When the Cubs traded Matt Lawton to the New York Yankees on Saturday for a Class A prospect, the guessing game officially began.
Is this the start of the end-of-the-season purge?
Will Kerry Wood be shut down to get shoulder surgery to give him more time to recover for 2006?
Is manager Dusty Baker willing to let some of the kids play in September with the Cubs out of the wild-card hunt?
Those questions and more will be answered in the coming days and weeks as the Cubs play out the string before sellout crowds at Wrigley Field. Looking ahead is never out of style on the North Side.
"There's no sense in taking the month of September and hanging our heads," general manager Jim Hendry said before Saturday's 2-1 loss to Florida.
The Cubs have lost six of seven and fallen a season-low seven games below .500 at 61-68, leaving them one game ahead of fifth-place Cincinnati.
Dontrelle Willis outdueled Greg Maddux for his 18th victory, tying the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter for the National League lead, and also forced home the winning run by getting plunked by Maddux with the bases loaded in the fifth.
Maddux hit two batters, and both pitches led to runs.
"It's one of those games where you look back and you pitched good enough to lose," Maddux said. "I hit a guy (Juan Pierre) and he scored, and I hit a guy (Willis) and he drove in a run. I just have to make better pitches in those situations. It's OK to be wild, but when you're wild in, you do run the risk of hitting guys."
Maddux (10-11), who allowed five hits in his 107th complete game, needs to win five of his final six starts to add to his record total of 17 consecutive seasons of 15 or more wins. He also needs only 82/3 more innings to automatically vest his $9 million option for 2006, if he decides to return. The 39,202 fans let Maddux know how they feel, giving him several standing ovations.
Like Maddux, the Cubs also have some big decisions to make. Hendry said he'll meet with Wood and Cubs doctors in the next few days to decide whether to shut Wood down for arthroscopic surgery to clean up fraying in his labrum and rotator cuff. It's likely he's finished for 2005.
The trade of Lawton for Class A pitcher Justin Berg opens up left field for Matt Murton, who is expected to be recalled Monday from Triple-A Iowa. Murton and shortstop Ronny Cedeno are two prospects who may earn starting jobs next season.
"I think [Murton] held his own admirably coming up from Double A," Hendry said. "So it's not like we're going to have 12 guys without big-league experience up here by Sept. 1. I think if Cedeno and Murton are playing, that's a positive, and I think our fan base would appreciate that."
But Baker may have a different opinion on what the fan base wants.
"We owe it to ourselves and to our fans to put the best team on the field and try to win," Baker said.
That suggests kids like Cedeno and Murton won't play on a regular basis.
"It's too early for me," Baker said. "I haven't been in this position in years. You still owe your best to the team and to the fans and to everybody, for now. Eventually you're going to have to start thinking about that, but right now we plan to end up the best we can. We owe it to ourselves, to the paying customers and out of respect for the game."
Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston also are prime trade bait before Sept. 1, when players must be on a team's roster to be eligible for postseason play. Walker is probably as good as gone, but Hairston may be a more valuable trade commodity at the winter meetings. Nomar Garciaparra has a no-trade clause, and there's little interest in Todd Hollandsworth.
In other words, a major purge this week is unlikely.
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