Welcoming Back Kerry Wood: Set-Up for Success

There have been some rather large events this off-season, signings that really jump off the screen at you, no?

Look familiar?

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Cliff Lee’s signing with the Phillies has significantly changed the landscape of the National League.  I don’t care how many heavy hitters you have in your line-up.  If they can’t drive through the ball on the sweet spot of the bat, or at least make contact and muscle one out of the stadium or deep to the wall for extra base hits, it doesn’t really matter.  Pitching wins championships and now with that rotation in place, Philadelphia has positioned themselves as the team to beat.  In not only the NL East, but in the National League as a whole.
In the year of the one-year contract, the Cubs managed to land Carlos Pena to man first base.  He’ll be expected to perform significantly better in the average department (.196 in 2010) and at the very least find a way to also stay on par in the power numbers department (28 HR, 84 RBI in 2010). In his time with the Cubs, Derrek Lee not only led by example in the clubhouse and delivered game changing presence at the plate, but his glove saved many errors from occurring over the years and in effect cancelled out a lot of would be runs.  The Cubs are going to need Pena to step up and play that same role.  A match of his .196 AVG in 2011 isn’t going to cut it.  The fans will have patience with the newest Cub but I can’t imagine the leeway lasting more than the first few weeks of the season.  If Pena follows ‘The Lee Way’ however, he will get off to a very slow start.  If we were able to give Lee time to get his season in gear year in and year out, we should at least afford Pena the month of April to do the same.
Think about how many one-run ballgames we lost last year.  Give us enough of those games back and we would have been playing meaningful games in a role other than spoiler, well past the middle of August.  Injuries and our record in one-run games in 2010 were two keys to the Cubs not living up to hopes/expectations.  Hopefully a new line-up featuring more Colvin in right with Fukudome as the fourth outfielder, a repeat All-Star performance by Byrd, a return to form by Soriano, sophomore success by Castro, a healthy Ramirez, another year full of quality starts by the rotation and an overall positive effect by inserting Pena into the lineup to help generate another run or two per game and we may be back, looking at the top of the standings in 2011.  I don’t expect Cincinnati go away, the Cards are always tough and Milwaukee is shoring up it’s pitching staff so it might take every single one of those things listed above happening in order for the Cubs to land on top next season in the Central.
Of course, this post was kicked off by talking about pitching making the difference.  We can add another couple runs per game (which would be great since we scored more than 80 runs less than our opponents did last year) however, if we can’t hold onto that lead late in the game, it won’t even matter.
And that…is where Kerry Wood comes in…by coming back.
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The return of Wood is the biggest headline of the Cubs off-season dealings and he’s going to be welcome with open arms, expected to carry the load late in the game.  Wood may just be the bridge we need to fill the gap from Marshall to Marmol.  Wood absolutely helps the Cubs form a powerful 7-8-9 inning tandem in Marshall, Wood and Marmol.  It will make the Cubs a scarier opponent going beyond the fifth inning with a lead.  Definitely, a lot scarier than the team was last year when we pitched so many youngsters in late inning, hold situations.
Wood’s return showcases the portion of heart that was lost on the team when Wood went to the Yankees.  He represents what could have been and now what could still possibly be. Kerry Wood isn’t the answer to all the Cubs’ problems.  I mean, just look at the list I put together three paragraphs back.  However, with two disappointing seasons behind them, the loss of their voice in Santo (whose funeral provided the opportunity for Wood and his wife to meet up with Hendry and kick off the dominoes it took to make this deal happen – and wouldn’t that be cool if while Santo can’t see the Cubs win the Series during his lifetime, his passing may be the thing that helps make the deal happen that pushes the Cubs over the hump to victory in 2011? – What a story that would be) and the great unknown ahead in what Quade can accomplish with a whole season, it will be nice to have a familiar face on the team again.  The face of a guy that never should have left in the first place, in my opinion.
The thing about Wood’s return is I can’t think of another pitcher that once served as a full-time starter, set-up man and closer for the same organization.  Can you?  Wood won Rookie of the Year and nearly led the Cubs to the World Series as a starter and tallied 34 saves in his one year as the Cubs’ closer, the same number he’ll wear back with the team as a set-up man.
Philadelphia may have landed Lee.  The second best pitcher dealt out there, Grienke, may have landed with the division rival Brewers.  However, when it comes to the Cubs making a difference with a pitching signing, it wasn’t about the big name or the big bucks.  The Cubs have a competitive, quality start-churning out five in Z, Demp, Wells, Gorzy and Silva if in fact those are the guys we go with come April.  So, it’s more so about a great pitcher with a lot left in the tank in short relieft, coming back to his home team, his home field, his home organization to carry the load, this time as the set-up man.
Hopefully this stint with the team will result in him setting up the team for ultimate success instead of let down.  Either way, it will be good to have him back and Chicago will be thrilled to once again be rooting for one of their own.  Go Cubs Go!

One City, Two Teams, Three Home Runs

One City.  New York City.  The city that never sleeps.  

I can attest that while the city never sleeps, I for one am again looking forward to doing so this evening.  The new job is seriously a TON of stuff to learn: procedures, issues, tactics, strategies, training staff, outreach in the freezing cold, planning meetings and on and on.  It’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend 60 hours a week though I must say.  I really do feel like I’m making a difference and doing something that truly matters, which is a cool feeling.  I’d love to be in front of the computer all day to watch Cubs games on-line, or listening to games on the radio.  A lot of these Spring Training games are obviously during the day so I’ve been checking out box scores, watching highlights and reading up on all the latest news and updates.  I can’t wait for the city to warm up and regular season games to back again.  I already have it marked down when the Cubs come to town to play the Mets at Citi Field and am hoping to check out an exhibition game at the new Yankee Stadium when the Cubs are in town as well.  That would be awesome.

Within this massive city however, depending on where you live, hang out, frequent, the baseball population is strongly divided between the Yankees and Mets.  It’s rare to find a fan who roots for both teams as it is extremely looked down upon and hardly anyone takes you seriously if you claim to do so.  Much like trying to sell someone in Chicago that you are both a White Sox and Cubs fan.  Yeah, right.

Now every now and then you come across a Red Sox fan.  Many have joined the bandwagon for sure since their recent success starting in 2004 but considering we’re on the East coast, it’s really not surprising.  People move (like a lot of the transplanted fans with blogs in this community), people rebel against family, friends and ex’s to be different, people get attached to players that lead them to root for certain teams regardless of their zip code and again others simply climb aboard the band wagon.  A lot Sox fans populate New York as well and it’s hard to tell who the Yankee fans hate more.  I’m guessing it’s the Sox, but a crosstown rivalry is exactly that and there’s a lot to be said for it.  Considering the Sox have the upper-hand as of late though, you don’t hear a lot of trash talking (or as much anyway) between Yankee fans and Sox fans, although they still enjoy picking on Mets fans.  Calling them the JV team, saying their old stadium was a dumpster or simply enjoying watching their fans get amped up over projected success just to see their hopes crushed with two consecutive seasons of late season meltdown.  This is essentially the baseball landscape in New York.  A few Sox fans scattered throughout…but mainly a hard, loyal divide between Yankee fans and Mets fans.  I’m sure it’s no surprise that those two teams get the most attention considering they both play here, but still, between the two of them I don’t really envy either.  The ones I look at with a bit of green under the collar and for no reason related to my new job, are the Red Sox fans.

Red Sox fans walk among Yankee fans and Mets fans, nowadays, with their heads held high.  Between years of AL East beatings and Buckner, both sides had something to say to them to give them a hard time if spotted walking down the street displaying their team loyalty be it a cap or jacket, t-shirt, etc.  This is no longer a problem for them.  Now, they basically walk around and get the same response as Cubs fans.

There aren’t a whole lot of us in comparison to the Yankee and Mets fans understandably.  However, there are more than you’d expect.  I’d say on average, at least once a day I see someone walking around with a Cubs hat on.  Like Jeep drivers are known for honking at a fellow Jeep driver on the road to salute the car they have in common, so do Cubs fans acknowledge each other as we pass on the streets of New York.  We have to.  We’re all in this together and in a foreign land at that.  I’ve walked down the street wearing my Cubs gear and constantly here it from construction workers who want to talk about last night’s game.  From kids who love the Cubs and shout out “Go Cubs” as their parent proudly smiles and waves as they go by.  From baseball fans at gatherings (bars, ESPN sports zone, etc) with just the utmost respect for the dedication we show as Cubs fans, or the most absolute confusion that we’ve hung in there for so long.  Some laugh at the belief that every year is THE year and others completely respect it as they know there’s no other reason to be a ‘fan’. From the word fanatic, as a fanatic, you have to belief, simply by definition if for no other reason.

And it’s that respect that Cubs fans are shown in New York City.  Abracadabra, a loyal reader of this blog asked me what it was like being a Cubs fan in New York recently and I decided I would post about it.  This is pretty much what it’s like.  Surrounded in one of the biggest cities in the world by millions who root for one of two other teams, with the occasional yet more frequent than expected encounter of a fellow Cubs fan with similar, friendly, Cubs logo-bearing fan gear who also can’t wait to see how the Cubs do this year, believe this is the year and tune in however we can (on-line mostly, or the occasional ESPN game) to follow every moment of the season.  I recently joined a Cubs meetup group in the city and I can’t wait to experience ’09 with the Cubs fans I’ll meet as a result.  Always fun to meet fellow Cubs fans and enjoy the season together, especially when we’re all in this together.  And we might as well be together, we’re outnumbered for sure…and one day, when the sign reads AC000000, the disbelief and rare teasing will cease to exist from New York baseball fans.  They will all look at us with the respect that a championship ballclub’s fans deserve, the same way they now look at Red Sox fans.  Aside from being in Chicago, I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the country experiencing Cubs baseball and enjoying the baseball community as diverse, fun, exciting, humiliating, frustrating and fascinating as it is in New York.  Not sure if that was detailed enough, but that’s basically what it’s like being a Cubs fan in New York.  In a word?  I’d say it’s actually pretty ‘awesome’.

Today’s game was amazing.  Three home runs by the Cubs…Soriano, Fox, and Ramirez going deep.  Always great to see the bats warming up during the Spring, getting ready for the pitches to count come Opening Day.  Marshall had a great day with three perfect innings and Gregg looked great too.  Piniella says Marmol pitching in the WBC won’t effect the closer competition.  I hope he’s right.  Gregg was great and I’d love him in the set up role, but I’m still a big fan of having Marmol as our closer.  Time will tell, but it was great checking the box score and seeing the three of them going yard and having Marshall and Gregg step up with outstanding performances.

Hope everyone in New York, Chicago, Boston and really everywhere else is enjoying the excitement of Spring Training.  I know I am…I just can’t wait for these games to count for real!  Go Cubs Go!