Look who’s talking
TV announcers Chip Caray and Steve Stone, who both drew the ire of some of the players in 2004, have left the Cubs’ booth. Caray joined his father, Skip, in the Atlanta booth and Stone chose not to return even though his option was picked up for 2005. Former Milwaukee Brewers and Florida Marlins voice Len Kasper and former Arizona manager Bob Brenly will be the new voices of the Cubs.
Take away that last week...
The Cubs collapsed and dropped seven of their final nine games of the 2004 season to finish out of the playoff race. But even after the disastrous finish, the Cubs still had an overall winning mark for the months of September and October, going 17–13.
Good news, bad news
Baker won his 1,000th career game during the 2004 season, when the Cubs beat Montreal 5–2 on Aug. 30. But the 2004 Cubs finished in third place in the National League Central, marking the first season since 1996 that Baker didn’t finish first or second in a division race.
Cubs officials said their Opening Day payroll could be close to $100 million, which would be a significant upswing from the $91 million to open the 2004 campaign.
Pitcher Greg Maddux won his 300th career victory against San Francisco in 2004. He also claimed his 200th victory against the Giants in 1998.
The Cubs set a home attendance record in 2004, drawing 3,170,184 fans to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. That followed a major league record attendance figure for the club’s spring training games in Mesa, Ariz.
When the Cubs dropped seven of their final nine games of the season to fall out of the playoff race with a resounding thud, it was easy for headline writers, sports talk radio show hosts and fans to call it a “choke.” The Cubs endured a season with injuries, bickering and soap opera story lines, yet the World Series hopefuls controlled their own playoff destiny heading into the final two weeks of the season before the collapse. “I think (the word ‘choke’) is a word that people use when they don’t have another word. It’s a very strong word,” manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s disheartening that people feel like that. But you can’t stop the way people feel.” With a solid offense and an excellent starting pitching staff, the Cubs hope to change those perceptions this year.
Injuries forced young fireballers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to miss two months each, and they combined for just 14 victories — far below their 32-victory output in 2003. Wood has never won more than 14 games in a season, yet he has the tools for stardom. Wood has a 20-strikeout game to his credit, and he shined in the 2003 National League Division Series playoffs against Atlanta. The 24-year-old Prior won 18 games in his first full major league season in 2003 and figures to be a force for years to come. While Carlos Zambrano and veteran Greg Maddux (16 wins each) were able to pick up the slack somewhat, it’s Wood and Prior who are going to be counted on to put the Cubs over the top this year. Lefty Glendon Rusch was a pleasant surprise in what Baker called his “Al Downing” role of starting and relieving and will take over the spot vacated by departed free agent Matt Clement.
After Joe Borowski (33 saves in 2003) lost velocity on his fastball and eventually was shut down for a slight tear in his shoulder in early June, superb setup man LaTroy Hawkins was given the shot at closing. He failed miserably — his nine blown save opportunities contributed to the team’s demise. After making a run at closers during the offseason — including Milwaukee’s Dan Kolb, who was traded to Atlanta — the Cubs may have to look within the organization for one. Cubs officials were pleased with the progress of pitcher Ryan Dempster, who came off Tommy John surgery in August 2003 to go 1–1 with two saves and a 3.92 ERA in 23 relief appearances in 2004. Although Dempster has been primarily a starter most of his career, the Cubs like his makeup, and he has emerged as a leading candidate to close. Hawkins or Borowski could also get looks if Dempster falters.
The Cubs were able to ink Nomar Garciaparra to an incentive-laden one-year deal. The team hopes his injuries are behind him and that the star shortstop can hit 25-plus home runs and drive in over 100 runs. Second baseman Todd Walker banged 15 homers and drove in 50 runs sharing time with Mark Grudzielanek last year. If Walker continues to hit the ball with authority, this could be one of the more powerful middle infields in the league. Both players came to the Cubs with some criticism of their defense, but Cubs officials were satisfied with what they saw in 2004.
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Derrek Lee combined for 68 homers and 201 RBIs last year, although Lee (161 games) wore down a little during the final couple of weeks of the season. Both will be counted on for huge offensive outputs again. Ramirez broke Ron Santo’s single-season record for home runs by a Cubs third baseman, swatting 36. The Cubs were pleased that Lee’s defense was as good as advertised; he saved plenty of potential errors thanks to his wingspan and ability to scoop the ball out of the dirt. And the team was thrilled that Ramirez cut his errors down from 33 in 2003 to 10 in 2004.
The Cubs listened finally dealt right fielder Sammy Sosa in the offseason. He burned fans, teammates and management when he left two games early — and without permission — toward the end of the season and then ripped Baker twice in the media when the season was over. Jeromy Burnitz and Todd Hollandsworth look to make up for Sosa's absense. Center fielder Corey Patterson isn’t an ideal leadoff hitter because of his high strikeout ratio. But he has the speed and ability to bunt for base hits and steal bases, and he could find himself in that role again. Rookie Jason Dubois (31 homers at Triple-A Iowa in 2004) is the leading candidate to replace departed free agent Moises Alou in left field, although former Orioles utilityman Jerry Hairston could get a look too.
Catching Michael Barrett put up some of his best career offensive numbers in his first year with the team in 2004, and the Cubs feel the 28-year-old is hitting his stride for an even bigger year. Veteran Henry Blanco, who threw out 45 percent of would-be basestealers with Minnesota last year, is one of Maddux’s favorite backstops. He will replace Paul Bako as backup.
The Cubs picked up veteran infielder Neifi Perez in August after he was released by San Francisco and he proved to be a spark in September — especially filling in for Garciaparra. Perez hit .371 in 23 games with the Cubs including a 3-for-3 showing as a pinch hitter. And his defense was also top-drawer. Jose Macias, who played five different positions in his 98 games with the Cubs, is also back and adds versatility to the bench. Blanco should be an upgrade both offensively and defensively over Bako. The Cubs hope Todd Hollandsworth, who hit .318 before fouling a ball off his right shin June 27 to end his season, can return to form. Hollandsworth hit .563 (9 for 16) as a pinch hitter in 2004, so he was heavily missed during the final three months of the season.
The Cubs have close to $100 million to play with to open the 2005 campaign, and general manager Jim Hendry has been given the green light over the past two seasons to make impact trades in July. When it comes to the bosses above Hendry, the Tribune Co. continues to explore new ways to generate money out of ancient Wrigley Field. Without the number of luxury skyboxes that most parks have, the Cubs are toying with ad signs behind home plate and concerts to try to bring in more revenue to go into the payroll.
The ingredients are there for the Cubs’ second postseason run in three years. Even though players claimed they were not distracted, more on-field production and less bickering with umpires and media members should help them down the stretch. Injuries will always be an X-factor with this team, and the organization hopes that the nightmare of last year (15 players on the DL including Wood, Prior and Sosa) will not return.