Even as out of touch with the news from home as I am, I couldn't miss the Cubs' acquisition of Nomar Garciaparra over here in London. It was the lead sports story in the International Herald Tribune and the international USA Today. I nabbed the last copy of both from the local newsstand, bought a tomato basil pasty from Marylebone station, and rushed back to Peter's flat to dissect the deal.
Since I arrived in Europe, the Cubs have dropped out of contention for their division title. I'm not sure what happened, but the Cardinals went on a ridiculous winning streak to end up with the best record in baseball, leaving the Cubs to choke on their fumes. At this point in the season, the Cubs only realistic chance to make the playoffs is to win the NL wild card.
The Cubs primary offensive shortcoming is at SS, and there were several names bandied about as likely trade targets: Omar Vizquel, Rich Aurilia, Orlando Cabrera, and Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar seemed the least likely as the Red Sox were rumored to want Matt Clement in return. Then I heard they wanted Angel Guzman and Felix Pie, too high a price for a shortstop rental.
At the same time, Omar Vizquel and Rich Aurilia were over-the-hill offensive liability. I was glad the Cubs stayed away from them. Likewise, I was not high on Orlando Cabrera, who parlayed one solid all around season in 2001 into heaps of unjustified praise. You just knew that even as a 29 year old he was due for a serious offensive regression this year, and to boot, he had chronic back injuries that had reduced his defense from Gold Glove in 2001 to just above average in 2002 and 2003. His offense at SS is average at best, and this year it's atrocious.
So I was tickled to discover the Cubs had somehow obtained not just Garciaparra and cash but also a solid outfield prospect in Matt Murton for not much more than Alex Gonzalez and some middling prospects. The Cubs are woefully short on position player prospects, so adding a left fielder who hits for both power and average is a bonus.
Garciaparra is on the downside of his career, a purported clubhouse cancer in Boston, and chronically injured. An Achilles tendon injury has reduced his range to way below average. However, he's still a huge offensive upgrade over the Cubs sad-hitting trio of Alex Gonzalez, Ramon Martinez, and Rey Ordonez. His defensive shortcomings are much less of a liability on the Cubs since their pitching staff leads the major leagues in strikeouts. And already Cubs fans and the media are welcoming him in a way that must seem like release from prison after the brutality of the Boston media. Maybe it will prove a win-win for both the Red Sox and the Cubs since Nomar was likely to leave Boston after the season in free agency. The Red Sox are sacrificing offense for defense (Mientkiewicz and Cabrera are above average fielders, below average hitters for their respective positions) and the Cubs are sacrificing defense for offense which fits their team philosophy in recent years.
I liked Brendan Harris, but he wasn't an A-List prospect. Francis Beltran throws hard but has little command, and these days those are a dime a dozen. Alex Gonzalez was an albatross. Lefty starter Justin Jones showed lots of potential, but I don't agonize much over trading injury-prone pitching prospects at the triple-A level. Most never amount to much.
The Cubs still need to make the playoffs (at the moment, they're two games out in the wild card chase), but if they do, they set up as a dangerous wild card team, just like they were last year. With a pitching staff of Prior, Wood, Zambrano, Clement, and Maddux, a random alignment of the stars could be devastating on an opposing lineup, especially one heavy with right-handed hitters. The Cubs offensive lineup is stacked with free-swinging, homer happy batters who can all be pitched to, but they're also liable to hang four or five homers a game on a starter having an off-day.
I don't always agree with what Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker do, but after waiting since 1908 for a World Series victory, a win-now strategy is nothing Cubs fans should complain about. I'll go against character and see all this as filling the glass half full.