Focusing in on Center

The Cubs announced an addition to the front office staff on Thursday. Peter Chase was named the director of media relations according to a report on Chase has been with the Red Sox organization for the past seven seasons. While the Cubs were in the news, most of the talk around baseball on Thursday was the story that surfaced about Barry Bonds testing positive for amphetamines last season….will this guy ever learn?

A report from Ken Rosenthal late Wednesday night, and was mentioned briefly on Thursday, has given credibility to the Darin Erstad, Steve Finley and Bernie Williams rumors that surfaced earlier in the off-season. Are the Cubs looking for veteran help in center, and if so, would any of these players actually be a worthwhile stopgap for Felix Pie?

By all reports Felix Pie is the future center fielder of the Cubs. He has all the tools but the soon-to-be 22-year old (February 8th) needs more time to develop in the Minors. Pie is very good defensively and has an above average arm but offensively is where he has struggled to this point (most recently in winter ball). Last year Pie played the most games of his career in a single season, 141, after an injury shortened season in 2005. With the Iowa Cubs he hit .283/.341/.451 with 15 home runs and 57 RBI’s while striking out 126 in 559 at bats and walking just 46 times. His 792 OPS was his lowest since 2004 but he has set career highs in home runs the past 3 seasons (8,11,15). The problem with the power surge, according to Baseball Prospectus, is that he has become more of a pull hitter and a free-swinger.

From Baseball Prospectus: “The Good: A long, lanky body with impressive tools, including power, speed and arm strength; has performed well at every level despite consistently being young for each level; recovered from slow start (2006) to hit .322 with eight home runs after July 1st.”

Baseball Prospectus went on to say he could be “difficult to place in the lineup” because of his on base skills and his power, but could end up being a good middle of the lineup hitter.

There has been speculation that Pie could be ready to play at Wrigley at the midway point of the 2007 season but most feel another year at Triple A would be more beneficial to his development. The Cubs were rumored to be interested in Kenny Lofton before he signed with the Rangers and there was even talk of Alfonso Soriano playing center as well. Several reports have Soriano playing one of the corner spots, most likely right, which puts Jacque Jones either in center or on the trading block. Rosenthal has mentioned twice in as many days that Jones is on the trading block (a report a few weeks back on denied Jones asked to be traded) and Rosenthal mentioned Jones could be an option for the Giants, especially with the recent developments concerning Barry Bonds.

So do the Cubs rush another highly touted prospect to the Majors or do they go with a proven veteran on the downside of his career?

Multiple reports have stated the Cubs are still interested in signing Cliff Floyd; again Bonds’ situation could have an effect on Floyd as well and he could end up with the Giants. Floyd cannot play center and there are very few options left that would not cost the Cubs valuable pitching prospects.

Ryan Church has been mentioned from time to time this off-season and he could be an option for the Cubs but the Nationals could be looking for too much for a “stopgap”. This is where Erstad, Finley and Williams enter into the equation.

Darin Erstad is coming off bone spurs in his right ankle that caused him to miss all but 40 games of the 2006 season. According to a report on XM Radio he was scheduled to start baseball activities this past week. In 2005, his last full season, he hit .273/.325/.371 with 7 home runs and 66 RBI’s in 153 games, his most since 2002. Erstad has a good career OBP (.341). The 32-year old lefty posted career highs in 2000 (.355/.409/.541/25/100) and his numbers have remained pedestrian since. Erstad made $8.75 million in 2006.

Steve Finley is possibly entering the swan song of his career and while he is still effective defensively, his offense is well past the declining stage. In 139 games for the Giants in 2006 he hit .246/.320/.394 with 6 home runs and 40 RBI’s. Finley’s OBP is still respectable and the soon-to-be 42-year old lefty still has good patience at the plate (only 55 strikeouts in 426 at bats while walking 46 times). Defensively is where the Cubs could benefit from signing Finley, he is just 2 seasons removed from a gold glove and if they could sign him for significantly less than what the Giants paid for him last season ($7 million), he could be a good option to hold down the fort for Pie.

Bernie Williams on the other hand is way past being an effective center fielder and several reports have him retiring if the Yankees chose not to resign him. Williams will come cheap ($1.5 million with the Yankees in 2006) and Rosenthal thinks he would be a good mentor for Felix Pie. Of his 131 games in 2006 with the Yankees he played just 89 in the outfield and most of his time was spent at the corner spots. Williams’ did rebound in 2006 from a dismal 2005 (.249/.321/.367 in 141 games/112 in the field) but he is nowhere near his formal self. Williams has a career OBP of .381 and a career .297 average. If the Cubs are indeed interested in Williams with the motivation being to mature Felix Pie, it would be a good signing but if Pie is left in Iowa the entire season and spends little if any time with Williams, the signing could be very painful for the Faithful to watch on a daily basis. A platoon with Angel Pagan could be an option, in this writer’s humble opinion, if the Cubs do decide to sign him.

Ryan Church’s Profile from ESPN
Steve Finley’s Profile from ESPN
Bernie Williams’ Profile from ESPN
Darin Erstad’s Profile from ESPN
Felix Pie’s Stats from the Baseball Cube

A good defense can make an average pitcher, at best, look more effective on a daily basis. Think of all the extra pitches that have been thrown over the years due to the defense behind the pitching staff. The Cubs should have plenty of offense with a healthy lineup, despite the apparent shortcomings of the offense generated by the (penciled-in) middle infield and center field positions. A lineup consisting of Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, Barrett and Murton should drive in runs if Gerald Perry can teach the guys how to get on base with more regularity than in years past. A solid up-the-middle defense might just allow the Cubs to put up a few more wins on the board in 2007.

Quote of the Day

"People who write about Spring Training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball." – Sandy Koufax