona is that of someone who simply doesn't care, that he's a #1 draft pick and he's entitled to be where he is without hard work.

Now, that may not be true, but it's the perception that's common among most Cub fans, myself included. Can his future be saved? Well, one of the articles recently written about Matt Murton said that AA hitting coach Von Joshua really helped him (Murton) with strike zone judgment. That's what Corey needs. Maybe Joshua an be enlisted to help. I suspect, however, that even if fixed, Corey's value is highest in trade. I don't think he has any rope left with Cub fans.

Q: On a more positive note, how about that Derrek Lee? He's on pace for probably the best offensive season in the history of this franchise. Give us your best guess on what his end-of-season numbers will be, and how close he'll come to capturing the made-up-of-outdated-stats-but-still-pretty-cool Triple Crown.

Um, the best offensive season in the history of the franchise? I call your attention to a certain Mr. Sammy Sosa, who in 2001 had 64 HR, 160 RBI, 146 runs, 116 BB and an OPS of 1.174.

Derrek Lee is having a wonderful first half, but he won't come close to any of those counting stats, and though his 1.170 OPS is just about what Sammy's was, much of the value thereof is in that gaudy .378 batting average.

Derrek's lifetime BA was .266 going into this season, and the monster average so far this year has raised it nine points to .275, a remarkable jump considering he's got 3800 lifetime at-bats.

Will he keep it up? That doesn't seem possible. I'd be thrilled if he hit .333, and I think he would too. He could hit 50 HR, and maybe drive in 130 runs. All those numbers could be Triple Crown numbers, but then there's that fellow named Pujols who's close behind.

In any case I think Derrek has established the level of play that many of us hoped he could when he came from a poor hitter's park in Miami, to Wrigley Field, and I think he could keep this level of performance for three or four more years.

Q: Ronny Cedeno, Matt Murton, and Adam Greenberg have all been called up recently, and Felix Pie might have made the jump if he hadn't been injured. Is a youth movement the right thing for the Cubs to do right now?

A: Absolutely -- as Jim Hendry said, you need look no further than the Atlanta Braves dugout, as they finished sweeping us, with nine rookies in the dugout. Of the three you mention, I think Murton has the biggest upside. Can he do for the Cubs what Miguel Cabrera did for the 2003 Marlins? That'd be a lot to ask, but it is at least possible.

Greenberg projects as a good fourth outfielder, and Cedeno deserves playing time to see if he can take over at SS if Nomar is either not healthy or not re-signed, or if he's a utility player.

And Dusty Baker has to be forced to play these young players, if he won't do it voluntarily. Having a "youth movement" doesn't necessarily mean you are giving up on winning.

Q: Let's talk starting pitching. Wood and Prior have been hurt, Maddux's skills seem to be slipping, and Zambrano has been inconsistent. Are our Four Aces overrated, or is this just more typical Cubs fan panic?

A: It's panic. Remember that the rotation has really only been intact for a couple of weeks. Of late, Wood and Prior have shown flashes of what they were in 2003, and what we need them to be if the Cubs are to be serious contenders, either this year or in the future.

Don't give up on Maddux either -- just when you think he's done, he throws a gem like he did on Sunday. And remember, his recent career pattern is to be lights-out in the second half (last year: 9-4, 3.48; 2003: 9-3, 3.03).

I really like Jerome Williams. I saw him throw in the Arizona Fall League in 2002, when he was the Giants' top pitching prospect, and he was the real deal then, nearly three years ago. He has, as many of you know, had personal and weight problems that now seem to be in the past, and in his two starts so far has thrown quite well -- he deserved to win the game he threw against John Smoltz -- and at age 23, I think the Cubs have made an absolute steal.

Patience. Give the rotation a month together without injury before you give up.

Q: Except for Ryan Dempster, the bullpen has been a big disappointment. Whose fault is that -- the pitchers' (for lack of talent), Dusty's (for incorrect usage), or Hendry's (for poor construction)?

A: Jim Hendry clearly could have gone out and acquired some more bullpen help. But he, as well as nearly all of us, knew during spring training that Dempster should have started the season as closer. This could have saved the Cubs from the eight blown saves they had before he was actually anointed closer -- and eight more wins would look awfully good right now, wouldn't they?

So, this is clearly Dusty's fault, for not listening to Hendry on this matter (as well as many others), and I place further fault on him for using reverse-split Mike Remlinger to be a LOOGY when he simply cannot get lefthanded hitters out. Fortunately, that usage seems to be waning.

The bullpen still could use some help -- Roberto Novoa seems to be Spanish for "Kyle Farnsworth" (i.e. a guy with great velocity, nice stuff, but no clue as to when or howto spot his pitches).

Q: Speaking of the management, is Dusty helping or hindering this team? Is he doing his job? What kind of future does he have with the organization, and what kind of future would he have if you were pulling the strings?

A: I'm a Dusty Baker fan and always have been. Remember that the Cubs won in 2003 in part despite his wacky lineups and bullpen choices.

Where Dusty Baker excels is in relating to people. I touched on this in my answer to the starting pitching staff -- if there's any place where Baker's skills will shine, it will be in getting Jerome Williams' confidence back. It's clear that Baker is way too loyal to certain players who simply cannot perform (e. g. Jose Macias), and this is where the general manager has to exert his authority by simply removing these players from the roster.

But I like Baker, and I think he gets it -- and when I say "it", I am not talking about his nuts and bolts knowledge of lineup construction, which is, to say the least, bizarre. I mean he understands how to manage people. And baseball is a people business. I have often written, and I truly believe, there are things about winning baseball games that cannot be measured on a stat sheet.

Prediction: the Cubs go on a tear starting the 2nd half, and Baker is given a two-year contract extension.

Q: Jim Hendry has been pretty quiet so far this year, making just the Jerome Williams trade (let's pretend Enrique Wilson never happened). Was the Williams move a good one? And, with the benefit of a half-season of hindsight, how would you rate his off-season moves?

A: Hendry was clearly hamstrung by the Sosa Soap Opera, which prevented him from making a move to get a power-hitting outfielder to play left field (assuming, as we all did, that Moises Alou was gone, a move with which I agreed). Jeromy Burnitz has performed as advertised. Is he "the answer"? Of course not. Do the Cubs need another bat? Yes, they do, and hopefully he will arrive in the form of Nomar Garciaparra, if no one else is acquired.

I addressed the Williams deal a bit above, but let me say specifically that even if David Aardsma never pans out, this could be a steal for the next decade for the Cubs. LaTroy Hawkins seems absolutely done, and the Cubs got a guy who is a solid #3 starter.

Q: Okay, let's cut to the chase. With the Cubs four games under .500 as of this writing, 13 1/2 games out of the division, 8 out of the wildcard, and losers of 8 in a row, is the season over, or can this team still make the playoffs if the right moves are made?

A: I note that the Cubs picked up two games in the wildcard race just since TCR's question was written, before Friday's game. Further, I give you the following example: on July 2, 2003, the Florida Marlins had played 86 games, one less than the Cubs have played as of today.

Their record on that date: 43-43, 5.5 games behind the then-wild card leader, the Phillies.

That's exactly one-half game better than the Cubs are at this moment, and the Cubs are only one-half game further behind the wild-card-leading Braves, although there are more teams in between.

Another: on August 19, 2004, the Astros were 60-60, five games behind the wild-card leading Cubs. They went 32-10 from that date on.

Yes, it'll take a stretch like that to catch the Braves, or the other teams in between. But the Cubs have been a streaky team this year anyway, both up and down. If the right moves are made -- and yes, moves still need to be made -- absolutely, the playoffs are still possible.

Q: The trading deadline is fast approaching. If you're the GM of this team, are you a buyer or a seller? What are you buying and/or selling? Who's on the table, who are the targets, and how does it all shake out? Name me those names!

A: I'm a buyer, absolutely. Now, the question is, whom to buy? Two days ago I'd have said a left fielder -- but maybe Matt Murton is the Miguel Cabrera of 2005. Could Murton play CF if a LF like Adam Dunn (and yes, I'd trade just about anyone short of Prior, Zambrano, Lee and Ramirez for Dunn) were to be acquired? Or should the Cubs try to find someone to play CF and lead off? I don't think Jerry Hairston is the answer, and Mark Kotsay just signed an extension with the A's, and no, I don't want Preston Wilson.

I note that the BCB poll on the right sidebar overwhelmingly (30%, more than any other single name) says the Cubs should go after Dunn. He got my vote. And the percentage of voters saying the Cubs should be sellers dropped from 25% to 17% since Friday.

Incidentally, being a buyer doesn't necessarily mean you're not also a seller. The big four-team deal that landed Nomar in Chicago last summer involved three contending teams -- the Red Sox, Cubs and Twins -- and several starting players (Nomar, Doug Mientkiewicz, Alex Gonzalez) were traded.

Q: Finally, every baseball season has its moments. When we look back at the first half of 2005 in years to come, which moments, plays, games, or performances will be remembered as the most defining/enjoyable/surprising/heartbreaking etc.?

A: Well, Opening Day in Arizona, a 16-6 blowout of the D'backs, gave us hope -- which turned out to be false hope after the next two games went to Arizona.

Derrek Lee's monster first half is one to savor forever, and to think soberly about where the ballclub would be if he hadn't been there. Even Neifi! Perez played well for a month and a half, prompting both TCR and BCB to tout him for the All-Star team (man, I'm glad we didn't succeed!).

The horrifying injury to Mark Prior was that "gasp" moment when we saw a season and maybe a career pass in front of our eyes. But a month later he was not only back on the field, but dominating the best team in baseball, the (ugh!) White Sox, and that game, and the next day's combined one-hitter against the Brewers, were to me, signs that the pitching staff might, just might, be coming together.

Speaking of the White Sox, the diving try that Corey Patterson made attempting to catch off Paul Konerko that might have saved the game on May 20 might have turned the season differently for both clubs had he made it. A month later, on June 28, Patterson made a great catch on a nearly identical sinking liner off the bat of Milwaukee's Brady Clark, and left the field to a standing ovation, only to get booed in the bottom of that inning when he struck out again. I think that was the final straw in Corey's demise.

It was fun to have the Red Sox in town as defending World Champions, and for once, to have opposing fans en masse who we could relate to rather than just spit invective at, and taking two of three from them was sweet.

Winning six games on a West Coast trip, which hadn't happened since the 1980's, was something I both missed (sleeping!) and enjoyed reading about the next day. Now, let this streaky team begin another streak, to take us into the second half!