Saturday, January 31, 2004

posted by James - 12:02 AM

In reading over my last post, I need to make a clarification about Jim Hendry. The last thing he should be worried about is what I think about the Cubs rotation issues or his offseason hits and misses. He just went into surgery to repair a total tear of the left quadriceps muscle completely away from the tendon which attaches it to the knee.

This is very serious. Dean Palmer, who just retired from baseball, and WWE-wrestler Triple H, off the top of my head, suffered similar injuries and never were the same athlete afterwards. Of course Hendry's not an athlete, but this still will be a major inconvenience to his life and he'll need to concentrate as much as he can on getting healthy and going through surgeries and rehabilitation, which are far more important for him.

That being said, if this could harbor any sympathy with Scott Boras over the Maddux negotiations, maybe he could take advantage of that and "get on some crutches and go get us a Hall of Famer!"

But in all seriousness, I'm pulling for Mr. Hendry and hope he doesn't suffer any lasting effects from this injury. He's proven to be our go-to-guy; we need him at full strength and in tip-top shape.

Good Luck, Jim.

Friday, January 30, 2004

posted by James - 8:25 PM

As I promised, here's the first edition of reader mail:

Dear James:

  I ran across your postings by accident. It was nice to see an unbiased opinion for once.
  I thought I'd run this past you. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Cubs' starting second baseman is not on the team yet.
  Without having a real leadoff man in the lineup, methinks Jim Hendry may pull off a blockbuster with Montreal for Jose Vidro. The 'Spos need pitching and the Cubs have enough young arms to deal (Beltran, Cruz, Wellemeyer, Mitre). I'd like your take on this.

Arlington Heights, IL

Thanks for the e-mail and the kind words. I hope this has been one of those "happy accidents" for you.

More importantly, you propose an interesting topic and give me an excuse to talk about the Cubs during a period of relative inactivity.

Regardless of what position they target, are the Cubs done adding offense? Where could they improve?

I surmise Cubs GM Jim Hendry has made sufficient moves on offense that he could stop right now and look towards other areas.

There are only two areas which might need addressing: middle-infield (shortstop, specifically) and catcher. Unfortunately, most of the options there aren't worth their considerable cost (i.e. Jason Kendall, Ivan Rodriguez, that other Rodriguez). They also lack a natural leadoff hitter, but I'll leave that to Dusty Baker to figure out (my bet is on whoever wins the second base job).

Hendry could have explored other options earlier in the offseason such as All-star catcher Javy Lopez and Florida second baseman Luis Castillo, who would have provided the highest-quality leadoff hitter of available free agents if not the entire National League.

But Castillo chose to return to Florida, where he won a World Series title last season, while Hendry didn't give reigning NL Gold Glove 1B Derrek Lee the choice, trading Korean-prospect Hee Seop Choi to the Marlins for the considerable upgrade at first base.

Hendry made the big splash early by bringing in Lee and reliever LaTroy Hawkins before the Winter Meeting frenzy. And in a move partially motivated by arbitration rules, the Cubs brought back Mark Grudzielanek early as well, albeit at a much reduced salary from last year, rather than lose the chance to negotiate with him at all.

Unfortunately, the Cubs couldn't have foreseen their good fortune when former Boston Red Sox 2B Todd Walker accepted their offer at an even lower price than Grudzielanek.

And finally, the Cubs acquired underachieving (and often injured) catcher Michael Barrett from Montreal via Oakland. He's a no-risk acquisition, unless he gets injured. He will be as good as Damian Miller was last year at the least, plus he has the versatility to play a corner-infield position from time to time (130 games at first and third over his career).

But unless a significant upgrade presents itself, Hendry would have a hard time justifying to his parent company the expense of acquiring a big enough name with, more importantly, big enough numbers.

Montreal's Jose Vidro would be such a significant upgrade. He has the OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) most first basemen would love to have. Even though he has a great on-base percentage (no less than .370 over the last three years), batting him first of second would waste his great slugging percentage (no less than .470 over the last three years).

I'm sure the Cubs would welcome one more middle of the lineup hitter from a position where offense isn't tradition... unfortunately so would 28 other teams. And the 29th, Montreal, would love to keep him on account that he's not busting their budget this year (only $5.5 million dollars for this year). And the Expos are in a precarious situation I won't get into much except to say trading for prospects mean very little for them when they don't know who will own the team next year or where they'll play.

So the chances of getting him out of Montreal are slim to none, and the chances of him coming cheap as he enters free agency in 2004 are as dire, as he'll be the focus of the offense this year and have pretty good surrounding talent for once even if Vlad Guerrero took off for Anaheim.

But Vidro would be a great addition for the Cubs, if they could find a package to fit Montreal's needs, which might include pitchers such as Juan Cruz, Francis Beltran, Todd Wellemeyer, Sergio Mitre, Jae-Kuk Ryu and just about anyone else the Expos ask for, and find a taker for either current shortstop Alex Gonzalez or either Grudzielanek (a former Expo) or Walker (maybe in the same deal).

I would propose a deal of Grudzielanek (or Gonzalez and cash), Cruz or Wellemeyer, but not Angel Guzman, and one or two minor-league pitchers (Ryu and Chadd Blasko, for example) for Vidro.

This would give the Cubs this possible lineup:

1. Patterson cf
2. Grudzielanek/Gonzalez ss
3. Vidro 2b
4. Sosa rf
5. Lee 1b
6. Alou lf
7. Ramirez 3b
8. Barrett c

If I could use the way back machine and I had a choice between Vidro and giving the combined value of his contract and Grudzielanek's to Castillo, I would have done so. He would have made this team complete.

Even if they don't get Vidro before Spring Training, I would be in favor of the Cubs making a serious run at him next year. He plays the one position in the organization where the Cubs are thin, especially after trading Bobby Hill to help last year's run at "ending the curse."

But I do agree with Harv in that Hendry has a big deal left in him. He's still working with stuper-agent Scott Boras on signing Greg Maddux to fill out the Cubs rotation. I couldn't think of a better story than Maddux returning to the Cubs to win his 300th game and take them back to the playoffs and beyond.

If they don't get Maddux (he really doesn't have many other NL suitors), Hendry still will have to investigate the final spot left in the Cubs rotation through a possible trade. Cruz, Wellemeyer, Guzman and Mitre and a couple unworthy-of-mentioning, minor-league-deal signees aren't sufficient enough competition for a key spot on a contender.

Hendry did a great job setting up the lineup, bench and bullpen. He shouldn't let a hole every fifth day ruin his good work.

I know this was quite long, but there's a lot on this subject I wanted to say and I thank Harv for bringing it to the front of my attention... and it was the only one I had to answer this time. But I'd love to make it a weekly feature so send in any questions or topics you'd like to see discussed to jamesinwrigleyville@yahoo.com and I'll answer as many as I can in a much shorter format.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

posted by James - 11:54 PM

Dateline Just North of Wrigley Field

...Beep...Beep ...Beep...Beep...Beep

(Beeping to the tune of Black Sabbath's Iron Man)

We have an update from Just North of Wrigley Field Ugueth Urbina Update Center (I tried my best to find a synonym for Center which starts with "U").

Apparently he's not out of hot water just yet as Venezuelan prosecutors will keep the option to charge Urbina for up to six months according to the Associated Press.

They will investigate whether there is sufficient evidence to charge him with the crimes of possessing a weapon without a license and misuse of a firearm.

Urbina's lawyer said his client had a license for the gun. A judge already ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence to support the charges.

But having his name associated with this type of news hurts his value even further. Hopefully for his pocketbook's sake, this story doesn't get any frequent updates.

But if I'm Urbina, I'm taking any offer that includes six zeroes.

...which he won't get from the Pittsburgh Pirates after they signed Jose Mesa to a minor-league deal.

Yes, that Jose Mesa who lost his job in Philadelphia last year on a team who had nobody better, just nobody worse.

The same Jose Mesa who's left a terrible ending with every team he's closed for (5.65 ERA, 26 saves for three teams).

But there's also good news for the Pirates as he's posted great seasons in his first as closer with those clubs (2.85 ERA, 121 saves). Even though he posted a near-five ERA for Seattle in 1999, he tied the club record for saves with 33, later broken on two occasions by his successor, Kazuhiro Sasaki.

But Mariners fans will never forgive him for blowing the save in the first game at Safeco Field in 99. There was never a more ominous sign from a team with chronic bullpen problems. Then Junior left, followed by A-ROD, then the 116-win season. One of those things does not belong there. One of those things does not belong... but it does.

Robb Nen is also keeping his name in the headlines, telling the San Francisco Chronicle his head is right for closing without saying anything about his surgically-repaired right arm.

Nen has had three surgeries since October 2002, and I already discussed the other options at closer for the Giants in a previous post. This would be a perfect situation for Urbina to vulture a prime spot on a playoff contender with a manager he's familiar with.

Speaking of familiarity, for the Tigers and Ivan Rodriguez it's all over but the press conference. They don't have much chance of competing in the AL Central, but they do have the money to spend and Pudge's former, Marlins-battery mate would be a good mentor to youngsters Chris Spurling and Franklyn German.

So they're now No. 3 on my list of prospective Urbina destinations. And if the Twins won't give him an acceptable offer to close for a contender, he should take the Tigers' money and stick it to them.

It's better than sitting out the year and being forever known as the Couch Potato Closer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

posted by James - 11:27 PM

...Look who's peeking out from behind the snow drifts Just North of Wrigley Field. I know, I know. I totally slacked off the last week. If you checked in and didn't find what you were looking for, please don't take it out on me too hard... or go ahead and let me have it at jamesinwrigleyville@yahoo.com. I love getting reader questions. I actually got my first this week and I'll post a response on Friday (it was even about the Cubs which was really cool). If I get enough, I'll make it a weekly event or something. Send any questions you'd like. If I don't know the answer, I'll try to find out.

While I do have a lot to say after taking a week off, I'll try to spread it out...

There in fact was an Ugueth Urbina sighting this week, though I'm sure he wanted to be in the transaction ledger, not the infraction ledger.

Shortly after ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Urbina might take the season off rather than accept a low bid from one of the teams left with closer's vacancies, media began reporting with much haste Police had arrested Urbina in Venezuela for "allegedly" firing a gun.

Actually the charges were possession of a weapon without a license and misuse of a firearm, and a Venezuelan judge threw them out as Urbina successfully argued the incident was an act of self-defense. (How self-defense gets you out of a possession charge I can't figure out.)

But having your name in the headlines won't exactly help his asking price, which may have fallen into the Expos', Reds' and Pirates' range, if he doesn't follow through with his couch-potato closer threat.

But there is news from the West Coast which may help him choose his destination.

The Giants are admitting they don't know if Robb Nen will be able to resume closing duties and won't until the end of Spring Training.

That's a lot of uncertainty for a team that should contend in the NL West and let last year's Nen replacement Todd Worrell (38 saves in '03) go to the Phillies. Their current candidates if Nen can't make a full recovry include Felix Rodriguez and Matt Herges (who neither have had more than six saves in any season).

Add in Felipe Alou, former Expos manager, and the Giants might be the best fit for Urbina.

And now for something totally unrelated...

In the last week, two NBA teams with projected playoff records have turned over the helms to interim coaches.

The New Jersey Nets fired Byron Scott after he led them to two NBA Finals appearances and a first-place record in the Atlantic Division, which is kind of like having a blind girl for a prom date (oh I know I'm going to get hate mail for that).

And Boston Celtics Head Coach Jim O'Brien resigned, reaching his fill of personality clashes with GM Danny Ainge. Not that I blame him, Ainge was pretty annoying as a player too. O'Brien has an Eastern Conference Finals appearance on his resume as well.

Scott could take the "Doc Rivers route" and take a job as a TV analyst or go back to hanging around Magic Johnson and run one of his theatres or something.

But what about O'Brien?

Seeing how the Nets are coached by a guy who wasn't even thought of when Bill Russell won his first championship (1969), maybe O'Brien doesn't relish his time off and goes and coached the Nets.

They probably don't need him to finish second fiddle to the Indiana Pacers in the East, the team would suit him better with a more veteran core and F Rodney Rogers, who he coached in Boston.

Of course, he could go down and take Terry Stotts' job as head coach in Atlanta, which would mean all 15 Eastern Conference teams have changed coaches since the end of last year.

So when nothing's going right, blow it all sky high!

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

posted by James - 11:02 PM

The question has been raised (yeah, yeah, passive voice, I know.) about the whereabouts of former Montreal, Boston, Texas and Florida closer Ugueth Urbina during this offseason.

Why hasn't he signed with a team yet when there were quite a few teams looking for a pedigreed closer (and still are)? And, more importantly, why have so many teams dismissed him after good years?

Rest assured, there's nothing fishy about the former Marlins closer. He's been the victim of teams that couldn't afford a closer of his quality or didn't want to spend the money on that spot (i.e. Montreal, Texas). He's been effective at every stop he's made.

Boston should have held onto him, but Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was set on trying the closer by committee and went with Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Ramiro Mendoza instead. He ended up regretting and paying heavily for it later.

And he'd still be in Texas if they didn't have Francisco Cordero and Jeff Zimmerman waiting as much cheaper closer options (why they spent any money on bringing in Jeff Nelson or Kenny Rogers, I'll never know), but they got bowled over by the Marlins' offer. The Rangers got a recent #1 overall pick who immediately became their top prospect, among others. The Marlins didn't really care about giving him up because they have a lot of depth at his position, and Urbina was the last piece to a World Series winner.

In fact, I think this will be a trend for vagabond closers in the near future until their salaries come back down. Houston got rid of Billy Wagner without much of a thought because he's due $11 million this year ($8 million salary + $3 million option buyout). The Padres forced Trevor Hoffman into a very low-base salary after coming off an injury this last year. And the Mariners are just letting Kaz Sasaki stay home in Japan rather than pay his salary this year.

Closers cost way too much and the Dodgers have proven that you probably have a starter who makes the minimum laying around who can do the job. And who knows what will happen with reigning N.L. Cy Young Award-winner Eric Gagne's asking for $8 million.

Kudos to Cubs GM Jim Hendry for spending his bullpen money wisely and spreading it around on several quality arms instead of breaking the bank on a "big-name closer." Even without a Gagne, Wagner or Isringhausen, I'll take the Cubs pen over any in the National League.

They have several middle-relief options for Manager Dusty Baker to utilize at his discretion, and they re-signed closer Joe Borowski to a two-year deal paying him less than Oakland paid Arthur Rhodes (no closer experience) and Florida paid Armando Benitez (no desirable closer experience).

As far as Urbina goes, there are still options for him available. Here's my top 5 Triple-U destinations:

1. Minnesota. After letting Seattle steal Eddie Guardado, who saved 40+ games the last two years, the Twins have a dearth of experience in their bullpen.

It's possible lefty J.C. Romero or righty Joe Nathan, acquired from San Francisco, could fill the late-inning roles, but neither has any track record of success in save situations.

The Twins still have designs on winning the A.L. Central, even though they lost three key players this offseason (C A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants, SP Eric Milton to the Phillies and Guardado) and received nearly nothing in return, and Urbina would fit perfectly into a role this team needs to fill. Although, they could probably use a couple pitchers.

2. Pittsburgh. Who knows whether the Pirates would have the money for this (they couldn't be spending it all on C Jason Kendall, right?), but right now their bullpen is headed by returning RHP Brian Boehringer and retread RHP Juan Acevedo and not much else.

Yes, their offense looks like someone went off on them with a chain gun it has so many holes in it, but they have young players who might fit in there. They have no one who can tread the path of a closer.

3. San Francisco. Barry's boys have a very strong bullpen already, but they've been known to bring in strong pitchers to tandem with their closer (i.e. Roberto Hernandez, Jose Mesa).

They could wait until mid-season to bring in a late-inning pitcher, but the health of current closer Robb Nen could force their hand, and if they sign Urbina they could trade current set-up man Felix Rodriguez for a starting pitcher to complete their rotation or another bat to protect Bonds in his quest for 700 home runs.

4. Cincinnati. The Reds have a pathetic pitching staff - even worse than the Pirates - and it would only get worse if they have to move Danny Graves out of the rotation and back to closer.

Signing Urbina would solve this problem and allow the Reds to ease 2003 draft pick Ryan Wagner into the role. This would be nothing more than a cup-of-coffee for Urbina, heading to a contender by July at the latest.

5. Atlanta. See above, San Francisco. The Braves have a right to be worried about their bullpen with John Smoltz an injury risk and Antonio Alfonseca a risk to have on the staff at all (as we Cubs fans know all too well). The Braves might also have to move RHP Jaret Wright into the rotation, further depleting the pen from the right side.

This would be another example of Braves GM John Schuerholz's magic, but Urbina would fill the void left by RHP Roberto Hernandez's departure to Philadelphia, which ol' six fingers won't fill alone.

There was a spot on the list for the South Siders, but they just signed Japan's career saves leader Shingo Takatsu to a one-year deal to compete with Billy Koch.

Other possibilities: Expos, Mets, Orioles, Mariners (sans Kaz Sasaki), Tigers (sans Pudge Rodriguez, hopefully) and Cardinals.

Monday, January 19, 2004

posted by James - 12:01 AM

Wow, Chris. Two for two ain't bad in my book. Why aren't you down in Vegas right now? I’d anoint you the official Just North of Wrigley Field handi-capper, just as long as I don’t have to put any money on it. :)

Another round of close football games this weekend, but they weren't as close as they seem. While watching these games, the winning teams just looked like they wanted it more and were more prepared. They dominated, plain and simple, even though they won by less than two touchdowns.

New England took advantage of their snowy home environment to lead Indianapolis from the opening drive.

They had a perfect game plan. They passed the ball early on when they knew as the field conditions worsened, passing would become more difficult.

Patriots QB Tom Brady gained the edge over Colts QB and current co-MVP Payton Manning by leading his team to 10 points, while Manning ended his first two drives with interceptions.

Manning threw two more interceptions in the second half as his team was unable to recover from a 15-0 halftime deficit.

The Patriots did a great job on defense, but Manning helped them out a lot.

Maybe he came into this offseason prepared to settle for a couple playoff wins as a success, because he looked jittery from his first snap.

The Patriots hadn't blitzed once and Manning already had happy feet. He threw both of his first-half interceptions off his back foot, with out a blue jersey around him.

He should have hit Pollard in the end zone, but he was too busy scrambling around when he had a perfect pocket to throw in.

On the other hand Brady was cool like he had been there before, like the former Super Bowl MVP he is. He had identical yardage numbers to Manning, but did so in 10 less attempts.

And the Patriots used their running game perfectly in the second half, chewing up lots of yardage and clock, while setting up for three more Adam Vinatieri field goals - setting a record and icing the game with under a minute left with his fifth field goal.

Brady and Vinatieri - the Pats' unsung and overlooked MVPs - did their parts in making the Patriots the AFC Champion for the third time in eight years.

Despite what the Fox analysts said after the game, the NFC Championship game between Carolina and Philadelphia wasn't close.

The Eagles only scored three points! There have been only two teams since 1970 to win a NFC Championship with less than two touchdowns, and even they could muster at least three field goals.

The Panthers defense did a great job of getting after Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, forcing him out of the game for the fourth quarter after injuring him earlier (in what I'll admit was a cheap shot after the play, but it got the job done).

But the Eagles and McNabb lost the game long before.

Did they lose it because of an ineffective running game? No. The stat sheet says Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and McNabb combined for 137 yards and 5.3 yards per carry.

Did they lose it because their defense didn't hold against the Panthers' quality running game and effective passing attack? No, the stat sheet says they held the Panthers to just 256 yards (less than the Eagles' 289).

What the stat sheet doesn't show is why the Eagles lost, because the stat sheet doesn't show how many times Eagles receivers couldn't wrangle in the cowhide and how many of the Eagles' four turnovers were the fault of a pathetic effort from the Eagles' pass catchers - which led to the Panthers often having a short field (Fox analyst and former Bengals WR Chris Collinsworth could not stop talking about this point).

McNabb is a great talent, but Joe Montana, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw all throwing at the same time wouldn't have made a difference when they're throwing to Team Stonehands.

And when they weren't dropping balls or tipping them up in the air so the Panthers' could pick them off, they were running the wrong routes and generally making themselves look pretty foolish and not worthy of an NFL uniform.

To beleaguer the point, Eagles WR James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell caught three passes total from McNabb. Panthers CB Ricky Manning, himself, caught three passes from McNabb.

McNabb deserved better than this and the accompanying beating his body took.

So for the third straight year, the Eagles come up one win short of the Super Bowl - with the last two NFC Championship defeats coming at home. Everything I know about Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid says he's a quality head coach bred from the same Mike Holmgren-protégé stock as Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron (uhh... I'll try not to mention his name many more times from the Just North of Wrigley Field Area), but I sure hope this run of so-close-but-not-quite letdowns doesn't find his name added to the chopping-block rumors.

Hopefully, the exasperated Philly fan base will give him another shot with some better weapons around McNabb.

So, New England vs. Carolina is your Super Bowl 38 matchup. I have my idea of who I think will win, but I'll save it for another day sometime after they post the injury list (Hint! Hint!).

Sunday, January 18, 2004

posted by CHRIS - 3:15 AM

Hey there once again this is Chris from Just West of SafeCo Field...

OK just a few quick picks for Sunday's Championship football games and that's all I'm writing about today.

First, we will start with Carolina vs. Philly.

I hate to say it, but I really believe Carolina is going to beat the Eagles. I know Carolina is the underdog, but I love rooting for the underdog and I think all the pressure is on the Eagles.

Think about it.

How many of you are laughing that I am even taking the effort to say the Panthers have a shot at winning this game?


I think Carolina wins a close game on a drive in the last five minutes of the game.

Next, we have the Indianapolis Colts vs. The New England Patriots.

I know it is going to be a close game, but it's supposed to snow 1-3 inches over the course of the game, and, let's face it people, we are going to see a repeat of "the tuck game", just without all the controversy.

What would be better than to see Adam Vinatieri attempt a field goal from what seems like a mile away to either win or lose the game?

When they dust (or the snow as it may well be) has settled I'm looking forward to a Carolina vs. New England Super Bowl, which, by the way, I will be watching via Direct TV ( YEAH!!! I finally got my satellite dish).

Well here's to another exciting Sunday of football!!!!!!!!!

Friday, January 16, 2004

posted by James - 1:30 PM

It looks like Dusty Baker will have someone to share his fell-five-outs-short-of-the-World-Series blues with next season.

Former Red Sox Coach Grady Little will join the Cubs as a scouting consultant and assistant to the General Manager, according to a press release from the Cubs website.

The press release also said Little will assist with coaching duties at Spring Training and spend time evaluating the Cubs' minor-league system.

The Red Sox fired Little after he had them knocking on the door of the World Series with ace pitcher Pedro Martinez on the mound. He left the three-time Cy Young award winner in the game and he surrendered the lead to the Yankees as they went on to the World Series, halting the Red Sox' run to their first MLB crown since 1918.

Little got a really raw deal in Boston, but that's Boston for you. Not that I think firing him was the wrong thing, because they never would have let him live that down. But he would probably be a better fit for the situation (post-AROD fiasco) than Terry Francona.

And was what Little did so much worse than what Dusty did in NLCS game 5 (and all through the playoffs for that matter)? They both left their ace pitcher in there with the World Series on the line.

It's a call most managers would make.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

posted by James - 6:21 PM

Looks like someone shook up the snowglobe here again, but this is nothing compared to what's going down in Houston, or more correctly blasting off.

I'm talking of course about the Astros signing five-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens to a one-year deal, which also includes a sweet 10-year personal services contract.

But most importantly, it includes a contract to pitch at the back-end of an already frighteningly good and young rotation, which didn't need to add a future Hall-of-Famer and 300-game winner.

This is frightening of course for Cubs fans, who have watched their team have an outstanding offseason only to watch the team that finished just one game behind in the standings steal a whole bunch of thunder back their way.

All hope is not lost in Wrigleyville because the Astros can't start all 8 of their rotation candidates, so they're still just on par at best with the Cubs' high-enders. But watch out Chicago River if one of them goes down, because as of right now they don't have many who could step in and weather the storm of a tightly contested NL Central race.

The signing of Clemens could easily turn into a positive in the eyes of Cubs fans if it triggers the Cubs' front office to make a big move to provide depth for the Cubs rotation.

Instead of leaving the fifth-starter's post to young right-handers Juan Cruz and Angel Guzman, maybe the Cubs go out and get their own multiple-time Cy Young winner.

Maybe the Cubs go out and bring their own favorite son back to the Friendly Confines.

Maybe the Cubs go out and bring back their own future Hall-of-Famer to win his 300th game and cement his Hall-of-Fame career in the uniform he never should have taken off.

Maybe the Cubs go out and sign Greg Maddux, who they offered a two-year deal to today.

Maybe Cubs fans would rather Cubs GM Jim Hendry squeeze some more money out of the Tribune Co. and sign catcher Ivan Rodriguez, but they've made their choice, and they want Maddux (which isn't to say both is totally out of the question).

Signing "Mad Dog" (that's such a cooler nickname than "the Rocket) does something else very important to the race for the NL Central crown. It keeps him out of the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation and keeps them on the search to fill their many holes.

It shows the Astros, Cardinals and the rest of the National League that they were contenders last year, they're contenders this year and they've made improvements... Now how about you?

Ok, that would make for a lousy spirit rally cheer, but it makes for a great pennant race.

And Cub fans everywhere would be able to shout out loud, we're in it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

posted by CHRIS - 11:31 PM

Hey there. I’m new to this whole “blog thing.” But, hey I’ll give it a shot.

So my first gripe would be the lack of respect for the Utah Jazz. Even after losing two shoe-in hall-of-famers to retirement and “the Lakers” (by the way I have always hated the Lakers), they still have a winning record and have won more games before the All-Star break than even I thought they would win all season.

At this rate, they will sneak into the playoffs. Yes, I know Matt Harpring just got injured, but even still they are winning games by decent margins. They even beat the Dallas Mavericks last week, and they were beating the Lakers with 30 seconds, when Malone, Shaq and Kobe meant Showtime, not IR time (He He He, ok I shouldn’t find it amusing for anyone to get hurt, but, admit it, it’s fun to watch this team that was supposed to blow away the Bulls’ all-time season record fall apart).

Well, that’s enough from Just West of SafeCo Field for now, but I’m sure you’ll hear more about this later…

Sunday, January 11, 2004

posted by James - 2:37 PM

Ok, here's the situation. You're on your own 40 and you've reached 4th down with six to go, in the mid-fourth quarter, down by two touchdowns. You're at home, so your fans are going crazy for you to go for it, but your defense hasn't stopped your opponent all day and giving your opponent the ball at this spot in the field would be disastrous. What do you do?

If you're Dick Vermeil and you're coaching the Kansas City Chiefs with a shot at the AFC Championship Game on the line, you go for it. You put the ball in the hands of your quarterback, your team leader and he puts the ball in the hands of Eddie Kennison for a 19-yard gain and the drive continues.

Vermeil's former protégé, Rams Head Coach Mike Martz, wouldn't trust his QB with the ball on the 15-yard line, knowing he didn't have to force anything because a field goal from there is already a lock.

Which is why the sharks should be swimming around Martz just as fast as they were swimming around Red Sox Coach Grady Little, who got fired for blowing Boston's first chance at the World Series since 1986... the rest you know.

The situation is eerily similar to the aftermath of the 1999 season where Martz was a hot commodity among coaching ranks and Vermeil stepped down to give him the reigns.

This season, Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith is the hot prospect, with Martz blocking his way in St. Louis.

Unfortunately for Smith, most of the coaching jobs are already gone, but there are still openings in Oakland and Chicago.

The Rams need to consider once more whether losing a top assistant, who was most instrumental in the success of the team, is worth keeping a head coach who showed no faith in his team at a critical moment.

This wasn't the case with Vermeil, as he left because he had nothing left to prove after leading the Rams to the Super Bowl and did the right thing for the organization, but it is the case with Martz, who faces a serious lack of loyalty from his team if he returns next season.

If Smith can admit he would have made a different call and showed his team the confidence they deserved after working so hard to get to that point, then I'd make the change right now.

Martz can take the job here in Chicago, or in Oakland, but he'll still have the reputation to fix as a coach who quit believing in his team.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

posted by James - 8:19 PM

Welcome back to the snow globe that is the Just North of Wrigley Field Area. I'm serious about that. It seems like every time I look outside there's snow floating out of the sky and when the wind blows across (now the snow I can handle, but the wind I wasn't expecting. ;), it doesn't know whether it wants to go up or down. I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining about my relocation destination, because I love the snow, especially since I don't have to drive anywhere in it, but I could do without the -10 degree wind chills.

I don't know if it was the inclement weather, the mind-numbing inundation of topics or just plain laziness on my part, but I basically took the week off from posting. Maybe I'll do a quick hits post before Monday recapping what happened during the week. There honestly were so many interesting topics it would take a 10-page spread to cover it all. I don't think anyone really wants to read that much of what I have to say anyway. This is why I might invite my friends or others to make comments here from time to time for some varying view points.

I will say this about last weekend though; I hope everyone who wanted to got their fill of football. There were some great games last weekend from the college and pro ranks. The BCS Championship was everything a championship game should be. LSU looked like they were going to put a whooping on Oklahoma, but it ended up going down to the last possession. LSU proved there shouldn't be any acceptable argument for them not having at least a share of the national championship. They beat the Sooners and three other ranked teams including Georgia twice. USC faces and defeated only two ranked teams. LSU's only loss came to No. 10 Florida, while USC lost to unranked Cal. There, folks, is my final answer. (No offense, Adam)

Furthermore, while I already talked about the Titans-Ravens game, the rest of the NFL playoffs has been outstanding as well. Yes two of the games were blowouts, but that's no problem when you're like me and you have no problem seeing the Dallas Cowboys or Denver Broncos get stomped and dismissed, but there has also already been two games decided in overtime.

This brings me to Saturday's early game between the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers. "The Greatest Show on Turf" didn't live up to its billing, or at least their coach didn't let them, as the Rams fell to the Panthers behind the longest, overtime-game-winning play in playoff history.

I say their coach didn't let them because with the Rams down 23-20, QB Marc Bulger led them down to the 15-yard line during the game's final possession in regulation. And instead of making an attempt of winning the game, Rams Head Coach Mike Martz just goes with the field goal to send the game to overtime.

I know the rule is you go for overtime at home and the win on the road, but that doesn't mean you don't even take a shot at the win.

They get a touchdown, make the two-point conversion and recover an onside kick, and then Martz doesn't show enough faith in his QB to let him take a crack at sending you to the NFC Championship game.

Yes, a lot could happen. A bad center exchange. A tipped ball could turn into an interception. A sack or penalty could push them out of chip-shot field goal range... but all of these are in the QBs hands and if you don't have confidence in him in this situation, why is he leading your team down the field?

After Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins tied the game, the overtime period was wildly filled with made field goals negated by penalties, missed field goals, tons of icing time outs and Panthers WR converting his second big-yardage reception into a touchdown - this time to win the game.

Not that I'm lamenting the Rams' elimination. They had little business hosting a second-round playoff game. First off, if the referees didn't cost Seattle their game against Baltimore (which they admitted) and their game against the Rams in St. Louis (which was more of a fluke than a mistake), the Seahawks would have won the NFC West.

And the Rams were definitely helped by the scheduling gods this year. They had every one of their tough games at home and faced pancakes on the road - vice versa for the Seahawks.

So even though the Seahawks only had two victories on the road this year at least they weren't losing to New York (4-12), San Francisco (7-9), Pittsburgh (6-10) and DETROIT (5-11)! Check the Rams' schedule for yourself.

All of this means, that while both teams went undefeated at home and faced relatively the same schedule, the Rams got to best use their home-field advantage.

The bottom line is they were pretenders to start out and now they're gone.

And now that great playoff game is over just as New England is taking a 7-0 lead against Tennessee. And that game is making me look like a total wuss for complaining about how cold it is here.

The spectators, coaches and players are gutting it out in near-zero degree temperatures with Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher looking like he just came down off a mountain complete with scruffy beard already covered with frost and the 22 men on the field looking like snorting bulls in a cartoon as they wait for the snap of each play. I've yet to see any fans in a barrel or with their chests painted, so maybe not all football fans are dumb or the dumb ones stayed home.

The announcers are making a big deal about how the Patriots have won the last 12 games, but don't get a lot of respect because they don't have any MVP-calibre offensive weapons. That's very shortsighted. They have two, just not where they're usually found.

Pats QB Tom Brady is as close to an MVP as you're going to find. He's already got a Super Bowl MVP to his credit, so it's not like he cares what anyone else thinks. Without pro-bowl receivers or running backs, he keeps everyone involved in the offense and maximizes all of their potential when it comes to winning games, which is what it's supposed to be about not statistics.

And they have a kicker, yes a kicker, who has won big playoff games and is used to kicking in chilly Gillette Stadium. So if he ends up factoring in the decision of this game, the chances are good for the Patriots to advance to the AFC Championship game.

As far as the Titans go, they continue their tough path back to the Super Bowl by facing yet another recent NFL Champion.

I already wrote in an earlier post what I thought of the Titans, but I'm watching Steve McNair and I'm wondering what he has against throwing the ball away.

Yes he's a warrior, but what does that have to do with giving up sacks and taking huge unnecessary hits to his already beat up body.

He'd rather scramble with two 285-lb lineman chasing him and a 240-lb linebacker in front of him just to get back to the line-of-scrimmage than throw it out of bounds and get the same result without having to run over a linebacker and end up with 800 lbs of defense laying all over him.

This is not the way to give your team the best chance to win when it needs an MVP, not any more MRIs.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

posted by James - 1:40 AM

Beep, beep, beep Wrigleyville Weather Report... (it was making that beeping quite often during the aforementioned playoff game to flash weather alerts. Grrrr!)

Snow has started to fall in the Just North of Wrigley Field Area. I'm not sure how long this will last, because it looked a lot like this earlier (snow is such a tease that way), but I was a little shocked when I looked at the updated weather reports, which are calling for some frighteningly low temperatures.

I hope everyone stays safe over the next few days where we'll get a whole bunch of snow and then have to deal with it for the next week (ahhh... reminds me of Eastern Washington), but take a second to make sure your pets (you know, those furry creatures who entrust us with their safety because they're not smart enough to do it themselves) are warm, inside and well-fed while you're at it.

I won't get too Bob Barker-ish, but now is the perfect time of year to go down to your local animal shelter and make a new friend or two. The increasingly cold climates means it's even more important to find these animals homes. Adoption of animals means less euthanization, less animals spending lonely nights in a cold cell and less animals spending lonelier and deadlier nights on even colder streets.

These animals need a better life, your love and your laps too! Whether you make a new friend or just keep tabs on your best one, take a second to consider a loved one who might not give much back, but can and often do make all the difference.

I miss you Johnny.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

posted by James - 11:34 PM

I’m up late awaiting the first great winter storm of the season, and my first as a Wrigleyville resident, and watching some highlights from the NFL wild-card games I watched earlier.

As wild-card games go, Tennessee’s 20-17 victory over Baltimore was an epic in both build-up and between the sidelines.

The matchup

Baltimore: Has a vaunted and storied defense capable of lifting the team to a victory on any day, as it did all the way to the 2000 NFL Championship. Their offense is one-sided, but propelled by the league’s No. 1 running game, led by 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis.

Tennessee: Has a balanced offense with co-MVP QB Steve McNair and a number of weapons at his disposal. Also has a very stout defense, which held its opponents under 30 points in all but three games (the Ravens allowed four).

More importantly, that stout defense allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL this season.

And they played like they could have stopped Lewis, O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson, holding the NFL Offensive MVP to only 35 yards.

The Titans defense gave up only 10 points (with the other seven coming from an interception return), allowing their offense to break a tie in the final minute on the leg of the ancient kicker Gary Anderson.

Though a 46-yard field goal from a 44-year-old kicker to eliminate at team with six-straight wins over you may scream of luck, this team also had an overabundance of toughness.

McNair gutted his way through another Titan success culminating with the final eight-play, 35-yard scoring drive and Eddie George played like a superhero.

George has come under criticism during the last three years of his career as he’s hovered around the 1,000 rushing yard mark while other running backs (i.e. Lewis, Priest Holmes, LaDanian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis) have posted gaudier numbers, but after this performance he will never have to answer questions about his heart.

While making a tackle to thwart another Ravens interception return, George separated his shoulder at the beginning of the second quarter. (Ouch! That hurts just typing it.)

Then he returned for the start of the second-half like he hadn’t had his shoulder ripped out of its socket just a quarter ago, except for the infusion of energy and passion that showed in his play and his team, helping them to overcome a three-point deficit and advance in the NFL playoffs.

There’s a good chance George didn’t have to come back. In fact, Chris Brown, his backup, had 61 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown in the first half.

But his “invincibility” as he took on his “off-field friend” Ray Lewis, who did his best to rub salt in the wound in a rather punishing manner, was infectious.

The Titans need look no further than McNair and George, their battered, bruised and dislocated warriors, for the necessary inspiration to carry them further in this postseason.

I’m just hoping George and McNair feel as inspired when they wake up tomorrow morning.

Friday, January 02, 2004

posted by James - 8:10 PM

Wow, that was quite long. I'll try not to keep it that long in the future. And please send any feedback on this or any other subject you'd like to see on here to jamesinwrigleyville@yahoo.com.

On another note, I have to give a big thumbs up to fellow Central Washington Wildcat and Bengals QB Jon Kitna for winning the 2003 Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

He's had a very interesting career, including going from an undrafted free agent in 1996 to leading the Seahawks to the playoffs in 1999 only to get replaced the following season when Mike Holmgren took over and Kitna didn't exactly remind him of Brett Favre.

Then he goes to Cincinnati and didn't remind anyone of Boomer Esiason, winning the job by default the previous two years and struggling out of the gate this year. With Bengals 2003 #1 draft pick Carson Palmer looking over his shoulder, Kitna then turned it on to post a career-high QB rating and keep the Bengals in the playoff hunt until the final week.

Read that again... the Bengals went from having the first draft pick in the league to almost making the playoffs in the next season, without that draft pick playing a single down. New Head Coach Marvin Lewis deserves a lot of credit for the amazing turnaround, but so does Kitna.

Having said that, why do I have this feeling he'll still have to look over his shoulder next year?

posted by James - 4:53 PM

I love the college football bowl season. It's the only time of year you can watch every major team in college football and quite a few of the minor ones within a span of a week... and, best of all, they're playing each other.

No matter what coast you live on, or which region you live in, they schedule these games so everyone can see them. No scheduling conflicts, no networks broadcasting just the biggest games - if your favorite team is playing or the game you're most interested in seeing is kicking off, you will be able to see it.

This doesn't mean that I'll sit down and watch every bowl game, and I'll probably watch even less with my beloved Washington Huskies staying home, but this means I won't be cursing ABC, CBS or ESPN for broadcasting some meaningless mid-season SEC game when my favorite team is on or some middle-of-the-road Pac-10 affair when a battle for BCS supremacy is going on.

These games have interest, intrigue and most have a healthy dose of controversy. And the best part is, we get to watch them all!

And when we talk about interest, intrigue and controversy, we must also talk about the BCS - the formula which determines the competitors for the national championship of the highest level of college football.

This season, USC and the AP writers have thrown a wrench into the best-laid BCS plans to crown a unified NCAA champion.

Even though USC finished the season as Pac-10 champion and ranked number one in both the AP poll and the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll, they were left out of the title game in favor of BCS-No. 1 Oklahoma and BCS-No. 2 LSU. Those two teams will play on Sunday in the Sugar Bowl.

The Trojans have already played their bowl game, soundly defeating red-hot, Big-10 champion Michigan in what amounted to a home game at the Rose Bowl. In all likelihood, this paves the way for the AP writers to be meddlesome muckrakers and name USC as their national champion.

The coaches' poll has already tied their hands in this respect by promising their number one spot to the winner of the BCS championship game.

No one could successfully argue USC didn't deserve a spot in that game. They won their conference, they won their last eight regular season games including lopsided victories against Washington, No. 14 Washington State and Oregon State, and like Oklahoma and LSU they had only the one blemish on their record.

Oklahoma and LSU both boast similarly great seasons to USC's, the main difference being the BCS championship contenders both played in conference title games to finish their seasons - LSU beating No. 11 Georgia for the second time in 10 games with Oklahoma losing the Big 12 championship to No. 10 Kansas State.

USC didn't have to face the challenge of a title game, because the Pac-10 determines their champion by conference record alone. So even though their loss came to a considerably less profiled opponent in a considerably less meaningful game, USC ended the regular season No. 1 in both polls. The sole reason: their loss came first.

If USC's loss to California came at the end of the season or in a conference title game, we aren't talking about the Trojans right now. We aren't talking about how unworthy Oklahoma and LSU are. We aren't talking about how the BCS system doesn't work.

This makes me sound like I'm anti-USC, which isn't entirely true (I am a Huskies fan remember). I have reservations about Oklahoma not winning their conference, yet playing for a national title. I'm just a fan of the system in place.

I like how it takes into account more than the subjective opinion of a few writers and coaches, who are very capable of bias and non-chalance, among other defects.

Sure it probably needs tweaking on some mathematical level of which I want absolutely no knowledge, and maybe they should let the coaches pick from the top four BCS teams, but it doesn't need to be scrapped in favor of a playoff system.

A playoff system would denigrate the regular season and reduce great bowl games to mere stepping stones.

The BCS system already assures fans the best teams are playing in the best bowl games. Why should teams like Ohio State or Florida or Texas get another shot at it? They had a whole season to prove themselves and they proved themselves unworthy to be a national champion.

This way the regular season means something.

The bowl games still mean something.

And the system still means something.

And I like it that way.

posted by James - 4:48 PM

Welcome to the Just North of Wrigley Field Blog hosted by yours truly James L. Crockett. I'll post a bio or something soon so you can know a little more about me and my interests... or maybe I won't on account of my penchance for laziness. So we'll see how that goes.

My laziness not withstanding, I'll try to post something everyday about various topics. Especially this time of year, there's an innumerate number of things to yak about with respect to my favorite subject of baseball. During the "offseason" (I put that in quotes because this is often the time with the most activity and where championships are won and lost) there's always moves to be talked about - some good, some bad and some downright dumbfounding - and I'll try to keep updated on my thoughts on the "Hot Stove Action" and into the season.

If there's anything in the sports world you want my insight on, drop me an e-mail at jamesinwrigleyville@yahoo.com. This is a new adventure for me, so come along for the ride and enjoy!