If you want proof of how much damage an incompetent GM can cause, just look at the 2011 Hawks compared to the 2010 version. Last year fans were dancing to Chelsea Dagger and buying playoff tickets in bulk. After winning the Stanley Cup, the Hawks were forced to dismantle at an epic pace. They were so far over the salary cap at season’s end that they were forced to hit the eject button on a variety of popular, and talented, players. Matt Chisamore wrote an excellent article, slightly after the season’s end, detailing exactly how Dale Tallon screwed the pooch and the franchise as well.
Now the Hawks are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. The wonderfully cheerful song detailing the joys of dating a transvestite has lost some of its whimsical luster. Fans are still going to games but are admittedly baffled by what they see on the ice. It’s hard enough to explain all of the permutations of the NHL salary cap to a qualified CPA, let alone the average fan. Add in the fact that a team known for its internal fortitude keeps giving away leads like they’re afraid of insulting their opponents and you can understand the frustration.
“Oh, so sorry, we went up by 3 in the first period. Here, have an open net or two to make yourself feel better.”
At this point, Coach Quenneville probably keeps a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of Valium in his desk.
ADAM L. JAHNS at the Sun Times takes a look at what needs to happen for the Hawks to even sniff the post season.
And it ain’t pretty.
Has it reached the point where the Blackhawks start cheering for certain teams to win or lose?
“Unfortunately, yes,” coach Joel Quenneville said Monday after practice at Johnny’s IceHouse West.
The Hawks will tell you they still control their destiny, but they need some good luck, too. They need other teams to lose, lose and lose.
“It’s a situation where we want to avoid three-point games,” Quenneville said. “It’s been an amazing couple of weeks.
‘‘In the last 10 games, five teams that are in the same pack we’re in [have gone on winning streaks]. We’ve got to put ourselves in position to do something like that.”
The encouraging news is the Hawks stayed within striking distance of those teams — the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks — despite going 2-2-2 on their six-game trip.
Seven points separate the third seed in the Western Conference from the 11th, where the Hawks sit.
It’s believed that it might take between 95 and 97 points to make the postseason as the eighth seed in the West.
With 26 games left and 62 points, the Hawks have a lot of ground to make up.
With that being said, here are four teams the Hawks have a realistic chance of catching if they do put together a decent run:
Last 10: 7-1-2.
Games vs. Hawks: One. March 2 at the United Center.
Back check: A 13-3-4 run and general manager Darryl Sutter’s sudden resignation have reversed the Flames’ fortunes and changed the team’s mentality. But they have played three more games than the Hawks. The Flames are solid at the Saddledome but spend most of March on the road. They also have nine games against the Pacific Division, which has five teams vying for playoff spots, and two against the conference-leading Vancouver Canucks. The Flames received good news when Alex Tanguay was ruled out with a neck strain, not a concussion.
Last 10: 8-2.
Games vs. Hawks: Two. Wednesday at the United Center and Feb. 28 in Minnesota.
Back check: Since the New Year, the Wild has been on a tear, winning 13 games. If it keeps winning, the Wild controls its destiny with games in hand and more points than others such as the Hawks. It’s not the deepest team, but it plays well with a lead. Kyle Brodziak and Martin Havlat have been on rolls offensively, while Niklas Backstrom has been solid in goal. Can Minnesota hold on? Seven of the Wild’s next eight games are against teams vying for playoff positions, including two each against the Hawks and Anaheim Ducks.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Last 10: 7-1-2.
Games vs. Hawks: None. Hawks swept season series 4-0.
Back check: Similar to the Hawks, they’ve been inconsistent all season. After an earlier 2-10 stretch, the Kings — despite having top young stars in Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty — looked finished. But they’ve turned their season around in impressive fashion. The Kings are 4-0-2 in their first six games of a 10-game, four-week-long road trip. The Kings have done it with defense and goaltending. They always have been considered a top-six winger away from being serious contenders. Will they try to land that player by the Feb. 28 trade deadline?
Last 10: 3-6-1.
Games vs. Hawks: One. March 17 in Dallas.
Back check: They might be in serious trouble. Yes, the Stars rallied from a three-goal hole to defeat the Hawks in their last meeting. But that was only one bright spot in a declining situation. Leading scorer Brad Richards will not travel with the Stars on their three-game road trip, which includes games against the Flames and Canucks, because “he does not feel 100 percent,” coach Marc Crawford said. He suffered the injury on a hit in a loss Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Stars were reeling before that, enduring other injuries and losing what was once a considerable grip on the tough Pacific Division.
Looking up at the rest of the pack is not a good view.
Simply put, while I hope for the best, I’m not exactly sanguine about their chances. Sitting perilously in 11th place with only 26 games left to play is not going to make the challenge any easier. Not when other teams are going to be laying it all on the line to secure their spots.
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First off, some pure, unadulterated, JTJ love to Laura Lanham. She graciously allowed us to use her photo here today. Sure, it has nothing to do with sports, but do I look like I care? It’s Valentines Day and she’s tastefully naked. What more need I say?
In honor of the drooling love-fest that takes over rational people today, I thought I’d continue my theme from Saturday and show some love to our two baseball teams. God know they aren’t getting any anywhere else.
GORDON WITTENMYER at he Sun Times takes a peek at new Cubs skipper, Mike Quade.
Even on the first official day of the Mike Quade Era with the Cubs, the differences were apparent.
Every player’s name the new manager mentioned Sunday was pronounced correctly, every comment was delivered without so much as a 10-second pause and not one sentence during an entire media session was begun with the word ‘‘look’’ or ‘‘invariably.’’
The more significant differences between the minor-league managing veteran and his famous predecessor, Lou Piniella, should reveal themselves more clearly during the next six weeks of spring training and certainly the six months to follow.
Until then, Quade seems determined to be nothing different than he’s always been, clinging to a grounded identity and approach even as he acknowledges how much higher-profile that identity has become since his successful 24-13 trial run last season that landed him his new gig.
‘‘When I went home to Florida and the wonderful little neighborhood I live in [after last season], the lady next door brought me some chicken soup,’’ he said. ‘‘And a dozen baseballs to be signed.’’
As unappetizing as the newfound notoriety is to Quade, that’s nothing compared to what comes next.
Next up is the scrutiny of the fishbowl media market — the inevitable comparisons, second-guessing and demands for results that are so high-pitched and unforgiving on the North Side.
‘‘I understand the magnitude, believe me,’’ Quade said, ‘‘but it doesn’t do Mike Quade any good to get wrapped up in the magnitude. I’m more of a grinding, day-in, day-out guy. If we’re going to be successful here with me in charge, I have to stay in charge of myself and do what I need to do.’’
Maybe that’s part of what clubhouse veterans liked about him during that trial run at the end of last season that led to the chorus of unsolicited ‘‘We want Quade!’’ refrains.
‘‘Obviously, he’s changed a little bit because he’s the man in charge now,’’ pitcher Ryan Dempster said. ‘‘But his personality didn’t change. His relationship with us as players didn’t change.
‘‘And what you see is what you get, and what he says is what you get.’’
What will the Cubs get in the manager’s seat this season?
If his 37-game audition, which included a leadoff-man rotation involving Jeff Baker, didn’t offer a glimpse, his talk Sunday of stressing small-ball fundamentals this spring — and how that plays into an all-important strong start — offered another.
‘‘Whether you’re talking about bunt defenses, whether you’re talking about cutoffs and relays, going first to third — all those things that are not in the forefront of guys’ minds — they’re the tough jobs,’’ he said.
“And you can pretty much book it: The first week in April, it’s going to be 3-2, 2-1 [scores], unless this weather that hit Chicago is going away. You know how tough it is early, you know how low-scoring. Well, it’s great to say we’re working on fundamentals, we’ll be ready in June or July, [but] that’s probably too late.’’
The situation is fluid as far as what that means for the day-to-day spring schedule, how it shapes the team that will break camp for the April 1 opener at Wrigley Field and how the potentially more important issues of player relations and people-managing skills come into play.
‘‘From a scheduling standpoint, [spring training] will be very similar. But I think that anybody that thinks Mike Quade can go about managing a ballclub like Dusty [Baker] or Lou is missing the whole point,’’ Quade said. “From a personality standpoint, from a respect standpoint, all the things that I think I need to do, those guys had built in with all the success they had. So my [increased level of] involvement will probably be the one thing that I think will be different.’’
The rest of it — the biggest part of the whole thing — is up to the players who lobbied for him.
“He did a really good job of communicating with us, and we all enjoyed playing for him,’’ Dempster said. ‘‘We were all big advocators of him and pushing for him, and that’s our job now as players — to go out there and show him . . . and play hard for him every day.’’
Oh joy. He’s already talking about himself in the third person. How much longer until he wears a feathered hat and sticks his right hand in his shirt? According to Wise Technology, that’s the number 1 sign that you’re about to plunge into the mental abyss.
BigBadBill typed that sentence and BigBadBill approves its message.
On the plus side, it should be a nice change of pace for Cubs fans to have a manager who takes the team seriously.
On the South Side, DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN takes a look at the love the Sox are feeling for their pitching staff.
It always comes down to pitching.
So for all the talk about the White Sox’ beefed-up lineup with Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn plugged into its middle and jacked-up optimism about the team’s chances of overtaking the Minnesota Twins in 2011 because of it, Dunn can’t deliver a postseason payoff if the Sox don’t pitch well.
Manager Ozzie Guillen knows this. One of his first statements after he arrived in Chicago last month to meet with reporters underscored it.
“Our pitching staff has a very big responsibility,” Guillen said. “Our pitching staff has a lot of work to do. Our offense should be fine, but we have to pitch well and better than what we did last year.”
Pitching is a dicey commodity, even for the most stable of pitching staffs, and the Sox’ staff, though good on paper, has its share of issues to resolve. The wild card is right-hander Jake Peavy, who has made only 20 starts since general manager Ken Williams traded for him in September 2009. Peavy will have to overcome an unusual operation below his right shoulder to live up to his staff-ace reputation and $16 million salary.
With Peavy, the Sox have one of baseball’s deepest rotations with John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd. Without him, and there’s a good chance Peavy won’t be seen in a regular-season game until May at the earliest despite his gung-ho eagerness to contribute, Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper will be auditioning candidates for the fifth starter’s spot.
Cooper mentions right-handers Lucas Harrell, Phil Humber, Jeff Gray and perhaps Tony Pena in the pool of prospects to watch during spring training.
And what about left-hander Chris Sale? Based on last year’s late-season showing in relief and his college background as a starter, could he step in and shine?
Pencil him into the closer’s role.
The Sox will keep their bullpen options open, as well they should with their depth and flexibility — Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Sergio Santos and Sale all have the stuff to get the last three outs — but it says here that Sale is the guy they envision in the closer’s role.
The stuff Sale displayed in getting four saves in four closing auditions late last season was eye-popping.
Peavy’s most telling statement during his media teleconference last week was what he offered about Sale: While Peavy was with the Twins’ Joe Mauer during the offseason, Mauer went on and on about Sale’s dazzling stuff. Mauer is one of the game’s best pure hitters.
“Chris Sale is going to be a starter,” Cooper told a radio audience Thursday. “I am just not sure it’s going to be right now. When Kenny makes the decision to start Sale, it’s going to be to stay there.
“People say, ‘Let Sale start.’ Well, what if Peavy is ready in three weeks? Now we move Sale [from the rotation to the bullpen]? It’s a little much for anybody, let alone a rookie, to jump from role to role.
“When the decision is made for Chris Sale to start, I welcome that challenge to get him over the hump as a starter. But he has already shown that he has a chance to be a real quality reliever.’’
In the meantime, Cooper will have to get a fifth starter ready, unless Peavy makes a near-miraculous return to starting fitness at breakneck speed. All the Sox need is five innings from the fifth guy, then rely on what should be a deep and flexible bullpen to finish the job.
“Big Donkey?” Sounds like the grand marshal at a Pride Parade.
Since we are talking about, at most, 5 Peavy-less games, I don’t feel the sense of panic others do. The Sox have some very good young arms who could easily eat innings and give the team a chance to win.
So, while I can’t guarantee that it’ll be a fun season for Chicago’s baseball fans, I feel pretty safe saying it’ll be an interesting one.
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Some days it’s fun to wade through the voluminous membership requests. Today I found out that Dick Cheney wanted to be a member. However I was a little put off when I discovered that the former, and esteemed, Vice President lived in Iraq and was directly associated with a porn site that’s notorious for attaching malaware to its products. So he was denied. We have some very high standards here. But, to be fair, I’ve also denied President Obama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa (posthumously), George W. Bush, Nancy Reagan and Sarah Palin. Once all on the same day.
We do our best to keep out the riff raff.
We also do our best to try and look at things realistically. Except for President Obama I’m pretty sure not one of those people is interested in Chicago sports. And, as to the president, I’d imagine he’s got more important stuff to do other than blogging about his beloved White Sox. That’s just a guess on my part, but I feel pretty sure about it.
Another thing I feel sure about is that Chicago’s baseball fans will look at each year as THE YEAR until proven wrong.
This year’s no exception.
The Sun Times today has two uncredited articles that look at each team in a positive light. Let’s start with the Cubs.
Two months ago, the upcoming baseball season looked like little more than a six-month bridge to a bigger and better 2012 for the Cubs.
But some funny things happened on the way to irrelevance. Despite a second straight winter with little payroll flexibility, general manager Jim Hendry managed to backload a one-year contract for a former home run champ, got a steep, unsolicited hometown discount from a dominant New York Yankees reliever and, after a month of negotiating, pulled off an eight-player trade for a front-line starting pitcher.
Whether the power of Carlos Pena, the return of Kerry Wood and the 15-win fire of Matt Garza can lift the Cubs from fifth place into contention in one year is debatable.
But as pitchers and catchers report for spring training today, the buzz is back on the North Side — even if Lou Piniella, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Derrek Lee and Larry Rothschild are not.
‘‘We knew we needed three or four real key pieces,’’ Hendry said. ‘‘We didn’t know if we were going to do it. Budget-wise, we really had to squeeze everybody in . . . but I think if we’d have [been assured] those three names at Halloween, we’d have jumped up and down.’’
Even with the surprisingly productive offseason, the questions outweigh the answers as the Cubs open a new era this week under new manager Mike Quade and new pitching coach Mark Riggins.
While Pena led the American League in home runs as recently as 2009, he also has declined steadily in batting the last three seasons, plummeting to .196 last year.
Wood should receive a hero’s welcome at Wrigley Field this season, but if he can’t shake the nagging injuries that as recently as last season put him on the disabled list twice, then it won’t matter how big of a discount he gave the Cubs.
Even Garza, who threw a no-hitter during the Tampa Bay Rays’ AL East championship run last season, raised eyebrows with his 1-3, 6.75 ERA finish in his last five starts of 2010.
But the biggest questions involve the guys who are back, including:
† Quade as a first-time big-league manager for a full season.
† Riggins, who replaces the successful, respected Rothschild after Rothschild went to the Yankees in November.
† Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who had the worst first half of his career last season and is being counted on for a big comeback in his contract season.
† Center fielder Marlon Byrd, who had an All-Star first half before struggling late.
† The three-headed 2010 rookie monster of Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner, all of whom are expected to fill key roles and continue improving.
† Randy Wells, the impressive 2009 rookie who took a step backward in 2010 and isn’t guaranteed a job out of camp.
† Carlos Silva, the Seattle Mariners salary dump who looked like an All-Star for three months before a miserable second half that included poor pitching, a scare with heart arrhythmia and a sore arm.
† The Cubs’ annual big mystery, Carlos Zambrano. Which Z will they get? The question grew dramatically in the last eight months after his dugout tirade at U.S. Cellular Field, a suspension and anger-management counseling, followed by an 8-0 finish.
And this isn’t even counting the questions about the rest of the National League Central. How good are the Milwaukee Brewers after adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum? How real was all that young talent the Cincinnati Reds rode to the playoffs last year? And how much can Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and the rest of the Cardinals do in what might be the final year in St. Louis for Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa?
For now, the Cubs will take the buzz, the fresh start, the Arizona sun and the optimism they claim after their 24-13 finish under Quade.
And if it doesn’t lead to the answers they’re looking for this summer, there’s always the Pujols PowerBall ticket next winter.
The naysayers will point out that they brought in a power hitter who can’t hit and a former closer who’s streakier than your windshield after it gets “washed” by a homeless person.
We will ignore them today.
Today’s all about the possibilities of success.
The second uncredited article takes a look at the Sox, so let’s join in and see what it has to say.
The White Sox say they’re all in for 2011, and they’re not bluffing. With power, speed, pitching and defense, there’s no doubt they’re a World Series contender going into spring training, which opens when pitchers and catchers report to Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday. A big-time slugger (Adam Dunn) was added, key veterans (Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski) were brought back and a couple of free-agent bullpen replacements (Jesse Crain, Will Ohman) were plugged in.
The mood of organizational types, players and fans at SoxFest was borderline giddy. There are question marks, of course, most notably Jake Peavy’s health, who will pitch the ninth inning, who will play third base and how will they solve the Minnesota Twins, but, all in all, the Sox go to work this week with a spring in their step.
“We’re pretty solid everywhere you look with everything you need,” Konerko said.
“So it’s all there. It’s up to the players to execute and stay healthy and come together as a team, which is an ongoing thing from spring training.”
With him, the Sox have one of baseball’s best rotations with John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd. Without him, the margin for error or injury dwindles. His comeback from surgery below his throwing shoulder is the biggest question mark on the Sox’ spring-training plate. He says he’s at 60-70 percent going into camp. The Sox would be thrilled to have him near 100 percent by May. Don’t expect him back before then. Drama, club
The players are worn out by the Ken Williams-Ozzie Guillen spats and the Oney Guillen tweets. They’ve called for an end to distractions. With Guillen’s option for 2012 picked up in January, questions about his future won’t be an annoyance, potentially setting the tone for a more tranquil 2011. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski coming back are pluses for clubhouse stability, too. “It’s gotta be about baseball this year and strictly about baseball,” Matt Thornton said. But will it? Don’t touch that remote.
Out of the gate
The Sox went on a tear after their 23-32 start in 2010 and climbed into first with a torrid streak, but the poor start came back to bite them. The starters’ ERA in their first 57 games was 5.28. And Juan Pierre (.193), Gordon Beckham (.235), A.J. Pierzynski (.169), Carlos Quentin (.187) and Alexei Ramirez (.221) had bad Aprils. Ozzie Guillen will change course by playing his regulars a lot more in the final week of spring training.
A tall order
It’s not etched in stone, but Ozzie Guillen threw this order out there at SoxFest:
1. Juan Pierre
2. Gordon Beckham
3. Adam Dunn
4. Paul Konerko
5. Alex Rios
6. Carlos Quentin
7. A.J. Pierzynski
8. Alexei Ramirez
9. Third baseman*
Brent Morel, Mark Teahen, Omar Vizquel with Morel the early favorite.
With four cleanup-quality hitters 3 through 6 and a Silver Slugger (Ramirez) eighth, that’s a lot of thunder. Pierre at the top was the majors’ top base-stealer with 68 in 2010.
Reliever Bobby Jenks and his 173 saves over the last six seasons are gone, leaving an opening for Chris Sale (below), Matt Thornton, Sergio Santos, Jesse Crain or a combination of them all, although Ozzie Guillen prefers defined roles to committees. Sale, whose lights-out stuff produced four saves (in four opportunities) and 32 strikeouts in 231/3 innings late last season, trained to start in the offseason, but only because the Sox didn’t want to alter his normal routine. He could close and leave Guillen with the luxury of two more left-handers, All-Star Thornton and Will Ohman, in the bullpen.
Which Carlos Quentin will the Sox get in 2011? The All-Star of 2008 who batted .288 with 36 homers and 100 RBI? The injury-plagued Quentin who batted .236 in 99 games in 2009? Last season’s .243, 26-HR, 87-RBI Quentin seems more likely, but a duplication of .2008, coupled with the addition of Adam Dunn, supersizes the Sox’ lineup. Quentin is the wild card in what could be a potent lineup.
The naysayers here will point out that the middle of the Sox lineup is slower than a herd of turtles racing through peanut butter. Others will point to the fact that the the pen is so insecure at the moment that it makes Lindsay Lohan look stable.
We will ignore them as well.
They have no place in our happy thoughts.
As the season nears I’m sure we’ll have plenty of fodder for the Negative Nancies among you. But, for now, I’m donning my rose colored Gargoyles, sipping my espresso, kicking back and enjoying the view.
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What was tradition in our youth often becomes folly in our adulthood. The reason is simple; we live, we grow, we learn and we move on. We set aside the toys of childhood and embrace the requirements of maturity. That doesn’t mean we forsake fun. Far from it. It’s just that we have grown up substitutes for our Hot Wheels and Barbies. Specifically, Porsches and trophy wives.
And that is as it should be. Change is not some devouring beast but a natural part of our evolution. From the time our ancestors first flopped out of the water and gulped clean air, nature has ensured that those who change prosper and those who don’t, don’t.
And while we may cling, perilously, to the trappings of false security, we all know that we need to progress without that dead weight tied to our ankles.
Such change appears to be coming to Chicago. Whether Chicago wants it or not. As JOE COWLEY at the Sun Times reports, Chicago is becoming a Sox town.
It was a nice little run for the North Side.
There was drama, Sammy Sosa’s hop and then flop, a sold-out ballpark/museum on a daily basis, a fall guy named Bartman and even a few wins and division titles thrown in along the way.
But it’s over.
It’s a Cubs town no more.
Beginning next week and playing out all summer long, the only relevant baseball team in New Gotham is at 35th and Shields. Yes, for the first time in decades, this town belongs to the White Sox.
Stop right here — I already know what you’re thinking. I’m insane. And not just a little bit, but Heath Ledger’s Joker insane.
Your first argument will be the attendance at Wrigley compared to The Cell. So let’s start there.
Showing up to games year after year, no matter what the product on the field gives you back, is a learned behavior — sort of like rats in a maze searching for cheese. The rat learns the maze, learns where the cheese is placed and eventually goes to it without thought, even when the cheese is taken away. The rat doesn’t know anything else.
But the cheese trick is now going on 103 years old, and that maze crumbles whenever a high wind hits the North Side.
Even rats can only be kicked around for so long before they’ve had enough.
Cubbie fans have had enough.
That was evident with all the empty seats at Wrigley Field the final two months of the 2010 season. And these were not fans refusing to buy tickets, but fans who paid for the tickets and simply couldn’t stomach going.
It was evident with the booing at the Cubs Convention when general manager Jim Hendry and team president Crane Kenney were introduced.
Cubbie living legend Ryne Sandberg has turned his back on an organization that turned its back on him, and manager Mike Quade went from appearing on the side of a milk carton to interim manager to now full-time skipper almost overnight. Don Baylor, Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella and now Quade. This is about where you cue up the “One of these things is not like the other . . . ’’ music.
Now take the nine-mile ride south on the Red Line.
The Sox slowly have been gaining national attention after their 2005 World Series run, thanks in large part to a say-anything manager in Ozzie Guillen and a no-nonsense GM in Ken Williams.
When Major League Baseball wanted to do another “Real World’’ version of a team last year, the Sox were choice No. 1 to be ‘‘The Club.’’ Why? Because nationally the Sox are the most interesting soap opera going in sports.
Then, when it seemed like the roller-coaster ride was ending in the aftermath of the Guillen-Williams feud, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf not only gave the nod to pick up the club option and make sure Guillen was locked up through 2012, but he went on a winter spending spree never seen before on the South Side.
The Sox aren’t only dangerous off the field, but on it.
The chance that Chicago finally sees a Red Line World Series has reached almost mythical proportions, somewhere between seeing a Sasquatch and riding a unicorn. But what if the baseball gods smile down on both sides of town and say, “2011 is the year’’? A lot would have to go right for both teams.
Hendry was actually sneaky good this offseason, renting Carlos Pena for a year in hopes that the first baseman would rebound from hitting well below his weight (.196 last year) and then acquiring pitcher Matt Garza to give him a top of the rotation that features Garza, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster.
In the past, Hendry would use the checkbook as a Band-Aid, and the result was painting himself into a corner with bad contracts. Forced to use creativity to change the roster, Jimbo actually delivered this winter.
That doesn’t mean he’s still not dead man walking as Cubs GM, but he at least gave himself a temporary pardon.
The problem with the Cubs is too many what-ifs: If Kosuke Fukudome can put a full season together. If Starlin Castro can avoid a sophomore slump. If Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano can play as if they’re interested. If Zambrano can start hugging Gatorade coolers rather than slaying them.
It doesn’t help the Cubs that the National League Central isn’t the punch line it was a few seasons ago, with Cincinnati young and good, St. Louis looking to rebound and Milwaukee adding ace Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to its starting rotation.
It’s hard to get excited about a team that showed such little life in 2010. In the past, the Cubs were a story even when they were bad. Now, they are bordering on irrelevant, even in the city they once owned.
After years of dominance by the American League, the tide continued to turn this offseason. According to Vegas, Boston is the early favorite to represent the AL in the World Series, but after that, throw a dart at a board.
That’s where the Sox come in.
After crying broke and talking youth movement at the GM meetings in November, Williams surprised everyone by re-signing Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, as well as adding free agents Adam Dunn, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman to make the Sox a legitimate threat to winning the division for a third time in the last seven years.
Dunn gives the Sox as powerful a middle of the order as there is in the Central, while the starting staff — when healthy — has no holes one through five. It’s the “when healthy’’ that’s the key, however.
Jake Peavy’s return from season-ending surgery to repair a torn right lat muscle is the only story line that matters heading into camp. A healthy Peavy means a dominant staff — and a nasty bullpen.
The contingency plan to hold down Peavy’s spot until he’s ready is lefty rookie Chris Sale. Sale, however, could become one of the more dominant closers in the AL if given that spot. That’s why all eyes will be on Peavy and what the exact timetable for a return will be.
Even better news for the Sox: Despite added revenue from the new Target Field opening last year, Minnesota seemed to sleepwalk through the winter, hoping the “Twins Way’’ again will be enough to win a division.
It might be, but with a depleted bullpen, a new-look infield and questions lurking about the concussion suffered by slugger Justin Morneau, it’s hard to make Minnesota the favorite. If anything, Detroit might be a bigger threat than Minnesota.
Best bet is there will be playoff baseball in Chicago in October, but only for one team — the Sox. It’s now their town, so it might as well be their time.
As has been noted here, the Cubs and Sox now take radically different approaches on how they speak to their fans. The Cubs focus on history and attractions for the families while the Sox focus on the product on the field.
Memo to Mr. Ricketts: 102 years of failure is not a good thing.
Nevertheless, the statues are a nice touch. They might even be nicer if you honored someone who’d actually played on a winning team.
But that’s just my two cents.
I live on the north side. When I moved here I was surrounded by people clad in Cubbie blue. Over the last few years I’ve noticed more and more people wearing the iconic black. When I wear one of my Sox jerseys or T-shirts people will talk to me as though I’ve been their friend for life. And, maybe, in a way I have.
Before I send you into the forums, I’d like to take a moment to pass along my condolences to the family of Marie Wuczynski. She was the owner of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge and host to so many people it’s mind boggling to consider. She was ever friendly, ever polite and always ready with a story or two if you had the time. I always had the time. She will be missed.
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Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!
We all remember that bit of literary whimsy from Jack and the Beanstalk. In all the great stories involving giants, from David to Jack and beyond, the little guy wins out.
In the real world, not so much so.
People talk about how they want to embrace the cute and the cuddly, yet they gravitate to those with the largest gravitas.
Last year saw a team, finally rid of it’s steroid queen and clubhouse drama, put together a stunning run (and develop dubious facial hair) to make the post-season and win it all.
Now ANTHONY CASTROVINCE from MLB.com wants to know why the teams from the 3 biggest markets can’t be giants too?
Situated in the three largest markets in the U.S., the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers ought to be armed with the kind of resources most clubs can only envy.
They are sleeping giants, in this sense, but they’d prefer to be more like the actual Giants, who hoisted the World Series trophy last fall.
All three clubs fell well short of that level in 2010, and they all will enter Spring Training camp next week in a state of repair. Encumbered by the weight of bad contracts, the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers have serious question marks hounding them at the start of the new season. But should their 2011 hopes fall flat, they also all have major salary relief in store at season’s end.
For the two clubs on each coast, there are ownership issues at play. There is the divorce trial between Frank and Jamie McCourt, who are disputing ownership of the Dodgers, and the Mets, headed by Fred Wilpon, are trying to sell a stake in the team to offset a lawsuit stemming from the Bernard Madoff scam, and no one knows what either will mean for the long-term direction of those franchises.
But we do know that these three clubs share a common bond in that they can all become forces in the National League if they find a way to get more bang for their bucks.
Cubs have hope and holes
The Cubs believe the seeds of that potential return were planted last summer. They played better baseball after Mike Quade stepped in as the interim skipper when Lou Piniella left, and the players lobbied for Quade to become the full-time leader in the dugout.
Furthermore, early playoff elimination allowed general manager Jim Hendry to ship off Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee and Ryan Theriot to save a few bucks and start planning for the future.
Hendry parlayed some of that money saved into some measured choices when he brought in reinforcements this winter. Matt Garza came aboard in a trade with the Rays and is under contractual control for the next three seasons, Carlos Pena was added in a one-year, $10 million deal that could be a steal if his comeback bid is successful, and Kerry Wood took an adopted-hometown discount to return to the North Side and set up closer Carlos Marmol.
Garza is the biggest key to the long-term outlook of the franchise, especially considering the sheer number of prospects—five—the Cubs sent to Tampa Bay to land him.
“It isn’t often that you can acquire a 27-year-old top of the rotation type of guy who has three years left before he’s a free agent in any kind of a trade,” Hendry said.
But Hendry’s work, it seems, is only beginning. A look at the Cubs’ roster reveals quite a few financial leaps of faith gone bad, but it also reveals the potential for financial relief and flexibility at season’s end.
The Cubs are stuck with Alfonso Soriano, whose career has been in decline almost from the moment he signed with the Cubs before the ‘07 season. As Soriano’s defense and plate discipline continue to erode, the Cubs still owe him another $72 million over the next four years. He’s not going anywhere.
But this is the final year the Cubs are glued to Aramis Ramirez, who is coming off a dreadful 2010. The Cubs owe him $16.6 million (counting the $2 million buyout of his 2012 club option) this year.
Counting his $2 million buyout at year’s end, disappointing starter Carlos Silva is owed $8 million this year (the Mariners are on the hook for $5.5 million of his $11.5 million contract), and inconsistent outfielder Kosuke Fukudome is making $13.5 million. They both can be free agents at year’s end. And if Pena’s a bust, he’ll be one-and-done at Wrigley.
For the Cubs to contend in 2011, they’ll need all of the above to live up to their contracts. But if the season is compromised by a stock of underperforming players and a vastly improved NL Central from the ones the Cubs claimed in 2007 and ‘08, some of the pain will be offset by the fact that the Cubs have significant salary relief on the horizon.
What could that mean in 2012? Well, consider the possibility of Albert Pujols in a Cubs uniform.
It’s not inconceivable, considering the rival Cardinals appear to have mere days to sign Pujols before he reports for Spring Training. If they don’t get a deal done, Pujols says he will test the free-agent waters, and the Cubs, it would appear, should have the kind of financial flexibility necessary to steal him away.
That would certainly be one way for this sleeping giant to wake up the neighborhood.
Mets a mystery
The Mets also have enormous salary relief coming their way, but there’s a catch or two to consider.
For one, closer Francisco Rodriguez, whose personal and injury issues in 2010 are well-documented, has a $17.5 million option for 2012 that vests if he finishes 55 games this year and is declared healthy by team doctors at season’s end. If the Mets can avoid letting that option vest, then they’ll have nearly $60 million in salary commitments (Rodriguez at $11.5 million, Carlos Beltran at $18.5 million, Oliver Perez at $12 million, Jose Reyes at $11 million and Luis Castillo at $6 million) cleared from the slate.
Of course, there’s a catch. It remains to be seen what the Wilpons’ current plight might mean for newly installed general manager Sandy Alderson’s attempts to rebuild and repair.
For now, Alderson says the ownership issue has no bearing on the baseball operations.
“I want to emphasize that the plan that we have pursued the last couple of months was limited by only one fact, and that was the level of the existing payroll,” Alderson said recently. “Our payroll going into the season will be somewhere between $140 million and $150 million. I think that is significantly higher than we’d like to be on an annual basis—a product of adding some additional players that we felt the roster needed as well as some existing [obligations].”
Another major issue the Mets must consider is the situation with Reyes, whose extreme talent has been countered by his lengthy injury history. The Mets want to see Reyes prove his ability to stay on the field before they make a contract offer to him. If Reyes does stay healthy and returns to form, then his worth increases exponentially. If the Mets lower their payroll next year, as Alderson suggested, then a Reyes extension might not jibe with their financial planning.
“We’ve never been this high [in terms of payroll] before,” Alderson said. “So given that fact, it probably wouldn’t be surprising that we might settle at a different number in the future. But that’s a function of a lot of different things—who we’re able to sign and not sign. But we’re always going to have a very high payroll, whether it’s $150 million next year or $130 million. That’s a function of a lot of different things.”
All this serves as a long-winded way of saying that the Mets are a mystery. Look at their current roster (and consider the increasing difficulty of their division), and you see an alarming number of question marks for new manager Terry Collins to deal with in 2011. Johan Santana (shoulder surgery) might be back in June but isn’t throwing yet. Jason Bay’s first season in Queens was cut short by a concussion, and his power was all but sapped beforehand. Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese front a shaky rotation that desperately needs prospect Jenrry Mejia to shine. The farm system, which did a nice job of churning out Niese, Ike Davis and Josh Thole, is now regarded as fairly barren, though infielder Wilmer Flores is a name to watch.
With all this considered, it will be difficult for the Mets to make much noise in the NL East this year. And it is just as difficult to predict what’s in store for this club in 2012 and beyond, because there are a lot of moving pieces at play.
Dodgers not defined
Ownership uncertainty is old hat for the Dodgers. The McCourt divorce and how it might shape the direction of the franchise has been a source of curiosity for Dodgers fans for more than a year.
What it has meant for general manager Ned Colletti is a more limited budget for retooling a club coming off a highly disappointing season.
Budgetary issues have hampered the Dodgers for some time. Case in point is the July 2008 trade to acquire veteran Casey Blake, who had about $2 million remaining on his contract with the Indians. Rather than taking on that salary, the Dodgers parted with elite prospect Carlos Santana, who would have been the perfect in-house candidate to replace Russell Martin instead of newly signed free agents Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro.
The continued financial limitations prevented the Dodgers from being a major player with the big names on the open market this winter. Still, Colletti managed to make enough moves to keep the Dodgers in the contention conversation in the NL West. After watching the Giants’ dramatic run to glory, he wisely targeted pitching this winter, bringing back starters Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla and signing starter Jon Garland and relievers Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth.
Exhausting most of his resources on pitching left Colletti with little money to spend on the lineup, which ranked in the lower half in just about every important offensive category last year. The only major acquisition on this front was shortstop Juan Uribe, who came over from the Giants on a surprising three-year, $21 million contract.
The Dodgers don’t have an obvious glut of bloated contracts like the Mets and Cubs do, but keep in mind they are still on the hook for paying Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre—all playing for other teams—more than $10 million combined this year. That, too, has affected Colletti’s leeway in the 2011 club construction.
Contention hopes this season might ultimately hinge on whether first baseman James Loney, center fielder Matt Kemp and reliever Jonathan Broxton can rebound from their disappointing year and if right fielder Andre Ethier can bounce back from injury.
Regarding the long-term outlook for the Dodgers, the club’s handling of some upcoming financial issues will be telling.
As the divorce proceedings have played out, the club has made few long-term financial commitments. Only $32 million is currently committed to the 2012 payroll and $36 million in 2013. At the end of this season, the Dodgers will have to make decisions on Broxton, Kuroda and shortstop Rafael Furcal, all of whom can be free agents, and No. 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, who will attain arbitration rights. One year later, Loney, Ethier, Kemp and starter Chad Billingsley will be eligible to test the free-agent waters.
So while the Dodgers, who will have an Opening Day payroll around $111 million this year, have looming financial flexibility, they also have looming in-house issues they’ll have to address.
But the biggest issue of all that’s hanging over the collective head of this organization is the McCourt divorce. Once resolved, the Dodgers could once again become major players in the open market and sleeping giants no more.
I have a good friend who’s a Mets fan and another who loves her Dodger dogs. I even know, and like, a couple of Cubs fans. Because of that I’d like to see all three teams do well this year. However, as Anthony points out, a lot of things have to go their way for that to happen. For the Cubs, 2012 may be the first year they can field a real team without all the dead weight. Naturally, that’s the last year of Mike Quade’s contract. So, if nothing else, that could get interesting.
But, for now, spring’s on the near horizon, hope is in the air and pitchers and catchers report in a week. So let’s leave fans their happy dreams because, who knows, anyone of them might be giants this year.
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