Sunday, October 28, 2007

Red Sox sweep to World title

Now the Colorado Rockies know exactly how it feels.

In case there was any doubt which league was the better league in baseball, the World Series cleared things up. Teams featured in the World Series were the Rox and Sox, but Boston was the only team doing the rocking and socking, by sweeping the Rockies to win their second championship in just four years.

The Rockies breezed through the NL playoffs, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks (who swept the Cubs) with relative ease, but the Red Sox managed to sweep Colorado, and barely broke a sweat in the process. From the 13-1 laugher in game one at Fenway Park, there was very little question as to who the better team was. The only question was whether or not the Rockies had enough magic on their side, but just minutes after the clock struck midnight in Boston, it struck midnight at Coors Field.

The Rockies did have one golden opportunity to shift momentum in their favor. Despite a horrible loss in the first game of the series, if Colorado would've taken game two, they would've escaped Fenway with a split and taken home-field advantage and momentum along with them. Game two started the right way, too, but the Schilling, Okajima, and Papelbon shut down the Rockies, giving their offense a chance to battle back.

Sure, Colorado had their chances in games three and four as well, but Boston controlled the entire series for the most part, outscoring the Rockies by nineteen runs in the four games. Boston jumped on the board quickly in each of the other three games, scoring a combined eleven times in the first three innings, which really put the pressure on a younger, lesser Rockies team.

Remember, the Rockies shouldn't have even been here; even despite winning 14 of their last 15 regular season games, it took two blown saves from baseball's all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, for the Rockies to win the Wild Card. Then, they rode their hot-streak to a National League pennant, but as expected, the long layoff between the NLCS and World Series cooled down the champions of the Senior Circuit.

For Cubs fans, especially those that believe in the supernatural controlling the outcome of baseball games, the result of this Series should come as a sigh of relief. Hell froze over when the Sox won in 2004 and again when the White Sox won in 2005. If the Rockies were to win in 2007, that would make the third time; surely, hell wouldn't freeze over for a fourth time.

Rodriguez tests waters: Meanwhile, the other 28 teams around baseball are focused on the next biggest news. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez has opted out of his contract and will test the market as a free agent.

Alex Rodriguez, who could've been owed as much as $33 million per year by 2010, obviously thinks that he could get something larger or comparable with a different team. That limits the number of teams that are in the running for the superstar, and when you consider the Yankees' reaction to Rodriguez's decision, the choices are further limited.

"It's clear he didn't want to be a Yankee," said Yankees' Senior VP Hank Steinbrenner. "He doesn't understand the privilege of being a Yankee on a team where the owners are willing to pay $200 million to put a winning product on the field. I don't want anybody on my team that doesn't want to be a Yankee. We're not backing down. It's goodbye."

Imagine what a Cubs lineup with Alex Rodriguez for the 2008 season would look like:

1. Alfonso Soriano, LF
2. Mark DeRosa, 2B
3. Derrek Lee, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, SS
5. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
6. Geovany Soto, C
7. Jacque Jones, CF
8. Matt Murton, RF


As impressive as that lineup would be, I can't help but think that we don't have an extra $30 million per year to bring Rodriguez into town and that if we did, if there isn't a better way to spend it. Outfielders like Mike Cameron, Andruw Jones, and Aaron Rowand are available as are closers like Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, and Francisco Cordero. Wouldn't an everyday outfielder, a closer, and a fifth starter be so much better?

I understand that there are plenty of options the fifth spot in the rotation already within the organization: Sean Marshall, Sean Gallagher, Kevin Hart, etc, but I would much rather prefer we head into Spring Training with a solid option there. If one of the young pitchers step up and win the job in March, fine, but the package of Rivera ($12M/year), Rowand ($10M/year), and Russ Ortiz ($8/year) looks a lot more inviting than a single player.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fall classic to feature Rox, Sox

It's a feeling Cubs fans know all too well.

Up 3-1 in the league championship series, the Indians thought they were sitting pretty. When Beckeet beat Cleveland in game five, that still didn't worry too many Indians fans, much like our game five loss to the same Josh Beckett didn't phase us. Okay, so the Tribe didn't have Prior and Wood to pitch in games six and seven (they did have Carmona and Westbrook) and the series wasn't heading back to their home ballpark, but nonetheless, the defeat in game five wasn't seen as a step towards elimination, but rather a day delaying the inevitable.

Josh Beckett - Pitcher

2003 Game 5 of NLCS vs. Cubs:
CG, 2 H, 0 ER, BB, 11 K

2007 Game 5 of ALCS vs. Indians:
8 IP, 5 H, ER, BB, 11 K


But eliminated are the Indians and Kenny Lofton is again forced to watch another World Series despite having been up 3-1 in the LCS.

So who are the favorites in the 104th Fall Classic?

Well, for every bit that the Rockies were sizzling,t eh Red Sox seem to be just as hot now, especially with the long lay-off for Colorado. Call it extra rest if you want, but Boston is still getting two days off -- plenty of time to reset the rotation and ice down some nagging injuries, but not enough time to lose momentum.

The Red Sox are no doubt the better team on paper, and while I said earlier that that didn't matter to the Rockies, Boston now has just as much magic on their side, having snatched the American League pennant from the jaws of defeat. And even though the Rockies have the Coors Field wild card, Boston has been equally tough at their home, if not tougher, having won nine of their last eleven postseason games at Fenway.

If Colorado had home-field advantage, it would be a different story, and for that reason, if the first two games at Fenway are split, the Rockies have a fighting chance. But many of the young Rockies have not felt the pressure of being in a big postseason series in a big baseball city yet,; the road to the Series for them went through Philadelphia and Phoenix, not Chicago or New York, or Boston. If the first two games go Boston's way, the younger more inexperienced team may shut down; besides it would mean that they feel overmatched and would have to win all three games at Coors and another at Fenway.

Plus, the Rockies haven't stared down the barrel of three aces yet. Sure, they ran into the Cole Hamels and the Brandon Webbs, but Beckett, Schilling, and Matsuzaka in back-to-back-to-back games? And as if that weren't enough, the bullpen features Okajima, Gagne, and Papelbon, a back three that would make even Arizona feel jealous.

At least the Diamondbacks couldn't hit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rox roll to first flag

All four teams in the National League had a storybook entry into the playoffs this season. Take the Chicago Cubs, for example, who were 8 1/2 games out of first place after June 23. The Brewers' mid-season collapse, however, helped the Cubs pick up 6 1/2 games in the standings over 26 games in June and July and get to level ground with Milwaukee by August 1.

The Philadelphia Phillies had an even harder route to their division crown. With just 17 games to go, the Mets had a 7 game lead in the division and were already printing the playoff tickets. Winning 13 of the final 17, however, gave the Phillies a chance to win the division and the Mets struggled in the final two weeks of the season and the Mets were out.

How about the Diamondbacks? A team filled with rookies, a team with Eric Brynes as the third hitter and Doug Davis as the second starter won 90 games despite being outscored by 20 runs throughout the course of the season. The Diamondbacks took the division lead on July 28 and kept that division lead for every day except one after that, en route to a surprising playoff berth.

No playoff berth, however, was more surprising than the path that the Rockies took. After losing to Logan Kensing on September 15, the Rockies caught fire. Once again, proving the point that it doesn't matter who the best team in the playoffs is, just who the hottest team is, the Rockies rattled off 14 wins in the season's final 15 games before winning their first seven postseason matchups.

N. L. Wild Card Standings on September 15

1. San Diego Padres (80-67)
T2. Los Angeles Dodgers (79-69)
T2. Philadelphia Phillies (79-69)
4. Colorado Rockies (76-72)

Everyone had counted out the Rockies, even after they won their 11th straight game. Besides, they were still down by 2 games to San Diego with 3 left. But, the Diamondbacks rolled over after taking the first game of the season finale and the Padres lost the final two games of the season, thanks to Hoffman's struggles and the Rockies were able to force a one-game playoff.

Trevor Hoffman had a chance to nail down the final playoff spot in game 161. However, with two outs in the ninth inning, Tony Gwynn delivered the game-tying RBI triple to extend the game, which eventually ended with the Brewers winning. Then, in the tiebreaker, the Padres appeared to have the advantage. Even though the game was at Coors Field, the pitching matchup was laughably in San Diego's favor; 19-6 Jake Peavy vs. 10-9 Josh Fogg.

That didn't matter to the Rockies, just like it didn't matter that they were overmatched on paper against the Phillies and Diamondbacks. It also didn't matter that the Rockies were down by two runs in the 13th against Trevor Hoffman. This was their year and no one's was going to get in their way.

It seems like Hoffman pitched everyone into the playoffs except his own team. His save against the Brewers on September 28 sealed the deal for the Cubs and his blown save on September 29 put the Diamondbacks in while keeping the Rockies alive. On October 1, his blown save ended the Padres' season and let the Rockies continue on their glorious run.

The Rockies dominated the post-season, just breezing through NL's so-called best. Against the Phillies, the Rockies blew out Philadelphia in Game 2, while showing they can win the close ones in games 1 & 3. Against Arizona, pitching dominated for the Rockies, despite the fact that all of the games were either in Phoenix or Denver, as the West champions only scored 5 times in the first 36 innings of the game (even we scored 6 times against Arizona in 3 games).

The Rockies seem to be overmatched against both Boston and Cleveland, but don't tell them that. If the route that the Rockies took to win their first ever National League pennant isn't a sign that this was meant to be their year, I don't know what is.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Snakes look forward, but so do Cubs

Our guys choked down the stretch.

I don't know if it was because they couldn't handle the pressure or if they simply ran out of gas at the end of the season, but the Diamondbacks certainly didn't suffer from whatever it is that Piniella's boys did.

You can't take credit away from the Diamondbacks pitching staff, but the Cubs' 2-for-23 was absolutely unacceptable. Even Ryan Theriot broke character, swinging at a 3-1 pitch twice throughout the game, both of which resulted in ground ball outs. Aramis Ramirez's 0-for-12 was ridiculous and Alfonso Soriano was equally useless in the series. Carlos Marmol appeared to be struggling in the final weeks of the season and while he was able to get away with it in the regular season, he wasn't so lucky in the playoffs.

Rich Hill and Ted Lilly also appeared to be pitching scared and our batters seemed like they couldn't deal with the pressure of playing behind. We saw the Cubs battle back time-and-time again this year, but we also saw the Cubs trying too hard to be the hero -- trying too hard to hit the big homerun. The large number of double plays we saw and the guys pressing too hard with runners in scoring position was a prime example of guys not being disciplined enough to just keep the line moving.

Besides, the team was trying to get all three games at once after falling behind 2-0. When asked, both Mark DeRosa and Soriano publically stated that they were trying to win three games in a row, instead of taking one game at a time. It's an inappropriate attitude that ended in our demise.

However, as painful as this loss was, we have to look back at the season and think of the successes. Never mind how much we spent over the off-season, the 2006 Cubs finished dead last in the National League, posting a 66-96 record. One year later, not only did the Cubs improve by 19 games and win a division championship for the first time since 2003, we battled back from an 8 1/2 game hole. No one can take that away from us.

We'll get another shot in the playoffs, and it won't take another four years. Even if the Brewers are getting older and better, the Cubs with just a few key strikes to the free-agent market should be able to keep pace, especially since most of the team is already set to return for the 2008 season; we don't need another Alfonso Soriano (or Alex Rodriguez) signing to remain competitive. Among the NL Central teams, we definitely have the most players already under contract for next year. Many of the Brewers aren't eligible for free agency, but they are eligible for salary arbitration. It would be interesting to see how much of the supporting cast Ned Yost would be able to keep, considering the limited budget the Brewers are on.

As for us, the pitching rotation is mostly set: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, and Marquis. The fifth spot is still up for grabs, but what team has five starting pitchers, let alone four, set in stone for next year already? Besides, the Cubs have plenty of options from within the organization: Dempster, Marshall, Hart, and countless others. The bullpen might need a little bit of work, but the worst case scenario would be moving Marmol into the closer's role.

The catcher is Geovany Soto and hopefully Derrek Lee will not be useless in future years at first base. Aramis Ramirez should be able to be a bit more productive at the third base position and Mark DeRosa seems to have his future at second base solidified.

We never saw the real Alfonso Soriano as he was marred with injuries. His plate production was even down a bit, but this was just the second time in his career that he's stolen fewer than 30 bases, let alone fewer than 20. I expect his offense to improve marginally and his running game to improve greatly next year. Jacque Jones (yes, I'm counting on him again) should be the second member of starting outfield and the options for a third within the organization are plenty: Pie, Patterson, Murton, and maybe even Cliff Floyd.

It seems like maybe an outfielder with a patient bat, another utility infielder, and a decent pitcher or two may be all we need to add this winter.

The end of this season is a lot different from the end of the 2003 season. The 2003 run was a magical run that focused on improbable stories and things just going the right way. For that reason, the future after 2003 was uncertain: how will things hold up?

That's not the case here. The 2007 run was not a run at all; it was a team that was built to win that did win. Yes, we had surprises like Carlos Marmol, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot to push us over the hump, but Jim Hendry now knows that he doesn't need to do much to keep the 2008 team from needing similar surprises to be contenders.

It's a mantra that Cubs fans are all too familiar with, but waiting for next year is a much different feeling this time around: we know we'll get our fair share of licks in.

Hopefully, the 100th time is the charm.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Snakes in complete control

The Cubs have struggled through adversity before this year. In a matter of just 27 games in July and August, the Cubs made up 7 1/2 games on the Milwaukee Brewers for a share of first place. However, if the Cubs want to keep playing past the Division Series, they're going to have to climb out of a much bigger hole.

The Arizona Diamondbacks won the first two games at Chase Field to retain home field advantage and back the Cubs into a corner in this best-of-five division series. Exactly how big of a hole is it? Well, no team in the National League in the history of the Division Series has come back from a 2-0 deficit.

Initially, I believed that we were the fourth best NL team in the playoffs, but after hearing the opinions of Cubs fans and the so-called experts, I began to second guess what I thought. Turns out, Arizona cleared things up; not only did they beat us, they beat us decidedly in two very different games.

Part of the problem for the Cubs have been the lack of offense. Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Derrek Lee combined to go 106-for-327 (.324) with 55 extra-base hits, including a monster 29 homeruns in the month of September to get the Cubs into the postseason. However, in the first two games of the playoffs, the Diamondbacks pitchers have worked the Cubs' sluggers with more curveballs and changeups, an approach that has resulted in the three main Cubs going just 4-for-27 (all singles) with 12 strikeouts. Combined, the NL Central champions have gone 12-for-67 (.179) with 23 strikeouts.

The Cubs will look to turn things around at Wrigley Field and they do have good lifetime numbers against Arizona's game 3 starter, Livan Hernandez. Cliff Floyd is 14-for-41 with 3 doubles and 2 homers while Kendall is 11-for-31 and Ramirez is 10-for-26 with 3 doubles and 4 homers (1.346 OPS). DeRosa, Jones, and Ward also have averages at or above .333, though in a considerably smaller sample size. But with Hernandez being even more of a junk-baller, can Piniella's boys make the adjustment from what happened in the first two games?

Even if we do get past Hernandez and Owings, we'd still need to beat Webb at Chase Field. It looks like the writing's on the wall. We're not going to make it past the first round of the playoffs this year and it's not because of goats, curses, black cats, or Steve Bartman. The Diamondbacks are just a better team; they didn't have the best record in the league for nothing.

For what it's worth though, I think that Lou made all of the right moves in Game 2. He had every reason to believe that Ted Lilly would be able to bounce back and unfortunately by the time he found out that Lilly would not be able to return to form, it was too late.

How I would do it: Here's my game three lineup.

1. LF Alfonso Soriano
2. C Jason Kendall

Jacque Jones and Ryan Theriot both had their shots at the top of the lineup. Now, with Jason Kendall having good lifetime numbers against Hernandez, he gets a shot.

3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. RF Cliff Floyd

Aramis Ramirez has been struggling, so let's try throwing the lefties in between again.

5. 3B Aramis Ramirez
6. CF Jacque Jones

Keeping the left-right-left theme alive.

7. 2B Mark DeRosa
8. SS Ryan Theriot
9. LHP Rich Hill

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Piniella mishandles Zambrano in Game 1

Well, it's the game that the Diamondbacks had the best chance of winning. It's the game that Arizona was heavily favored in. Still, it's a painful loss.

The team didn't play well. Derrek Lee didn't hustle after a third strike got passed Snyder and Carlos Marmol made some pretty bad pitches. We only scratched out four hits while going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and leaving nine on base. We had the leadoff man on second base before the first out in both the third and fourth innings but failed to score and the team wasn't being selective with their pitches in the eighth and ninth innings, despite taking the obligatory first strike. Lou's not completely off the hook for the loss, though.

After an error put Ryan Theriot on second base to lead off the fourth inning, Piniella decided to let Zambrano swing away. We know he was hitting left-handed, but he's still a pitcher. Zambrano needed to bunt to move Theriot over so that Soriano could tie the game with as little as a productive out.

Then, in the sixth inning, after Theriot's infield single tied the game, Zambrano was allowed to hit for himself. The bases were loaded and two were out, but Piniella didn't take down Zambrano for Ward. What upsets me the most about that move is that Lou only stuck with Zambrano for one more inning. If he wanted to try to get 7 innings out of Zambrano, that's a different story, but why would you turn the ball over the Marmol and Howry in the 7th and 8th innings in a tie ballgame when you're on the road?

Zambrano is a good hitting pitcher, but he's just that: a pitcher! Lou had a hard time seeing through that and again bought into the fans' impulse moves. Managers are paid the big bucks because they know what's right, instead of succumbing to the temptation of the general public, but today, Piniella made two crucial mistakes and is partially responsible for the early hole.

Letting Zambrano throw 8 innings and 101 pitches was okay in the regular season, but not the postseason? Isn't the postseason the time you pull out all of the stops?

Lilly hopes to rebound: Ted Lilly was absolutely phenomenal when pitching after a Cubs' loss this season. However, the Diamondbacks have absolutely crushed left-handed pitching, while we have to take on southpaw Doug Davis. The Cubs were 19-24 on the year against lefties, while the Diamondbacks posted a 28-17 mark when the opposing pitcher is left-handed. With Lilly and Hill going in games 2 and 3, this could mean big trouble.

Hart, Soto on postseason roster

Lou Piniella has made some impulse moves coming into the playoffs and I'm sure he'd be tempted to do some more.

In 11 innings, Kevin Hart has allowed just one run and seven hits while striking out thirteen, and evidently Piniella was impressed enough to put him on the roster. Lou said he was going with 11 pitchers, but I'm really surprised that Scott Eyre is the lone lefty. Don't get me wrong, I don't like Will Ohman and I don't think Carmen Pignatiello is much better, but I still think that Piniella should've taken a second lefty. I understand that Howry, Wuertz, and Marmol have been effective against lefties this year, but not even having a second lefty available makes strategizing a lot easier for Bob Melvin.


Ryan Dempster
Scott Eyre
Kevin Hart
Rich Hill
Bob Howry
Ted Lilly
Carlos Marmol
Jason Marquis
Kerry Wood
Michael Wuertz
Carlos Zambrano

Jason Kendall
Geovany Soto

Ronny Cedeno
Mark DeRosa
Mike Fontenot
Derrek Lee
Aramis Ramirez
Ryan Theriot
Daryle Ward

Cliff Floyd
Jacque Jones
Matt Murton
Felix Pie
Alfonso Soriano


Piniella also made two more moves that the general public might like and one that the fans don't like, and all three of them go against the book. Geovany Soto was not only named to the team, but it looks like he would get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate, despite the fact that Soto hasn't worked much with the Cubs' pitching staff this year and the fact that Kendall is a three-time all-star.

Also, Piniella demoted Jason Marquis to the bullpen. After three consecutive horrible appearances by Marquis to end the season, Piniella has decided to go with a three-man rotation. This means that Carlos Zambrano would have to pitch on short rest in game four, but the extra off-day allows Lilly to be at full strength for the fifth and final game. Should we be down 2-1 at that point, it may be best to try to turn the ball over to Zambrano with the season on the line, but holding back Zambrano and Lilly, two very different pitchers that throw with opposite hands, for the deciding game in Arizona (if necessary) could be a very special weapon.

With that having been said, Piniella still has a few more impulse move the fans want him to make. Specifically, I know people want Lou to use Carlos Marmol and his 1.43 ERA in the closer's role, while making Dempster a set-up man. It may be something to consider in the off-season, but at this point, I don't think that you want to try to make any major changes to the bullpen. Granted, Ozzie Guillen turned to Bobby Jenks as the closer late in the 2005 season, but this is different. Jenks was a closer in the minor leagues and was always projected to be the closer of the big league club at some point. In Marmol's six professional seasons in baseball, he has one career save. Besides, Ryan Dempster is 28-for-31 in save opportunities, no matter his ERA.

Even with all of that, the biggest surprise on the roster for me is Ronny Cedeno. He has hit at a .203 clip and has reached base just barely over 23% of the time, yet he takes up a precious spot on the 25-man roster. Yes, Cedeno has been hot over the past couple of weeks and we know how Piniella likes to play the hot hand, but it makes me wonder about the health of Ryan Theriot. Theriot has been struggling lately, and has needed some off days in the final weeks of the season either because he needed to rest or nurse a sore back. There may be some question as to whether Theriot is capable of going every inning of every game and that could've led to the decision to carry two shortstops, a decision that cost Craig Monroe or Henry Blanco a roster spot.

Marshall in limbo: Just because Sean Marshall wasn't named to the roster for the first round of the playoffs, doesn't mean that his season is over. The team will continue to work with him to get stretched out a bit. Speculation has it, should the Cubs advance past the Diamondbacks and onto the LCS, Marshall might become the team's fourth starter. As bad as Jason Marquis has been, I still think it's his job to lose. Last month, I thought that third starting spot was Marquis' to lose and he lost it, but to me, he's still got a long way to go before falling behind Marshall on the depth chart.