Len, when we last spoke, we all agreed the Cubs needed to add at least two starting pitchers going into next season. How would you grade their progress thus far?
I’m excited. I think Ted Lilly in particular has a chance to have a great year. The Bronson Arroyo’s and Mark Redman’s of the world, in their first year of going from the American League to the National League, and particularly in Lilly and Arroyo’s case with going from the tough American League East to the National League, it should be an advantage. Usually when pitchers switch leagues, they have a little more of an advantage over a hitter that switches leagues. Aside from the fact that Lilly is a flyball pitcher, we should note that the wind does blow in quite a bit at Wrigley. Being a flyball pitcher when the wind is howling off the lake is a good thing at Wrigley. I think he’s going to have a very good year as a solid No. 2 guy.
In the case of Jason Marquis, I think durability is the key word. He’s going to give you probably 190 innings plus or 35 starts. He had a bad year last year; there’s no question about that. But he’s young enough to get it together and has very good stuff. When you consider how much money other guys are making, if Marquis were coming off a really good year, the Cubs would not have been able to get him for $7 million per year. The most important thing for the rotation as I look at it is the Cubs are going to have five guys. We don’t know exactly who all five are going to be depending on the health of Mark Prior. Depending on the other guy, you’re going to have the Rich Hill’s, the Lilly’s, the Carlos Zambrano’s and Marquis’s – guys who can take the ball every other day, and hopefully Mark can be one of those guys. If not, maybe you have a Wade Miller or a Sean Marshall, but just five guys that can give you six or seven innings every time out.
If you have a better offense and a bullpen that’s already one of the best in the big leagues, then just having durability in your starting rotation is very underrated. The Cubs have addressed that I think in the off-season.
You spoke of Prior just now. What have you heard with regards to his current health status and off-season progression?
I don’t really have an update. I haven’t monitored his progress or been told anything. I think he’s been throwing. I would like to think that Mark hopes to go into Spring Training with a pretty good chance of being on the Opening Day roster. The thing for Mark is that the last three Spring Training’s, I think he’s made a total of one Cactus League start. It would be nice if he could go in with everybody else and not kind of be behind the eight ball in that regard. The Cubs are going into it thinking that if he’s not ready, they’re still going to be OK. I think that’s a big difference from the last couple of years.
What have you heard from the Kerry Wood camp and how his progression has gone?
I’ve heard he’s in great shape and that he’s lost weight. I look for Kerry to have a huge year. He’s going to be in the bullpen all year. Where he’ll pitch is kind of still up in the air a little bit. You have Bob Howry in the eighth and the Cubs are going to go into Spring Training with Ryan Dempster in the ninth, so Kerry could pitch in the seventh, the eighth or even the ninth if needed. I don’t think you want to go into the season putting Wood in a spot where he has to be the closer, though. You just want to kind of ease him in a little bit to where he can air it out. My guess would be that his velocity would be terrific in short spurts. He has the mentality to be a terrific short reliever. What I’ve heard is that Woody could have gone somewhere else and made a lot more money, but he showed a lot of loyalty in coming back to the Cubs. I look for him to have a very big year.
What does the acquisition of Neal Cotts bring to the table in your opinion?
He brings versatility. If you need him as a starter, he could possibly do that. He gives you another left-handed option and the Cubs have a lot of balance right now with Cotts, Scott Eyre and Will Ohman on the left side. And they’re stacked with the right-handers. I mean, Michael Wuertz had a terrific end of the season. He was a guy that did not have a good Spring Training. He pitched in the minors quite a bit early on in the year, but I thought Michael looked as good as he’s ever looked in the big leagues during the second half of last year. Kerry Wood is now going to the bullpen, and with Howry, Dempster, Roberto Novoa and Carlos Marmol possibly relieving, the Cubs had a plethora of hard-throwing right-handed relievers. David Aardsma is going to be a terrific big league pitcher and I think he will help the White Sox, but I think the Cubs were able to use that surplus and acquire a left-hander who can bring some versatility. The Cubs hope that Neal Cotts can get back to the form he showed in 2005.
Turning to the offense ... Alfonso Soriano got one of the biggest deals in this sport’s history. How much does he alone automatically make the Cubs a better team?
With the power, the speed and the fact that his on-base percentage was around .350 last season, he is one of the elite leadoff hitters in the game today, and he instantly makes the Cubs better. He’s a superstar player and the key for me is that he continues to get on base at a .340, .350 and hopefully a .360 clip. He is going to strike out, which I’m fine with as long as he takes his walks. Last year, I think he was almost up to 70 walks, which is pretty good. You don’t want to see Alfonso Soriano in the 30 to 40 walk range. That’s not going to be enough for the leadoff hitter. They need this guy to get on base where he can steal bases and make some things happen. He’s a terrific player and has a chance to go down as one of the great Cubs of all-time considering he signed an eight-year contract. He’s going to be here awhile.
Mark DeRosa was given a three-year deal to play second. Does this affect Ryan Theriot’s chances of making the ballclub in any way?
No, I think Ryan is going to make the team. He’s going to be a super utility guy that can play all over the diamond and it takes a lot of pressure off of him. One of the things with young players, and maybe we saw this a little in Ronny Cedeno and possibly Matt Murton early in the year – although Murton had a really good second half – was that you don’t want to put too much pressure on guys playing on a full-time basis for the first time at this level because they’re going to go through some struggles. In the case of Cedeno, defensively he went through a spurt where he struggled. Offensively, he just had stretches where he couldn’t make good contact.
In Murton’s case, he hit third at one point because of the injury to Derrek Lee and some other things in the order. You don’t want to have to count at this point in Matt Murton’s career on him being in the best spot in the lineup, the spot where your best hitter is, and that’s No. 3. He should be a supplemental player right now. In the case of Ryan Theriot, let him relax, be an energy guy, get his 250 to 300 at-bats, be a pinch runner and play a little second, short, third or the outfield if needed. The Cubs had enough money to go out and get a veteran presence at second base in Mark DeRosa. I don’t think it’s an indictment in any way of Ryan Theriot. I just think that in the end, you have more depth now. They signed Daryle Ward, so the bench should be better now, and they re-signed Henry Blanco. The Cubs on paper right now are a much better club than they were at the end of the season.
Part two of our sit-down with Len Kasper will appear later this week.