Good Problems

In order to win the World Series this year, I think the Cubs need a few problems. I think people need to be a little upset for us to have success. I envision our August and September stretch drives to be filled with controversy, and for battle-lines to be drawn between various segments of the Cubs Faithful. Sweet Lou Piniella has to get a bit disagreeable in several press conferences, and even Jim Hendry needs to have a few blustery red-faced interviews. Do you disagree? Do you think that peace, happiness, and high-fives will lead to Cubs greatness in 2007? You know better….

Out of Chaos Comes Order….

When I talk about having problems, I am referring to the “good” variety. For example, the Cubs already, in theory, have a good “problem” with their starting rotation. At the present moment, Wade Miller has locked up the 5th spot in the rotation, and that means other solid candidates, such as Mark Prior, and Angel Guzman, may have to wait another day for their chance. You could even throw Sean Marshall into the mix, and there is always the unknown player in the minors that comes out of nowhere to be the Next Big Thing.

My hope is that, at some point in May or June, that the excess starting pitching becomes a problem for Piniella and Hendry to deal with. Imagine if Mark Prior continues to ramp up his velocity, and starts destroying AAA batting lineups. If, as expected, Kerry Wood secures his bullpen spot at some point in April, then Guzman may also find himself throwing multiple shutouts in the minors. If the current five starting pitchers, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill, and Wade Miller all perform decently, a storm will start to brew in Cubdom. Imagine the prospect of hordes of Mark Prior backers angrily protesting that an 18-game winner is being kept off the field for a pitcher that led the NL in ERA last year (Marquis), a “rookie” in his first full season (Hill), and a guy that also returned from injury, but who supposedly never had the same talent (Miller). After every game that Prior wins in AAA, the press will descend upon Piniella and demand to know what he plans on doing to get Prior in the rotation. When Piniella responds that he already had 5 starting pitchers, the press will then sic their fangs into Trader Jim Hendry, and want to know what moves he will now make to free up a spot for the former phenom.

Take a minute and really think this situation through: the Cubs have coddled Prior endlessly for the past three years, always being extremely sensitive to his emotions, and making sure he knows how important the Cubs organization views him….do you really think they will let his talent and considerable ego spend an entire season striking out AAA nobodies? If you are Jim Hendry, and your former phenom, who is only 27 years old, suddenly regains his “perfect” mechanics, has a fastball in the mid-90s, has calves bigger than most peoples’ heads, and has pinpoint control of his pitches, do you want to alienate him and risk losing him to free agency down the road? My guess is that Wade Miller gets traded, but if the Cubs wanted to be financially savvy, they would trade Marquis instead.

Musical Chairs in the Outfield….

A similarly good “problem” is brewing in the outfield, although this is a problem that has been discussed a bit more openly by CCO Readers, and the media: the Cubs have four starting outfielders (five if you include Felix Pie) in Matt Murton, Alfonso Soriano, Cliff Floyd, and Jacque Jones. If we could travel forward in time and read a lineup card from August, what will have to have transpired for us to see Pie penciled in as the starting CF? In my mind, that means Jones has been traded, and we have a strict platoon system of Murton and Floyd at whichever outfield position Soriano isn’t occupying.

How do you trade Jacque Jones, if his base running gaffes are a thing of the past, and if his bafflingly lousy throws which occurred seemingly every other day last year, suddenly are on target, and with about 8 less bounces? His offensive numbers last year were very good, not superstar-good, but above average for sure. If Jones continues to pound the ball, especially early on this year, a new legion of Jacque Jones fans will start taking offense at any mention of Jones in a trade to make room for an unproven rookie in Pie, or to allow both Murton and Floyd to play everyday.

By the same token, Matt Murton, the Big Murt, the red-headed darling of many of the Cubs Faithful, will not be lacking in supporters angry at Piniella if Floyd takes away too many of his at-bats, or if Pie is brought up, and Jones is traded, and Floyd is given the everyday job, in order to keep a left-handed bat in the lineup. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that both Murton and Jones could be traded, if Pie is truly ready, and Floyd is deemed healthy. After all, with Daryle Ward, Ryan Theriot, Mark DeRosa, and perhaps Angel Pagan all with the ability to play backup outfield for the Cubbies, there isn’t much of a reason for 5 players with the talent and ability to start in the outfield, to all be on the same team.

This outfield is sure to be a “problem” all season long. The press will be relentless if Pie is hitting the cover off the ball in Iowa, and Soriano’s defense is less than stellar. If Cliff Floyd has a couple 2-HR games, which he is certainly capable of, many of the Faithful will slide on a pair of Fan Goggles, take out a pencil and a notepad, and quickly realize, through the power of Goggle-Math, that Floyd would hit 83 HRs if he played everyday. Against right-handed pitching, Piniella is going to have a tougher and tougher time of justifying playing time the minute that Murton has a rough stretch at the plate during the season.

Final Thoughts….

Don’t misunderstand, I really do believe these are all good problems. Sometimes it is unlikely groups that develop the winning chemistry, and having a situation where competition is being reinforced, and both starting pitchers and outfielders are scared to lose their jobs to another player, is a good thing in my opinion. Unlike Dusty Baker, it seems Lou Piniella has the right mindset to keep the inmates from running the asylum, so some players may not like their lack of playing time, but I am confident that Piniella will keep the best players on the field, that give the Cubs the best chance to win, and not just play favorites with “his boys.” I do expect some trades to develop from these problems, and if I was forced to make a prediction, I would say the final starting rotation in September will be Zambrano, Lilly, Prior, Miller, and Hill. For the outfield, I am expecting that the love of Floyd’s power will be tempered by a few stints on the DL, and his defensive abilities, and that the Cubs actually do nothing with the outfield all year. Pie may be brought up, and may also be on the playoff roster, but more as an insurance policy than anything else. I predict Soriano finishes the year in CF, and Jones and Murton get the lion’s share of at-bats at the corner spots.

Jim Hendry did a good job this year of buying the Cubs a number of insurance policies, at a number of different positions. That is the tremendous advantage big-market teams have, in that they can use free agency to keep all their in-house talent, and create real depth. So I applaud Jim Spendry for creating all these “problems” that the Cubs will have this year, and I believe his efforts and decisions will be richly rewarded. Until next time, CCO Readers, hope for continuing increases in velocities, hope for no appearances of the dreaded towels, and let’s go Cubs!

Quote of the Day

"Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure." - Joe Maddon