Baseball Beat/WTNYSeptember 16, 2005
What Went Wrong
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

As a fan, there is nothing worse. Over the long season, your time builds hope for a late season run. Then, without warning, at or around Labor Day, they take a nosedive. The race becomes out of reach, and you're left with nothing but broken dreams.

Suddenly the "Baseball Tonight"s of the world have forgotten your club, spending their valuable time on those organizations with heartbeats. Without warning, coverage is gone, and you're left with pigskin and the "Wait 'til Next Year" mantra.

Fear no more, Baseball Analysts (with a little help from our friends) has you covered. We reached out to members of the baseball blogosphere covering the four September flops of 2005: the Mets, the Twins, the Dodgers and the Cubs. Sure, not all teams had equal chances a few weeks ago, but go to their fan bases and they'll tell ya, somewhere inside there was hope...until September. So, we asked four bloggers questions about their team, from the highs and lows to the winter ahead.

We start with the first team to hit the rocks: Dusty's boys. To help us analyze the Cubs, we have brought in Baseball Toaster and Cub Town writer Derek Smart. His answers...

What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

When Achilles and his infamous heel are linked with the 2005 Cubs I get an image of an enormous, athletic, mighty Grecian who, despite the traits which make him ideal for mortal combat, is covered from head to toe with fleshy knobs - vulnerable heels scattered over the length and breadth of his body like warts on a toad, offering so many inviting targets for the opposition that one wonders why one would bother to magically armor the rest.

Or to put it more plainly, it's difficult to point to a single factor that made the Cubs a disappointment this season.

There were bullpen issues galore, as it took the club seemingly forever to determine that LaTroy Hawkins was, for whatever reason, simply unable to perform as a closer, or that Ryan Dempster was better suited for the bullpen than the rotation, or that Glendon Rusch was Dempster's opposite in that regard (although they even forgot that after a while).

There were also issues among the starting staff, as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both missed extended periods with injury, Greg Maddux continued to devolve into a highly paid fifth starter, and those pitchers plugged in to cover for those missing time enjoyed only intermittent success, if any at all.

It would also be easy to blame it all on injuries, and certainly that's been part of the problem, but even losing all the days and dollars they did doesn't fully explain what happened, nor do I believe it's the single, fixable thing that should be focused on by the organization during the off-season.

What really killed the Cubs this year, the thing that made it nearly impossible for them to have a season that could be termed as a success, was their appalling lack of teamwide OBP.

Despite being second in the NL in batting average, the team is (as of the end of play September 12) eleventh in the league in OBP and dead last in walks. This is how a team that is also second in SLG manages to be seventh in runs scored - no one's on base when the big hit comes.

In order for the Cubs to have a chance at the postseason next year they have to have more people with big red C's on their hats standing on little white bags on hot summer days and nights.

How do you hope Jim Hendry attacks this problem in the winter?

Item one on Jim Hendry's agenda needs to be deciding on a free agent target who can help with the problem, particularly at the top of the lineup where the team took a disproportionately large hit from their on-base issues, and pursue him aggressively.

One of Hendry's strengths as a GM has been an ability to, in general, keep from overpaying for free agents in terms of time and/or treasure, and this has been achieved primarily by keeping his nose out of bidding wars. He has a price he's willing to pay and when things get significantly beyond that point, he tips his cap and walks away.

However, the Cubs are beyond the stage where that strategy gets them anything, at least in terms of solving the issue of men on the bags at the top of the order. There are only a few options out there for the job, they will be expensive, and Hendry has to be willing to pay - even overpay - or else the solution isn't likely to be found.

Factoring all of this in, my ideal - perhaps not in a vacuum but in the market to come - is Rafael Furcal, who not only can provide an adequate lead-off man from an OBP perspective, but also helps solve some speed issues the team has had, along with shoring up what has been a weak middle infield defense.

Furcal will cost a bundle, particularly if the salaries given out to men like Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria get factored heavily into the negotiations, but without legitimate in-house options likely to come to town in 2006 (I just can't see Felix Pie getting any kind of real shot until, at best, mid-year), I think it's a cost the Cubs can't afford not to take on.

The other big OBP sinkhole was...well...the entire outfield, and filling those holes should be Item Number Two on the agenda. Left field can be solved simply by sending Matt Murton out there every day, and while a prerequisite for doing that might be an alteration of Dusty Baker's DNA (despite some very obvious flaws, I doubt the Cubs' manager is going anywhere), sometimes you have to take one for the team, right Skip?

As for the rest of the outfield, I could go on - Example 1: Wouldn't Brian Giles look yummy in Cubbie blue? Example 2: Taping Corey Patterson's bat to his shoulder = Instant OBP Improvement - but further speculation might result in extraordinary foolishness - Example 3: Now playing center field: Tom Jane as "The Mick" - so I'll stop.

Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

He wouldn't have been my pick before the season started - I would have said Aramis Ramirez, or even one of the Big Three starters - but at this point in the year the answer is so obvious that it's almost not worth stating. Still, since you asked, I'll tell you who my MVP is: Neifi Perez.

(A pause while the author has the spirit of Dusty Baker exorcised from his corporeal body.)

I mean: Derrek Lee.

As for Least Valuable, I'll have to go with my old favorite, Jose Macias. He's not the worst player on the team in terms of VORP - that's Corey Patterson with his shocking - 7.9 to Macias' second place -3.2 figure - but he compounds his lack of discernable offensive skills with an accompanying failure to contribute anything of value on defense.

Patterson may have been awful with the stick this year, but at least he plays a good center field. Macias barely plays a good cheerleader.

Season Highlight?

The emergence of Derrek Lee as an elite offensive force.

Alright, that may turn out to be an exaggeration over the long term, as I can't say I expect him to approach this year's level of production in the future - yes, he will drive in 100 runs again; yes, he will score 100 runs again; but I have a hard time believing he'll be hanging around the 1.100 OPS neighborhood over the next few years.

Still, as far as this year's concerned, any "highlight moments" I might bring up nearly always would include the man I've dubbed "The Savior" anyway, so in this season where the good times have been difficult to remember - what with the remarkable staying power of all the baseball related horror I've witnessed - it's the greatness of Lee's entire season that I'll recall most fondly.

Season Lowlight?

I'm so unsure where to go with this. There was the worst way I've seen the club lose a game this year, which happened when LaTroy Hawkins tried to end the contest on a lineout double play in the top of the ninth but somehow managed to bounce the ball off the helmet of Jose Offerman and into the stands, scoring the tying and eventual winning runs for Philadelphia.

There are two losing streaks of eight games to think of, the up and down injury woes of Kerry Wood, and the line shot that nearly ended Mark Prior's career, but I don't think those quite do it.

No, to sum it all up, to really pinpoint the lowlight of the season, you have to go way back to the moment when Nomar Garciaparra tore his (gulp) groin coming out of the batters box in April.

I think there were times during the year when I actually felt lower, but in retrospect, that was the moment when it all began to come apart. Think of it as the lowlight that started it all, the event that cascaded into everything else bad that happened throughout the year. It was, indeed, the instant when the season was truly lost, even if we didn't fully realize it at the time.

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Next, we have the other organization that was not ecstatic about their hopes on September 1: the Dodgers. To talk about them, we brought in (who else?) another Toaster writer, Jon Weisman. His answers:

What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

The Achilles heel, as well as every other body part in sight. It's been well-documented that the Dodgers went all-world with injuries this season. Whether you buy into the idea that those wounds were self-inflicted or bad feng shui from the Dodger Stadium seating changes, 2005 sure rubbed the wrong way. In terms of what was left on the field, the biggest problem (and one that gets no press) was the pitching. A team ERA of 4.50 - 21st in baseball - is, for a Dodger Stadium team, practically Charlie Brown-like.

How do you hope Paul DePodesta attacks this problem in the winter?

With humility and backbone, both of which I like to think he has. With a willingness to learn from his mistakes and a willingness to stick with good philosophies that the fates sidetracked. To increase the scoring, even with Drew returning, DePodesta's going to need a first-rate slugger, in part because Jeff Kent will probably tail slightly from his 2005 numbers. To help the pitching - that's going to be tougher. The Dodgers have prospects ready to help at least the bullpen; that plus Eric Gagne's return should solve those problems. But the rotation is highly questionable, especially because Jeff Weaver probably isn't returning (and at the salary he's going to demand, probably shouldn't). Brad Penny is somewhat reliable, who knows about Derek Lowe and Odalis Perez, and then who knows, period, because the minor league aces might not be ready yet. Finally, there's the ongoing poker game with Jim Tracy to deal with - it's time for the players to show their cards.

Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

Kent is clearly the MVP, with statistical contributions that dwarf those of anyone else on the team. And in a sense, the LVP has to be Darren Dreifort - remember him? For guys who actually played, there has to be an argument for Jose Valentin, who did little but limp for about 90 percent of the season. But without shame, I'm actually going to factor in a little chemistry into the criteria and cast my vote for Scott Erickson, who not only provided nothing but trouble in the No. 5 spot of the starting rotation - at a time when the Dodgers were still a plus-.500 team - but also emptied the first beaker of clubhouse poison by blaming everyone but himself for the calamity.

Season Highlight?

The 12-2 start calls to us from our past like fond memories of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.

Season Lowlight?

It's a tough year when surgery for Gagne doesn't even reach the lowlight medal round. Drew's broken wrist alerted us to the stark reality of 2005, and Kelly Wunsch's season-ending misstep on the Coors Field bullpen stairs, while by a bit player, hit over the head with it. With the Milton Bradley unraveling in August, things just got ugly. But I also go back to the month of May, when a staff-wide dead-arm period seemed to hit the Dodgers and the team allowed 150 runs in 28 games. Just average pitching during that time would have changed the complexion of the entire season.

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Finally, we'll round out the National League teams with the New York Mets. While staying afloat in baseball's toughest division for awhile, the Mets fell apart around Labor Day. In to talk about it is Ricardo Gonzalez from Metsgeek:

What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

Though a talented team, the Mets had many Achilles' heels this year. The back-end of the bullpen gave us some problems, Willie Randolph had a rough rookie year, and Jose Reyes was seemingly unable to take ball four. But if I had to choose just one deficiency of the 2005 Mets, it would be without a question the production of the right side of the infield. Both Doug Mientkiewicz and the lethal combination of Miguel Cairo and Kaz Matsui provided the Mets with the worst production from first base and second base in the major leagues. If the Mets had been able to get just average production from those two positions, the team could very well be printing playoff tickets right now.

How do you hope Omar Minaya attacks this problem in the winter?

Well, considering that Paul Konerko is the best first baseman available in free agency, that's hard to say. I suppose that I would like to see Omar explore the trade market and see what's out there. As for second base, unless a better option presents itself, I think Kaz Matsui should be given another chance. If he fails, Anderson Hernandez and Jeff Keppinger are just a phone call away.

Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

MVP: For a team that is fighting to reach .500, the Mets sure seem to have a lot of candidates for most valuable player, but because of his consistency and talent, no one deserves it more than David Wright. At the young age of 22, he's already one of the 10 best players in the NL and the scary part is that he's going to get better.

LVP: A lot of Mets have really drawn my ire this year, but none of them have irritated me as much as Miguel Cairo and his .258 OBP when batting second.

Season Highlight:

There have been a lot of good games this year, but none felt as good as the Mets' first win. Here's what I wrote about it when it happened:

This was one of those games in where the outcome defines the type of ballgame. If we lose, its another tough loss . If we win, it's a classic. And a classic it was. In a day where John Smoltz was at its nastiest, Pedro Martinez, Rey Pedro, delivered a performance so magnificent that is beyond adjectives. In a day where the Mets a clutch hit, Carlos Beltran, the matinee star, delivered the biggest hit of the year. In a day where the Mets needed to win, they won, and hope is still alive.

Season Lowlight:

With the season on the line, the bases loaded, and Miguel Cabrera at the plate, Willie Randolph decided that it was time for Shingo Takatsu to make his Met debut. Not surprisingly, Cabrera to hit a bases clearing double just past Cliff Floyd in left field that not only sealed the game, but the Mets' season as well.

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Lastly, we will finish with Aaron Gleeman, talking about the Minnesota Twins. After staying in the Wild Card race for most of the season, the Twins fell badly behind the division rival Indians in the last month. Here's Aaron's take on why...

What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

Without question, the offense. The Twins' pitching staff has been fantastic all year, but the offense stopped producing months ago and is now one of the most pathetic groups in all of baseball. Given even an average number of runs to work with, Johan Santana would be on his way to a second straight American League Cy Young and the Twins would be right in the thick of the Wild Card race.

How do you hope Terry Ryan attacks this problem in the winter?

I am worried, because there isn't an obvious solution to the problem. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Jason Bartlett are holding down "of the future" tags for three positions. Mauer has been excellent while Morneau and Bartlett have both struggled at the plate, making it tough to upgrade the offense at first base and shortstop by doing anything but giving them another year to get better. There is a lot of room to improve at designated hitter and potentially in both outfield corners, but the Twins don't have the money to make that happen externally.

Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

The MVP has been Santana, who has pitched about as well as he did last year (but without the run support/luck/whatever you want to call it). Mauer has basically been the only above-average hitter who has stayed healthy and productive all year. Carlos Silva, Brad Radke, Jesse Crain, Joe Nathan, and Juan Rincon have also been very good (and you'll notice they all throw the ball for a living).

As for the Least Valuable Player, I'd go with Bret Boone, just because it's too tough to pick one LVP from the many bad performances among hitters and Boone's brief stint with the Twins was laughably bad.

Season Highlight:

Well, sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, back in mid-August was nice. But if that's really the highlight of the season -- and I honestly can't think of anything a whole lot better -- it's been a pretty sad year.

Season Lowlight:

Take your pick of excruciating one-run losses. To me this season has been defined by the pitching staff turning in solid performance after solid performance and the offense wasting them by getting shut down by mediocre pitchers. You could blindfold yourself and throw a dart at the schedule and you'd hit a frustrating loss in which the Twins' starter pitched well enough to win.

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That's all, boys and girls. We'd like to thank our guests for visiting this week and sharing their thoughts. And for those of you out there with one of these four as your team, we apologize. And we feel for you...more than you know.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]


I don't think you meant Sept 2004.

You could have included the Padres in the "what went wrong" list...oh, yeah, they'll probably win the NL West.

Xlnt point, Jeff. Just because a team wins its division doesn't necessarily mean things went right. I suspect we may be asking "What Went Wrong" with a few playoff-bound teams sometime next month.

No, to sum it all up, to really pinpoint the lowlight of the season, you have to go way back to the moment when Nomar Garciaparra tore his (gulp) groin coming out of the batters box in April.

... It was, indeed, the instant when the season was truly lost, even if we didn't fully realize it at the time.

For what it's worth, I think there were a lot of us who realized at the time that it was the end of the year. There were a few with irrational exuberance, but everyone else realized that this Cubs team wasn't that talented, and that everything would have to go right in order to win. In the end, so many things went wrong I'm not sure it mattered, but there was never any chance that this team minus most of Nomar's season was going to the playoffs.

That second paragraph was supposed to have italics. It did in the preview ....

The biggest problem with the Cubs is that too many of the players don't seem to know how to play baseball. At the very least, they don't seem to have good baseball "insticts". Or maybe too many just have ADD, as they don't know how many outs there were.

Too many of these guys can't hit the cutoff man, don't know how to run down a runner caught between third and home, go back to first to tag up in case a ball is caught in the outfield making the third out, can't execute a reasonable bunt, don't cover first when the ball is hit to the right side of the field, get caught sleeping while running at first, can't shorten his swing and just make contact, try to pull an outside pitch, and so on and so forth.

Incidents that would embarras your little league team continually occur.

And of course, there is Dusty. Tony LaRusso ordered a hit and run and a safety squeeze to score two runs a couple of days ago. In a game that had little but pride in it. (There were going to win the Central one of these days, anyhow.) His players did their jobs and scores resulted. Dusty can't even get some of his guys to make contact.

Three Cub pitchers in a single game fail to cover first, something they should have been doing since little league as an automatic play. First time it happens. A good manager shakes his head, and gives a little lecture to his pitching staff. Second time, the manager ought to blow his top, kick over the ice bucket and threaten the next pitcher who doesn't cover with disenbowlment and eternal damnation. Third time, IN THE SAME GAME, the Manager ought to be fired. Because whatever the reason, his team just isn't playing baseball. Pitchers can blow the play when the ball is tossed to first, BUT THEY HAVE TO BE THERE. They have to show up to play.

And that's the real problem with the Cubs this year. Too many players, and the Manager, just haven't shown up to play.