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The Case For Greg Maddux

The San Diego Padres, who came excruciatingly close to making the playoffs last year (and who are still waiting for Matt Holliday to touch the plate), lie in ruins this morning.

Their #1 starter and one of the best in the game, Jake Peavy, is on the DL with elbow trouble, and we are all very familiar with what elbow trouble can do to your ace pitcher. Their #2 starter, Chris Young, went on the DL yesterday after getting hit in the face by an Albert Pujols line drive; Pujols then added both insult and another injury to injury by accidentally hooking the ankle of Padres catcher Josh Bard when subsequently scoring.

With Bard, Young and Peavy on the DL, San Diego has two rookie catchers on the roster and their #2 starter is now... drum roll... Shawn Estes. The Padres have the worst record in the major leagues at 18-31 and are already eleven games out of first place.

I would think that this would put the Padres into "sell" mode, if not right away, then certainly by the time the non-waiver trading deadline hits on July 31. This essay is going to make the case for the Cubs to acquire Greg Maddux, who has hinted this will be his last season, to end his career, perhaps in the ultimate triumph, with the team he began with and in front of the fans who love him best. Warning! This is going to be mostly based on sentiment, not statistics, so numbers people, hold your fire.

I exchanged several emails yesterday with my friend and BCB's #1 Maddux fan, Jessica, who at last admitted (after saying "No way" to me for ages) that it's possible that the Cubs might do exactly this. She sent me this quote, taken from this Barry Rozner column written after Maddux' recent appearance in Wrigley Field, which we all thought at the time might be his last:

"I'm not ashamed to say I love Greg Maddux," said Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "As good a pitcher as he is, maybe the best ever, he's a better person. I was really hoping today he'd get a no-decision and we'd win the game."

Hendry did Maddux a favor in 2006 by sending him to a playoff contender, the Dodgers (in fact, players across baseball ought to love Hendry. He sent five players from that miserable Cub team -- Maddux, Phil Nevin, Todd Walker, Scott Williamson and yes, Neifi Perez -- to teams that wound up in the 2006 postseason), and Maddux responded to the stepped-up competition. He was 9-11, 4.69 with the execrable 2006 Cubs; with the Dodgers, he went 6-3, 3.30 and nearly threw a no-hitter against the Giants.

This is the nature of Greg Maddux. At this stage of his career, 42 years old and with a fastball that doesn't creak past about 84 MPH, he gets by on guile and knowledge and experience and steps up his game to the level of competition and the situation. The 2006 Dodgers got swept out of the NLDS by the Mets (and Maddux got hit pretty hard in game three), but there is no doubt that Maddux helped them get there, not only with his pitching, but with his mere presence on the bench. The story is told that Brad Penny let Maddux call all his pitches from the bench during one of Penny's late-season starts, and Penny wound up throwing seven shutout innings. That was, incidentally, against the Cubs on September 13, 2006.

So why Maddux? Well, let's take a look at a few numbers, at least. Maddux has made ten starts this season and is 3-4 (not bad on an 18-31 team) with a 3.94 ERA, which would if carried for a full season be his lowest since 2003. Yes, I am well aware that his home/road splits are pretty bad (1-0, 1.88 at home; 2-4, 5.35 away from spacious Petco). But let's compare this, shall we, to the Cubs' fifth starter, the three-headed "monster" of Rich Hill, Jon Lieber and Sean Gallagher (for the purposes of this discussion, we assume that the Cubs' first four are Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis).

Hillliebergallagher have combined for nine starts. In those starts they have thrown 40.2 innings, allowed 42 hits, 26 earned runs, walked 26 and struck out 31. That's a 1.67 WHIP and a 5.75 ERA.

Now how could Maddux be worse than that?

This is a short-term fix, two months, maybe three. It's not going to retard the development of Gallagher or Sean Marshall, since it's likely Maddux will retire after this year. And Marshall said many times during 2006 that he soaked up a lot of knowledge sitting next to Maddux on the Cubs' bench. It certainly couldn't hurt having a future Hall of Famer on the bench, sharing his knowledge with this Cubs team, and I believe he could also be a contributing force, once he got off a losing team and on to a contender. Also, remember that the Cubs play the bulk of their September games on the road, so the home/road splits Maddux has had (and they could be an aberration, as he had a 3.59 ERA at Petco and 4.65 on the road in 2007, not so extreme a split) might actually work in the Cubs' favor late in the year, playing fewer games in Wrigley Field. There's no doubt that he will become available, later if not sooner, and Jessica agrees with me that the Cubs wouldn't have to do much more than take the remains of his contract and give the Padres a "face-saving prospect", as she put it.

This is also about sentiment, I freely admit, and making things "right". When Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004, it was clearly with the intention of finishing his career with the team he started with, in front of the fans who love him perhaps more than any pitcher in post-World War II team history other than Fergie Jenkins. There's no greater evidence of that than the two loving ovations he has received in the last three years -- first, on July 29, 2006, when he threw six solid innings against the Cardinals and won his last Cub appearance before he was sent to the Dodgers, and the other one just a week ago, when he left the field after Cub hitters battered him pretty good. I don't think I've ever seen such a cheer given to a visiting player.

We love Greg Maddux, and we need Greg Maddux. He may not be the best available pitcher. But he is the right available pitcher. Go get him, Jim Hendry. Bring him home. In this season where everything seems possible, Greg Maddux should be part of it.