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July 24, 2000

NL Central Notebook


by Dave Pease


When the other shoe dropped in Chicago, it wasn't a Sammy Sosa deal. General Manager Ed Lynch was awarded the famed Pink Slip and one month's salary and benefits as this year's Snuggly Cubbie Scapegoat. Team President Andy MacPhail will assume the duties of the general manager until a new warm body is found, and he's made it known that his first order of business is making Sosa happy.

The lesson here: if the team you're running has a fluke season, keep your resume current. Heightened expectations can torch the career of any executive, and the Cubs set their leadership up for a thinning following their 90-73 wild-card campaign of 1998. Manager Jim Riggleman, third-place finisher in 1998 NL Manager of the Year voting, was first to go, as he and his staff were sacked after 1999's 67-95 return to reality.

In the end, this is a Cubs team decaying from within. Manager Don Baylor's overt insinuations about how much Sosa and fellow outfielder Henry Rodriguez are giving for the team haven't produced any tangible result except to irritate one of the team's better players and its only true superstar. And if anything interests Baylor more than impugning his outfield, it is championing minor-league outfielder/Baseball Prospectus Top 40 Prospect Corey Patterson's case for the majors. This while Patterson is batting .257/.333/.477 with mediocre plate discipline for the team's Double-A affiliate.

The Lynch/MacPhail reign has not been a happy one for Cubs fans, and the preparations for this year merely underscored the reason: a reliance on overpaid, underperforming veterans. During the offseason, the Cubs traded for pitcher Ismael Valdes and second baseman Eric Young. We've thought Valdes has been underrated for some time now, and Young had a fairly good season in Los Angeles in 1999. But at the same time, the Cubs plugged holes in center field and at catcher with Damon Buford and Joe Girardi. Adding Buford and "All-Star" Girardi did a number on the team's already poor offense. The rest, as they say, is history.

MacPhail and Lynch made some good moves--Pirates fans are still smarting from the Brant Brown-for-Jon Lieber deal--and, in the end, they've gotten their share of bad luck, with Valdes's terrible 2000 a shining example. But many things have broken right for the Cubs--Sosa making his four-year, $42.5-million contract a bargain being chief among them--and the team has nothing to show for it but a quick playoff exit in 1998. MacPhail is running out of scapegoats, and even with the sleepy corporate ownership and nearly inelastic ticketed fan base, change is coming for the Cubs.


  • In a bizarre couple of days, Reds shortstop and lifer Barry Larkin goes from traded to the Mets to signed in Cincinnati through 2003. The team ended up meeting his demand for a three-year, $27-million extension despite GM Jim Bowden's concrete assurances to the media that such a thing would not be happening.

    Larkin gave the Reds a nice hometown discount following his 1995 MVP season, and it seems right that the Reds compensate him for that now. In fact, Larkin is still playing at an All-Star level, and will probably earn his money over the course of the deal. But the most interesting part of the whole process, to me, was Ken Griffey Jr.'s public willingness to help pay for part of Larkin's deal.

    In this day and age, it's become old hat to hear the top dog on a team bitch and complain about how management doesn't give him enough help, and Griffey is no stranger to that. But it isn't often that you hear a player offer to help sign the guys he wants with his own money, and now Griffey has done it twice--with Jay Buhner in Seattle and with Larkin in Cincinnati.

    Throw in the fact that Griffey took way below market value to come to Cincinnati in the first place, and his priorities look pretty refreshing compared to your standard-issue major leaguer.

  • While it may be tempting to point to Mark McGwire's absence as the reason for the Cardinals' 5-9 stretch, the fact is the team's offense hasn't suffered much in his absence. The Cards have scored more than six runs per game since McGwire's last appearance, above their season average. Ray Lankford was rounding into form before leaving the team to mourn his brother and the return of Fernando Tatis has been a big boost.

    The pitching has been the problem--the Cardinals have given up 86 runs during McGwire's DL stay, 6.1 per game and exactly as many as they've scored. The Cards haven't been home since the All-Star break, either; their home game Tuesday against the Diamondbacks will be their first in 16 days.

    While their lead over the Reds has dwindled to five games, there's no real reason to believe a collapse is imminent. Lankford is back and McGwire's return sometime this week will have the Cardinals at full strength for the first time since April.

Dave Pease can be reached at dpease@baseballprospectus.com.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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2000-07-24 - NL Central Notebook
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