Monday, March 27, 2006

posted by James - 1:53 PM

It's time for some March Madness... no, not that silly college basketball tournament that nobody on earth could predict. It's time for some fantasy baseball.

The Just North of Wrigley Field fantasy baseball league is looking for some able-minded baseball enthusiasts to participate in a draft at 8:30 pm CST, Tuesday, March 28th.

All you need to do is get to yourself to Yahoo!, input the league id (273086) and the password (gocubs), pick an interesting team name and then prepare to get schooled!

After the conclusion of this draft, I'll post an update on the state of my fantasy baseball offerings for the 2006 season. I've already made one small trade that I'll be interested in following throughout the season.

Enough with the fantasy, on to the reality of the Chicago Cubs, where it was a fantasy to think they could keep "stud pitchers" Mark Prior and Kerry Wood healthy.

The Cubs are getting some good returns on Wood's recovery, but who knows what's going to happen with Prior. This means there could be some unfamiliar names in the Cubs rotation to start the year... well not to the Cubs fans who constantly look to the farm system to save them from 100 years of torture.

I'll get to that in a second, but right now we'll focus on the two hold overs from last year's pitching staff who get bumped up a few notches in the short term.

Even though they moved him in and out of the rotation last season when he really wasn't effective in either role, the Cubs still brought back LHP Glendon Rusch during the winter and gave him a two-year deal. I had a problem with it when they signed him, and I still have a problem with it even if they need the depth now.

If thought they needed to go after depth then, and committing multiple millions and multiple years to a player with his kind of track record didn't cut it for me. Remember, two years ago he was coming off four-straight, double-digit-loss seasons with ERAs only a Brewer pitcher or Met pitcher would love.

I'd feel a lot more confident about counting on him if the team didn't royally screw up his role last year, pitching him out of the bullpen and Ryan Dempster in the rotation after after preparing for the opposite the entire spring. Not having Dempster at the back-end of the bullpen and the Rusch in the rotation, cost this team any chance of competing last year.

The only bright spot about Rusch is he finished the season with four wins in five starts in September, proving he can be a competent pitcher with a defined role, but I have no confidence in this being the case, and I sure wanted the Cubs to do better than Rusch as a fall-back plan for the inevitable injuries to Prior and Wood.

Rusch has struggled this spring, but had a strong, five-inning performance last week.

The other holdover is RHP Jerome Williams. What can I say about Jerome other than I'm happy he's here and LaTroy Hawkins isn't? Ok, I have more to say than that, but anybody who tried to survive a Hawkins performance at the "Friendly Confines" knows what I'm talking about.

If the Cubs show GM Jim Hendry the door tomorrow, we'll still be thanking him for this deal years from now. Not only did Hendry fill a need on the team last year, and acquire another outstanding, nearly-ready young arm in David Aardsma, but he rid the team of an outright cancer in Hawkins.

I've talked about Hawkins here before. I don't hate him. I fully supported his signing for the 2004 season, but Hendry let Coach Dusty Baker abuse and misuse him. Once that ship left port, it was time to sink it. Hendry let Baker ruin what should have been the best signing of that offseason, and he owed it to us to make something out of it.

Williams started 17 games for the Cubs with a sub-4.00 ERA. I worry a little because he doesn't have a deep track record in the majors. He's never started more than 25 games in a season and his K/BB ratio doesn't inspire me, and his spring numbers are showing that as well. However, he's pitched much better in his last two outings and is stretching out his arm. At least for the first month of the season, he's going to be more than just a back-end starter. He's going to have to be on the mound for 6+ innings for the Cubs to be successful.

Unfortunately, these are the most experienced and entrenched options to fill the three rotation slots behind Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux. The Cubs won't need a fifth starter until April 15th, but when they do Wood, Prior or former Houston Astro Wade Miller have very little shot at being ready. This means a rookie is going to make that start, if not a sooner one.

I'm going to evoke my list fetish to illustrate my point of who should open up the season in the Cubs rotation.
  1. Carlos Zambrano rhp
  2. Mark Prior (DL)
  3. Kerry Wood rhp (DL)
  4. Greg Maddux rhp
  5. Wade Miller rhp (DL)
  6. Glendon Rusch lhp
  7. Jerome Williams rhp
  8. Rich Hill lhp
  9. Angel Guzman rhp
  10. Sean Marshall lhp
  11. Jae Ryu rhp
Trips to Mark O'Neal's office notwithstanding, that's 11 names and one of the last four will make April starts for the Cubs if they don't acquire another arm.

Rich Hill has the benefit of starting four games for the Cubs last year, impressing in his first two starts before he figured out you need more than just hit-and-miss control of a baffling curveball to get MLB hitters out... at least I hope he did.

Angel Guzman has tantalized Cubs faifthful for many, many rotations around the Sun. This could finally be the year he puts his health issues behind him and makes his major-league debut. On Saturday, he pitched four hitless innings, with two strike outs and as many walks...

in relief of Sean Marshall, who despite having only four professional appearances above the single-A level, hasn't given up squat to opposing hitters, including pitching four no-hit innings of his own (the Cubs would lose the no-hitter in the 10th inning, but go on to win the game 1-0).

The 6-7, 23-year- old lefthander is the talk of spring training. As good as Rich Hill's curveball is, Marshall's might be just as good, and he knows where it's going and has other complimentary pitches.

Marshall has given up only three hits while striking out nine batters in 10.1 innings without giving up a run. He struggled with his control on Saturday, giving up four of his six spring walks, but he also struck out five. And it impressed me, he did it against Oakland major-leaguers Eric Chavez, Jason Kendall, Milton Bradley, Dan Johnson and Jay Payton, not a split-squad or, even worse, Kansas City.

I'm trying to temper my excitement. Everyone from John Sickels to Baseball America will tell you, Angel Guzman is a top-five prospect with a sound, healthy, stable arm and Sean Marshall ain't far behind him, even with a scant amount of AA experience to draw on. These are the kind of young pitchers that can set an organization up to succeed for many years with high-level production on the cheap.

...but take a look at the above list. They're, at best, behind seven guys who are going to get a chance to start for the Cubs at one point or another. The Cubs have committed to them as long as they're healthy. My point... is it worth it to jerk around these 23-year-old pitchers who haven't pitched a single inning at AAA or finished a full season of AA, risking their fragile arms and egos?

If they're not willing to give them a full-time rotation slot from the start, barring complete, abject failure, they should give make Hill the fifth starter, since he's pitched on a major-league mound, dominated AAA (6-1, 65 IP, 53 H, 92/14 K/BB!!!), and would probably make an even-better lefthander out of the pen when Wood, Prior, etc comes back.

I would love to see what Guzman and Marshall got, but seeing it in Iowa would be probably be best for the Cubs' future, and if they stayed there the whole season that would probably be best for the Cubs' present.

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