Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Building an Opening Day Roster

With less than a week remaining before the season finally begins (yes, this has been the longest spring training on record because of the WBC), the Bear Cubs are down to 27 players for 25 active roster spots. Not surprisingly, the final roster will include 13 position players and 12 pitchers. For the life of me, I do not understand Lou Piniella's obsession with having 12 pitchers to open a season, when only four starting pitchers are needed on a regular basis. With Sean Marshall in the fifth starter spot (by label at least, although one will argue that Rich Harden will be treated more like a typical fifth starter, with skipped starts at times), Marshall has shown an ability to be a swing man of sorts. There is no need to carry 12 pitchers, especially for a team with a limited bench, although it does make for good drama in this last week of spring training.

First, there are no real surprises among the position players. The starting infield of course consists of Geovany Soto, Derrek Lee, Mike Fontenot, Ryan Theriot, and Aramis Ramirez. In a smart move, the Cubs kept Koyie Hill as the backup catcher over Paul Bako, with Aaron Miles and Micah Hoffpaiur rounding out the bench. An area of real concern is the lack of depth with infielders: there is only one backup capable of playing third base. This is primarily based on the decision to keep Hoffpaiur as a pinch-hitter extraordinare. While no one can fault the decision to reward Hoffpaiur with a roster spot, his inclusion and the subtraction of Mark DeRosa does create a vulnerability.

The outfield will now be manned by Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Milton Bradley, who has hit nearly .500 this spring. Fukudome's starting position is tenuous, as Reed Johnson has really impressed this spring. Joey Gathright provides depth and speed.

The starting rotation should be solid, with Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and the aforementioned Harden and Marshall. Five of the seven bullpen spots appear set: Kevin Gregg will close, while Carlos Marmol and Aaron Heilman will set up. Neal Cotts is the only lefty in the pen (except if and when Marshall is available out of the pen), and Luis Vizcaino should provide a veteran presence.

The remaining two spots are up for grabs, with five remaining candidates: Jeff Samardzjia, Chad Gaudin, Chad Fox, Angel Guzman, and David Patton. The Cubs have already hinted that Fox will likely report to AAA. Gaudin has been shockingly bad this spring, and could be traded or released. Guzman, who is out of minor league options (meaning he must stay on the roster or be waived), has been decent in stretches this spring. Patton has been fantastic: as a Rule 5 pick, he must stay on the roster or be offered back to the Rockies. And Samardzjia, who was originally a candidate for the fifth starter spot, and been rocked this spring and would be best served with additional time at AAA. Patton has an inside track on a spot, and Guzman is the most likely candidate for the final spot, barring a trade or late signing.

When comparing this 25 man roster to last year's, there is significant turnover for a team that won 97 games. In this author's view, many of the moves are not likely to improve the team. While Kerry Wood was an injury risk and a potential $30 million investment, his veteran presence and leadership will be missed, despite Kevin's Gregg's ability. Aaron Miles is scrappy and effective as a 2B, but Mark DeRosa was hugely versatile and a big presence in the lineup. Another Piniella obsession, left-handed hitting, was DeRosa's only fault. Milton Bradley could be an improvement over Jim Edmonds (who he essentially replaces in the lineup), but only if he stays relatively healthy. In retrospect, the Cubs overpaid for Bradley's talents, compared to the one-year, $5 million contract that Bobby Abreu received from the Angels. And while the position of backup catcher is not terribly relevant, Henry Blanco will be missed as a mentor to Soto and will be replaced by--guess what--a switch hitting journeyman.

My prediction is that the Cubs will take a step back this year, but still win the division with 90-92 victories. Only success in October matters, though. Finally, it bears noting that at this time last year, Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds, and Rich Harden were not yet Cubs. Much can happen over a long season, especially with an active general manager and a new owner.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why the WBC Is Good for Baseball

The World Baseball Classic has undeniably received more than its fair share of criticism and skepticism this spring. For a variety of reasons, the WBC has caused consternation with many managers, players, and fans. For example, just this week, several players have been injured, including Chipper Jones and Mark Lindstrom from the U.S. team. Other teams remain concerned that their star players are being overexposed for this point of spring training. For instance, a starting pitcher in the WBC, such as Daisuke Matsusaka, can throw up to 105 pitches in his next start. His counterparts in the Red Sox camp, such as Jon Lester, will likely be limited to 60 to 70 pitches.

The extra exposure, and the raised stakes of playing for one's country, has made WBC games a completely different animal than a regular spring training affair. Most notably, the players are giving full effort, many for an entire nine innings. Consequently, some teams have held their stars off the WBC rosters to protect them from injury. Other players have asked to be taken off the rosters or not considered at all. What remains is, in many cases, a hodgepodge of players who are not, in fact, the very best players in the game from each country.

The initial idea behind the WBC was to create an international competition that included star-quality major league players. The idea was welcomed by many, especially after baseball was removed as an Olympic sport. The first go round, in 2006, was a rounding success for some countries but was a disappointment for the U.S. This year, the second WBC has gone much better for the U.S., and instead the goat of the Classic has been the Dominican Republic, who many expected to win.

One may ask--why should we, as fans of a MLB team, care about an international competition that does nothing to end, say, a 100-year championship drought? Further, why should we have our top players exposed to the increased risk of injury and overuse instead of regular, mid-March preparation for a six-month grind of a season?

For some, there may never be an adequate justification for taking premium players out of camp for an exhibition tournament. For this author, and likely many others, the WBC represents a compelling scenario where the top players in the game play for their respective countries for respect and pride. It is unbridled competition at its finest, and anyone that denies that should watch this year's Classic. For example, a Round 1 game between the U.S. and Canada played in Toronto drew a raucous crowd of more than 40,000--more than a usual crowd for a respectable Blue Jays team. Watching matchups between Asian powerhouses Japan and Korea and Latin powers such as Puerto Rico and Venezuela--where the players and fans are truly impassioned--is pure joy.

There are, of course, ways to make the WBC more receptive to teams and their players. First, playing the games in March is always going to be problematic. Players are often coming off injuries, or teams want to protect young stars from overwork. Often though, these very same players play winter league baseball following a full season. Hosting the WBC in November may be somewhat anticlimactic following the World Series, but for the players on the remaining 28 teams, and the fans thereof, the WBC would be welcomed.

An additional way to encourage fan involvement is to offer them the opportunity to vote on WBC rosters, much like the All Star game. And like the All Star game, the fans should only have the right to choose a portion of the players--the WBC squads must have the flexibility of a typical 25 man roster, including middle relievers and utility players.

Playing the WBC in November would entice more players to participate. While some players may be injured after a full MLB season, and others may have played deep into the postseason, a greater majority of the star quality players would be likely to participate versus the current March timeframe. Having top players participate makes the event that much more special to the fans, which ultimately drives the success of the WBC.

This fan will continue to enjoy the games, and of course hope that injury does not befall key Cubs performers such as Geovany Soto and Kosuke Fukudome.