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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #6: The Chicago Cubs

When the 2009 season began, it seemed like almost a forgone conclusion that the Cubs were going to win another NL Central crown. They had retained every significant player, other than Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood, from their 2008 squad, which paced the NL. They had added Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg, which seemed like more than enough to maintain the status quo. Moreover, the 2008 runner-up, Milwaukee, had lost their top two starting pitchers and the Cubs other top rivals, the Cardinals and Astros, hadn't made a peep all offseason, much to the dismay of their fans. It looked, during last winter, like the NL Central GMs, via inactivity and apathy, had conspired to hand another title to the Cubs. Maybe they recognized, as every Cubs fan should've recognized, that put in the position of overwhelming favorites, the Cubs would do what they have always done in such situations: choke.

In 2008, three Cubs starters - Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster - won fourteen or more games. In 2009, none of them got more than 12 wins. In 2008, the Cubs had five hitters with 20+ HR and 75+ RBI. Only Derrek Lee reached those numbers in 2009. Milton Bradley's OPS dropped by over 200 points. Alfonso Soriano had a batting average (.241) which was the worst in the NL among qualifying hitters, 25 points lower than his previous worst season. Over the previous two seasons, Kevin Gregg had posted a 3.48 ERA for the Marlins. For the Cubs, his ERA climbed all the way to 4.72. Aramis Ramirez played quite well, but missed half the season. Geovany Soto, Rich Harden, and Carlos Zambrano also missed significant time. Only Ryan Dempster made 30+ starts.

Nonetheless, despite disappointments and misfortune, somehow, at the trade deadline, the Cubs were half a game up on the Cardinals. But, while the Cardinals GM, John Mozeliak, acquired Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo, and John Smoltz, to bolster his team for the stretch run, the Cubs GM, Jim Hendry, decided (or was instructed) to stand pat, perhaps assuming that the ship was about to right itself. Quite the opposite turned out to be the case, as August was Chicago's worst month (and St. Louis's best), and by the end of it, the Cubs were 10 games back.

Over the course of this summer, what had been perhaps somewhat unfounded optimism this spring turned into profound, even excessive cynicism. Several Cubs fans and commentators called for the complete explosion of the current team. Fire Jim Hendry. Fire Lou Pinella. Release Bradley. Trade Zambrano. Bench Soriano. Play Jake Fox at second base. We heard it all. Nobody seemed to notice, however, that despite falling painfully short of their third consecutive division title, the Cubs still had a winning season. It was the first time the Cubs put together three straight winning seasons since 1972. So, it's not like we're talking about the Royals here.

Assuming most of the team comes back healthy in 2010 and returns at least to their career norms, the Cubs will once again have one of the more loaded teams in the NL. There is work to be done, certainly, but with the sale of the team finally nearing completion and Pinella entering the last year of his contract (and perhaps the last year of his managing career) the front office has extra incentive to make waves. If the Cubs don't make the 2010 playoffs, Hendry will undoubtedly fall on the axe.

Free Agents:

Kevin Gregg (32) RHRP
Rich Harden (28) RHSP
Reed Johnson (33) OF

Arbitration Eligible:

Jeff Baker (29) 2B/3B
Neal Cotts (30) LHRP
Mike Fontenot (30) 2B
Tom Gorzelanny (27) LHSP
Angel Guzman (28) RHRP
Koyie Hill (31) C
Carlos Marmol (27) RHRP
Sean Marshall (27) LHRP
Ryan Theriot (30) 2B

ETA 2010?:

Esmailin Caridad (26) RHSP
Andrew Cashner (23) RHSP
Tyler Colvin (24) OF
Scott Maine (25) LHRP

The Cubs have begun the Hot Stove season with a little housecleaning. Hendry fired their hitting coach and hired Rudy Jaramillo, who is rumored to have had a big part in invigorating many careers in Texas, including Milton Bradley's in 2008. He also quickly resigned left-handed reliever, John Grabow, and dealt right-handed reliever, Aaron Heilman, to Arizona for a couple of middling prospects. At least one of the pieces in the Heilman deal, Scott Maine, is likely to spend a little time in the Cubs bullpen next season.

Next up for Hendry are decisions about Bradley and Rich Harden. Bradley was not only unproductive this past season, but also became something of a sideshow at Wrigley and in the clubhouse, resulting in his suspension for the season's final weeks. Many believe he will be traded for next to nothing this offseason, with the Cubs eating a big portion of his salary. However, the signing of Jaramillo suggests the Cubs might be resistant to the idea of dealing a high-upside player at the absolute nadir of his rocky career. There is nothing about Bradley's history that suggests he can't bounce back and be a valuable commodity in 2010. As a Cubs fan, I'm also sick of Hendry paying big money to corner outfielders who underperform for one season and are then given up on (i.e. Jeremy Burnitz, Jacque Jones, & Kosuke Fukudome). Better to have Bradley fail again in '10 than to pay him to play for another team while the Cubs make an additional $30,000,000 mistake (i. e. Johnny Damon).

Harden is, likewise, a high-risk/high-reward commodity. There isn't a single pitcher on the free agent market this winter (John Lackey included) with the potential for dominance of the type that Harden displayed in the latter stages of 2008 (5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 89 K in 71 IP after joining the Cubs for a dozen starts) and the middle portion of 2009 (3-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 60 K in 50 IP during an eight start stretch in July and August). At only 28, it is still very likely that he will put together a healthy campaign at some point which earns him serious Cy Young consideration. His high-end potential drives up his price, but his injury history (only once has he made 30+ starts) means that few teams will be willing to offer him a long-term deal. The Cubs may simply have to outbid everybody else for a one or two year extension.

I am hoping that Hendry chooses to keep both Harden and Bradley, if for no other reason than it will then be easier for him to address the remaining holes on the Cubs roster. If he has to spend time and money looking for another starter and corner outfielder, than the best-case scenario for the offseason is merely piecing together a team which looks as good as the one that managed just 83 wins this season. However, if Hendry retains Harden and Bradley, he should still have opportunity and funds to address at least one of the following positions: centerfield, second base, bullpen.

My personal preference would be for the Cubs to pursue a top-flight defensive centerfielder, either Mike Cameron or Coco Crisp. This would give Chicago a four-man outfield rotation. Kosuke Fukudome would become primarily a platoon player, given his 667 OPS against lefties over the last two seasons, and defensive replacement. Soriano could get days off against especially tough right-handers. Bradley would get frequent opportunities to fight off his nagging leg injuries. Most importantly, Crisp or Cameron would help close the outfield gaps considerably (particularly when Fukodome was also in right), providing a great deal more comfort for the Cubs pitchers.

Mike Fontenot struggled mightily as an everyday player in 2009, so Hendry may be tempted to pursue a free agent second-baseman like Orlando Hudson or Placido Polanco, perhaps even Chone Figgins. Personally, I would be willing to give the Fontenot/Jeff Baker platoon another chance, if it meant applying that free agent money to more pressing needs (i.e. Harden, Crisp). Both Fontenot and Baker are scrappy players, who have shown the capability for giving good at-bats and playing solid, though not spectacular, defense. Perhaps one could step up and take the job permanently. Bounce-back performances from the rest of the lineup would do a great deal to take the pressure off them and I think we could expect at least a 725 OPS out of the #8 spot. That would be acceptable.

Many will argue that the bullpen needs work. It was conspicuously bad for key stretches of the '09 season, especially during Gregg's meltdown right around the All-Star Break, but their overall ERA (4.11) was almost exactly what it was in '08 (4.10) and things stabilized considerably after Marmol took over closing and Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall, and John Grabow assumed the primary set-up roles. Relievers are, by nature, risky. I would rather take my chances with the relatively inexpensive ones the Cubs have in the system than attempt to bring in somebody like Brandon Lyon, who would cost around $5 Million and could easily turn into the second-coming Kevin Gregg (as recently as 2008, Lyon posted a 4.70 ERA as the closer for Arizona).

Finally, as I said, Hendry has every reason to play for this season and this season only. Pinella in entering his swan song. New ownership will be breathing down everybody's neck. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez (player option), and Ted Lilly could all be free agents a year from now. I expect Chicago to be aggressive this offseason, both on free agency and trades. Hendry has some expendable pieces from which to construct a major deal. In Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir, he possesses players with major-league power, but they are 1B/DH types, for whom there is no room in the Cubs lineup. There are also a number of pitchers and position players in the minor leagues which other teams would covet (Starlin Castro is the only one who's off-limits, I'm guessing). The Cubs probably don't have enough to acquire Roy Halladay or Adrian Gonzalez, but that's not what they need either. They could go after somebody like Curtis Granderson or Dan Uggla. Hendry has never been reluctant to barter for big-name players. His trades for Kenny Lofton, Ramirez, and Harden keyed pennant runs. But, he also gambled less successfully on Nomar Garciaparra and Juan Pierre. The worst thing Hendry could do, for himself and for the franchise, is become trigger-shy now. The Cubs remain positioned to make that long-awaited run deep into the playoffs. The same probably won't be true a year from now. Roll the dice. Mortgage the farm. (Insert your favorite non risk-adverse cliche here)

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/31):

SS Ryan Theriot (R)
RF Kosuke Fukudome (L)
1B Derrek Lee (R)
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
CF Marlon Byrd (R)
C Geovany Soto (R)
2B Mike Fontenot (L)

SP Carlos Zambrano (R)
SP Ted Lilly (L)
SP Ryan Dempster (R)
SP Randy Wells (R)
SP Tom Gorzelanny (L)

CL Carlos Marmol (R)
SU Angel Guzman (R)
SU Sean Marshall (L)
LOOGY John Grabow (L)
MR Jeff Samardzija (R)
MR Jeff Gray (R)
MOP Neal Cotts (L)

C Koyie Hill (S)
1B/3B Chad Tracy (L)
IF/OF Jeff Baker (R)
1B/OF Micah Hoffpauir (L)
OF Xavier Nady (R)

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