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Random Musings from Wrigley Field's Upper Deck

Friday, April 30, 2004

Ugh...

There's nothing I can say about tonight's crapfest that Derek hasn't already said. With any luck, Hendry will make some miracle trades for relief pitchers who can actually throw strikes. (You'd think this would be something they'd scout for before acquiring these guys, but apparently not, alas.)

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Pratt's pitching performances proving pathetic...

After being sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, Andy Pratt, Juan Cruz's replacement and son of Daytona pitching coach Tom Pratt, has shown that it wasn't the big-league competition that stymied him - it was the fact that he doesn't know how to pitch. Frankly, I'm amazed that Jim Hendry was so fooled by this guy. We all knew that something had to be done with Juan Cruz, but most of us expected to see him hang around until later in the season, then be used in a deadline trade for whatever our missing piece proved to be. When Hendry made the Pratt-Cruz trade early in spring training, I think most fans thought that Hendry must have seen something he really liked. Why else trade away a very valuable bargaining chip, even if he'll never be worth anything as a major-league player on your team?

Still, it's immensely clear that Hendry got out-guessed. We got absolutely rooked in the trade. At AAA, Pratt has started three games, going 0-3 and posting a 15.00 ERA. Meanwhile, Cruz has pitched nine innings over four appearances, giving up just one earned run and 8 hits. I suppose this whole mess is just the obligatory regression to the mean, making up for the acquisitions of Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Michael Barrett, and (to a lesser extent) Derrek Lee. Still, it's depressing. I can't decide which I'd like to see more: (a) Pratt make a sudden turn-around, start pitching like wildfire, and take Clement's place in the rotation next season; or (b) Pratt continue to show that he gets the ball over the plate about as well as I do, continue to slide down through the professional ranks, and end up playing for no one, dying penniless in a gutter. For future reference, we'll call path "a" the Dontrelle Willis plan and path "b" the Edgar Allen Poe plan.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Wood suspended for five games...

For last week's cowardly and unprovoked attack on a defenseless umpire, Kerry Wood has received a five-game suspension that, if upheld, would cause him to miss a start. We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and the length of the suspension will be reduced on appeal.

In 1995, Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire, an actual act of battery and a symbolic gesture that the umpire was worthy of no respect at all. He was suspended for five games.

Last year, Antonio Alfonseca actually made contact (accidentally) with an umpire by bumping him. He was suspended for five games (seven initially, reduced on appeal).

Also last year, Ozzie Guillen made contact with an umpire several times. He was suspended for two games.

Wood's actions, while inappropriate, were completely justified, not in reaction to bad calls (as this situation has been portrayed in the media), but rather in retaliation for Eric Cooper's physically threatening actions. In addition, even if unjustified, Wood's actions were less severe infractions of the rules than anything that Alfonseca, Gullen, or (especially) Alomar did. His suspension should be no more than any of theirs and should probably be less.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

I have to agree with Al Yellon on this one...

Eric Cooper was completely out of line and sure looked like he was charging the mound, or at least threatening Kerry Wood. (Seriously - how many times have you ever seen a catcher jump in front of the home plate umpire when the ump starts moving toward the pitcher's mound? Barrett did so and really looked like he was moving to protect his pitcher.)

Kerry's going to be fined and may be suspended, but he should become Chicago's latest sports hero (if he wasn't already). I agree that, under almost every circumstance, players should not charge or attack umpires. But when the umpires start threatening the players, they become fair game - they have to take their lumps just like batters who charge the mound.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Happy Bullpen Improvement Day!

Pratt gets sent down, and the Cubs win their next game. Coincidence? I think not. (Cautionary note: Pratt's first appearance this year looked quite similar to Beltran's appearance today. Stay tuned, but I don't see Beltran collapsing quite as fast as Pratt did.)

The team looked fairly good today. 3.5 pitches per plate appearance is better than the Cubs have been doing, and when they did jump on the first pitch, it translated into quite a few hits. Clement threw a gem, much better than his last outing. Hawkins looked good and Beltran looked above average for a low-end reliever. Farnsworth was really the only poor pitcher, and his performance would have been much better had Hoye (the home plate umpire) done a better job of calling balls and strikes.

Things seem to be clicking at the moment. We'll have to wait and see what happens and which team shows up tomorrow.

One final note on today's game: we saw the first flashes of celebrity Cubs fans in the stands. There were several shots of Matt Damon sitting in the new dugout box seats, and there was even an interview with Andy Garcia, who was sitting right behind Matt Damon. Apparently, they're both in town working on the sequel to Ocean's Eleven, but I can't help thinking that, with the team's success last year, we're going to see a lot of celebrities coming to games in the same vein as the ones who attend Dodgers, Lakers, Knicks, and Yankees games.
Here's a pleasant surprise...

I've only recently started listening to the sports talk radio shows here in Chicago - I don't usually spend enough time in the car to listen to the radio much, but I've been driving more recently, so I've had a chance to hear the local sports talking heads.

Yesterday, they were discussing a comment Joe Morgan made during a television broadcast that "the humid air near the ocean knocks the ball down." Surprisingly, both of the radio hosts knew that this statement was wrong. A pet peeve of mine is people who don't understand basic scientific principles just parroting what they've heard or making statements based on faulty reasoning. A lot of people think that balls travel less far through humid air, and I'm not sure why. Here's the reality, though: humid air is less dense. The density of a mixture of gases is a weighted average of the densities of the individual components, and the density of any component is directly related to that component's molecular weight. Dry air (air with no water vapor in it) has a molecular weight of approximately 29 g/gmol. Water vapor has a molecular weight of about 18 g/gmol. The density of the water vapor is therefore about 60% that of dry air. Very humid air contains more water vapor than drier air, and it is therefore less dense. Ask any pilots you know - this is true.

The effect is very small, even smaller than the effect that air temperature has on air density, and much, much smaller than the effect of pressure. Still, higher humidity always means lower density. In humid areas, batted balls travel further for the same reason they travel further in high-altitude areas. It's not terribly surprising that Joe Morgan didn't know this, but it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the radio hosts did.
"Stupidest person alive," huh? I'll admit to the hyperbole, but there are many people less intelligent than me. Still, I've been called worse, and I suppose that Paul deserves some answers to his criticism.

I find it hard to see how complaining about Andy Pratt is stupid - he's obviously Dusty's go-to guy. Despite the fact that there is another lefthander in the bullpen, Pratt has been brought in twice in a row when a lefty was needed. The first time, he was singlehandedly responsible for losing a game that Mitre pitched beautifully. The second time, he threw nine pitches, none of them over the plate and most of them nowhere near it. I'll grant that the first situation (Cubs up by a single run) probably put him under too much pressure. But the second game had no pressure whatsoever - the Cubs were obviously going to lose no matter what and Pratt was just there to rebuild his confidence. The sort of performance he turned in would be fine had they taken a random fan from the stands and asked him to pitch, but a professional pitcher, as with anyone who gets paid to do a job, should be reasonably competent.

I'll say it again: the guy can't pitch. If he comes into another game (God help us), and he shows that he can, I'm happy to admit that I'm wrong about this. But until that happens, if he is always going to be Dusty's choice over Mercker, there is no way the Cubs can have a winning record, much less contend in the division. With all the late-inning situations in which the Cubs are going to be winning by less than a few runs and in which a lefthanded reliever is needed, we just can't afford to run a guy out there who is guaranteed to give up two earned runs and leave the bases loaded every time.

Somebody explain to me how it is that Pratt is actually a better pitcher than this, and then we'll see. Until then, let's keep the ad hominem attacks to a minimum and focus on the facts. Thanks.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

No moves yet...

Why the hell is Andy Pratt still on the Cubs' major league roster? The transaction report this morning mentions nothing about him being sent to Iowa (or West Tennessee or Daytona or Lansing or Mesa). This guy can't find home plate with a map. Essentially, he has a very strong arm and absolutely no control. In my book, that makes him an outfielder, not a pitcher, except that, with all those years pitching under his belt, he probably doesn't have the slightest clue how to bat. As I said yesterday, there are serious questions about whether Pratt should even be getting paid to play baseball, much less doing so at the major league level. Send him down to single-A ball, let him learn how to swing a bat, then let him work his way up as an outfielder or a utility man. He certainly should never throw another pitch again.

I know that we don't have a lot of really good options for replacements. Most of the guys at AAA Iowa are unproven, and Glendon Rusch, the most likely replacement, has been fairly inconsistent (and that's being charitable). Still, a pretty bad pitcher is a much better option than Pratt, who is considerably worse than no pitcher at all. The guy is simply taking away space on the 25-man and 40-man rosters from somebody with talent and skill who probably would like a chance to prove that he can actually throw a couple of pitches over the plate.

The only thing that bothers me more than the fact that Pratt is still pitching for the Cubs is that his father is the pitching coach at Daytona, part of the Cubs organization. What? The guy who taught this miserable waste of space how to "pitch" is responsible for readying our youngest prospects for major league careers? Now that's scary.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Apparently, when we were all discussing in the offseason what the Cubs' weaknesses would be this year - pitching or offense - we forgot the most obvious (and likely) answer. That answer: BOTH! Far be it from me to declare the season over at this point, but this is going to be a looooooong summer.

The Cubs can't hit. The three hits today would be acceptable, given the strong wind blowing in, but Pittsburgh managed to put up 17 hits in the same game.

They can't - or, more to the point, won't - field, either. Several balls hit to the outfield this year have fallen, not in front of diving outfielders, but several yards away from where the fielders were playing, with the players making no attempt to get to them quickly.

They can't pitch. Okay, Prior's out, and let's presume that we can't do anything about that (injuries happen). But the rest of the staff was supposed to be the best in the major leagues, and I'm not sure it should even qualify as major-league caliber. Pratt is downright terrible and shouldn't even be playing professionally, much less in the major leagues. In 1.2 innings this year, he has walked seven batters and has been responsible for four earned runs. Why is he still on the team, not to mention being put into games? (Maybe Dusty's scared of him - he does look evil and fairly scary.)

Maddux always starts the season slowly, so there's some prospect that he might get better, but so far he has looked absolutely awful. In 9.2 innings, he has 7 walks and 3 hit batsmen. Last year, he had 33 walks and 8 HBP in 218.1 innings. This works out to 0.151 walks per inning and 0.037 HBP per inning, compared to this year's 0.724 walks and 0.310 HBP per inning. He's hitting batters at a rate an order of magnitude higher than he did last year and is walking them five times more often. I think it's safe to say that Greg Maddux has lost any semblance of control he once had.

Clement is better than either of these guys, but he's still bad. His walks rate (0.75 per inning) is actually higher than Maddux's, but his HBP rate is a much better 0.25 per inning. He only managed to go 4 innings in his first start, giving up four earned runs for a nice round 9.00 ERA. Tomorrow's game, with Clement starting, should be interesting. My prediction: Clement goes as long as Maddux did today (3.2 innings), surrendering 17 runs on 25 hits over that span. Then he's lifted for Pratt, who will walk 22 men in a row before being taken out for Wuertz, the only member of the bullpen worth a damn. He'll get the final out but then be taken out of the game because the pitcher's spot in the order is due up. The bullpen will struggle through the rest of the game, giving up another 12 runs over five innings. The Cubs will lose a close one (for them) by a score of 29 to 3, with all three of their runs being unearned due to the Pirates' two throwing errors in the eighth inning. (Those two errors will be eclipsed by the Cubs' seven.)

Okay, that's perhaps a little bitter, but today's game was completely miserable, and I don't see the Cubs improving much at all (at least until Prior comes back and Pratt is replaced by someone who has actually received some instruction on how to pitch). Serious prediction: if the team keeps playing this way, this season's record will be 72-90, as the team takes fifth place in the division and fails for the 34th straight year to put together back-to-back winning seasons.

On another note: congratulations to Barry Bonds, who hit home run number 660 this afternoon in San Francisco.
Update...

This report appears to be incorrect. According to the Cubs TV broadcast, Hendry was asked about the Rocca report and responded that, of all the things keeping Prior from pitching, one of them is not (at least for now) the tendon that would be repaired by Tommy John surgery. Chip Caray's comment (which may have been a Hendry quote; it wasn't clear) was that Prior's tendon is "as strong as a tree trunk." Let's all pray that this (a) is the truth and (b) continues to be true.

Bad news from Lawrence Rocca...

I'm surprised that no one's picked up on this yet - Lawrence Rocca, writing in the Star-Ledger, says that Mark Prior's elbow will require Tommy John surgery, knocking him out for the rest of the season. Is anyone familiar with Rocca's writing? Is he usually accurate, or does he have a reputation for pulling stories out of thin air? This is the first I've ever heard of him, and I'd like to know more.

I could see the story being true, given the Tribune's propensity for lying to Cubs fans, but it seems to conflict directly with what we know about Prior's medical condition. If two MRIs didn't show any damage to his elbow (just inflammation), and if he hasn't really thrown since then, how did he tear up his elbow enough to require surgery?

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The first road trip is in the books. Tomorrow, the Cubs open the home season in true Wrigley fashion: predicted game time conditions have the temperature at 44 degrees, with the wind blowing straight in from center field at 16 mph.

Despite the pedestrian 3-3 record, the team looked pretty good this week. The pitching was better than average, with flashes of absolute brilliance (and one horrible bullpen meltdown - see below). The offense was a little weak, but the pitching almost kept up.

Player of the week: This is a tough one, but I'll have to go with Kerry Wood. This week's line: 2 wins, 0 losses, 12 innings over 2 games, 3.75 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 17 strikeouts. Runners-up: Sergio Mitre, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Grudzielanek, Todd Hollandsworth.

Hero of the week: For coming in and kickstarting the Cubs offense in two straight games, this week's hero is Todd Hollandsworth. Runner-up: Sergio Mitre, who admirably covered for an injured Mark Prior in one start this week.

Goat of the week: Andy Pratt, who spoiled a gem of a pitching performance from the aforementioned Sergio Mitre. Pratt's line in that game: 0 innings, 2 walks, 2 earned runs, 0 strikeouts. He raised his ERA for the week to 10.80.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Normally, I appreciate the Sun-Times's extensive sports coverage, but the last paragraph of this story kind of bugged me:

Phil Cavaretta, 87, will attend tonight's game against the Braves. Still listed in the Chicago record book in many top 10 categories, the former Cubs first baseman is making the trip to Atlanta from Snellville, Ga.. He is the only living player remaining from the 1945 Cubs, who lost four games to three to Detroit in the World Series. The organization hasn't been back since.

Apparently, Andy Pafko, Don Johnson, Lennie Merullo, Cy Block, and Hank Borowy, among others, were all killed within the last few months without anyone noticing. Here's to Mike Kiley, the absolute laziest sports reporter in Chicago!

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Maybe it's just because I'm still a little pissed off about the futility of spending a month trying to give money to Major League Baseball in exchange for merchandise, but I'd just like to say that, if this story is true, Chad Crawford of Nashville, TN, is the most evil person who has ever walked the planet. I have my doubts about the death penalty as currently administered, but I'm strongly in favor of it for anyone who kicks a dog to death. (And no lethal injection either - I think we ought to suspend the eighth amendment and torture the guy slowly, maybe over a period of years, until he begs for us to kill him.)

Yeah, I'm a dog person. Always have been. I don't cry often, but it's a sure thing when I see (or hear or read) a story about a dog dying, or even getting older. I used to bawl my eyes out at the dog food commercial where the puppy stumbled getting up the stairs (because it was so small) and then grew up to become an old, arthritic dog who could barely get up the stairs (because of the pain in its joints).

I have a sneaking suspicion that Cubs fans are overwhelmingly dog people. One of the biggest attractions at the Cubs convention was the Molson & Friends (an animal charity) pavilion, which raised money by taking pictures of Cubs players with their dogs (and those of their teammates), then putting them together into a calendar. The Cubs' magazine, Vine Line, ran an article recently about the dogs owned by the players (and Dusty Baker). Dusty has a hunting dog who he takes hunting (at least in the offseason). Kerry Wood has a Jack Russell terrier and a pug. Mike Remlinger has a couple of Shiba Inus. Kyle Farnsworth has a couple of dogs. And Moises Alou brings one dog with him to America every season - he selects from the many dogs who live, semi-wild, on his horse farm back home.

I'm curious, though - are Cubs fans really as dog friendly as I think?
I shouldn't be as angry about this as I am, but there's not much I can do about it.

The 1978 Cubs jersey that the Wrigleyville stores and MLB.com are offering has really grown on me, so I thought maybe I'd make this year's jersey purchase one of those. When I got an email from MLB.com on March 9 saying that they were offering 15% off their customized jerseys, I jumped on the chance and ordered one of the '78 jerseys with Maddux's name and number (plus a separate jersey for my wife). I placed the order on March 9, the same day I got the email.

At the time I placed the order, I was told that the jerseys I ordered were in stock and would ship in 9-12 days. That would be March 18 to March 21 if we were talking calendar days, a few days later if they meant business days. When I hadn't heard anything by March 30, I called MLB.com and was told that the shirts had been located in the warehouse but not yet shipped, which the customer service rep thought was odd (presumably since shipping follows locating like summer follows spring). He helpfully put in a request to have someone contact me with details about when the order would be shipped.

I never heard anything at all. After a few days, I called back, and I was told that the shirts had been sent to be customized (I guess they meant just the Maddux one) and would ship in a few days. I didn't hear anything until tonight, when I got the following email: "Thank you for shopping at MLB.com Store, your business is important to us. We regret to inform you that we are unable to complete your order (order number). The following item(s) is unavailable at this time and has been cancelled from your order." Following was a description of my entire order.

Upon calling customer service, I was told that there was "an inventory discrepancy" at the time I ordered, which (even if true) doesn't explain why I was blatantly lied to by the customer service reps when I called (twice) to check on the status of my order. They explained that there was absolutely nothing they could do for me, even though the jerseys are now back in stock.

Excuse me? The jerseys were presumably overstocked, or they wouldn't have been on sale in the first place. They were in stock when I ordered, in stock when I called the first time, and in stock when I called the second time. Then, somehow, they became "unavailable" before coming back into stock again. This makes absolutely no sense at all.

The only possible explanation is this: MLB.com regretted offering a 15% discount, so they decided to stall until a time when they could just cancel any order placed during the sale offer, hoping they could sell the items at full price instead.

Needless to say, they won't. This, together with Derek's (of Let's Play Two) experience with the Cubs' online store (adminstered by MLB.com), has convinced me to make my fan-related purchases elsewhere. Having shopped there myself both in person and online, I heartily recommend (as Derek did this afternoon) Wrigleyville Sports for all your Cubs needs. In fact, I suggest that we all boycott MLB.com's online store (to any extent that will not give rise to Sherman Act liability) until they change their supply and customer service policies to show that customer service is something to which they pay more than lip service.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Magic number down to 161...

The Cubs won and both the Astros and Cardinals lost. (And the White Sox - nothing like having your still-beating heart ripped out of your chest on opening day.)

There were a few questions about the team coming into today's season opener, and we have some answers (albeit provisional ones) now.

1. Can Kerry Wood continue his dominating spring performance into the regular season? Well, no, apparently. He struggled a fair amount today, giving up five hits and three walks in five innings to go with his four earned runs and six strikeouts. Still, he got the win, and ugly ones count just as much as pretty ones - credit the Cubs offense with a victory today.

2. Will Dusty Baker still overwork his starters, or will he rely more on the beefed-up bullpen? Seems like the latter so far - Wood was pulled after only five innings and a relatively low 95 pitches.

3. Is Corey Patterson all the way back from his knee injury? This is still an open question in my book. He played quite well during spring training, but was mostly a wash today. His offense was good (1-of-3 with a walk - a walk! - and two runs and an RBI), but he had trouble on defense. There were several balls that dropped in front of him in center field and which it seemed a more mobile outfielder could have run down.

My overall impression is that the team has pretty much picked up where they left off. They don't win pretty, but they should win more often than they lose. The offense is playing well and the pitching is passable with a few flashes of brilliance. I'll feel better once Prior gets back, and it would be good if Maddux shows that he can win consistently early in the season. But I'm cautiously optimistic at this point.

In other news, the Astros lost tonight when Cy Young candidate Roy Oswalt gave up a game-tying three-run home run to Barry Bonds and closer Octavio Dotel gave up a run in the top of the ninth. (For those of you who didn't see it, the run scored in the decidedly Cubs-like manner of hit batsman-sacrifice bunt-wild pitch-sacrifice fly.) Hopefully, we'll see more performances like this from the guy the Astros kept instead of Billy Wagner.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Award predictions...

As long as I'm doing predictions, I may as well totally embarrass myself and predict who will win the various awards in 2004.

In the American League, Curt Schilling will benefit from his change of scenery and walk away with the Cy Young award. Bobby Crosby will be named the Rookie of the Year. Alex Rodriguez will once again win the MVP award by default, since the American League can't produce a consensus winner, giving the award to the highest-paid player. (At least the award will go to a member of a winning team for once.)

The National League will have its default winner, too, as the Rookie of the Year award goes to yet another "rookie" who has played decades of professional baseball in Japan, Kaz Matsui. Albert Pujols will win the MVP award. Kerry Wood will take a well-deserved Cy Young as his walks rate drops and his win total increases. (Wood's win over Oswalt in the voting will be assisted by many voters' belief that the award cannot go two years in a row to someone named Roy.)
Season predictions...

I sort of hate to go on record with predictions this year, with all the injuries and question marks throughout the major leagues. Still, no one expects anything from me, so armed with the superweapon of low expectations, I'll take a stab at divining the outcome of the 2004 season.

AL East Champion: Red Sox (over the Yankees by 1 game)
AL Central Champion: Twins
AL West Champion: Angels
AL Wild Card: Yankees

NL East Champion: Phillies
NL Central Champion: Cubs (over the Astros by 2 games)
NL West Champion: Giants
NL Wild Card: Astros

AL Divisional Playoffs: Red Sox over Angels, Yankees over Twins
NL Divisional Playoffs: Cubs over Giants, Astros over Phillies

AL Conference Series: Red Sox over Yankees (in seven games)
NL Conference Series: Cubs over Astros (in six games)

World Series: Red Sox over Cubs (in six games)

Yes, that's right. The Red Sox will finally figure out that the answer to their curse is to play an equally cursed team and to avoid playing in game seven of the World Series. The Cubs, by winning two games in the World Series themselves, will break their own curse this year, returning to the World Series along with the Red Sox every year for the next decade, trading victories until the other 28 major league teams give up and fold in disgust. Prior, Wood, and Zambrano will continue to anchor a rotation that will include Greg Maddux pitching well past his 50th birthday, winning 20 games per season over the entire stretch. Maddux will also eventually eclipse Cy Young's career wins mark by pitching a perfect game for his 512th victory. During this game, Maddux will throw just 27 pitches, with each being a groundout directly to the first baseman (an aging Derrek Lee).

I can dream, can't I?
Congratulations to Jason Szuminski of the Padres...

Szuminski made the team's 25-man roster on the last day of camp as a relief pitcher. He's also a lieutenant in the Air Force reserve and holds a degree in aerospace engineering from MIT. As a former engineer myself, I think it's great to see someone with an education make the big leagues. Interestingly, Szuminski was a Cubs-developed player: he was drafted by the Cubs, then taken by the Royals in the Rule 5 draft and traded to San Diego. As a Rule 5 draftee, if he is removed from the Padres' 25-man roster this year, he will go back to the Cubs system.

There's actually been quite a bit written about this guy over the course of the spring, including this Jim Caple article, but somehow I managed to miss it all until today.

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