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.

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