Disciples of Doug Dascenzo

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cubs Convention Notes and Arbitration Updates...

Some thoughts from the past few days…

I had a chance to attend the Cubs Convention on Saturday, and had some mixed reactions to all the hoopla. This was my first time at the convention, and when I walked in, it felt like my first trip to Disney World as a kid. As soon as we walked through the doors, there was Doug Glanville (my second favorite non-HOFer behind Dascenzo). However, just like Disney World, the fantasy is quickly tainted by the reality – trashy grown men clamoring for autographs, soft-boiled non-answers from management, lines everywhere, etc. Despite all of that, I still had a great time. Some highlights:

- Asking Dusty Baker why management has soured on Todd Walker, and when he gave a typical non-answer, hearing the crowd boo. Such sweet satisfaction.

- Asking bullpen coach Juan “Porky” Lopez what I needed to do to earn a job as a bullpen catcher. Although most of his answer was unintelligible, I did manage to make out one of the main responsibilities – waking the pitchers up on game day.

- The standard fashionably late entrance of Randy “Rebel” Hundley during Cubs Jeopardy, apparently due to a hangover. Gotta love late-stage alcoholism.

- Santo referring to his headphones as “earmuffs.”

- Listening to Rick Sutcliffe talk about how a young Greg Maddux retaliated against a pitch thrown at Andre Dawson, even though it meant he would likely be sent back down to the minors the next day (which he was). Now that’s a teammate.

I feel I need to further elaborate on Baker’s comments about Todd Walker. Baker claimed that management still likes Todd (which we all know isn’t true), and he would just prefer to make guys compete for a job rather than hand the starting job over to someone before Spring Training. That makes sense, but not when you consider that this game, while a business, involves real people, and Cubs management is being pretty cavalier with a man’s entire career.

Todd Walker came to the Cubs as a career .300 hitter who could have likely started for a number of other teams in the league. He arrived with the understanding that he would back up Grudz, but when Grudz left, he would be given the starting job. That’s only fair for a guy who signed a below-market contract as a back-up just because he wanted to play for the Cubs. However, Hendry and Baker have consistently twisted the knife in his back since his injury early last season.

To insist that he has to compete with Neifi Perez and Jerry Hairston, Jr. for a starting job is an insult. What’s worse is that if they trade him, the Cubs will have made, what I consider, a very unethical move. Walker could have been a free agent this off-season, but the Cubs picked up his option on the cheap. To take away his options as a free agent and then trade him to a team he has no say over would say to every player around the league that the Cubs organization is disloyal to its players and only cares about the bottom line. Todd Walker has given up likely a few million dollars elsewhere over the last couple of seasons specifically to play for the Cubs, and this is how they treat him?

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There’s one other thing I wanted to discuss, and that’s the impending arbitration process for 5 Cubs players (Zambrano, Pierre, Prior, Hairston, Ohman). During Andy McPhail’s tenure (since 1994), the Cubs have never taken a player to arbitration. This makes a lot of sense, because going to arbitration means that a player essentially has to listen to his own management badmouth him. That doesn’t build a whole lot of mutual respect. However, with the dollars on a few players this year being somewhat far apart, it wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of those guys did make it to a hearing. Let’s hope not.

The player I particularly want to address is Mark Prior. He is asking for $4 million, while the Cubs are offering $3.3 million. That strikes me as ridiculously cheap. AJ Burnett just signed what, a 5-year, $55 million contract? He’s 28 years old, with a career 49-50 record, 853 IP, and a 3.73 ERA. Contrast that with Mark Prior, who is 25 and has a career 41-23 record, 613 IP, and a 3.24 ERA. Both have injury histories, although it can be argued that most of Prior’s weren’t even related to stress on the arm due to pitching (being run over on the bases, line drive off the elbow). Oh, and last I checked, Burnett never finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting. Who looks like the more attractive pitcher of those two?

I’m certainly not suggesting that Mark Prior should get $11 million per year at this point in his career, but one day he very well might be worth that. Quibbling over $700,000 now, when his services are still incredibly cheap, can only serve to alienate him and discount every ounce of loyalty he might feel towards the Cubs organization. Baseball is a business, but in businesses around the world the name of the game is employee retention. Losing your best employees due to dissatisfaction at the workplace costs companies billions of dollars a year and the Cubs have never seemed to be able to figure that out (read: Maddux, Greg c. 1992).

The Cubs are like the company that, on the surface, looks like it has great perks. Maybe Wrigley Field is to players what a great 401(k) program is to us normal folk, and the sell-out crowds look like a great vacation package. But in the end, no matter how attractive a company looks to prospective employees on the surface, if management treats its people poorly, no one will want to work for them. Doesn’t anyone wonder why the Cubs never seem to be able to lock up big name free agents? Perhaps it’s because they have a reputation of nickel-and-diming their best players.

We can only hope that Mark Prior never reaches free agency, but if he does, let’s also hope that he doesn’t remember this little episode. On the other hand, if they make a few minor concessions now, maybe in the future he’ll still feel those warm, fuzzy feelings about the city of Chicago, and the Cubs organization.

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