Five questions: Chicago Cubs

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground

—”A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” Steve Goodman recording, 1983

Steve Goodman, a Chicago songwriter, performer and Cubs fan, died of leukemia a year later. Being only 36 years old, he never had seen the Cubs in the World Series. Had he lived to collect Social Security at 62, he still wouldn’t have.

Again this season, the snow will melt, the ivy will grow and the Cubbies will play. Will their fans more often sing the blues, or another of Goodman’s compositions, “Go, Cubs, Go,” as is their ritual after a home victory? Those are the questions, along with these:

Will Sori still be sorry?

Lured by the promise of a major league baseball game, nearly 40,000 people turned out at Wrigley Field last May 5 to see the Cubs play the Giants. This is the starting lineup the Cubs put on the field:
Joey Gathright CF
Aaron Miles SS
Kosuke Fukudome RF
Derrek Lee 1B
Micah Hoffpauir LF
Mike Fontenot 2B
Bobby Scales 2B
Koyie Hill C
Sean Marshall P

You think the 16-seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament are automatic outs? Take a look at that batting order. Big surprise: The Cubs lost. Two runs, five hits, 10 strikeouts.

The Cubs, traditionally built to bop in their supposedly hitter-friendly ballpark, were awful at the plate last year. Too many at-bats went to the too-many Mario Mendoza-types on the team.

Alfonso Soriano was hurt and didn’t hit. Geovany Soto was fat and didn’t hit. Milton Bradley was pouting and didn’t hit. Fukudome was helpless against left-handers. Fontenot was helpless against everybody. Aramis Ramirez was hurt early in the season. Lee was awful early in the season. And those were the good hitters.

When it was all over, the team that had scored 855 runs in winning the National League Central in 2008 had scored 707. I’ll do the math: That’s nearly one run fewer per game.

If there was one key to this general breakdown, it was Soriano, the Cubs’ $18 million-a-year man they’re stuck with through 2014, when he’ll be 38. He looked like a very old 33 last season, when he played in just 117 games, hit .241/.303/.423 and played deplorable defense in left field. The year before, he’d gotten into just 109 games.

There were brief flashes of the old Sori last season. He got hot in July, and the Cubs had an 18-9 month, by far their best. The rest of the year, he was a .219 hitter, and the Cubs looked every bit of the weak-hitting, 83-win team they were.

Soriano’s 40-plus steals days are long gone (he didn’t break into double digits in 2009). Though he’s a right-handed hitter, he’s a liability against lefties these days. (His lifetime .863 OPS against left-handed pitching fell to .569 last season.)

He often looks terrible no matter which hand the pitcher uses. A recent SI.com column by Tom Verducci showed that Ryan Howard sees breaking balls on 39.7 percent of the pitches he sees, the most in the majors. Next: Soriano, at 39.6. That pretty much explains why Soriano strikes out more than one time in every five plate appearances. Anyone who’s seen Soriano going after a low outside slider the past couple of years is put in mind of a golfer trying to rescue his Titleist from a pond by flailing with a nine-iron. It’s neither pretty nor effective.

So, is there any chance that Soriano can be the key to the Cubs offense again?

It won’t be from the leadoff spot he held—amid considerable debate—until midway through last season. Manager Lou Piniella says he’ll bat him sixth, putting a positive spin on it by calling sixth a good RBI spot. Generally, though, that’s not where a manager puts his best or second-best or third-best hitter.

The hope is that a new hitting coach can make the difference in the offense, in Soriano particularly. The Cubs’ struggles last year cost two hitting coaches their jobs. Now they’ve hired Rudy Jaramillo, who built a reputation for success while doing that job for 15 years for the Texas Rangers. Can that help? Well, the two seasons Soriano worked with Jaramillo at Texas were good ones for him—but not as good as the two preceding (with the Yankees) or the two following (with Washington and the Cubs).

Does 25 minus one equal more wins?

Sabermatricians don’t look kindly on old-school general managers like Jim Hendry, who likes scouts better than numbers. But last year’s big acquisition, which looked good on the on-base percentage charts, was a disaster. Bradley, who wore out his welcome in seven cities in one decade—surely a major league record—outdid himself in Chicago. He was persona non Wrigley pretty much from Opening Day, by some reports as much so with his teammates as with the fans.

Fairly or not, the Cubs’ sour season got pinned heavily on Bradley’s sour personality. The fact that he had his worst season (OPS+ 99) since 2002 didn’t help, either. He was supposed to be the last piece needed to take the Cubs to serious World Series contention, but instead became the scapegoat for the disappointing offense.

Now he’s gone; the Cubs traded bad contracts with Seattle, picked up $6 million in the deal, and used the proceeds to pick up new parts.

Trying to reverse the bad karma Bradley left, the team is offering a last major league lifeline to 38-year-old Kevin Millar, not for his .231-.233 batting averages of the past two seasons, but because he’s supposed to have a nice personality.

Take that, number-crunchers!

The pitching: half full or half empty?

Here’s the optimistic take: Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells make up a solid, proven top four in the rotation, and there are at least four credible contenders for No. 5 and for stepping in during the inevitable emergencies. Carlos Marmol, as feared a pitcher as there is, will be the closer from Opening Day.

Here are the “buts” from a guy who’s seen a lot of optimism evaporate over a lifetime of Cubs-watching:
{exp:list_maker}Lilly, the team’s most consistent pitcher over three fine seasons in Chicago, is out until at least late April. How often does a starting pitcher come back before his “at least” date? And it’s not reasonable to expect that a 34-year-old pitcher will snap back to 145 ERA+ effectiveness right after returning from surgery.
It’ll be another year of Carlos being Carlos, the maddeningly inconsistent drama king.
Wells had a fine rookie season. What that means for 2010 is that Wells had a fine rookie season. (See Soto, Geovany.)
Marmol (with apologies to Mitch Williams, call him “The Extremely Wild Thing”) is feared in equal parts for throwing very difficult pitches to hit (11.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season) and for not knowing where those pitches are going (7.9 BB/9 and 12 hit batters in 74 innings). Ouch!
The depth isn’t as deep as it looks. The Cubs let Rich Harden walk; he was an injury waiting to happen, but when he was good, he was very, very unhittable. Carlos Silva, the consolation prize in the Bradley deal, was bad even when he was good, and that was several seasons ago. Tom Gorzelanny once was the ace of the Pirates, but (insert your own tallest-midget-in-the-circus simile here). Jeff Samardzija has yet to show why he chose baseball over the NFL. Solid lefty Marshall seems a better fit for the bullpen than the rotation: Last season, he lasted just five innings per start, with an earned run average two runs higher than for his relief appearances. And promising eighth-inning man Angel Guzman is out, perhaps forever, with a bum shoulder.
{/exp:list_maker}
It could all come together. But.

So, are they going to be any better this year?

Reports out of spring training say Soriano’s got his old swing back and Soto’s got his old shape back. If just one of those things is true, it’ll make a big difference. But—and here’s the skepticism born of experience again—you may know that they’re not the first two players in major league history to inspire preseason optimism. Sun in March will do that.

The Cubs have a couple of other things going for them. Bad as they looked last year, it was their third consecutive winning season. For the Red Sox, say, that wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s the first time it’s happened to the Cubs since 1970-72. Time was when a .500 Cubs team was considered a success, not a failure. With 81 wins as a floor, they’d be near the top of the weak NL Central. Only the St. Louis Cardinals look clearly better.

And while their offseason improvements were modest—principally thirty-something journeyman outfielders Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady—those guys and a little better luck with injuries will keep them from giving 700 at-bats to the likes of Gathright, Miles, Scales, Hill, Andres Blanco and Ryan Freel (composite batting average .223).

What about the new owners?

After three decades as corporate afterthoughts, the Cubs have owners who actually wanted a baseball team. Like the Wrigleys, the Ricketts family made its fortune elsewhere (trading in stocks rather than chewing gum). The Tribune Company bought a media company that owned a baseball team; Sam Zell was a real estate magnate who bought a piece of property to flip.

Tom Ricketts, the face of the new ownership, says the right things about wanting a winner and has shown no signs of wanting to cut the budget of a popular team that’s a success in every way except the year-end standings. But there doesn’t appear to be much he can do to turn the Cubs into an instant powerhouse. They already have one of the majors’ largest payrolls (some $140 million). Problem is, $102 million of that is tied up in just seven players. All but one of those (Zambrano) is over 30; none seem primed for a startling breakthough.

So the Cubs’ key current players are about as good as they’re going to get. They have the Soriano millstone. They have a decision to make on Lee, whose contract is up after this year: He’s popular, he’s good, he’s 34. And if the bright light of new talent is peeking over the horizon, you can’t see it from here. There’s excitement this spring about young shortstop Starlin Castro, but he’s 19, has exactly 31 games past the Single-A level, and stands out in part for lack of competition: He’s the only Cubs prospect on Matt Hagen’s top 100 list on THT this month.

Will the Cubs deal big-time if they’re in contention at midseason, as the Cardinals did with Matt Holliday in 2009? You have to think there’s a better chance than there has been in recent years, when ownership was in limbo.

The 102-year history of missing the big prize aside, the once-woeful Cubs have become a serious player in the major leagues. They’re a valuable franchise in a major market. With enlightened ownership, there’s every reason to think they’ll be a success on the field.

One of these days.

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Comments

  1. MikeJ said...

    Good article but one error:

    The Cubs actually saved 6 million in taking on Carlos Silva, and they spent that money on Marlon Byrd & Xavier Nady. 

    Also, Millar is on a minor league contract.  25th man, pinch hitter, at most.

    But yeah, other than that, good article.

  2. berselius said...

    No mention of the Cubs horrendous babip issues last year? Fontenot and Soto had terrible luck. Soto had a .246 BABIP with a xBABIP of .314, Fontenot had a .276 BABIP with a xBABIP of .317. Both those guys should bounce back in a big way. The Cubs biggest problem is regression in the pitching staff, especially the still-weak bullpen.

  3. Ja4ed said...

    All the other “didn’t hit” guys I agree with, but you should have said Soto didn’t hit because he was extremely unlucky.  In 2009 he improved his BB%, decreased his K%, and had a similar batted ball profile.  His power regressed from 2008 but he still had a respectable .163 ISO.  The biggest difference between 2008 and 2009 was the .086 drop in his BABiP.  Maybe his fatness had something to do with the drop, but not 86 points.  I would be bullish on a bounceback season from Soto.

  4. John said...

    The Cubs picked up 6M in the deal with the Mariners, they didn’t lose it.  And they did use it on a useful player in Marlon Byrd.  Not a star, but it saves them from having to play Fukudome in CF.

  5. Mike K. said...

    Kenny Lofton played for nine different franchises (the Indians, Phillies, Yankees, Rangers, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates, Cubs and White Sox) from 2002-2007.

  6. blackbrown said...

    To the posters here who are comprehensively challenged, the author CLEARLY states that the Cubs MADE $6 mil on the Silva/Bradle trade. NOT spent.

  7. David said...

    This article really fits with an email exchange I had with a fellow Cubs fan back home (I live overseas.)

    Basically, the Internet has ruined me as a Cubs fan. When I was younger (and dumber), I didn’t know why the Cubs sucked, so I figured it had to turn around one day, right?

    Now I know. We have no farm system. Never really had one.  We patch together a team with overpriced fading stars or mediocre players to fill the gaping holes from said farm system.  Our core players are starting their declines.  Their contracts have us hamstrung.

    Randy Wells will absolutely come back to Earth this year.  His minor league track record is borderline BAD and he’s no spring chicken.  His core numbers were not vastly improved to begin with.  Basically, he got hot for a very short stretch and then a little lucky, and then hammered at season’s end when he came back to reality.  His ERA at Triple-A Iowa in 2008 was 4.02 and the two years before
    that, also at Triple-A, it was 4.52 in 2007 and 4.96 in 2006.  Expect a plus 4.40 ERA this season. 

    In other words, there is no hope for the Cubs.  Not this year. Not next year.  Not for at least 3 years.

    We need a complete overhaul. Trade Derrek Lee and Aramis.  At least they have value.  Start investing in the farm system.  Investigate any way possible to get rid of Soriano, including going Steinbrenner-Winfield on him, to get this guy out of Chicago and out of that contract.

    And for Pete’s sake, show Zambrano the door.

    My take is that this is a 72-75 win team. Don’t underestimate the Guzman injury either.  He was no superstar, but he looked like the only reliable arm in the pen and a good fallback option if Marmol implodes (a very likely scenario.)

    So what have we got?  A 72-75 win team with no upside?  How exciting is that?  Blow it up already and let’s rebuild.

    David

  8. mb21 said...

    He had 113 PA vs lefties resulting in 98 at-bats. 

    Patrick, I don’t think many would disagree it’s an awful contract, but that’s not the point I was trying to make.  So I don’t think there is another hand here.  The author reached conclusions he should know better than to reach.  He ignored information (babip) for other players he knows better than to ignore. 

    I don’t really care for these 5 questions articles.  I’ve only read a couple this year and they’ve been pretty bad.  THT is a great site so I overlook this series, but it’s one they ought to consider twice before doing next year.

  9. mb21 said...

    He also had just over 110 against lefties, which is what I was talking about when I said: “Particularly the part about Soriano being a liability against lefties now based on his sub .600 OPS last year in 110 plate appearances.  110 plate appearances!”

  10. Patrick said...

    Blackburn,

    110 at bats against LEFTIES.  I haven’t checked the numbers, but that seems reasonable, and he sure didn’t have 400+ at bats against lefties.

    I agree on the small sample size.  On the other hand, Soriano is definitely a mill stone as a contract.  He’s not AWFUL, but he’s not worth near what he’s being payed.

    - Patrick

  11. mb21 said...

    This is pretty weak.  Particularly the part about Soriano being a liability against lefties now based on his sub .600 OPS last year in 110 plate appearances.  110 plate appearances! 

    Soriano’s wOBA last year vs lefties was .254.  The year before it was .456.  .345 the year before that and .402 in 2006.  Based on those 110 plate appearances, we can now say he’s a liability against hitters he tore apart in 2008? 

    That’s the definition of a small sample size and you reached a conclusion based on it.  Very weak stuff in this article.  I expect more from THT.

  12. Michael said...

    To be fair, that from May 5th had to hit against the NL Cy Young winner (I was one of those 40,000ish).  I’m sure there were better lineups that put up worse lines against Mr. Lincecum.

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