[from The Art of Sports / February 5, 2007]
A power-hitting lineup low on fundamentals, high on home-run potential and led off by a free-swinging outfielder known more for his ability to make a highlight reel than to get a timely hit.
A defensive ensemble anchored by one Gold Glove winner on the decline and another who might start the year in the minors.
A pitching staff anchored by a legitimate ace and followed up by a series of question marks, unknowns and off-season gambles.
An extremely weak division and a squad that, on paper, has a good a chance of taking it now as it has in years.
Sound familiar? It should. This is the team assembled this winter on the North Side, but anyone following Chicago baseball should also recognize them as the same group of second-, third- and fourth-place teams fielded on the South Side in the early part of this decade.
Meet the new Cubs, same as the old Sox.
Neal Cotts and his 8.10 ERA as a starter.
Jason Marquis and his four seasons with an ERA above 5.00.
Ted Lilly and his…well, you get the idea. Those names could just as easily be James Baldwin or Kip Wells or Bobby Howry.
Wait, scratch that last one.
But for all those high-priced signings and press conferences and Lou Piniella swagger about how things are going to change around Wrigley, it’s still hard to see how far this team of mashers and so-so pitchers can go. It’s easy to assemble a team that can win one day 16-9. The difference is in the ones that win the 2-1 games that come before and after that.
This is a Cubs team with a career second baseman slated to play centerfield who, based on season averages, has a very real chance of joining Jose Valentin in this city’s other 20/20 club: 20 home runs, 20 errors.
This is a Cubs team whose third starter has thrown over 175 innings once (and over 120 innings only twice) in his five seasons in the majors.
This is a Cubs team whose slated closer blew his arm out twice as a starter, moved to the bullpen to accommodate his throwing style, then blew his arm out again.
That’s not to say the Cubs remain hopeless. Far from it, actually. The Cardinals are banking on what is essentially a one-man rotation in Chris Carpenter and a one-man batting order in Albert Pujols, the Speez notwithstanding. The Astros are a shell of the team that took the NL pennant in 2005, and the Reds, Brewers and Pirates remain in the rebuilding mode they’ve been stuck in since their most recent respective eras of contention.
Besides, when your team lost 96 games last year and found itself claiming the only available sixth-place finish in the entire sport, there’s really only one direction to go. It would seem impossible for the Cubs to get any worse.
Even those softball teams the Sox fielded between 1998 and 2004 managed to win the division in 2000 before getting swept by Piniella’s own Mariners in the ALDS.
Hope, no matter how small, springs eternal in the North Side, but for how long only time will tell.