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SI FOR KIDS
The loss of Kerry Wood cast a pall over an otherwise positive preseason
By Tom Verducci
Sitting on a table in the center of the Cubs' spring training clubhouse was a white box with a slot in the top and the label complaint box. It was empty. At his locker, newly fit first baseman Mark Grace belted out background vocals to a Bob Marley tune. Sammy Sosa chuckled about his new life as an action hero, in the Sammy Sosa comic book -- not to be confused with the Sammy Sosa animated movie, the Sammy Sosa CD (on which, mercifully, neither he nor Grace sings), the Sammy Sosa TV commercials for McDonald's or the Sammy Sosa biography. Kerry Wood laughed about being a pop star. (He's featured on cans of cola.) Yes, it seemed a very good time to be a Cub, seeing that every starting position player but .222-hitting catcher Scott Servais was back from the team that won the '98 National League wild card, only the third 90-win club the franchise has had since 1969.
Alas, these are the Cubs we're talking about, a team with an infamous history that dates back nearly as far as The Old Farmer's Almanac. On March 16 Chicago suddenly had itself one very large complaint: Wood will miss at least the entire season because of a torn elbow ligament. Despite the brave faces and words in the clubhouse, the injury changed everything about the Cubs' outlook. Replacing the excitement and bravado Wood brought them -- every fifth day they knew they had one of the game's most dominating pitchers going for them -- is a bigger blow than making up the 13 wins and 166 2/3 innings he gave them last year. In practical terms, it weakens the rotation as well as an already suspect bullpen, with 36-year-old lefthander Terry Mulholland likely to take Wood's spot in the rotation.
When shortstop Jose Hernandez turns 30, on July 14, every one of the team's starting position players, its winningest starting pitcher in '98 and its closer will have reached that age or passed it. Every one of those geezers, except outfielders Sosa and Henry Rodriguez and closer Rod Beck, is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. The future of this team doesn't go beyond tonight's early-bird dinner special.
Says general manager Ed Lynch, "It's a two-sided coin with all the free agents. On the one hand, you don't have much cost certainty. On the other hand, it gives you tremendous flexibility."
Third baseman Gary Gaetti exemplifies the wrinkles in the Cubs' plans. After signing with Chicago on Aug. 19, his 40th birthday, he hit .320 the rest of the season to earn a contract for '99. Only one other fortysomething position player in Cubs history has started on Opening Day: Cap Anson, who last did so in 1895. (No, Gary doesn't recall playing against Cap.) Three other well-worn starters are returning from injury-plagued seasons: leftfielder Rodriguez, 31; centerfielder Lance Johnson, 35; and catcher Benito Santiago, 34.
Chicago's lineup plays something as close to American League baseball as you'll see in the National League. The Cubs, who banged a franchise-record 212 home runs last year, rely heavily on the long ball. They also strike out way too often (1,223 times; only Arizona whiffed more) and have almost no speed (65 stolen bases; only the Mets had fewer).
The Cubs scored more runs than any National League team but Houston and San Francisco last year, and they'll need similar production again to offset an unreliable bullpen that made Riggleman the league's most-watched manager. Although his starters ranked sixth in innings, Riggleman changed pitchers a league-high 449 times. Beck, who was found to have a protruding disk in his back in spring training after leading the league with a career-high 81 appearances last year, must be monitored closely.
Setup men Felix Heredia and Matt Karchner were major disappointments, combining for a 4.73 ERA after midseason trades to the Cubs. Heredia, 22, at least has youth on his side. Karchner has had such a mediocre career that he turns 32 in June having never thrown 65 innings in a major league season.
"We're counting on those guys," Riggleman said of his setup corps. "All I know is that when the phone rang this winter, everybody was asking for them. [Other teams] figured they could get them cheap because we might be down on them. We're not."
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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