Youth Moving North
This past winter, the Chicago Cubs spent $38.5 million on three overpriced relievers on the wrong side of their peaks. They traded 3 blossoming young pitchers for a center fielder with no power coming off the worst season of his career. Right field was filled with a hitter lacking in big-time power and the ability to hit southpaws. And, inevitably, their two headline starters were deemed not ready for Opening Day.
By April 3, Cubs fans were ready to cry their typical, "Wait 'Til Next Year." What's odd, however, is that this call to the future suddenly provides genuine hope: there is reason for optimism around the bend.
Despite a little pressure from the front office, Dusty Baker's opening day lineup card featured two young guns: 23-year-old shortstop Ronny Cedeno and 24-year-old left fielder Matt Murton. While young pitchers have been in and out of the North Side for the past five years, recent history has offered Wrigley Field visitors few looks at prospect position players. Corey Patterson didn't instill very much confidence.
But in his first at-bat of the new season, Murton proved me (and others) wrong, hitting a 3-run homer that would lead to the eventual Cubs victory. His three-hit effort provided a glimpse to a bright future, one with consistent contact and steady, solid power. Cedeno has built confidence with great defense, an early season five-game hitting streak, and a 4-for-4 effort on the Cubs largest stage yet.
Those that tuned into Sunday Night Baseball were also lucky enough to see a 25-and-under starter that entered the big leagues without daunting comparisons to Tom Seaver or Nolan Ryan. Sean Marshall -- on my 2005 breakout list, though he saved his big jump for Arizona, 2006 -- became the Cubs fourth starter in the most non-Dusty move of the current manager's tenure. In the face of other, older (though not by much) options, Baker opted for a southpaw with a blend of poise and upside narrowly removed from A-ball. For that, he should be commended.
A quick glance at Marshall's line (4.1 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 2 K, 1 BB) instills the image of a true rookie, producing nightmares of Steve Smyth for Cubs fans. However, Marshall was far better than his line suggests. His two-seam fastball was controlled and consistently down in the zone, producing 8 groundball outs. His cutter was a great mix, jamming right-handers, and his curve showed fantastic potential. He made one gaffe -- a belt-high fastball that Scott Rolen tatooed -- and was taken from the game too early to fix his own bases loaded mistake.
While Marshall doesn't bring with him a ceiling that matches Cubs pitching prospects of old, the poise he showed Sunday was a welcome addition to the Cubs future plans. Amidst the uncertainty of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and soon-recalled Angel Guzman are more dependable options like Carlos Zambrano and Marshall. It's a future rotation in desperate need of sixth and seventh starters on deck, without question, but it also has top-of-the-NL upside.
If Angel Guzman is the next phenom set to join the Cubs, Felix Pie is likely the most anticipated. The long-boasted young outfielder has started his AAA season magnificently, batting .500 through four games. In them, Pie has also collected two triples and three (for three) stolen bases. The 'raw' labels are starting to become replaced with 'ready'. While Juan Pierre currently stands in the way -- and his constant praise and considerable cost does pose an unnecessary burden -- one can only think Jim Hendry will provide a path for Pie when needed.
Offensively, Hendry has only become locked in to his most necessary players. As of today, both Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee will be officially in blue until Pie's superstardom. While the development of Murton, Pie and Cedeno are all essential to long-term success, Lee and Ramirez provide the team with needed certainty. Middle of the order certainty. And Michael Barrett, fast becoming a clutch-legend in the Windy City, will be in town (at the very least) through 2007.
The Cubs are also financially committed to their bullpen, in which their three game-ending veterans will be in town until the end of 2008. Relievers, however, age slowly, so the Cubs will need to mix keeping Ryan Dempster, Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry healthy while finding other cheap options like they have in Mike Wuertz, Will Ohman and even Scott Williamson. This balance, between expensive and inexpensive, is essential. Despite trading away possible lenders in Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto (among others), others like Carlos Marmol and Jae-Kuk Ryu should keep the Cubs options plentiful for some time.
At the end of the season, Jim Hendry will be forced to make decisions regarding his aging mentor (Greg Maddux), steady second baseman (Todd Walker), and a slew of other role players. The idea of trading Kerry Wood, and even Mark Prior, will undoubtedly pass by his desk more than once. The temptation of big-name free agents will have the Cubs making calls.
Chicago is in a good position for the 2007 season not because of the money they have to spend. Instead, it will be Jim Hendry's ability to make meaningful miniscule additions (Murton, maybe Freddie Bynum) and to cultivate enough prospects that will leave the North Side on top for some time.
Notes From Below the Surface
Back with more on Friday...