2007 Chicago Cubs National League Ballclub Post-Mortem

“Post-Mortem”: truer words were never spoken, don’t you think?

So it’s time to admit I was wrong — but only a little bit — about the overall impact to the team of the Alphonso Soriano signing. I predicted they would lose only 87 games, down from 96 in ’06, but as it turned out, they went 85-77 and won the damn division. A bad division, yes. But they won it, and they deserved it.

So kudos to Lou Piniella, manager of this bizarre team, for figuring out a lineup that didn’t kill him on defense, much, and managing a pitching staff so well that his starters made all their starts for the year, and 4 of them had winning records, and finding a bullpen combo that became automatic (Marmol 7th, Howry 8th, Dempster 9th). And kudos to Hendry, and Piniella, for finding and playing some guys who played team-first ball: Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Mark DeRosa, Koyie Hill, Jacque Jones. And more kudos to Hendry, and Piniella, for getting rid of some other guys who played me-first ball: Barrett, Izturis.

And then my doom-and-gloom season’s prediction came true, in stunning fashion, in the 3 NLDS games against Arizona. Soriano was a non-factor, except as far as he hurt the team, both by failing to drive in runners in scoring position, and by failing to get on base himself. But they might have absorbed this ineffectiveness, if only Lee and Ramirez drove in, you know, anybody.

Instead, they managed to make the D-backs pitching look unbeatable, which is news to the Colorado Rockies, who are now up 3 games to none on the Diamondbacks, poised for the sweep tonight. Last night, Torrealba hit a three run homer on an off speed pitch, by, get this, not swinging so hard that he completely missed the pitch. Apparently, you can actually hit the ball this way, instead of providing free breeze for the catcher. Cubs hitters, take note.

So where to now, from here? While the Cubs overall player development system has evolved from decades of being easily one of the worst in all of professional sports, to becoming decent or even pretty good, they still have a long way to go.

Their free agent signings are usually worthless. Ditto for trades. On the plus side, farm system talent is showing signs of usefulness, ever since they somehow stumbled over Kerry Wood. And with Ryne Sandberg managing in A ball, maybe their young players can learn how to play the game the right way for a change.

But still, a frank and honest assessment of their entire player development and scouting system, top to bottom, is that it is inferior. They don’t scout the right players to develop, they don’t develop players the right way,and when all these inferior players get to the point where management realizes they can’t use them, they rush right out and get the wrong kind of veteran players via trades and free agency. This, in a nutshell, is why they’ve been so bad, for so long.

The Cubs keep bringing up promising players like Corey Patterson and Felix Pie, who are athletic and fast (and Pie is a defensive wizard), but who are not strong enough to hit anything but mistakes for home runs, yet swing from the heels on every pitch. Um, what the hell? Learn to go oppo, friend. Your batting average will rise 40 points, and you’ll drive in more runs.

If I can see this, as a more-than-casual but less-than-obsessive fan, why can’t the ownership?

It can’t be just a coincidence that the Marlins, a team that didn’t exist until 1993, has already won 2 World Series titles AND has developed good young players. This years NLCS finalists are the Diamondbacks, who in their 10 years of existence have already won one World Series and have a bountiful farm system, and the Rockies, who haven’t won yet but look ready to, and who also have a deep farm system. Look at the Dodgers, the Brewers, even the freaking Expos, who consistently developed some of the best young players in baseball for years, and had to trade most of them away because they couldn’t pay the salaries and nobody wanted to play in Montreal.

The players are out there, to find and to develop, but only some teams find them. This is not just bad luck. This is incompetence.

So new owners are coming in soon, and whether it is local Chicago businessman John Canning, or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, can anybody honestly not recommend to either of them that the best approach is to build a new organization, top down?

Here’s my take on what they need …

… Scouts who understand the difference between winning and piling up stats. Coaches who can teach winning as a thought process. Scouts and coaches who value speed and defense above nearly every offensive category except OBP.

… Pitchers, and catchers, who know how to get hitters out, regardless of what the radar gun says. Catchers who block ALL balls in the dirt, and who can call a game. Leadoff hitters who don’t strike out much, and who can run. Hitters in the two and three spots who can turn on inside pitches for home runs, but who hit outside pitches to, duh, right field. Left-handed hitters, some with speed, some with power.

… A GM that understands that winning is not done with high-priced free agents, but with deep teams filled with team players, so as to minimize any weak spots on the roster.

… A manager that knows how to get the most out of his lineup, and his defense, and his pitching. He has to kick some ass when necessary, and have the power to get certain players run out of town. Current manager Lou Piniella does all of this, very well already. He is not the problem.

None of this is revolutionary or revelatory. I’ve done nothing more than watch baseball for 40 years, and look at the teams that won, and see what they did. This is not brain surgery; winning baseball is pretty much the same game it’s been for a hundred years.

As Wee Willie Keeler famously said, “Hit ’em where they ain’t”.

It still works.

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