Better Luck Next Year: Chicago Cubs

Hey, happy 09/09/09 (at 9 a.m.)!

So, theirs is the one failure that has surprised me most in 2009. At 70-67, the Cubs haven’t been awful, but I (and almost everyone else) thought they’d run away with the NL Central, and instead they’ve let the Cardinals run away with it. The Cubbies are now about 11 games behind in the division and eight games (and five teams) out of the Wildcard, with just 28 to play. So the streak without a championship will certainly run to 101 seasons; any chance it ends there?

2010 Cubs now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C: Geovany Soto (1.1)
1B: Derrek Lee (4.0)
2B: Mike Fontenot (0.2)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (1.7)
SS: Ryan Theriot (2.3)
LF: Alfonso Soriano (-0.7)
CF: Kosuke Fukudome (2.5)
RF: Milton Bradley (1.7)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Ryan Dempster (4.02)
Ted Lilly (3.88)
Randy Wells (3.85)
Carlos Zambrano (3.90)
Sean Marshall (4.35)
Bullpen: Carlos Marmol (4.01), Aaron Heilman (4.43), Angel Guzman (4.34)

It would be kind of gratifying to blame this season on GM Jim Hendry’s predictably terrible offseason moves — chief among them his baffling decision to pick up mediocre “closer” Kevin Gregg and his severe overpayment of problem child Milton Bradley — but take a look at this. This is the difference between the following players’ 2008 and 2009 WARs:
Soriano: 3.9
Soto: 3.5
Fontenot: 2.9
Ramirez: 2.3
TOTAL: 12.6

Add those 13 wins to the Cubs’ total right now and they’re 83-54, about two games ahead of the Cards (and that’s assuming, probably falsely, that none of those extra wins come against the Cards).

Now, that oversimplifies things. Rookie Jake Fox came in and relieved some of the pressure from losing Ramirez to injury with a solid bat (though WAR says he’s given most of it back on defense), and Lee has been much better than expected. And it’s not like Gregg hasn’t cost them a win or so, and Marmol’s complete loss of the strike zone, and Dempster and Harden not being quite as good as they would’ve hoped…but really, make whatever little adjustments you want, and still, if you give those four guys listed above their 2008 numbers back (and none of them were outlandish numbers, really), you’ve got a real race for the division.

So here’s where I normally do the three things they need to MAKE happen and the three things they need to HAVE happen…but I don’t think that works here, for a few reasons:

First, there aren’t a lot of moves to be made for this team. They might bring Harden back and kick Marshall back out of the rotation, or they might sign another starter, and they could certainly stand to improve that bullpen, but outside the pen, everyone on the list above has been a quality full-time major league starter at his listed position sometime in the last two seasons. That’s not to say that you can’t improve one of those positions, but it’s just hard to see how it would go down. Most of these guys are well paid, few would be terribly attractive targets to teams looking to dump talent, and the Cubs’ prospect list is pretty thin at the top. I’m sure Hendry wants to do something anyway, but I’m not convinced that anything he might do is likely to actually help this squad.

Second, and maybe more importantly, I’m not sure they’ll be permitted to make any moves at this point. Assuming the sale of the team is even finalized by the time for moves to be made, who knows how much the owners will want to spend? They’ve already got more than $10 million each (and in some cases, much more) committed to Lee, Bradley, Dempster, Fukudome, Soriano, Ramirez and Zambrano for 2010. Now, the Cubs and Wrigley Field may look to you and me like bottomless bowls of money (in the sense of the bottomless cup of coffee you might get at a diner), but we also know that millionaires and billionaires get to be millionaires and billionaires by not looking at the world that way. There’s definitely a limit to what the Cubs will (and in a business sense should) spend, and I think there’s a good chance they’re already pretty close to that limit for 2010. Also, a lot of these guys’ contracts are expiring in 2010 or ’11, and while that may mean that 2010 is when you really go for it, it also means that it might be a bad time to sign a big free agent to a long-term contract; it’s hard to believe with a team like the Cubs, but you might be looking at a rebuilding situation in a year or two.

Of course there are still potential trades out there. Josh proposes that the Cubs trade Soriano and Bradley for Vernon Wells, which would trade two bad contracts for one and free up some payroll in the short term. Even if the Jays would do that, though (and I can’t think of a reason they would), if I’m the Cubs, I’m saying no to that one. In all likelihood, the Jays are getting the two best players in a three-player deal, and Bradley’s contract isn’t that bad (he’s still a valuable player despite all the bad press, and has a chance to be a very valuable one again in 2010).

So I’d pretty much stand pat and hope for the best. With four starters with FIPs right around 4.00, they’ve got one of the best rotations in baseball (Randy Wells’ minor league record suggests he’s not really that guy, but even if not, Sean Marshall isn’t that much of a dropoff). Bring Harden back (4.30 FIP in 2008, but 3.58 career), and it gets even better. I don’t see much else for them to do right now than to count on some combination of bouncebacks by A-Ram, Soriano, Soto and Fontenot, improvements by Fukudome and Bradley, or another big step forward by Jake Fox to provide offense behind that pitching staff. And improve the bullpen, naturally, but scoring runs is the big thing.

One idea, though: trade Milton Bradley to some AL team for prospects. He’s okay in the field, but he arguably has more value to a team that can DH him to keep his bat in the lineup. Then, move Fukudome back to RF and pick up a good one-year center fielder…someone like free-agent-to-be Mike Cameron. Fukudome is a plus defender in the corners and an average defender in center, while Bradley is merely an average defender in the corner. Cameron will be 37, but has long been one of the best outfield defenders in teh game and can still cover plenty of ground out there. He’s still got a pretty solid bat, and has the kind of gap power that Wrigley could turn into homer power (small sample, but he has a career .577 SLG there). It would improve their defense without sacrificing much, or possibly any, offense (unless Bradley bounces back into 2008 form).

I’d be reluctant to do that, because the bad press and low power output have made Bradley pretty undesirable right now. They’d get very little for him, and may end up having to pay a large portion of his salary (which, depending on the team’s budget, might put even Cameron out of their range). It’s a lot of work and a lot of risk for a pretty marginal improvement.

The Cardinals are almost guaranteed to come back to earth in 2010, barring a big surprise move or two in the offseason (more on that at some point, I’m sure); there’s no reason to think A-Ram will get hurt again; and Soriano and Soto almost couldn’t help but get better. So while the bad news is that I don’t see a lot of ways for them to get better for 2010, the good news is that I think the team as currently constituted (plus some cheap bullpen help and maybe Harden) has a very good chance to compete.

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