2003 Was A Surprise, So Why Not 2006?

Ok, here is the deal: I am hearing a lot of people claim this is the reason why the Cubs won’t win the division, or this is the reason why the Cubs will win the division, and the reasons are often based on comparisons to the past division winners (1984, 1989, or 2003, etc….)

Except for the Atlanta Braves, there just doesn’t seem to be a formula that any team in MLB can point to and say, “Hey, this is how it is done, so we will do it this way!” So if you think this club isn’t as good, as stocked, or as talented as the 2003 team, or if you think this team is vastly superior to the 2003 team, in either case it is my solemn duty to inform you that you can’t always predict the future based on the past, and you really should know better…. What did we expect in 2003?

In order to fully explore this question, we have to look at 2002, and the off-season moves of 2003. In 2002, here are some things to remember:

- Corey Patterson hit only .253 in almost 600 at-bats
- Sosa was starting to decline, as his avg dropped to .288 (he probably started corking right about then!)
- Alex Gonzalez was our .248 hitting SS
- Moises Alou was a very disappointing free-agent pickup, batting .275 with just 15 HRs.
- Mark Bellhorn had 445 at-bats, putting Sosa to shame by tying him with 144 strikeouts in 111 less at-bats than Sammy.
- Todd Hundley hit .211, and seemed to be an impossible guy to unload.
Fred McGriff was a 1B that we weren’t going to resign.
- Bobby Hill and Hee-Seop Choi (think Cedeno and Murton) were the future!
- Wood and Clement were solid, with 12 wins each.
- Jon Lieber (a 20 game winner the previous year, fell apart and had 6 wins)
- Mark Prior was a promising rookie (but still only went 6-6 and ended the year injured)
- Zambrano went 4-8
- Juan Cruz, considered a top prospect, had a record of 3-11
- Jason Bere went 1-10….very Rusch-like.
- 6-Fingered Al was our closer with a whopping 19 saves (got him for Dontrelle Willis, by the way)
- Farnsworth had an era of 7.33
- 10 different pitchers started games for the Cubs
- This is a whole lot of “blah”, with a little “retch” thrown in for good measure….

How was that off-season?

In retrospect, it was awesome, but think about what we were getting in these deals at the time.

- Hundley was somehow unloaded for Grudzielanek and Karros. Karros was considered just about washed up, and Grud was often injured and also on the decline….that is why the Dodgers were happy to get rid of them, for TODD HUNDLEY! So Cubs fans weren’t exactly screaming with joy at this trade, for any reason other than that Hundley was gone….nobody expected much out of Karros and Grud. So here is what happened in 2003, and you will notice that most of the results were unexpected:

- Grud was a stud, and Karros filled in admirably for Choi, once Choi got knocked silly in a collision with Kerry Wood.
- The Cubs were never far above .500….in fact, they were just about .500 at the All-Star break….which hardly made it obvious that they were going to win the division!!!
- Patterson played, in retrospect, the best baseball he will ever play (like Hollandsworth for 1/2 of a year, he was a fluke, and a tease)
- Alou returned to form….but he could easily have repeated his miserable 2002 season
- Sosa regressed a little bit more…a fewer less at-bats, same amount of strikeouts, less homers, and a lower average.
- A guy named Joe Borowski had a career year, and was never the same after that.
- You had key contributions from Tom Goodwin and Randall Simon.
- Your new skipper Dusty brought a lot of hope with him, but he also brought an 8-game winner named Shawn Estes.
- Your promising 1B, Choi, hit just .218
- Your promising 2B, Bobby Hill, was mediocre and traded (and has never amounted to anything)
- Your starting 3B was Bellhorn, and he was just another in a line of 3B failures, post-Ron Santo.
- Prior and Zambrano had great years, in their first full seasons as pros….that doesn’t always happen, folks!

Bottom Line: This 2003 club, which has a nostalgic place in our hearts (rightly so) was really just a few games above .500, and was built for the playoffs (in hindsight) because of their top 4 pitchers; Wood, Prior, Zambrano, and Clement. Major contributors, such as Lofton, Ramirez, and even Simon came later in the season. Borowski was never supposed to be the closer, but Alfonseca got hurt, and Sweaty Joe somehow managed to keep a dry grip on the closer’s job the rest of the season.

How does the 2006 club compare to the 2003 gang?

Let’s start with the pitchers in the starting rotation (assuming they are healthy):

2003
Wood
Prior
Zambrano
Clement
Estes

2006
Wood
Prior
Zambrano
Maddux
(since Miller was never expected to be healthy right away, I would go with Rusch/Williams in this slot….not my choices, but realistically the guys that Hendry/Dusty had penciled in to start)

Prior and Zambrano should only be better in 2006, than they were in 2003. So that is an upgrade. Wood was only 14-11 in 2003, which isn’t going to win a Cy Young, so if he duplicates those stats, that would be excellent. Maddux is an upgrade over Clement. The 5th starters suck for both years (although with Guzman and/or Marshall, 2006 looks more promising).

Edge goes to 2006 starting pitching, when healthy.

Now for the bullpen:

2003
Borowski
Alfonseca
Farnsworth
Guthrie
Remlinger

2006
Dempster
Howry
Eyre
Williamson
Ohman/Novoa

Edge definitely goes to 2006 for the bullpen.

Now for the hitters….for this we can do a side-by-side comparison of position players:

Patterson/Lofton or Pierre in CF
Grud or Walker at 2B
Bellhorn/Ramirez or Ramirez at 3B
Alex Gonzalez or Cedeno at SS
Choi/Karros or Lee/Mabry at 1B
Alou or Murton in LF (don’t forget to throw defense into the equation)
Sosa or Jones in RF (gotta give this to Sammy, despite Jones’ better defense)
Miller or Barrett at C

Except for Sosa, and possibly Alou, I have to give the edge to 2006 for everything other position….especially when you take defense into consideration.

Bench Players
2003
Ramon Martinez, Paul Bako, Randall Simon, Tom Goodwin, Tony Womack, Troy O’ Leary (remember that friggin guy?)

2006
John Mabry, Angel Pagan, Neifi Perez, Jerry Hairston, Henry Blanco, Freddie Bynum

This is a wash, I think, although Hairston is a solid #2 guy to have, Mabry is solid, and Pagan was showing promise….but Simon, Womack, and Goodwin all had their moments, too.

So why can’t 2006 be the Cubs’ year?
There is no reason it can’t be, and there is no reason that it will be for sure….we have to see how it plays out, and enjoy the ride as much as we can along the way. For the true Cub fan, is there really an alternative?

Final Thoughts on Sunday’s game

Greg Maddux is a marvel. Since he tends to improve in the 2nd half of the season, I don’t know how he will top his first 4 starts, but nothing he does will surprise me at this point….he has shut up all the critics that thought he was old and on his way out. I can’t believe I am saying this, but Hendry should sign this guy to an extension ASAP!!!

Think about this for a second: Maddux is almost in the top ten for victories, he has over 3000 strikeouts, he has won 4 Cy Youngs, he won 15 games or more for 17 straight seasons….AND AT AGE 40, HE IS OFF TO THE BEST START OF HIS CAREER!!!

I am incredibly psyched about Guzman’s promotion, and Williams’ demotion. Not so much because I have faith Guzman will do anything, as he is unproven. Rather my jubilation comes from knowing that, for whatever reason, Hendry/Baker is no longer putting up with poor performances for maddeningly long stretches. When Wuertz stunk up the joint, he was gone. When Williams stunk up the joint, he was gone. Looks like we are playing to win, and not playing politics, and that is great news for all of us Cubs fans! When Wood returns, I am hoping the correct decision will be made to move Rusch into the pen, or trade him, leaving the 4th and 5th spot to our promising prospects for a change.

Aramis just missed having 2 HRs, so he is starting to get his swing back, and Jones looked good on the HR he hit as well, so hopefully that gives him some badly needed confidence. We have the Marlins this week, so we need to take advantage of this AA team, and get a sweep, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zambrano toys with a no-hitter against this club….big Z is overdue for a good outing. Until next time, CCO readers, keep the faith, stay positive, and let’s go Cubs!