You Know Better….

Welcome to Monday morning and congratulations to the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans for winning the Super Bowl. Baseball season starts today and there will be changes here at the CCO in the coming days. The first is the CCO Fantasy Baseball Insider will be back from time to time during the season. Jason will still be contributing and here is his new column.

You Know Better….

The Cubs will win their division this year. In September, the players spraying bubbly drinks on each other will consist of the roster as we know it today. That’s right….the Cubs already have all the pieces they need, and I will explain why I think there are 10 major keys that will lead to the Cubs being back in the playoffs in 2006! I would also like to hear what you think are the biggest keys to the Cubs in 2006, so please let me know.

First, I would like to give some background on the title of my column. Almost every year since I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to vacation with my family in a little A-frame house located right off the lake, in Stevensville, Michigan, about a 2 hour drive from the Chicago suburbs. It is a quiet little family vacation spot, and a place to relax and get away from the rest of the world for a while. The grounds are monitored by “security” guards that drive around in golf carts….ok….there is just one security guard. I don’t know his name, so I will just call him “Earl”. Good ol’ Earl doesn’t have the greatest grasp of the English language, and I swear I can’t understand 8 out of 10 words he says, but year after year you can depend on Earl to get in his golf cart and take a half-hearted and cursory look around and make sure no tomfoolery, chicanery, or lollygagging is a-going on.

There is a pool about 25 yards from our cabin, and there has always been a sign that says “no bottles” or some such nonsense like that, but I have never seen anyone actual pay attention to that, and Earl has only seen me every Summer for, like, 20 years now, so I figure he won’t care. So I am hanging out at the pool, with a cooler filled with ice cold beverages….for the use of this website, let’s pretend they are Old Style beer bottles….and I am listening to the Cubs on WGN radio and working on my tan. I am a responsible pool-goer, and I put any finished bottles back in my cooler, and I am nowhere close to the edge of the pool….I am not raising hell, by any means, is my point. This is the Summer of 2002, and I am daydreaming and thinking about the Cubbies; how Lieber is having a bad year, that Bellhorn’s season must be a steroid fluke, that Alou doesn’t look like much of an acquisition, that there is no way we can get rid of Todd Hundley, and the Cubs are probably still going to be really bad next year….

All of a sudden a shadow blocks my sun, and I know it isn’t a cloud, because the shadow is mumbling in some sort of slurred Cajun-like accent. I open my eyes to see a man with a graying buzz-cut and, apparently, a permanent 4-day beard….and his head is silhouetted in a halo of light from the sun’s rays. I take stock of this questionable specimen of homo sapiens, and take a quick drink of my Old Style. Earl points a pudgy finger at me and then at my Old Style….my first thought was that he might want one, which is not exactly the prescribed beverage for security guards behind the wheel, but hey, this is Earl we are talking about. Instead, Earl addressed me in an almost fatherly voice, filled with disappointment and regret, and he says three words that rocked me to the core:

“You know better….” Then Earl walked away.

As I picked up my cooler and my bottle of Old Style, and proceeded to walk towards the cabin to get some large plastic cups and some ice to pour my Old Style in, I had a moment of enlightenment in which I realized that Earl wasn’t just talking about having bottles around the pool….nay! Earl was actually capable of reading my mind, and he was trying to tell me that my thoughts on the Cubs were all wrong. Wouldn’t you know it, the next year Hendry managed to trade Hundley, we replaced Bellhorn with Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou returned to form, and the Cubs won the division title!

So to all the fans out there, including myself, that think, or having been guilty of thinking, that the Cubs don’t have what it takes this year, or that the Cubs don’t have the players needed to succeed and win their division, I can only offer the sage advice of ol’ Earl, and let you know that….whether you know it or not….you know better!

Here are my top ten keys for 2006, that will cause the Cubs to win the division:

Juan Pierre will stay healthy, and have an average year, by his career standards. Pierre doesn’t have to have a career year for the Cubs. We have been so utterly lacking in a leadoff hitter since Lofton left, that if Pierre just does what he has proven he can do the last few years, the Cubs will have one of the top base-stealers in the league, and a leadoff hitter with a .300 average!

Matt Murton will be the next coming of Mark Grace. Only with better speed, and a little more pop in the bat. I don’t need Murton to hit 30-40 HRs for him to be wildly successful in LF. What we need is average to above-average defense, combined with a .290 avg or higher, and a ton of doubles in the gaps. If he can steal 15 bases, and go from 1st to 3rd on a single every now and then, that will go a long way to getting more runs scored for the Cubbies. I think he could possibly make a good #2 hitter, but could also do really well in the #6-7 spots, too.

Kerry Wood will win 13 games or more. This is not a lot to ask, as Kerry, when healthy, should do this easily, and has done so in the past already. We are all a bit jaded on Wood, due to his injuries, but he has had a couple of major surgeries now, and hopefully his arm troubles are behind him for good. I don’t foresee any future as a reliever for Wood….I think if he will work the counts better, and get ahead of the hitters, he will lower his pitch counts and can make it to the 7th inning on a regular basis. With a revamped bullpen this year, it won’t be the end of the world if Wood only lasts 5 or 6 innings, as long as he is only giving up 1-2 runs most of the time.

Jacque Jones will not be a hero or a scapegoat. If Jacque can kind of just go unnoticed….sort of like Keith Moreland did for a few years….and produce adequate numbers, and play solid defense, then he will be a great fit for our team. We have Lee and Ramirez as the big thumpers….we don’t need more of them. The White Sox had Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, and Frank Thomas as big thumpers for years, but only after they were gone or their role was reduced greatly by injuries, did the Sox prevail with solid role players and a World Series trophy. If Jones starts all year, and no one really talks much about him, that will be a good thing for the Cubs, because it will mean he is doing a decent enough job in his role. His added speed on the bases, combined with Murton, Cedeno, and Pierre, will greatly alter the RBI chances for Lee, Ramirez, Walker, and Barrett this year.

Dempster will not get any better. If he can do what he did last year, we can’t ask for more. He has good stuff, and it is just possible that his arm injury misfortunes of the past have actually led to his true calling in the present and the future, as a top-notch MLB closer. He will make mistakes, and he will blow some leads, but if he can give us something like 35 saves out of 42 chances, I will live with it….happily. He has a good bullpen with the additions of Eyre and Howry, and Scott Williamson may be invaluable in the 7th and 8th innings this year as well. An improved middle relief means that there will be a greater chance that Dempster will get the ball in the ninth with a 3 or 4 run lead, instead of a 1 or 2 run lead, and that alone may be the reason we win the division.

Dusty has to use the speed he is given. If you have Pierre, Murton, Cedeno, and Jones suddenly added to your lineup, along with Hairston possibly at 2B, then Baker will find himself literally forced to start using good old fashioned hit and run baseball. Baker may also find himself easing off on the philosophy of swinging at the first pitch, as he may start to see the value of letting his guys get on base via walks. The more walks that our speedy players get will cause the opposing pitchers’ pitch counts to increase, it will be a distraction to the opposing pitcher as he is worried about someone stealing instead of concentrating on Derrick Lee at the plate, and it will force opposing pitchers to throw more fastballs, instead of curves….giving our guys more good pitches to hit. Of course, Dusty will be heralded as a “genius” once again, when our Cubbies win the division, and I will bite my tongue and simply tell myself, “you know better”.

No one will care what the announcers are saying in the booth. Brenly and whatshisname from the Marlins can tout their Believe Bracelets and spout nonsense all year (I will be listening to the radio broadcast anyway) and I doubt any of the players will find anything offensive in anything they have to say. Furthermore, I would hope that Hendry and Baker learned a lesson from the collective lack of focus our roster had in 2004, and there will hopefully be more discipline in the locker room from veterans like Lee and Maddux, who were new to the Cubs in 2004, but maybe now will be more vocal if the team is focusing on anything other than getting a win on the field that day.

Zambrano and Prior will win at least 16 games each. This is something they have both already done, and they are not even in their prime yet, so it is hardly asking for a lot for them to accomplish this feat. We need to have a repeat of the dominance of 2003, in terms of pitching. We need opposing teams to fear our pitchers again, and to give us a mental edge in every series. Prior will have a chip on his shoulder from the Miguel Tejada trade talk, and I think that will be a positive thing. Zambrano is sick of hearing about Wood and Prior, and I think he also has a chip on his shoulder to prove he is the “man”, which is another positive thing. They will both be motivated, after getting a taste of success (2003) early in their careers, and they will want to return to the spotlight this year.

Wade Miller will be pitching by the end of May. Miller has very good stats, and I remember him pitching well when he was not injured and was with the Astros. Miller getting healthy and becoming a fifth starter (along with Prior, Zambrano, Wood, and Maddux) will be extremely important to the Cubs for a number of reasons; it will make the aging Maddux our 5th pitcher, which is more befitting his declining ability, and it makes our rotation, arguably, the best in baseball from 1-5. It will also move Rusch and Williams to the bullpen, further strengthening the all too important 6-8 innings. This will allow us to keep the innings pitched at reasonable levels for Wood, Prior, and Miller….keeping them healthy for the whole year. It also frees up Rusch or Williams as trade bait, along with one of our extra 2B, if we need to deal for anyone near the trading deadline, for whatever reason.

Michael Barrett’s offense won’t improve….but his defense and pitch-calling will. Barrett doesn’t have to win a Silver Slugger. I could care less if he does, and he probably feels the same way. The biggest impact he can make this year is to call a better game, handle the emotions of Zambrano, throw out my would-be base stealers, and block a ton of nasty breaking balls in the dirt. Our staff has electric stuff, and with all the new bats in the lineup, Barrett’s offense is an after-thought, in my opinion. If his average drops to .260, but the pitchers’ ERAs drop when he pitches, I will be more than happy with that.

Final Thoughts and What is Your Opinion?
The Cubs will win the division because of two main things; they will stay healthy, and their pitching staff will pitch as they have proven they can in the past. No one….I repeat, no one…..needs to have a career year. All they need to do is stay healthy, and get a bit of a mean streak, stay focused, and take it one game at a time. I truly believe these ten items I listed are big keys to this upcoming year, but I would like to hear what you think the biggest keys are, so let me know!

I am really looking forward to this year. I don’t think we will truly see what this team can do until Wood and Miller are healthy, but once they are, the rest of the league better get out of the way, or they will just get run over. I hope everyone enjoyed the Super Bowl, and now we can all turn our attention away from the NFL, away from our struggling Bulls, and look forward to seeing our Cubs in Spring Training!

Quote of the Day

"There are places I remember. All my life though some have changed. Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain. All these places have their moments ... " John Lennon/Paul McCartney