Picking up on where we left off ... what’s your read on Lou Piniella and have you had a chance to meet the new Cubs skipper formally?
I haven’t really talked to him personally at length. I’ve had a chance to say hi to him a couple of times, but I’m very impressed with him. He’s very energized after sitting out this past year. He seems to be really excited. I think he’s really gotten into the whole Cubdom thing. He’s met a lot of Cub fans in Western Florida and he just seems to be really excited about this challenge. While he understands Cubs history and knows how many years it’s been since the Cubs have been in the World Series, he’s not going to look for excuses and he doesn’t want to talk about the past; he simply wants to focus on how this team can win, and I think they will win.
As good a manager as Lou Piniella has been, to me the biggest thing this offseason has been the additions in the talent and in the 25-man roster. I’m not going to sit here and blast Dusty Baker, because I don’t think any manager in baseball could have had the 2006 Cubs sniffing .500. As it is, they finished 30 games under .500 and with the injuries and the problems that team had, I think Dusty’s hands were tied. Maybe it was time to make a change just for change’s sake, but I still think Dusty is a very good manager and that he’ll be back managing some time in the near future.
Len, going back to Matt Murton, how big are you on him after the year he put together?
Matt is just going to get progressively better. The type of hitter he is projects very well. He’s in his mid-20’s and if he has a chance to either play on an everyday basis or as a platoon player at the big league level on a good lineup, I think he projects to be a very good No. 2 hitter and eventually maybe a No. 3. I think his power will continue to develop. He has a terrific eye at the plate. I’m not saying he’s going to be a perennial All-Star, but what I’ve seen so far from Matt Murton the past couple of years, I think he’s going to become a solid, everyday player. Right now, he brings great value in that he makes less than half a million a year. Going around the diamond and seeing all the money these guys are making, he’s a very good value for this club right now.
Speaking of big money, as you know, Aramis Ramirez got big bucks after opting out of his contract. What does he have to do to justify all of this money?
To me, he had one of the best years that any hitter in the National League had last year. Aramis is an underrated guy. In a lot of ways, he could make the claim to be the best Cubs hitter when you think about the fact that Derrek Lee had the unfortunate injuries that he had last year. The year Derrek had in 2005 puts him among the elite in the game today, but the consistency Ramirez has shown over the last three or four years is really pretty outstanding. With (Alfonso) Soriano, Lee and Ramirez, I welcome the topic mid-season where hopefully Cub fans are asking themselves who the best hitter on the team is. I think that’s a good problem to have and a good question to ask, because you might have these guys pushing one another to see who can hit more home runs, who can get on base more and who can knock in more runs. That’s always a good thing to have. The Cubs’ offense can benefit greatly from having those guys in the lineup every single day.
You brought up the center field situation earlier. Now that Juan Pierre has signed with the Dodgers, do Felix Pie’s chances of being the Cubs’ opening day starter in center increase the longer this off-season progresses?
It could happen, but don’t look for the Cubs to name Felix their opening day starter in center before Spring Training. If it in fact happens, he’ll have to earn that job in the month of March. The Cubs don’t want to put any more pressure on Felix than necessary. With the Corey Patterson situation still fresh in everyone’s mind, you don’t want to feel like he has to come up and be the savior. Now, going back to the previous answer I just gave, with Soriano, Lee, Ramirez and Michael Barrett, who is one of the best offensive catchers in the game today, the Cubs should have a lot of big hitters in it to where you don’t really have to rely on a Felix Pie to carry you. If in fact he is the everyday guy starting the year, he’ll probably hit seventh or eighth. You just want him to go out and play great defense. Whatever he gives you offensively is just gravy. It’s kind of what you would say about the shortstop, Cesar Izturis. He’ll probably hit seventh or eighth, but just play Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop and everything is going to be OK.
How do you view the Cubs’ bench with the signing of Daryle Ward and the upgrade over John Mabry?
I love John Mabry, and being around him, he’s one of my favorite guys of all-time. He’s just a great guy in the clubhouse. He came up with a couple of big hits with this team. Daryle Ward, though, was maybe the best pinch-hitter in all of baseball last year. In pretty much every category, he was in the top two or three among pinch-hitters. He’s a good guy to bring off your bench against the right-hander. He can handle the fastball and I think the Cubs upgraded in that area. I mentioned Ryan Theriot earlier and I think he kind of becomes the floater around the entire diamond – the Neifi Perez of 2007, so to speak. Unlike Neifi, Theriot can play a little in the outfield, so maybe he gives you slightly more versatility, even though you lose a little veteran presence that Neifi had in the clubhouse. Henry Blanco coming back was great and he’s maybe the best backup catcher in the game today. I think all-around, every area on this team has improved. Even with the bullpen and the addition of Neal Cotts and Kerry Wood, the Cubs should be a very much improved club.
If you had to grade the Cubs’ offseason as a whole, what grade would you give them?
I hate to give grades on anything. The Cubs haven’t played a game yet, so we don’t know how it’s all going to play out. I would just say that I’m very excited about all the changes and I believe that this team on paper is much improved than the one that finished a 66-96 campaign. Keep in mind that the team who won the World Series won a grand total of 83 games in the regular season. The Cubs are not nearly as far away as many people think.
Lastly, this is a little off-topic, but what can you tell us about the Len and Bob Bash that’s planned for next month at the House of Blues (Jan. 18)?
It’s going to be a great Rock and Roll show. Ryan Adams and his band are going to headline. The Redwalls, a great power-pop band from Chicago, will be the opening act. We’re going to raise money for Chicago Cubs charities, which we’re really excited about. Fortunately, it sold out minutes after tickets went on sale, which really blew me away. It’s going to be a great festive night. It’s on the eve of the Cubs Convention, the Thursday night before the convention kicks off at the Hilton. We hope to make this an annual event. Bob and I love great music and it just seemed like something that fit our personalities very well, and it’s something that a lot of people have already expressed their excitement over. The Cubs, Bud Light, WGN and WXRT are on board. We have a lot of people really excited and the folks at the House of Blues have been really wonderful. I can’t thank everybody enough for their support and hopefully everyone has a ticket. It will be a memorable night to say the least.
Thanks as always and Merry Christmas!
Have a great holiday season and before you know it, Spring Training will be right on our doorsteps!