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cubs-cards preview part 2: five questions

the cubs haven't had such a good year so far, but Bleed Cubbie Blue has. the SB Nation's cub affiliate has emerged as one of the best in an extremely crowded field of cub blogs, drawing more readers than any site except the four-year-old Cub Reporter. al yellon, who writes BCB, has a cool convention he rolls out before an important series: he and a blogger from the cubs' opponent answer five questions each about their teams, and then cross-post the entire set of Qs and As at both blogs. then readers at both sites jump in, and before long a spirit of a) friendly rivalry or b) bitter, spiteful hatred reigns on the comments pages. be forewarned: off-duty cops from decatur illinois have been employed as bouncers, and al and i cannot be responsible for any acts these dudes may commit should things get out of hand. so keep it legal when posting.

1. the cubs have had a lot of bad surprises this year (viz. injuries to nomar prior wood). what have been some nice surprises -- other than the obvious (ie derek lee) -- for the 2005 cubs?
Biggest nice surprise: Ryan Dempster. Although, to those of us who were promoting him for closer last off-season, his success isn't really a surprise -- we knew he had the right temperament and approach to the game to be a successful closer. Since he was anointed closer after LaTroy Hawkins' disastrous throw off Jose Offerman's helmet that cost the Cubs a game against the Phillies, Dempster has been lights-out:

ip h r er hr bb so w l sv era
26.2 13 6 6 0 10 24 1 0 13 2.03

and only one blown save. The rest of the staff has twelve blown saves. Convert half of those and the divisional race looks very different. note: al sent this response yesterday morning, before dempster and roberto novoa got tagged for five eighth-inning runs in a 9-6 loss to cincinnati.

2. has the bullpen mess finally shaken out, or are people still finding their roles?
See above answer -- the slotting of Dempster allowed other people to find fairly well-defined roles, though the Cubs are still looking for a consistent 8th-inning setup man. Mike Wuertz throws well for a time or two, then can't find the strike zone. Mike Remlinger is a reverse LOOGY -- check his splits. He can't get lefties out!

Scott Williamson may be a couple of weeks away from coming back. He was a "lightning in a bottle" acquisition like Dempster was a year or so ago. He could help solve the setup mess.

3. if (big if) baker used a leadoff platoon of hairston/walker the rest of the way, would that suffice to get the cubs into the playoffs? or do you need to acquire a juan pierre / kenny lofton type?
So far, the Cubs have walked a lot more and scored a lot more runs with Hairston/Walker hitting 1/2, than they did with Corey Patterson and Neifi Perez hitting in those slots. Of course, dead people might have reached base more than the latter two. I'm not that enamored of Pierre -- he's having an off-year, and he is truly a one-dimensional player. Lofton -- now, that's an intriguing thought if the Phillies drop out of the wild-card race. He really ignited the 2003 Cubs, and still can play. Dusty Baker likes him. But to acquire someone like this just to "get someone," no, I wouldn't do it.

note: question 4 was submitted before kerry wood went down with a sore shoulder.
4. kerry wood will not pitch in this series. does baker have a rationale, or did he simply take the lazy way out in setting up his rotation coming out of the break?
I'm wondering why you singled out Wood. Is it still the perception that Wood is "the man"? Because he's not -- with his injury history and inconsistency, he truly is the #3 pitcher in the rotation, though Baker slotted him second once the break ended. He set it up as Prior-Wood-Maddux-Zambrano-Williams, which to me makes perfect sense. It just so happens that Wood will, as a result, miss this weekend series. I can't imagine he won't pitch against the Cardinals sometime later this year. The only matchup in the weekend series that appears to be a mismatch on paper is Saturday, Williams vs. Morris. But Williams has thrown quite well this year, and may surprise you. You might say that Zambrano/Carpenter is a mismatch too, and if you look only at wins, you'd be right. Z has also thrown much better than his won-lost record.

5. i thought the cubs would be much better than they've shown so far, and i'm sure you did too. who/what do you hold most responsible for the club's underachievement to date: 1. baker 2. hendry 3. injuries 4. players not performing
It's all of the above. First, Hendry was hamstrung by the Sammy Sosa Soap Opera; by the time it was over Moises Alou was gone (though I wouldn't have re-signed him anyway), and the only free-agent OF left was Jeromy Burnitz. Burnitz has performed well, and I wouldn't have paid Carlos Beltran or Magglio Ordonez the dollars they got either. But I still think Hendry has a big move in him before the deadline.

Baker made a mistake by not giving Dempster the closer role and putting Sergio Mitre in the rotation to replace one of the injured starters. Instead, he put LaTroy Hawkins out there and pretty much destroyed him. Hawkins never had the closer mindset; he proved that in Minnesota and also in the last week of 2004. Also, Baker's stubborn insistence on continuing to lead off Corey Patterson, watching him swing and flail at pitches over his head, hurt the team for weeks before Hendry stopped it by sending Patterson to Iowa.

Injuries, you know about. The Cubs lost half of their starting DP combination one week into the season and the other half ten days later, and it won't be back together till August 1. Two starting pitchers, Wood & Prior, missed a combined 15 starts. And yet, the Cubs sit fairly close in the wild-card race.

Who didn't perform? Well, Patterson is the most glaring example. He should be one of the ten best players in baseball on talent. But he doesn't have the right approach to the game, and no one seems to know what to do with him. He's fast, but he's not a "speed player". He has power, but as a little guy (5-9), he's not really a power hitter either. And he has either resisted or rejected coaching.

So far this year, the Cubs and Cardinals have split their only two games, including the disastrous rain-soaked game on April 20 when Nomar got hurt. It feels weird to have had no Cub-Cardinal contests this late into the year, but no less weird than last year, when our two clubs were done around this date. I look forward to fourteen well-played, tightly contested games.

1. Obviously, every pitcher in the National League fears Derrek Lee this year, as he's having an MVP-quality season. Other than Lee, which Cub hitter(s) do you fear most? Who would you least like to see come up in a tie game in the 9th inning?
ramirez is the obvious one, but i also would be concerned about todd walker, who you know will put a good swing on the ball. and michael barrett has hurt the cards repeatedly the last couple of years. garciaparra also comes to mind, but stl fans have no history of being stung by the guy; we never saw him last year, and then this year he goes and racks himself up after just one at-bat. haven't learned to fear him yet; hope we never do.

2. The Cardinals have had their share of injuries to key players this year, including losing Scott Rolen and Jason Isringhausen for extended periods of time. In your view, what have been the key factors in keeping the Cardinals winning without these players?
just one thing: outstanding pitching. the rotation has been fantastic all season --- consistently going deep into games, keeping the pressure off stl hitters and on opposing pitchers and defenses. the bullpen has been outstanding too, but i think the rotation makes them look better than they really are; the setup corps generally only has to pitch an inning or so to bridge the gap between starter and closer. they have excelled in that small, manageable role.

a lot of other factors also have helped the cards weather the injuries --- abe nunez's better-than-expected bat, great defense (esp. from molina and gruddy), a good season from eckstein. and then there's albert; as long as he's around and the pitchers go deep into games, the cards are going to be in nearly every game.

3. Who has been the nicest surprise for the Cardinals this year? Who has been the biggest disappointment?
nice surprises --- lots of them. matt morris: i had a hunch he would pitch well, but not this well. chris carpenter: not even the die-hardest card'l fan deemed him a cy young candidate coming into the season. yadi molina has made us forget mike matheney. eckstein and gruddy have settled right in --- stl is 2d or 3d in the league in dps.

the disappointments are rolen, who of course has been injured and thus isn't really a "disappointment" --- fans know he's playing hurt --- and mark mulder, who despite the 11-5 record hasn't looked like the shutdown pitcher we thought we were getting. don't get me wrong, he has been an asset; but we gave up too much talent for him, so in that sense he's a disappointment. i realize how it must sound to hear me poor-mouthing an 11-5 pitcher, so i'll just stop now . . . .

4. With such a large divisional lead and the best record in the NL so far, do you feel the NL Central title is in the bag? Are the Cardinals already setting up things for the postseason? Or do they still think the Cubs, with fourteen games left, have a shot at catching them?
i respect the cubs and think they are eminently capable of putting on a run; but as long as the cardinals' pitchers remain healthy, i don't think any team is going to make up 13 games on them. i honestly do think the division's a lock, barring a pitching injury. and la russa is acting as if he agrees; he's resting walker rolen and edmonds at every opportunity, trying to keep them fresh for the playoffs. but TLR respects the cubs enough that he set up his rotation so that carpenter and morris would start the first two games this weekend.

5. Who's going to replace Reggie Sanders? And are the Cardinals even buyers at the trading deadline, or are they going to stand pat?
for now left field will be shared by john mabry, so taguchi, and a career minor-leaguer named john rodriguez, who is 27 years old and got his first mlb at-bat the other day. i think jocketty will add a veteran reserve outfielder just before or after the deadline, when asking prices have come down. and the lefthanders in the bullpen have been unreliable all season; billy wagner may be out of reach, but i look for the cards to add somebody --- maybe even ex-cub kent mercker --- to bolster the LOOGY corps.