I’ve been talking a lot about politics lately, and I’m sure I’ll have some more stuff to say after tonight’s debate. But I haven’t spent much time at all on sports, and it’s been a busy week for sports in Chicago. No, I’m not talking about the Ben Wallace trade. An NBA man I am not. Rather, da Bears have been active, and it’s spring training.
I must say that I’m pretty excited about this coming baseball season. I’m not sure Dempster’s World Series prediction is completely justified, especially with the Mets being the Mets (then again, the Mets are the Mets), but they should have a pretty decent shot of making the playoffs as the division champion or wild card. It’s always hard to say a team’s a lock for the playoffs in baseball, because the season is so long and the playoffs are pretty exclusive, especially when you compare baseball to other sports (you have to be pretty bad to not make the playoffs in hockey and basketball). But I it’s obvious the Cubs are better this year than last, when they won 85 games and the Central Division Championship.
The fifth spot in the rotation worries me a little bit. Right now there’s competition for the fourth and fifth starters between Ryan Dempster, Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis, Sean Gallagher, and Sean Marshall. Like I said before, when you have a lot of competition for a spot, it usually means there’s not a solid choice. A team will usually spin it to say there are several strong candidates, but that’s typically not the case. I certainly don’t mean to imply that a couple of good players competing for a spot is bad; competition usually makes the winner more productive and depth is often just as important as who’s starting. However, when you start getting three or four players competing for a spot then usually there’s not a solid starter between them. Most teams are not going to have three starting-caliber players for a position. It doesn’t make sense; it’s a waste of money, and at least one of those is not going to get much playing time and will probably start to get disgruntled.
Pitchers are a little bit different than position players, because you need so many of them. But to have five guys trying to pitch into two starting spots makes me nervous about the quality we’re going to get from the winners. I’m sure out of the five at least one of them will have a solid year, so the fourth spot doesn’t concern me much. But the Cubs already had Dempster, Marquis, Gallagher, and Marshall, and still found it necessary to sign Jon Lieber, so I think even they have their doubts about what kind of contributions they can expect out of the five spot. Fortunately, most teams’ fifth starter is kind of a “mop up” guy, and overall the Cubs do have an above average, if not excellent, rotation.
My preseason prediction, and mind you that there hasn’t even been an exhibition game yet so don’t hold me to it, is Sean Marshall will be the fourth starter, Jon Lieber will be the fifth starter, Gallagher will go back to the minors in case Lieber gets hurt (he has been hurt a lot the last few years), and Dempster will end up back in the bullpen. Marquis’ days in the Cubs organization are probably numbered; though he might end up in the ‘pen he will probably be traded or released at some point. He is an inning hog, but there’s not really room for him and he’s no better than any of the other four, so there’s not really any reason to keep him and he could be a valuable addition to a team lacking a fifth starter right now. Also, Marshall is a pretty solid prospect and Gallagher does show promise, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both of them get traded by the end of the year.
Despite the competition “problem” that often manifests itself in a crowded field, there are three people (Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, and Bob Howry) competing for the closer’s spot, and I feel very good about this. First, all three of them are going to be valuable out of the bullpen, so it’s really more like a competition for the number one spot in the rotation then, let’s say, starting at second base. I also think all three will do a very good job. Lou Pinella is going to reward the position based upon spring training performances, but I think Kerry Wood should just be given the job. I have a lot of faith that Kerry Wood will be an exemplary closer. I also have a lot of faith that Bob Howry would be exemplary, but he is probably the best pitcher in the bullpen and I would hate to see him pigeon-holed into the closer’s role. Many people feel the best reliever should be the closer, but there are many times in a game which you need a big out just to get to the closer. If the game is close and bases are jammed with one out in the seventh, I’d much rather have Howry coming in than sitting there waiting for a lead in the ninth. I think Carlos Marmol is an extremely talented pitcher who can compete with Howry for “best in the pen,” but he’s still very young and closing is the most mentally and emotionally challenging position in baseball. If you have a one bad inning, you probably just single-handedly lost a game your team should have won. And you might be expected to come out tomorrow with the game on the line again. Closing can kill a kid’s confidence, and sometimes his whole career, and veterans should fill that role with very few exceptions.
Honestly, though, I really think Dempster should just close, as he’s done for three years now. People claim he’s too inconsistent to close. If you examine his performance, that’s simply not the case. Dempster had 28 saves in 31 opportunities last year. 28-3 in close situations is not inconsistent. Any team would love to have a closer who’s 28-3, and most don’t. Over the last three years, he has 85 saves in 99 opportunities. Compare that to the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, widely considered the best closer in the game right now, who has 107 saves in 118 opportunities (the Yankees have 56 more wins than the Cubs during that time, by the way). That’s not a bad comparison at all. Dempster got the “inconsistent” label because he struggled when he pitched in non-save situations. The solution to that is easy; only pitch him in save situations. Not getting enough work? Have him throw BP. Put him in during a blow-out. I don’t really care how he gets his work in, but anybody who was 28-3 in close situations should be the closer the next year. But I guess Dempster wants to start, and Pinella is rewarding his efforts with the opportunity. He has worked very hard to for it, and I do hope he’s successful.
Overall, I feel very good about the pitching this year, and there are very few weak spots in the field, too. Starting second baseman, Mark DeRosa, has had arrhythmia and might need an operation. This is bad news, but the Cubs are pretty deep in the infield (I have no problems at all about starting Mike Fontenot), so as long as he’s not lost for very long (which he shouldn’t be) they’ll be okay. The Cubbies have been entertaining trading for Brian Roberts all winter, and this may convince them to finally give up what the Orioles want for him. He would be a great addition to the team and really push the Cubs over the edge, but he might only be around for a year or two and would probably cost Matt Murton and a couple other young guys to get him. Murton doesn’t have a spot in the outfield right now, which makes me sad. I love this guy, and hope he gets a chance to be the everyday right fielder at some point in the future. Soriano in left, Fukudome in center, and Murton in right is an outfield that I would love to see for years to come. Murton does have to work on his defense and show a little more consistency at the plate, but man, do I like him.
Center field is probably going to be weak offensively. I just don’t think that Pie is going to turn into the player the Cubs have been touting him as for the last couple of years (Corey Patterson comes to mind). But he is a great defensive player, so I’m happy to give him a shot. The Cubbies should have a good enough offense to make up for him even if he drastically underperforms at the plate, and it’s important to have a strong defensive center fielder.
Da Bears I’m not so optimistic about. They did not franchise Bernard Berrian, and I am very worried he won’t be back. This could be fatal for them next year. The Bears did sign Rex Grossman to a one-year deal to give him another shot (which I love, and will explain why in just a second), and I think that’s going to go a long way in convincing Berrian to stay. But if he ends up leaving via free agency there’s not a lot of people for Sexy Rexy to throw to. (Or Kyle Orton. What’s a good name for Orton? Old Style Kyle? He does look like a drunk. If the Bears hadn’t released Muhsin Muhammad I’d go with “Orton Sees a ‘Moose’”, but most people probably wouldn’t get it anyway.) They did resign Dez Clark, and between him and Greg Olsen have one of the better, if not one of the best, tight end groups in football. Devin Hester is going to be a great wide receiver someday. Someday. I think he’ll always have problems dropping the ball, and you just don’t go from defense to great receiver in one year, especially if that one year is in the NFL. Mark Bradley is a good receiver, but he’s hurt a lot and any team which lines even a healthy Bradley as their number one option is in a world of trouble. Rashied Davis has made a few huge catches for the Bears, but he seems like a specialty receiver who’s really only effective in three or four receiver sets. I think Bernard Berrian over-estimates his skill level, but he’s the best the Bears got, and by a lot. Plus, he seems like a team guy. Nobody ever complains about him, and he doesn’t have that WR affliction of running the mouth that seems so prevalent in the NFL today.
I appreciate that the Bears organization does not want to overpay for anybody. I really do. It makes good football sense and as a fan I’m happy they won’t be handicapped for years by a stupid signing in the heat of passion. But the Bears need to just pay the guy what he wants, or at least let him test the market and start matching offers. It’s going to be very, very difficult for them to get all the new people they need to be successful, and I’m one of the few individuals who’d actually be happy with Grossman, Orton, and Griese back next year. On the Bears list of “needs” is a starting running back, at least one starting offensive tackle and one starting guard (and they could do with three new starting O-linemen), a solid backup safety capable of starting, (since Mike Brown’s always hurt) and a solid linebacker (Lance Briggs is as good as gone; they do have a couple of guys in place who can start, but you need a good contingency plan when you lose a guy like Briggs). The draft is loaded with good offensive tackles; they should do well there. But most teams could use a good starting running back or offensive linemen, so it’s not like we get our pick of the litter here. It’s going to be tough to fill all these positions with quality people, let alone to do it and find a number one receiver.
I can just see it now; they lose Berrian, Benson takes 75% of the snaps, they aren’t able to adequately fix the offensive line, and then when the offensive sucks more than Monica everybody says they made a huge mistake staying with Grossman. You almost have to wonder why he would want to be back. People, Grossman is not the problem. The QB play in general is not the problem. But since everybody seems to have an anti-Rex bias, let’s try a little “hypothetical” thinking exercise, shall we?
Let’s say you’re the general manager of a football team, and you have to rebuild your offense. Now let’s say last year the passing game was ranked, oh I don’t know, fifteenth in a league of thirty-two teams. And let’s say your running game was ranked 30th, just for shits and grins. And let’s say you have the oldest offensive line and NFL.com ranked them second to last in the conference and 29th overall. Now, would you be in panic mode trying to get a new quarterback? Would you think the reason why your offense is sub-par is a crappy passer? There is no reason why almost any team should have a passing game ranked in the middle of the pack when they have no offensive line and no running game. None.
Let me put it this way; teams with good running backs, good offensive lines, and bad quarterbacks don’t get their passing game ranked fifteenth in the league. Teams with bad quarterbacks, bad offensive lines, and bad running backs get ranked at the very bottom in passing. The very bottom. We’re talking as low as, well, as low as the Bears offensive line and running game was ranked last year. Teams with bad quarterback situations just don’t end up doing as well as the Bears did last year under the conditions which they had to work with.
Of course, that’s not going to stop people from complaining about the quarterback play because, let’s face it, people want to believe two things about the NFL: First, the quarterback is a magical player who will transform any group of twenty-one other guys into a world champion just by showing up and giving a good motivational speech during half time ever now and then (the premise for every football movie ever made, save “Rudy”). Secondly, the Bears will never, ever, ever have a quarterback who is good enough to play on a professional football team.
I’ll tell you this much though. If the Bears let Berrian go, don’t find another number-one running back, and don’t dramatically improve the line in the offseason, Jesus Himself couldn’t quarterback this team to the playoffs unless somehow Jerry Angelo can convince Durga to play wideout.