Len Kasper: In Spring Training, you can never really say that a team looked good or bad. I think most of all, it's nice to see Juan Pierre in the leadoff spot. I didn't get a chance to see Jacque Jones a whole lot, but I know the Cubs are excited about him in right field. The second base competition certainly was heated. Matt Murton has been great in left field and Aramis Ramirez had a great spring. On the downside, the injury to Mark Prior was a disappointment. Let's just hope he's not out for too long. Some guys in the rotation struggled like Glendon Rusch. But all in all, I know the Cubs are excited and I think it's going to be a fun year and a much better year in '06 than it was last season.
Inside The Ivy: One of the hot topics again this spring was Prior. Why do these conspiracy theories about his health and the Cubs' alleged knowledge of it keep popping up every year?
Len Kasper: I think the main thing is because the Cubs are an extremely popular team. With the internet the way it is today, it's easy to speculate. I don't think the Cubs have tried to hide anything from anyone. Mark was throwing the ball and in fact was getting close to facing real competition. The Cubs had been talking about getting him into Cactus League action within a week before the shoulder flared up. I don't know how there could have been a previous injury when the Cubs were ready make that step. It just kind of came out of nowhere. Injuries do happen and it's unfortunate that it happened to Mark. Reading his comments, I know he's extremely frustrated. But you have to look forward now instead of looking back. The Cubs took things slowly this spring because they didn't want to worry about an elbow or arm injury like the last two springs. It was a very specific program to slowly bring him into action in March so he wouldn't have to go through the problems he had in '04 and '05. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.
Len Kasper: I think they're very excited that "Woody" seems to be bouncing back from the knee surgery. It was more of a blip on the radar screen than anything. He's throwing pretty hard from what I hear and read. Wade Miller also seems to be progressing very well. As far as Maddux goes, he just does his thing. He's been doing it for the past two decades. He's healthy and came into Spring Training in great shape. I'm sure he'll put together another 200-220 innings.
Inside The Ivy: What did you make of Todd Walker's comments earlier this spring?
Len Kasper: I think we tend to make a bigger deal out of what a guy says than what he actually does. I believe Todd was probably frustrated in the sense that he was a starter and found himself in competition for a starting role. He's a good guy. He loves the Cubs and he loves being in Chicago. He said what he said, but in the end, I think it came out differently than had he intended. That tends to happen sometimes when you read it back to yourself.
Inside The Ivy: With Walker being named the starter to open the year, what are your thoughts on how the second base battle turned out?
Len Kasper: I think Dusty likes to have options. If you look at the Reds, Jerry Narron is doing a similar thing. He has Tony Womack, Rich Aurilia, Ryan Freel and he's going to try to use all three guys. Jerry Hairston, Neifi Perez and Todd Walker all bring something a little bit different to the table. I think Dusty can ride the hot hand when he wants to, and in a case where he needs defense instead of offense, he can use Neifi or Jerry late in the game if he'd like. But Todd Walker brings a lot of offense and he's a terrific no. 2 hitter. I kind of like the fact that Dusty has left himself some options to use other guys if needed, and if Walker is red hot to start the season, he's going to play more. I think it works out pretty good for everybody. From what I've heard, everyone is on board with the decision. Nobody has said they don't like the arrangement and I'm sure everybody just wants to play as much as they possibly can.
Inside The Ivy: Assuming the Cubs get healthy and can stay there, can you predict where they'll finish?
Len Kasper: It's tough to make any predictions, but I think the team is better on paper than it was last season. I've said a few times that I think the Cubs were a good team that just had a bad year last year. You are what you are after 162 games, but I think the Cubs had to battle through some injuries and inconsistencies like not getting that runner in from third base with less than two outs. They had some bullpen issues because of some younger arms out there. You had Kerry Wood injured off and on all year. Mark Prior had the fluke elbow injury in the middle of the year. But there are a lot of positives to take out of last year, including Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and of course Derrek Lee, who I think should have won the National League MVP. The moves Jim Hendry has made, particularly in the bullpen and on defense, this team will be better. You now have a leadoff hitter and an everyday center fielder who will play probably 160 games unless something bad happens. Health is always a huge key. I know it looks bad with Prior, Wood and Miller out, but these guys will be back at some point and when they are, the Cubs will have one of the most formidable rotations in all of baseball. I think it's going to be a very good year and I'm really excited about it.
Inside The Ivy: What are your thoughts on the World Baseball Classic?
Len Kasper: I think it was a success. I know the United States team was very disappointed not to get further than what they did. It just goes to show you that baseball is very strong around the world and I think the idea of the World Baseball Classic was to make this sport as international as possible. It will be interesting to see how team USA puts together its next squad in 2009. I think it's here to say. I haven't read anything negative from any player that participated in the World Baseball Classic. I believe a lot of guys who didn't play this year will look to participate in three years. I think it's been a great success. The timing of it I know has been criticized by some, but I don't know really when would be the best time to play this thing. You're not going to shut down the season for two weeks in July to play it, so I think March is probably the month that makes the most sense. I'm looking forward to seeing it the next time around.
I think the biggest thing going against it in general was that it came right after the Winter Olympics. It was also up against the NCAA Tournament. In that regard, I think it flew below the radar in some people's minds. Selfishly – and I know I would feel this way if I were the general manager of any baseball club – your concern is when you don't have your guys for two weeks during Spring Training, particularly the pitchers. There have been some injuries, but who's to say that Luis Ayala wouldn't have gotten hurt while pitching for the Washington Nationals in Spring Training in Florida? We'll never know the answer to that question. Maybe some guys pushed it a little harder than they would have in Spring Training. I'm not really sure what the answer is. Derrek Lee bruised his shoulder, but it was a minor injury. That's what happens when you're around competition. I think the guys really enjoyed playing for the country, and again I would call it a success.
Inside The Ivy: Who among the younger guys impressed you the most this spring in Cubs camp?
Len Kasper: All of the young catchers did a nice job. Jake Fox, we saw him block a lot of balls in the dirt. A lot of the catchers had a chance to play with Michael Barrett and Henry Blanco out of the mix for a little while. The two first baseman – Brian Dopirak and Brandon Sing – were also impressive. Both have pretty good power and I think both definitely have a shot at being big leaguers at some point. Sing is a guy who's going to strike out, but he'll also walk. In Dopirak's case, maybe he took a step back last year. Two years ago, though, he had a tremendous season and I think the future is very bright for him. So those two guys who got to fill in when the Blanco's, Barrett's and Lee's were in the World Baseball Classic really stepped up.
Jae-Kuk Ryu showed a very good breaking ball in Spring Training. Rich Hill did struggle a little bit, but I think he's going to be a big leaguer very, very soon. And Angel Guzman looked very good. He had the forearm injury last year and injuries are all that has really stopped him over the years. He has great stuff and the Cubs are really high on him. It's nice to see the Cubs' young starting pitching really stand out in Spring Training when you consider they traded some pitching when they were in a position to get Juan Pierre. I haven't seen anything, but my guess is Sergio Mitre will be in the Florida Marlins rotation and could make a good number of starts for them. I think he has a bright future, but the Cubs did not leave the cupboard bare in the minor leagues. I think it's a good sign when you can make a trade like that and get bonafide major league talent and still have guys that you feel very comfortable about.
Inside The Ivy: Felix Pie also had a nice spring but was due to get sent down. What were your impressions of the Cubs' no. 1 prospect?
Len Kasper: Wow. He hit a triple in Spring Training and just flew around the bases. I heard the Vladimir Guerrero comparisons, the Carlos Beltran comparisons, and he is absolutely the real deal and will be in the big leagues within the next couple of years. I know there are fans out there who are concerned, but you know what? When Pie is ready for the major leagues, the Cubs will find room for him somewhere. He's a major leaguer.
Inside The Ivy: What is your take on Sean Marshall, the Cubs' fourth starter?
Len Kasper: It's one of those great things about Spring Training: anybody in big league camp can grab a big league job. That's why a manager hesitates early on to name starters or to say that this job or that job has no competition, because you have to always be open to the idea that somebody who you don't expect to make the team has a shot. I really like what Sean Marshall brings to the table. I think he'll have an advantage early on, because pitchers that are generally unfamiliar to hitters seem to have an advantage before those hitters can finally start to figure out what he's able to do. You'll notice when a hitter comes into the league, he'll struggle a little more than a pitcher does. So I really think Sean Marshall is going to be pretty good, especially early on. My hope – and I think the Cubs hope this as well – is that when Prior, Wood and Miller all come back, that Sean makes it a very difficult decision to make. You can never have enough good starting pitching.
Inside The Ivy: With the acquisition of Freddie Bynum on Friday night, the Cubs officially set their 25-man roster. Have you had a chance to look at Freddie and his numbers?
Len Kasper: I haven't really seen much of him, but I know he had a great spring. He has great speed, plays a lot of different positions, and he's a left-handed hitter. The Cubs had a need on the bench for the last guy to have all of those things. What I think it does is it gives the Cubs even more speed with Angel Pagan and Jerry Hairston, and of course Neifi runs well. Now with Bynum on the bench, this team is going to have a ton more speed than it had last year. I think it's going to give Dusty even more options late in the game. It was a nice deal even though John Koronka had a very nice spring. They were able to turn him into a piece they could use in a trade to acquire a guy who will help this team on the roster this year.
Inside The Ivy: President Bush will be on hand for the opener. Have you been around him before?
Len Kasper: I was at Miller Park in Milwaukee when that ballpark opened and President Bush threw out the first pitch. It's always exciting on Opening Day, especially in Cincinnati where they open up at home every year. Two great storied franchises that have been around for years will make it a great match-up. It feels like the post-season and to have President Bush, a huge baseball fan, throw out the first pitch, I am really looking forward to it. It's going to be a ton of fun.
Inside The Ivy: Any plans to try and get the president up into the Cubs' booth?
Len Kasper: I don't know if it's a possibility, but I do know that we have made a request to interview him. I would love to talk baseball with President Bush. That would be the ultimate honor. He definitely knows the game and was very comfortable when he welcomed the White Sox to the White House after they won the World Series. I would love to be there next year when the Cubs are the defending World Champs! That would be pretty sweet!
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