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Not spending, Cubs bank on improvement


The Chicago Cubs are owned by a media giant, but while the Fox Dodgers and Disney Angels play dueling checkbooks in Southern California, they are taking a far more fiscally conservative approach on the north side of the Windy City.

The Cubs, owned by the Tribune Co., are for the most part standing pat with the team that reached the playoffs in 1998.

"The starting pitching was OK and Rod Beck saved a lot of games for us," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We won 90 games with that formula, so we'll pretty much stay with it."

It's an easier sell in Chicago, where the rival White Sox have all but given up any hope of competing for a playoff berth next season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers felt they had to spend $105 million to sign Kevin Brown after the Anaheim Angels coughed up $80 million for first baseman Mo Vaughn just as the New York Yankees felt like they had to give Bernie Williams $87 million to assure that they didn't lose the intracity publicity war with the Mets.

There is no such economic arms race going on in Chicago. It is a Cubs town, and the Cubs are coming off an exciting, down-to-the-wire season that included the drama of Sammy Sosa's 66-homer performance, so they will ride that wave of euphoria into 1999 and hope for improvement in other areas.

Can Kerry Wood stay healthy and improve on his Rookie of the Year performance of 1998?

"Kerry is very healthy right now," Riggleman said. "He's been checked out a few times this winter. Pitchers who throw a lot of innings come up with soreness. I don't think we've seen the last of that. Kerry might go through some of that, but right now, he's healthy."

Can Sosa provide an adequate encore to one of the greatest individual offensive performances in history?

"I don't have any expectations," Riggleman added. "If Sammy goes out there and gets into 150 ballgames, I think we'll look up there at the end and say that Sammy had a really good year."

Can the Cubs improve enough to unseat the defending division champion Houston Astros?

That figures to remain an open issue until the Roger Clemens trade situation is resolved, since the Astros are trying to fill the hole left in their rotation by the loss of Randy Johnson.

"I don't know that we're going to be better, but maybe 90 wins will be enough," Riggleman said. "Ninety might be enough, but there's room for improvement on our club within the club that we have. There are people on our ballclub that can perform better than they performed last year."

If so, the National League Central could be a wide-open race, but there still is plenty of time for the top contenders -- including the Cubs -- to upgrade before spring training.

Crying wolf

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox was asked last week about the impact that Brown's $105 million contract would have on the future of baseball. In the same breath, he seemed to chide baseball officials for habitually predicting gloom and doom while wondering if this might be the time they're right.

"We've been saying since Catfish Hunter signed in the 1970s -- when guys were making $250,000 -- that baseball is going to collapse," Cox said. "I think it's still working under this system, but it seems to me that the cap is just about there with Kevin's contract."

New generation

The Braves are putting a lot of confidence in pitching prospect Bruce Chen. They are so sure that he'll be effective that they traded away premier left-hander Denny Neagle to solidify their -- middle defense (second baseman Bret Boone) and reduce payroll.

"He's a polished kid already," Cox said. "He can change speeds move the ball in and out. He's not a finished product, but he's going to win."

If there was any question about the balance and depth on the Braves' major-league roster, the Neagle deal was the best illustration of the health of that organization. How many other teams could trade a former 20-game winner -- still in his prime -- and still have five solid candidates for the starting rotation?

The 30 miles war

The Dodgers still are dominating the headlines in Southern California, but it appears that the public relations playing field has become more level since the Dodgers and Angels became corporate subsidiaries.

Not that there was a great economic gap between the O'Malley family and longtime Angels owner Gene Autry, but the Dodgers held a huge advantage in both geography and revenue potential from the moment baseball awarded Autry his expansion franchise in 1960. That may remain true, but the tremendous financial strength of Fox and Disney -- the corporate giants that have taken over both teams -- has made those considerations almost irrelevant.

The Dodgers still are the most popular professional team in the Southern California market, but their continued dominance no longer is assured. Ruppert Murdoch's Fox Group has the money guarantee that they remain competitive in perpetuity, but Disney may be in a position to exploit both its multi-billion-dollar economic foundation and its wholesome corporate image to win the public relations war.

The Dodgers came under heavy criticism for the decision to sign Brown to a record seven-year contract, and will compete for the NL West title in the shadow of Murdoch's huge checkbook. The Angels earlier signed Vaughn to a deal that briefly made him the highest-salaried player in the game, but Disney's seemingly reluctant entry into the free-agent market allowed the signing to go largely uncriticized.

Maybe that's because the Vaughn acquisition appeared to be part of a well-conceived, long-range plan, while the Brown signing looked more like the pretentious act of someone who has more dollars than sense.

View from afar

San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker watched from the sideline while the Dodgers added Brown, Todd Hundley and Devon White over the past few weeks. He's impressed, but he isn't ready to concede the NL West race to a team that the Giants finished well ahead of last year.

"They've been favorites four of the last five years as I recall," Baker said. "With the talent they have, it is not far-fetched to say that or believe it, but you've just got to play."

The Giants have long been overmatched economically by the Dodgers, but they have won just one fewer game over the past 10 years (797-796).

"You can't worry about keeping up with the Joneses or trying to spend Rockefeller money if you're not a Rockefeller," Baker said. "If all you can afford is a Chevy, you buy a Chevy and do the best you can, but we may have to figure out how David slew Goliath."

Bowden stands firm

Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden didn't bite when veteran shortstop Barry Larkin asked the club to trade him recently, but he didn't take offense, either.

"I don't blame Barry or Chuck Knoblauch or anyone for wanting to go to the six big-market clubs," Bowden said recently. "I don't blame any player in a multi-year contract for wanting to renegotiate after they see a guy getting $13 million a year. But we believe you have to live up to your contract."

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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