|CHICAGO -- Like anyone beginning a new job, Don Baylor hoped there would be enough pleasant surprises to offset the bad ones. That was hardly the case with the Cubs last year, but the picture has brightened considerably in 2001, with or without Sammy Sosa.
If Baylor did not know what he had gotten himself into before then, there were few illusions as the Cubs departed for Tokyo last March. No matter how many home runs Sosa might hit, Baylor was looking at a manager's equivalent of an 0-2 count against Randy Johnson.
Baylor began his managerial stint with Kyle Farnsworth, Andrew Lorraine and Scott Downs in the starting rotation, Brian Williams and Danny Young in set-up roles, Shane Andrews in Ron Santo's Black Hole at third base and the likes of Roosevelt Brown, Tarrik Brock, Cole Liniak and Jose Molina on the bench. It wasn't a wonder the Cubs lost 97 games; the wonder was how they won 65.
The lasting memory of the season is the sight of a glassy-eyed Baylor on his feet at the end of the Wrigley Field dugout after another mind-numbing collapse by a horrific bullpen. He almost never lost his cool, taking his punishment like the National League's Chuck Wepner.
As the Great Cubs Collapse of 1999 continued unabated -- 100-169 since June 9, '99 -- there was a moment of grace in July. Club president Andy MacPhail not only accepted Ed Lynch's resignation, but also reluctantly named himself as his new general manager.
A third-generation baseball man who has seen both his father and grandfather inducted into the Hall of Fame, MacPhail stepped into a crisis that had been building throughout his six years on the job. It would have arrived earlier if not for Sosa, Kerry Wood and the magical -- albeit brief -- trip into the playoffs in 1998.
With his reputation at stake, MacPhail has come out fighting. The job he and assistant GM Jim Hendry have done in restoring order in an immediate sense and -- more importantly -- optimism for the near-future hints at becoming the same marvelous transition that the crosstown White Sox put together between 1997 and '99.
Immediately after replacing Lynch, MacPhail made a major move by trading Downs for Rondell White, whose poor health scared away contenders. The talented outfielder who had hit third for the Expos played only 19 games in Chicago before being shut down for the season, but should have a big impact in 2001 after surgeries on both his shoulder and left knee.
|The health of Kerry Wood should be a determining factor in whether the Cubs will be a threat in the NL Central this year.|
MacPhail was among baseball's busiest executives during the winter, making sure Baylor wouldn't again manage with a roster like the one he inherited. He drew the most attention for pursuits that did not produce fruit -- a run at left-hander Mike Hampton and continuing contract negotiations with Sosa -- but quietly made a series of moves that will give Baylor some options and should end the Cubs' run as a regular punching bag.
Through trades and free-agent signings, MacPhail has imported nine veterans. They include catcher Todd Hundley, whose 954 OPS last year is higher than any Cub except Sosa has had since Dave Kingman in '79; outfielder-first baseman Matt Stairs, whose average OPS over the last five years is 872, and third baseman Bill Mueller, who in San Francisco last year hit second for a team that won 97 games.
This infusion of talent also includes pitchers Tom Gordon, Julian Tavarez, Jason Bere and Jeff Fassero; first baseman-third baseman Ron Coomer and outfielder Todd Dunwoody. Beneath it is the best collection of minor-league talent the Cubs have had in many, many years.
There are many other reasons the Cubs haven't gone to the World Series since 1945, but nothing explains their annual futility better than an unproductive farm system. It was ranked as second-worst in the majors by Baseball America as recently as 1998, but Hendry has gained such respect that it will reportedly jump to second overall -- behind only the White Sox -- when the 2001 rankings are released.
Suddenly Baylor has options all over the diamond. The Cubs are two deep in quality catchers with Joe Girardi and Hundley and have a surplus of moving parts both in the outfield and first base, where Mark Grace won't be the regular for the first time since the Reagan administration.
Dynamic center fielder Corey Patterson, an intelligent, sculpted talent in a 5-foot-10 package, is widely regarded as the major leagues' best prospect. If he plays well in spring training, it will be hard for Baylor to send him to Triple-A Iowa. But there should be no rush for Patterson with a platoon of Damon Buford and Dunwoody readily available.
White is projected to play left field, but could move to center to squeeze in others. If the Cubs hang onto Sosa, there's no room in the outfield for Stairs, Brown or Gary Matthews Jr., who replaced Patterson at midseason in Puerto Rico and helped lead Caguas to the Caribbean World Series.
Stairs, a left-handed hitter whose approach and huge swing should be popular with Wrigley Field fans, could share first base with Coomer, who last year mostly hit cleanup for Minnesota. But that would block the path of Julio Zuleta, a 25-year-old converted catcher from Panama who has averaged 23 homers and 103 RBI at different levels in the minor leagues over the last three years.
This is probably the last chance for the Cubs to look at Zuleta or Ross Gload, who after being acquired from Florida for Henry Rodriguez last year hit 14 homers in 28 games at Iowa. Korean Hee Seop Choi, a left-handed hitter with a contact hitter's approach and a power hitter's production, needs another 300-500 at-bats in the minor leagues before settling in for a run of possible Grace proportions.
Baylor's starting rotation appears set with Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani, Wood, Tavarez and Bere. There is also help on the horizon with right-hander Jeremi Gonzalez, who is on the verge of completing a slow recovery from Tommy John surgery, and prospects Ruben Quevedo, Joey Nation and Nate Teut. Ben Christensen and Juan Cruz, the prospects with the highest ceilings, are coming fast.
The bullpen remains a glaring weakness -- most likely to be addressed in moves during or after the upcoming season -- but has lots of upside. Next to the return of Gordon's snapping curveball, nothing would help more than a major step forward by Farnsworth, who has the stuff to overpower hitters. With his feet back under him, there's no reason Todd Van Poppel shouldn't be valuable as a set-up man or as a spot starter.
Baylor is anxious to get to spring training in Arizona and see how the parts fit into place. He is not anxious, however, to endure another season's worth of questions about Sosa, whose status obscures everything else that MacPhail and Baylor are doing.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. Send this story to a friend
Chicago Cubs, 2004
If the Cubs keep Sammy Sosa and draft hard-hitting Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira with the second pick in the 2001 draft, this could be their lineup in three years:
2B Bobby Hill
CF Corey Patterson
RF Sammy Sosa
3B Mark Teixeira
1B Hee Seop Choi
LF Rondell White
SS Luis Montanez
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Cubs minor-league report