Five questions: Chicago Cubsby Joe Distelheim
March 12, 2012
Pop quiz question: What can Cubs fans look for in 2012?
But that's too easy. Let's go to the essay part.
How bad was the team Theo Epstein and his makeover artists took over this offseason?
Last summer, you could make the case (I did) that the Cubs, who've been around as long as the National League has, were on pace to their worst statistical season ever. Then they caught fire. Well, they struck a match in a cave. In July, they finally won three in a row, sweeping Houston, by far the worst team in baseball in 2011. By season's end, they almost caught the always-tough Pirates for fourth place in a six-team division. They won 71, lost 91.
The pitching was awful, 14th in the league in ERA+ at 90, worst in bases on balls per nine at 3.6, 14th in runs allowed at 4.67. Before the first half was over, four putative starters were on the disabled list, and a fifth, Ryan Dempster, was hurting. One-sixth of the Cubs' starts in 2011 went to three members of the 35-years-and-over club who were in no way part of the team's preseason plans, retreads Rodrigo Lopez, Doug Davis and Ramon Ortiz.
In the division-winning years of 2007 and 2008, the Cubs gave up the second-fewest runs in the National League. They fell to 12th in 2009, 13th in 2010 and 14th last season.
The defense maybe was worse (and a contributing factor to the bad pitching records). Per Baseball-Reference.com, the Cubs were dead last in the league in defensive efficiency (.678), in defensive runs saved (-37) and in errors (134, which was 16 more than any other team).
So the others teams' half-innings overwhelmed what was a league-average offense, albeit one that that was pretty much station-to-station, scorning bases on balls (only Houston took fewer) and that kind of tofu baseball. From that 2011 powerhouse, they've spent the offseason offloading their two OPS leaders, the only two over 111 OPS+ among the regulars. They've replaced their flawed but predictable corner infielders with flawed but unpredictable players.
So this season they could be even worse. And that's probably a good thing. Which leads us to:
Is the Cubs' new management on the right track?
It's the only possible track. Under deposed general manager Jim Hendry, the Cubs saw some tread still on the tires of the 2003 almost-there team, made some fixes, and produced division champions in 2007 and 2008. By that time, though, the wear was evident; six of the eight position starters in 2008 were age 30-plus, and the four main starting pitchers were either well-worn veterans or Carlos Zambrano.
By then, it was too late for patches, but patch the Cubs did, and the result was last year's blowout. Now, it's time to throw the old tires away and start over with new ones, produced by modern technology.
That's certainly the direction new management is going. The Cubs, who got in this hole by tying themselves to aging players with expensive, sometimes long-term, contracts, are jettisoning those with both hands. Off go Aramis Ramirez, Zambrano, Carlos Pena, John Grabow, and Sean Marshall. Kosuke Fukudome was shipped to the American League last summer.
That's a lot of established major leaguers out the door. With some of them and some more duct tape, the Cubs maybe could have been a close-to-.500 team this season, but to what purpose?
If you follow the Cubs at all, you know about Zambrano, who joined Milton Bradley and Sammy Sosa as 21st-century Cubs whose attitudes should be retired like so many Ernie Banks No. 14 jerseys.
Pena wasn't responsible for Team Turmoil, but he wasn't the future for a rebuilding second-division club. Grabow was an expensive mistake. Ditto Fukudome. Marshall was a luxury, an ace setup man on a losing team who was about to get more expensive. And Ramirez?
For the past few years, Ramirez has seemed one jog down to first base away from the disabled list even when he's been playing. He has averaged 118 games per year over the last three seasons and has spent much of his time on the field waving at ground balls; it's generally conceded that his offense is what separates him from American Legion ball. But even that is open to criticism, and criticize did Cubs broadcast analyst Bob Brenly after the Cubs allowed Ramiriez to walk away.
"He's a numbers gatherer. He gets his stats at the end of the year, every year, but defensively he's just fallen off the face of the earth. As a baserunner, he kills you, he's a log jammer on the bases, and I'm not buying any of this leadership for Starlin Castro stuff at all."So the Cubs did their spring cleaning this winter. By next offseason, the Cubs will be obligated to just two holdovers from the Hendry era—Alfonso Soriano, whose interminable contract will terminate after 2014, and closer Carlos Marmol (signed through 2013).
Can the Cubs be a playoff team this year?
Other teams have gone from bad to the postseason in the span of a year. Look at last year's division champion Diamondbacks, who had won 65 games in 2010. Heck, look at the 2007 Cubs, who'd won just 66 games the year before. Ah, the days of fine DeRosa.
Not likely this time, folks. Even in a mediocre-to-worse division weakened by the departures of sluggers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Cubs stand out for their lack of punch.
While pitching and defense were the prime culprits last year, the offense threatens to make them look good by comparison in 2012.
Going in, the Cubs appear to have the puniest homer-hitting infield in forever; the four guys who figure to take the field Opening Day totaled 14 major league homers last season. The presumptive starting eight had these 2011 on-base percentages: .310, .377, .313, .341, .243, .289, .324, .323. That outlying .377 was Bryan LaHair—in 59 at-bats.
That's not impressive, but the 2012 team looks even less skilled in getting on base with the subtraction of Pena (.357), A-Ram (.361) and Fukudome (.374). Shortstop Castro, for all his potential, and second baseman Darwin Barney, for all his hustle, don't take a walk. Castro's power hasn't developed. Barney's won't.
Ramirez and Pena combined for 54 home runs in 2011, 36 percent of the team's total. New right fielder David DeJesus had 10 with the A's in 2011, while new third baseman Ian Stewart had none for the Rockies. There can't be a team in the major leagues with so few possibilities to be a traditional—and effective—cleanup hitter.
Respected analyst Clay Davenport is out with his projections for this season. He has the Cubs at 70 wins, and with a logical reason. He sees them scoring fewer runs than any team but Seattle and San Diego, who play in pitchers' ballparks, and Houston, which is hopeless. This is not the company you want to keep.
New manager Dale Sveum has been around long enough to know that managers don't poor-mouth in the spring. We're not giving up on this year, he said recently. We're building, not rebuilding. Yada yada yada.
No, this is not a playoff team.
Should we expect the new guys to be any good?
Well, are you a pessimist or an optimist?
The 2012 Cubs will have three new regulars and one or two or more new starting rotation members. All are cut from the Moneyball efficient-use-of-resources mold—relatively cheap and useful in a limited sort of way. All offer reasons for hope and reasons for cynicism.
Look at DeJesus, the new right fielder, through rose-colored glasses. Especially, look at his 2008-10 seasons, when he had OPS marks of .818, .781, .827. Forget last year, when he turned 31 and struck out at a higher rate than ever before and hit .240. Hey, he can be good.
But then, if you're jaded by memories of other Cubs deals, look at the evidence that DeJesus is, essentially, the much-scorned Fukudome, cheaper and a year and a half younger. Here are their lifetime major league lines (average, OBP, OPS):
DeJesus: .284/.356/.776, averaging about seven stolen bases a year.
Fukudome: .260/.361/.760, averaging about about seven stolen bases a year.
Fukudome the Cub was pegged as someone who needed to be platooned, a lefty hitter who couldn't hit lefties. In their careers against southpaws:
And then there's Stewart, Ramirez' successor at third base, who hit exactly 26 fewer home runs than A-Ram in 2011, when Ramirez hit...26. Stewart was injured last year, and he was awful.
On the other hand, he hit 25 home runs in 2009, his only really full season in the majors. On still another hand, he hit a puny .228 that year...but had a semi-respectable .322 OBP with 70 walks. Think something akin to Carlos Pena. Stewart is a big left-handed hitter who'll turn 27 Opening Week. As with DeJesus, his 2011 stinker allowed Epstein and associates to buy low.
Speaking of Pena, who's back in Tampa Bay whence he came, his replacement is LaHair, who was born eight years before Castro but has played in 218 fewer major league games.
The dark side: The guy hasn't made it to the bigs for more than a pot of coffee at age 29. He's a placeholder, a bridge from Derrek Lee and Pena to top prospect Anthony Rizzo, whom the Cubs picked up from San Diego in the offseason.
The bright side: LaHair's been a power hitter in the minors, and power is in short supply with the '12 Cubs. He led the Pacific Coast League with 38 homers last season.
Pacific Coast League, phooey. Everyone knows it's a hitter's paradise. Oh, yeah? Then how come no one else in the league hit 38 homers?
And then there's Paul Maholm, the free agent who's the wheatiest of the the collection of pitching chaff the Cubs have brought to camp this spring in hopes of finding a respectable bottom of the rotation.
The pessimist sees a career of so-so-at-best performance (96 ERA+ lifetime, doesn't strike out many batters, gives up lots of hits). The optimist sees a lefty who's taken the ball every five days for six seasons in Pittsburgh and bolsters his best-case argument by pointing out that now that Maholm's no longer pitching for the lousy Pittsburgh team, which scored an average of 1.4 runs in the 14 games Maholm lost last season...
Uh, scratch that last line of reasoning.
Travis Wood, the main swag in the trade of Marshall? Who knows? Like Stewart and DeJesus, he's coming off a bad year.
He's a 25-year-old left-hander who had a nice rookie season in 2010 and regressed last year all the way to the minors. He's wasn't very good there, either. In the majors, his strikeouts were down considerably in 2011, his walks up. There's nothing that shows lost velocity. His groundball/flyball numbers didn't vary much. But the league hit him 71 batting average points higher—almost identical to the increase in the batting average against him on balls in play. Who knows?
So: DeJesus, LaHair, Stewart, Maholm, Wood. Essentially, they replace Fukudome, Pena, Ramirez, Marshall and Zambrano. Have the guys on the first list ever been as good as the guys on the second? Generally, no. Are they likely to be this year? Probably not. Will they be next year and the year after? Maybe. They're younger. But the Cubs have shed most of the $60 million or so those five ex-Cubs made last year. When your goal is a shiny new bicycle, you go easy on the candy bars and bubble gum and put the money you save in the piggy bank.
So when should we look for a contender in Wrigley Field?
Or, put another way, if they're saving all that money, will a good chunk of it show up in the form of good baseball players on the field in the near future?
You get good ballplayers like you get good tomatoes—by growing them or buying them. Every team says it wants to have one of the best tomato farms, but they often don't stick to that plan.
The new men in charge appear to be built that way, and building that way, trying to turn short-term assets into long-term ones. They also appear to have a good distance to go. The Cubs of recent history have had more downs than ups in the amateur draft and have traded some of their higher-level prospects, most notably a year ago for Matt Garza, who, with Dempster, will lead the rotation this season.
Epstein, who we presume knows more about the Cubs organization than you or I, said in the offseason, "We'll be scratching and clawing, trying to acquire as many assets as we can. Very bluntly, we don't have enough of them. We don't have enough good players. We don't have enough young players."
Assessing the team's minor league system, he said also: ''There aren't necessarily a lot of high-impact players that are close to the big leagues. If there were, it would be one of the best systems in baseball. We're not. There's a lot of room for improvement, a lot of work to do to get where we want to be, but there are a number of interesting players...We do have a lot of depth, albeit at the lower levels. I think with a few more acquisitions and prospects and a solid draft, you're going to see our system start to creep up into the upper third, which is a nice place to be.''
Where is it now? Barely upper two-thirds, in the eyes of ESPN's Keith Law, who ranks it 20th among the 30 organizations. He does call it "an unfairly maligned system...not a great system, but not a disastrous one. And I say that as someone who's relatively bearish on some of the Cubs' more famous prospects."
And if you follow Law, this is encouraging: Even without the highly touted now-Cub Rizzo, he says, San Diego has the majors' top farm system. And that system was built on the watch of GM Jed Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod, now Epstein's top lieutenants in Chicago.
Rizzo is MLB.com's top first-base prospect. Brett Jackson is supposed to be planted for a long term in center field no later than next year. The other most-discussed potential future North Siders include infielder Javier Baez (a couple of years away) and coulda-been-in-the-NFL outfielder Matt Szczur (easy for you to say).
Young pitching in the system is iffier, though you could say Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood still fit that category, along with recent young Cuban signee Gerardo Concepcion.
It might be too early to dream of 2013 success. For the same reason they never were serious players for Pujols or Fielder (you don't spend major money for someone who'll get you from fifth place to fourth), the Cubs may think it's logical to pass on the next free agent class, which shows few offensive players on the dawn side of 30 but tempting potential rotation leaders Zack Greinke, Matt Cain and Cole Hamels, who will still be in their 20s.
The guess here is that the new guys in the front office will proceed slowly and carefully, but that Team Ep will turn around Team Inept.
Joe Distelheim is chief copy editor for The Hardball Times website. He welcomes comments and suggestions via e-mail.