NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
4:48 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

While digging your car out of the snow, your mind drifts to Arizona sunshine. The end of the Super Bowl signals the beginning of baseball. Within days, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training.

There was yellow police tape around the sidewalk at Clark and Addison after the storm ripped off a Wrigley Field panel. By Sunday night, the graffiti had been removed from the side of the Harry Caray statue at Sheffield and Waveland.

Jim Hendry had a tight budget while remodeling the 2011 Cubs, but pulled off several accounting tricks to add a power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Carlos Pena), a bullpen game-changer (Kerry Wood) and a front-line starter (Matt Garza).

There is a certain segment of the fan base that will never trust what the Cubs general manager does. But those moves addressed the three biggest needs identified at the organizational meetings.

If you asked us back then in October (and) we knew (we) only had room for three big pieces, Hendry said, if wed have taken those three names around Halloween, wed have jumped up and down.

The Cubs also retained Mike Quade, a manager comfortable in the job and popular within the clubhouse. Overall this grades out as a B and should be enough to hang around in the National League Central, which hasnt won a playoff series since 2006. Heres a look at how the rest of the division rebuilt this winter.
Brewers: A-

This is a small-market team trying to win now. Milwaukee decided to keep Prince Fielder for his walk year and unloaded its farm system for two accomplished starters who wont be free agents until after the 2012 season.

The Brewers hope Zack Greinke will again pitch like a Cy Young Award winner, re-energized after moving out of Kansas City. Shaun Marcums numbers, like Garzas, should improve outside the brutal American League East. With Yovani Gallardo, already an All-Star at 24, this rotation could work into October.

A lineup anchored by Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee shouldnt have any trouble scoring runs. It will be up to a first-year manager Ron Roenicke, the former Angels bench coach to make it work. No pressure.

Reds: B

With a surplus of young pitchers and a good core of position players, the Reds should be a factor for years to come. The pieces are already in place. Cincinnati reached extensions with manager Dusty Baker, NL MVP Joey Votto, pitcher Bronson Arroyo and outfielder Jay Bruce. World Series MVP Edgar Renteria was added to the bench.

The defending division champion gets the benefit of the doubt.

Im an old-school guy that says Cincinnati is the favorite because they won it (last year), Quade said. Theyre young, theyre talented and theyve won it before. Dusty does such a good job why not? But Im also an underdog player, so well see how that all shakes out.

Astros: C-

Their identity began to change last July, when the Astros traded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two faces of the franchise. Those deals eventually produced players the Astros are trying to build around, like first baseman Brett Wallace and pitcher J.A. Happ. Houston remade its middle infield with Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, but didnt create much buzz.

The Astros, who havent made the playoffs since their run to the 2005 World Series, need a new direction. Their most crucial decisions will be made off the field in 2011, as chairman Drayton McLane has put the team up for sale.

Pirates: D

Credibility is a major issue when you lose 105 games and havent enjoyed a winning season since 1992. Pittsburgh wont be a destination for free agents, so its front office will be judged on what it does in the draft, international market and player development.

The Pirates made a good hire in Clint Hurdle, an experienced manager who once took the Rockies to the World Series. They did modest deals with first baseman Lyle Overbay and pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. It wont be enough to finish above .500.

The Pirates have a beautiful downtown ballpark, in a great sports city with teams that win Super Bowls and Stanley Cups. Those fans deserve better.

Cardinals: Incomplete

The Cubs rolled their eyes at Ryan Theriots comments, and from the right side of the rivalry the shortstop will get a chance to show that hes more than a one-dimensional singles hitter.

The Cardinals are also overlooking defense with Berkman, hoping that at the age of 35 he can play the outfield again. Yet in bringing Jake Westbrook back to a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, they should have the pitching depth to stay relevant into September.

All that ignores the Albert Pujols question that hangs over the franchise. This will be pass-fail: Either sign him to an extension before he reports to Jupiter, Fla., or he walks into free agency as the 300 million man everyones talking about next offseason.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Why Joe Maddon won’t tone down the stunts at Cubs camp

Why Joe Maddon won’t tone down the stunts at Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. – Joe Maddon teased reporters when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona one week ago, promising the Cubs wouldn't tone down the gimmicks now that they're World Series champions: "We already have something planned for the first day that you might not want to miss."

A weekend of rain in Mesa postposed the first full-scale full-squad workout until Monday, and the wet grass meant the big reveal had to wait until Tuesday morning, when gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss drove a white Ferrari onto the field for the team's stretching session.

The bearded man they call "Bussy" rocked sunglasses, a gold chain around his neck, brown dress shoes and the same navy blue windowpane suit he wore to the White House. The overarching message as Buss blew kisses and Cypress Hill's "(Rock) Superstar" and Jay Z's "Big Pimpin'" blasted from the sound system: Humility.

"I hope everyone gets the sarcasm involved," Maddon said.

So, uh, no, the Cubs aren't going to dial it back or turn the zoo animals away or worry about the target they proudly wore on their chest last year.

"I don't know if the mime's coming back or not," Maddon said during the welcome-to-camp press conference. "Could you do a mime two years in a row? I don't know if that's permissible under MLB rules somewhere. I don't think you can bring a mime back two years in a row.

"Magicians are OK. You can anticipate a lot of the same, absolutely."

Before rolling your eyes at a star manager who loves the spotlight, it's important to note that the stunts are largely Buss productions.

"A lot of times, I'm not even aware," Maddon said. "He just knows he's got my blessings. He knows he does not have to clear it with me, unless it's absolutely insane. It works pretty well this way."

While every Maddon dress-up theme trip doesn't get universal love in the clubhouse, Buss has a unique way of getting millionaires to pay attention, almost tricking them into doing work.

"He's got several well-endowed players on the team that support his histrionics," Maddon said.

[MORE CUBS: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred open to idea of Cubs hosting All-Star Game at renovated Wrigley Field]

Since taking over this job in 2001, Buss has survived multiple ownership structures (Tribune Co., Sam Zell, Ricketts family) and the Andy MacPhail/Jim Hendry/Theo Epstein transitions in the front office, working for managers Don Baylor, Rene Lachemann (interim), Bruce Kimm (interim), Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria.

"He must have some good photographs, right?" Maddon said. "He's a different cat. He's a weapon."

Buss can clearly get along with almost any kind of personality. But it took Maddon – and the explosion of social media – to give him this kind of platform.

"No, nothing's changed, man," Maddon said. "It's all the same in regards to 'the same,' meaning the methods, the process. I just got aired out by one of our geek guys for not using the word ‘process.’ It’s true. Last year, I used the word ‘process’ often. I’m going to continue to use it a lot again this year.

"Why were we able to withstand the word 'pressure' and 'expectations' as well as we did last year? Because we weren't outcome-oriented. We were more oriented towards the process. Anybody in your job and your business – if you want to be outcome-oriented – you're going to find yourself in a lot of trouble just focusing on that word.

"It's all about the process. Our process shall remain the same, absolutely it shall. Hopefully, we're going to add or augment it in some ways that can be even more interesting and entertaining."

The irony is that the Cubs have repeatedly used outcome-based thinking in defending Maddon's decisions during the World Series. But the manager obviously deserves so much credit for creating an environment where this team could play loose and relaxed and not collapse under the weight of franchise history.

"Our guys are pretty much in charge of the whole thing," Maddon said. "I love the empowerment of the players. I love that they feel the freedom to be themselves. If they didn't, maybe Jason (Heyward) would not have gotten the guys together in a weight room in Cleveland after a bad moment.

"All those things matter. And you can't understand exactly which is more important than the other. So you just continue to attempt to do a lot of the same things. Process is important, man, and we're going to continue along that path."

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred open to idea of Cubs hosting All-Star Game at renovated Wrigley Field

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred open to idea of Cubs hosting All-Star Game at renovated Wrigley Field

PHOENIX – Rob Manfred is open to the idea of an All-Star Game at a fully renovated Wrigley Field, but the Major League Baseball commissioner won't make any guarantees about the 2020 target date the Cubs have proposed in a joint lobbying effort with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.

"I'm not going to get into specific years," Manfred said Tuesday during a Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore. "Because there's a number of clubs – we're fortunate – that have interest in particular years. And I don't want to say anything that would suggest that I'm anywhere near making a decision."

During last month's Cubs Convention, president of business operations Crane Kenney expressed optimism in a Super Bowl-style bidding process, and not the old way of simply alternating the showcase event between the American and National leagues each year.

The Cubs will point to their starring role in a World Series that beat the NFL's "Sunday Night Football" in head-to-head TV ratings and saw more than 40 million people tune in for Game 7. By 2020, the $600 million Wrigleyville development is supposed to be finished, and Emanuel helped broker the deals that moved the NFL draft to Chicago the last two years after a long run at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

"I will say this: A renovated Wrigley Field would be a great location for an All-Star Game," Manfred said. "Chicago is a great city. And over time, we have tried to go to cities that would be great locations for the game – and to reward cities that had made substantial investments in either new or renovated facilities."

The Cubs still see potential roadblocks, needing City Hall's help with an increased security presence around an urban neighborhood ballpark that hasn't hosted the Midsummer Classic since 1990.

Kenney also acknowledged that All-Star Games have been used as bargaining chips in public negotiations in cities like Miami and Washington – Marlins Park (2017) and Nationals Park (2018) will make it four straight All-Star Games for NL stadiums – while the Ricketts family used private mechanisms to fund the project after striking out on other proposals.