Baker gets peace and quiet
Could Sammy Sosa have stayed in Chicago? Possible. But it was a far better solution for the Cubs to dump him.
CHICAGO -- Having mastered the art of addition-by-subtraction in the broadcast booth, the Cubs are finally getting around to putting it to use on the field.
Sammy Sosa is on his way to the Baltimore Orioles, barring problems with his physical. And in the harsh light of morning, after an evening to ponder the first reports of a trade that will send a future Hall of Famer to Camden Yards for Jerry Hairston Jr. and minor leaguers Mike Fontenot and Dave Crouthers, this deal looks exactly like the one Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had insisted for months he would not make.
It is a dump job.
You'll hear much talk about how Hairston can fill the Cubs' void in the leadoff spot -- overlooking the fact that the position he has always played, second base, is filled by a superior hitter in Todd Walker -- and maybe even a little about the potential of Fontenot and Crouthers. There probably won't be much chatter about the latter, though, as Fontenot is a 24-year-old second baseman and Crouthers a 25-year-old pitcher, neither of whom were among the Orioles' legitimate prospects.
The simple fact is that manager Dusty Baker convinced Hendry and Cubs president Andy MacPhail his team would be better with Sosa elsewhere when drills begin in Mesa, Ariz., and the front office gave Baker what he and many of his players wanted: Some peace and quiet, albeit at a record price. This deal happened because the Cubs agreed to pay more than $10 million of Sosa's 2005 salary -- an offer that played right into Peter G. Angelos' wheelhouse.
But what about the Cubs? Can they really be better without Sosa, who averaged 41 homers and 97 RBI over the last three years -- not bad numbers for a guy in decline. After all, they were already without Moises Alou, who departed as a free agent after leading his team with 39 homers and 106 RBI last season.
It's too early to answer the question. If the Cubs are going to take a step forward because Sosa is not there, it is going to have to be because of moves that Hendry will make either in the next few weeks or during the course of the 2005 season, when he will probably have the flexibility to be a major player for the talent made available by second-tier teams.
For the moment, it appears Hairston will get many of his at-bats in left field, most likely knocking rookie Jason Dubois out of the equation after a season in which he hit .309 with 32 homers and 104 RBI between Triple-A Iowa and a September stint with the Cubs. Todd Hollandsworth, who excelled in a reserve role before a season-ending injury in 2004, will get some at-bats, too.
Someone is going to have to take Sosa's place in right field. In an ideal world, the Cubs would sign Magglio Ordonez and hope his famous left knee holds up.
But it is far more likely that when the Cubs play their home opener at Wrigley Field, the guy running out to greet the fans in right field will be Jeromy Burnitz. He might want to make sure he's wearing the proper uniform, as this would be his fifth team in the last five seasons.
He's still a free agent, but a source indicated the Cubs passed on having outfielder Jay Gibbons included in the pending deal with Baltimore because they are pursuing deals with free-agent outfielders.
That is probably not going to be Ordonez, who reportedly has been offered at least $55 million over five years by the Detroit Tigers. "If that is true, and it probably is, it might be the craziest signing in years," a baseball executive said.
The Cubs are many things, but crazy is not among them. So with Ordonez seemingly joining Carlos Beltran in the group of players Hendry likes but doesn't have to have -- we say seemingly because Hendry is apparently considering traveling to California next week to meet Ordonez and watch him work out -- their options are signing Burnitz or trying to trade reliever Kyle Farnsworth and prospects like Dubois and David Kelton for an outfielder like Minnesota's Jacque Jones.
The prospect even of signing Burnitz has become problematic for the Cubs. He is reportedly close to a deal with Pittsburgh, which is a pretty sweet place for a left-handed hitter to hit, and has had recent talks with Tampa Bay.
Because the Sosa trade is not expected to be finalized before Tuesday, the Cubs find themselves with timing issues in the pursuit of Burnitz, who has hit 30-plus homers in six of the last seven seasons.
If the Cubs do sign Burnitz, they aren't going to be better in right field. That's pretty much out of the question unless they were both bold and lucky regarding Ordonez, who would love to just change sides of Chicago.
Sosa's .253 average was a major problem for last year's Cubs; Burnitz's career average is 254. He had 37 homers and 110 RBI a year ago but has gone unsigned this long because he did those things in Colorado. The last time he played near sea level, splitting time with the Mets and Dodgers in 2003, he hit .239 with 31 homers and 77 RBI.
Could you ever conceive of the Cubs paying a team to take Sosa off their hands, and then signing a drifter like Burnitz to replace him? In a year when they are shooting for the World Series, no less?
No, you couldn't. But that is how far the mighty Sosa has fallen.
Like Chip Caray and Steve Stone, he had to go.
And if that's a cheap shot, it's Caray and Stone who should feel insulted. Unlike Sosa, both of the embattled broadcasters were offered a chance to stick around and make up with Dusty Baker.
Based on the lack of communication between Sosa and his team this winter, it seemed possible that he and Baker could share a dugout the entire 2005 season and never even say hello. If Sosa talked to his teammates, it might only be to ask them to stop breaking his things. This was a bad situation, although, to be candid, not an unworkable one.
The Cubs could have won with Sosa along for the ride. He would not have been a divisive factor in the clubhouse, because all of his teammates were united in concluding that he was a selfish jerk. He would not have jaked it in the outfield and especially not at the plate, because he has too much pride to not try to steal the show.
But Baker appears to have set a simple goal for 2005: Fewer soap operas. So Sosa has his bags packed, which seems fine with him.
Hendry made his manager happy, which unfortunately for Hendry left him with his name on a horribly one-sided trade. The departure of Sosa and Alou add a lot of responsibility for Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Nomar Garciaparra. But nobody figures to feel more of a burden than the general manager who will have to make future moves that help this one add up to more than a backup second baseman and two borderline prospects.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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