Whispers of Eternity

Some people will tell you that the only things certain in this life are death and taxes. Yoda would tell you that the future is always in motion. Ask a life-long Cubs fan about next year, and he will tell you he awaits it with eager anticipation and excitement.

Everyone has an opinion on the future. Each off-season our glasses are slowly refilled to the brim with our addictive Cubbie Kool-Aid. The human spirit has an amazing ability to believe in ideals, to have faith and hope, and to continually expect that dreams will one day be realized.

The Chicago Cubs started a new chapter in their long history this past week, with the announcement of a new team President, and the search for a new manager. We were told that nothing short of a World Series championship was the new standard for our favorite team, and we were also told that our GM, Jim Hendry, would have all the resources he needs at his disposal. Reconstructing this team into a championship juggernaut must be a relatively easy thing to do then, right? You know better…. The Art of Management

Does a manager really matter? Can a manager really cause a team to fail, or to win, all by himself? I believe the answer is a definitive “yes”. Michael Jordan needed Phil Jackson. Our armies in World War II needed good generals. The Yankees needed Joe Torre and the Braves needed Bobby Cox. Replace any great leader from a successful group, team, corporation, or military, with someone lacking in leadership skills, and the result will be a systematic failure, from the top down.

A great coach in one field, or for one team, may not have the same effect in a different environment. Mike Ditka was largely a failure in New Orleans. Steve Spurrier couldn’t translate his coaching greatness in the NCAA to the NFL. In order for a baseball manager to be successful, he needs to find a way to motivate his players to play hard, and in many cases, overachieve. A successful manager also needs to work well with his team’s GM and the team ownership, if he wants to have lasting success. Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz is a great example of this. Sloan has always had the backing of team ownership, and the players on the Jazz know that Sloan is the boss, and that they have to embrace his team concept or they will be shown the door.

Whether it was in school, in sports, or in our careers, most of us like to have a great teacher, or coach, or boss that has high expectations for us. Why? When others have high expectations of you, you tend to work harder to meet those expectations. In a perfect world, none of us would ever need motivation, and we would always give it our best effort 100% of the time, without ever receiving any advice, without being given encouragement, and without having demands made of us. The reality is that most of us need a good coach in our lives. Will Joe Girardi, Bob Brenly, or Lou Piniella be the manager that the Cubs so desperately need? Hard to say…. Again, every situation is different, but I can say with confidence that I believe the Cubs need a stronger disciplinarian in the clubhouse. After a few years, the players will inevitably tune out a fiery, vocal manager, but for now, I believe that is the right way to go. Sometimes you need to wrap your arm around a player and provide encouragement…. and sometimes you need to give them a good kick in the rear. A good manager knows when to do which. The past four years, I believe, our players were coddled far too much. While baseball is a game, major league baseball is a business, and we need our players to start treating their jobs, their defense, their conditioning, and their attitudes with a newfound sense of professionalism and appreciation.

Roster Needs

I am content with Rich Hill’s progress, and Carlos Zambrano is undeniably the staff ace. While I remain hopeful on Mark Prior returning to his 2003 form, I have no desire to begin next season depending on any of the other starting pitchers, besides Zambrano, Hill, and Prior, that started for the Cubs in 2006. Not one of them.

That leaves Jim Hendry with at least 2 starting rotation spots to fill. John McDonough said all the right things in the press conference the other day, but past performance is the best predictor of future results, and I still have to believe the Cubs won’t pay enough for either Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt. I hope I am wrong, and they at least get one of the two.

Trades can always be made that have unexpected results. For example, if Hendry resigns Aramis Ramirez, and also signs a free agent like Carlos Lee, it may free him up to trade Matt Murton (or Jacque Jones) along with some young pitchers for a proven starter. The Derrek Lee trade came out of the blue, as most of us felt pretty good about Hee Sop Choi at the time…. so sometimes the big moves may come in areas we don’t think really need addressing. If Juan Pierre is offered more money and goes elsewhere (which is the only reason he wouldn’t resign, by the way) then the idea of trading for a very good player like Vernon Wells is appealing. Again, though, you have to assume the Cubs have assets that other teams covet, and which the Cubs can equally afford to let go. If you trade Aramis Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez, then it is a wash. If you trade Aramis for a second baseman, you may have solved your question at second base, but you have created a new problem at third.

Unless Hendry fails to keep Pierre and Ramirez, I would expect the offense to look largely the same. I think Ryan Theriot is a perfect fit for the club at second base, and he is also a great #2 hitter. With the exception of Cesar Izturis, I think we have good hitters at every position, and our batting average was never a problem this year. In fact, the Cubs did a great job cutting down on strikeouts this year as well….remember the days of Swinging Sammy and KO Corey? The biggest problem with our offense, I believe, resided with the philosophy of the team leader, manager Dusty Baker. His refusal to preach, and teach, the benefits of patience at the plate, and his distaste for raising his team’s OBP, led to the offense being the most inefficient in the league. No team had a greater disparity between their batting average (good in the case of the Cubs) and their respective OBP (horrible in the case of the Cubs). The Oakland A’s are in the playoffs, despite having a lousy team batting average. Why? Because, as always, they get on base with walks, and move the runners over anyway they can. If the Cubs offense can draw more walks next year, and hit into less double plays, they will find themselves scoring a ton more runs, without really raising their batting average much at all.

Final Thoughts

I hope that Hendry moves quickly and hires a manager this week. There is no reason it should drag on. My reason for wanting to hurry with the new hire, is because Hendry himself stated that his first order of business was to hire a manager….meaning he isn’t really working on any deals or free agents until the new manager is secure. Anyone else remember the 2005 off-season? The whole off-season was wasted trying to unload Sammy Sosa, and Hendry refused to do anything else with his roster until that was done. As a result, we had the immortal Jeremy Burnitz and Todd Hollandsworth/Jason Dubois at the outfield corners, along with Glendon Rusch in the starting rotation. Ugghhh!

I would offer Pierre a contract today, and tell his agent that if he gets any higher offers, to come see us before they accept it, so we can match it. If our new Cubs President was serious about winning a World Series, it would be better to retain Pierre and Ramirez, so that we can focus on the problems and holes in our roster, rather than creating new holes to fill. I would also give a new deal to Zambrano. Then sign Carlos Lee and trade Jacque Jones for some pitching prospects or for a 4th or 5th starter.

Then acquire either Zito or Schmidt. I know….I know….I am making it sound really easy. Just throw money at everything. Here is how I know I am right: You won’t lose money on this strategy. Either this new, and admittedly expensive, roster results in a playoff run, which will drive profits through the roof, or you get rid of the expensive assets at the trade deadline, and start over. Do you really think you won’t find any takers for Barry Zito at the trade deadline next year? How about Aramis Ramirez? So the worst-case scenario is that you have a completely energized fan base from all these off-season signings, which allows the fans to give the Tribsters a pass for the horrible year they had in 2006, and you have extra salary until about July. If the Cubs still play poorly, sell off the assets, and get tons of great farm prospects in return, ala the Florida Marlins in the 2006 off-season. The Cubs can’t seem to draft well, and the only way to get high picks is to play lousy during the season. Wouldn’t you rather the Cubs essentially “acquire” a robust farm system by selling off valuable and desired assets to other teams?

So I believe that it truly is a win-win for the Tribsters/Hendry to go on a spending spree. Problem is that while I know I am right, and you likely can see my logic, the Tribune will likely keep their budget about the same as last year, leaving no room for new additions to the team. The only way I see the Cubs getting new additions, would be is if they fail to resign Pierre and/or Ramirez. Adding a new player, no matter how good, while allowing either of those two to leave, would amount to no progress essentially. I really hope this is the year I am proved wrong, CCO Readers….I really hope so!!! Until next time, stay glued to the CCO for the latest news and rumors, hope for a quick manager signing, hold John McDonough and Jim Hendry accountable for their words and actions, and let’s go Cubs!