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Where Do We Go From Here?: Part 1

Hall of Fame BaseballAs we wile away the winter days, waiting for the start of Spring Training, let’s examine some important issues facing the Chicago Cubs, both near-term and long-term.

In the first installment of WDWGFH, let’s look at one of the Cubs’ biggest long-term issues — the Friendly Confines, Wrigley Field. To get right to the point, Wrigley as it currently exists has to go.

In visiting numerous stadiums around the country, it has become obvious to me that Wrigley has long outlived its usefulness. I freely admit that it is a beautiful park and a historical link to the past that continues to enchant baseball fans (and even non-fans). I also know that is a historical landmark, so it’s not like Theo can just send in the bulldozers and wrecking ball and turn the joint to dust and rubble by making some phone calls.

But still, something has to be done. Wrigley Field, for all of its ivy-covered, sun-soaked charm, is a dump. It’s a crumbling, uncomfortable, outdated dump. I’ve heard it said that Wrigley is a wonderful place as long as you’re in your seat, and I agree with that assessment.

If you are trying to get to your seat or leave when the game is over, or if you need to visit the restroom or buy some nachos, then Wrigley’s warts become glaring. The concourse is cramped and dank, like the basement of Jame Gumb in “Silence of the Lambs”, and you can’t see the action when you’re there. The restrooms are just plain gross (do they still have those troughs to piss in? eww). There is nothing for little kids or non-baseball fans to do other than sit in their seats and marvel at the apartment buildings and wonder what “Eamus Catuli” means.

If you’ve been fortunate to visit the parks in San Francisco or Pittsburgh (as I have), you would instantly know what Wrigley is missing. Those stadiums are small and intimate where it counts, in the seating area. But behind the scenes the concourses are large and afford views of the playing field. The restrooms are modern and clean and plentiful. There is plenty to see and do if you have no interest in the game. These parks are way better than Wrigley, they just aren’t dripping with history (yet).

So what we need is our own PNC Park or AT&T Park. How do we make it happen? Look to the Chicago Bears for an answer. Solider Field is also a historic landmark, so the Bears’ solution was to keep the shell of the original stadium and got the innerds and replace those with a modern stadium’s innerds. Sure, it looks like hell on the outside, but it serves its purpose.

The Cubs should seek to preserve Wrigley’s essential features — the outside facade of the stadium, the bleachers and scoreboard — and get rid of everything else. Build a modern stadium within the existing framework and you have a win-win — a new stadium that still feels like Wrigley. The Cubs would have to play elsewhere for at least one season while the work is being done, but there is that “other” stadium down south (gulp). Look, sometimes you gotta dance with the devil. At least Cubs fans wouldn’t have to travel hours to watch their team play in a college football stadium, like Bears fans had to do in 2002.

It’s high time that the Cubs embraced the 21st century and give their fans a pleasurable place to visit. If we’re going to have to put up with the product on the field, at least allow us to do so in comfort.

Reality Sets In

Finally put the finishing touches on the latest book and now can return to my “other” passion.

Say this for the Cubs new regime — it’s grounded in reality. No proclamations about how we’re going for it in 2012. No scoffing at the thought of rebuilding. Nope, the Cubs’ new honchos know full well that (A) the team they took over stinks and (B) that team will continue to stink for at least a little while longer.

Acting upon these sensible notions, GM Jed Hoyer recently made some moves that will have no consequence on the team when he signed pitchers Andy Sonnanstine and Manny Corpas. Sonnanstine had decent years in 2008 and ’10 and was atrocious in ’07, ’09 and ’11. Since 2012 is an even-numbered year, I guess we should expect blessed medocrity. Even so, given Andy’s penchant for serving up homers, the Bleacher Bums should get their throwing arms loosened up whenever they see him warming up in the bullpen.

Corpas came out of nowhere to capably fill in as Colorado’s closer when the Rockies made their unlikely run to the 2007 World Series. Then he became terrible, and then he became seriously injured (Tommy John surgery) and missed last season. So there’s a good chance he won’t even make the team.

With skads of real pitchers still available on the open market, this is what we get. And that’s a good thing. No sense in blowing meaningful money in order to turn a bad team into an average one. But in case you have any doubts about Hoyer’s dim view of the Cubs’ immediate future, look no further than the recent trade of Sean Marshall to the Reds. Simply put, you don’t deal one of your best hurlers to a division rival unless you’re basically conceding defeat before Spring Training has even begun.

Sure, it hurts. No one wants to see their favorite team go all San Diego Padres on them. 2012 will be an ugly year. All indications are Matt Garza will be the next out the door. Prince Fielder won’t be racing to the North Side on a white horse any time soon. It’s tough to swallow, but it’s our reality. And we can only have faith that Jed and the gang will get the job done … some day.

Prince Fielder: Do We Want Him?

There is only one real plum left in the free agent class among hittNLCS Cardinals Brewers Baseballers — a very plump and scruffy plum who would fill a gaping hole in the Cubs’ lineup. While the Cubs could certainly use Prince Fielder, the question is should they plunk down $200 million-plus to obtain his services?

 The answer is no, and here’s why. While a talent like Fielder doesn’t hit the market that often, the fact remains there are always quality players to be had from any free agent class. So why pull the trigger now for a talented player whose skills will largely be wasted for a couple of years while you try to build the team up around him when you can take the more sensible and cost-effective approach: build up the team first, then add in key players where they are needed.

The sad reality is the Cubs could clearly upgrade at every single position except shortstop. Here are some of the players who could be free agents next winter: Howie Kendrick, Brandon Phillips, David Wright, Josh Hamilton (although his age and injury history are concerns), B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Andre Ethier, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren and Shaun Marcum. There surely will be many more gems in 2013 and 2014. So why blow a big chunk of your budget now when you can take your time, assess what you have on hand and then buy accordingly in the future, when your team is more competitive?

Another important factor is Fielder’s position. First base is chock full of quality players and it usually isn’t too hard to find a useful dude to man the bag, either through free agency or trade or (here’s a wild concept, Cubs front office) the farm system. Other positions — namely the up-the-middle posts of catcher, short, second and center, in addition to pitcher — aren’t so easy to fill.

A Moneyball afficiendo like Theo surely knows that it makes more sense to spend big on hard-to-fill positions and look for bargains to play the corners than the other way around. And so that’s what the Cubbies should do. They already have the shortstop (we think). Soto might be a long-term option at catcher. Brett Jackson might be an answer for center. If not, let’s spend there and at second and on the mound and round out the roster with corner players who won’t cost $20-plus mil a year.

Now Can We Interest You in Carlos Zambrano?

66070017Obviously desperate for a hitter who doesn’t have Lyle Alzado-like testosterone levels or is seeking Albert Pujols-like dollars, the Milwaukee Brewers signed Aramis Ramirez Monday to a three-year contract.

As much as the Crew needs an offensive jolt in light of Ryan Braun’s suspension and Prince Fielder’s imminent departure, this probably wasn’t the right way to go. Ramirez turns 34 in June and has been looking more like a 54-year-old in the field in recent years. And while last season was a nice bounce-back at the plate for him, few Cubs fans can forget his two-homer April-May before he suddenly realized “holy crap, I’m gonna be a free agent soon, better start bearing down” and turned it on in the summer months, just in time to help the team … not one bit.

I, for one, will always scorn Ramirez for his disappearing act in the 2007 and ’08 playoffs: 2-for-23, zero homers, zippo RBI. Yes, NO freaking RBI from our middle-of-the-order thumper when the games counted the most. Oh, and he hit .214 against Milwaukee the last three years. In other words, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.