Ever since baseball went to three divisions per league in 1994, the Mets and Cubs only get to meet a couple of times a year. I was fortunate enough to get some perspective on the Cubs' fast start from Byron Clarke of the inimitable Cubs blog Goat Riders of the Apocalypse.
Eric Simon:: Despite a terrific season last year with Iowa, Geovany Soto is a career .280/.358/.426 hitter in the minor leagues. He's off to a fast start with the Cubs this season (.304/.403/.537). Tell me a bit about him and where you think he'll end up, offensively and defensively.
Byron Clarke: The Soto situation is a little a-typical. He was cruising through the minors, probably not going to make it, and then last year, it apparently just clicked for him. He had a tremendous year, got a September call-up, impressed then, impressed this spring, and has continued to impress in the first tenth of the season. I'm fairly certain he's not as good as his early line, but the Cubs do not have a history of strength at #2, so anyone who's halfway decent is given a hero's welcome. At the end of the season, he'll probably have a .290/.370/.500 line with around 20 home runs. Defensively, he's passable. He's not going to throw a lot of runners out, but he's apparently a decent game caller.
ES: What's the status of Alfonso Soriano? Where does his gaffe rank among the stupidest sports injuries of all time? Worse than the Sammy Sosa sneeze-spasm? The Clint Barmes dear meat incident? The Bill Gramatica jump-n-tear?
BC: The whole Soriano situation is a little surreal. It's as freak-an-injury as a sneeze-spasm, and it's given all the Soriano haters a good opportunity to get in their cracks. As for where it fits in the pantheon of stupidest injuries? Somewhere between sneeze-spasms and 'washing my truck.' Still, it's not as bad as Jason Williams driving his motorcycle into a lightpost and ending his Bulls career.
ES: Give me your early impressions of Kosuke Fukudome.
BC: He's a complete player. Very fundamentally sound. He has a great approach at the plate. He's patient, will take the pitch and drive it to any part of the field. He runs well, might steal a base if the pitcher's got a high leg kick, and can throw out runners at the plate, especially if they don't run hard. He started off very hot, has cooled down a little, but the fundamentals are still there. For a Cubs team that has struggled for years with over-aggressiveness, his patience at the plate sets a great example for the rest of the team. He sees about 4.5 pitches/appearance. He has some power, but that's more of a bonus. He ought to be hitting in the #2 slot, but the Cubs have been doing well with him at #5.
ES: A lot of Cubs fans I've spoken to were happy to see Mark Prior go. What are your thoughts on the matter?
BC: To me, the whole situation was unfortunate. If events had occurred in a vacuum, I would have been in favor of giving him one more shot in Chicago, but the world is not a vacuum. About two years ago, the local media decided to make Prior 'a bad guy,' and Mark didn't handle it well. (The media also tried this with Kerry Wood, but he handled it much better and is now even more beloved than before.) Anyhow, relations between the fans and Prior, and Prior and the team soured. It was appropriate to let him go, but I'm saddened by the whole parting. I think Mark has some excellent and productive years ahead of him, and I'll be sad to see those occur in someone else's uniform... but I'll be one of the Cubs fans that feel that way. In the end, he was done in by high expectations, high salary, and poor relations with the local beat writers and talk radio guys.
ES: Ryan Dempster has a great ERA so far, but he seems to have gotten pretty lucky in allowing just nine hits in 19.0 innings. His 13-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is unspectacular. Are you bullish or bearish on his future as a starter?
BC: Sell. He hasn't had a good season as a starter since 2000, and as long as I keep repeating that fact, he's been pitching well. So, I will state once more for the record. Ryan Dempster has no business in the Cubs rotation. His early results are a fluke, even if he's been our second best starter.
ES: Kerry Wood: Closer. The results have been good to this point. How does he look, and how is the rest of the bullpen shaping up?
BC: Wood looks better and better with each outing. He struggled a bit at first, allowing runs in two of his first four or five games, but he's looking like a shutdown closer, much like people expected he would be. Currently, Carlos Marmol is the eighth inning set-up man. I've commented a few times that Marmol is the Mariano Rivera to Kerry Wood's John Wetteland. Marmol has been shaky at times, but still dominant. We've also got Bobby Howry who struggles in April, but will be excellent down the stretch, Michael Wuertz (reliably solid), Jon Lieber (ought to be in the rotation), Sean Marshall (also should be in the rotation), and Kevin Hart (unheralded but solid.) To jinx us, I would say that the bullpen is a real strength of the team... but if the starters can't get it together, that won't last for long.
Thanks, Byron. You can check out my responses to his questions at Goat Riders of the Apocalypse.