2003 - Five Outs from Glory, or Doomed to Fail?

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Author's Note: This is the second in a series of articles dealing with player development. The first: Seconds from Stardom - The Tragic Tale of Richard Lewis, addressed the timing in which to promote young players. This article focuses on a team strategy for development. The last will look at long range planning. I hope you will find them interesting and informative.

The scene plays over and over again in a diehard Cubs fan's mind, like some recurring nightmare. It was October 14, in game 6 of the National League Championship. The Cubs were leading the series 3 games to 2. It was one out in the 8th inning, with starter Mark Prior pitching a 3 hit shutout. Luis Castillo hits a pop fly that is drifting foul toward left field. As outfielder Moises Alou streaked over to make the play, the crowd, including a bespectacled fan in a green sweatshirt and Cubs cap, rose to its feet. As Alou reached over into the stands ...
Hit the pause button! For those of you who believe in curses, what happened next was inevitable. However, if you believe in Karma, then you knew it would be only a matter of time for the worst to happen. To understand what I mean, let's hit the rewind button and go back to sometime before the 2003 season. As we do, you may see the relevance to the Cubs' current situation.
The 2003 season for the Cubs was not supposed to be a championship season. In 2002, the Cubs finished in fifth place, 30 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was in the off-season that the organization came up with a plan to build a winning franchise by promoting many of their minor league prospects. The 2003 Cubs were lead by charismatic superstar Sammy Sosa, aging slugger Moises Alou, promising young outfielder Corey Patterson, and a young but extremely talented pitching staff. The rest of the squad was nothing to write home about. However, the Cubs did have a number of minor league prospects that it felt were on the verge of being ready for the majors. As a hedge, General Manager Jim Hendry decided to bring in a number of aging veterans and castoffs in order to ease the transition to the younger players. Among the players already in place and later brought in were Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Bellhorn, Lenny Harris, and Damian Miller.
But something amazing happened at the start of the 2003 season. The Cubs started winning, and kept winning. Even through poor performances and injuries, they kept winning.
If one incident could be cited as the turning point of the season, it would be the June 7, 2003 game against the New York Yankees. During that game, rookie first baseman Hee-Seop Choi camped under a routine infield fly. Pitcher Kerry Wood, not hearing Choi call him off, came rushing over to make the play, crashing into Choi. Choi laid on the ground motionless for several minutes. He was finally helped off the field, and had to spend several days in the hospital with a concussion. From that point on, the Cubs used their veterans at the expense of their rookies. When Bellhorn continued to struggle offensively, promising infielder Bobby Hill was tried at third base at AAA Iowa. Several days later, Hill, Jose Hernandez, and Matt Bruback were sent to the Pirates for third baseman Aramis Ramirez and centerfielder Kenny Lofton. The youth movement was officially over.
While the 2003 squad won the NL Central Division and beat the Braves in the playoffs, it fell to the Florida Marlins in the league championship, five outs away from the World Series. More importantly, what was lost was the plan to build the Cubs into a perennial contender. Instead of continuing the practice of bringing in young players, GM Hendry continued to cut and paste with veterans while chasing a phantom championship. Some of his moves (particularly Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly) got the Cubs close, both in 2007 and 2008. However, other moves (such as Nomar Garciaparra, Milton Bradley, and a plethora of long term-no trade contracts) dug the franchise into a deeper hole. Now the Cubs are faced with a similar situation they had at the end of the 2002 season. Let's hope this time they stick with the plan.