Reflections on the Cub’s Off Season
- Updated: February 28, 2009
The Chicago Cubs and their fans can congratulate themselves on a page-turning 2008 season. In what was the centennial year of World Series drought for the lovable losers, the Cubs managed to convince their fans that this was “The Year” before being summarily dismissed from the post-season by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the process, the expectations became so high, the disappointment so deep, that the Cubs joined the fraternity of teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Mets, and a handful of others for which merely getting to the playoffs is no longer good enough.
For the Cubs, this is a huge moment.
Perhaps now the Cubs can get serious about winning. If the Cubs make the playoffs again in 2009, we won’t see any stories featuring teary-eyed men on Sheffield Avenue talking about seeing something their grandfathers never got to see. Gone will be the boisterous mobs of Cubs fans with euphoric “I can’t believe this is happening!” looks on their faces. Like fans of teams with winning traditions, Cubs fans may taste the post-season in 2009, but they won’t get all giddy until the other team is from the American League.
If the Cubs are going to make the post-season this year, it will have to be without one of the key players to the last three Cubs playoff appearance, Kerry Wood. In the last ten years, the Cubs’ fate has been tied to Wood’s right arm. Wood, who led the team in saves in 2008, is now a Cleveland Indian, leaving Carlos Marmol to take over the closer role for the Cubs. Marmol is terrific when he is on, but can also melt down for games at a time. This move also makes the Cubs bullpen less deep, with a selection of unproven arms being counted upon to get through the late innings.
The Cubs will also be without Rich Hill on the mound in 2009, which is a mixed blessing. After showing tons of promise in recent years, Hill struggled mightily with his control in 2008 and spent most of the year in the minors. While it may feel good for Cubs fans to not have to count on their own version of Rick Ankiel again this year, it has to scare them to death to see Sean Marshall and Aaron Heilman on the depth chart. While the Cubs rotation looks good with Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden, and Ryan Dempster in the front four, the team is a Harden injury or Dempster return to earth to sending Aaron Heilman to the mound every fifth day.
On offense, I’ll let you in on a little secret – Wrigley Field helps the hitters. Unfortunately, two of the Cubs’ biggest stars cannot perform on the road the way they do at Wrigley – Derrek Lee (15 of 20 homers at home) and Aramis Ramirez (..324/.440/.600 at home, .254/.315/.437 on the road). This can absolutely kill a team.
Another little secret is that after making one of the most disappointing free agent acquisitions in all of baseball in the 2007-2008 off-season, the Cubs made what may be the most disappointing acquisition in all of baseball again in the 2008-2009 off-season when they signed Milton Bradley to a three year, $30 million deal. For one thing, this is a guy who tore his ACL two seasons ago and spent all of last season as the Rangers designated hitter. But even completely healthy, Bradley’s credentials are problematic.
On the surface, Bradley had an amazing year with the Texas Rangers in 2008, leading the American League in on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, and batting runs despite playing in only 122 games. However, offensive success in the Ballpark at Arlington is not hard to come by, and teams have made fools of themselves giving big contracts to guys coming off big years for the Rangers – see Gary Matthews, Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Dave Dellucci, Ruben Sierra, Kevin Mench. For Bradley’s part, he is a much better hitter than those guys, but his home/road splits still scare you to death – 16/6 homeruns at home versus on the road, .358/.290 average, and 1.145/.872 OPS. Throw in Bradley’s ability to self-destruct – and the fact that he has never lasted three season with ANY team – and this is a very risky contract for the Cubs to have undertaken.
Bradley joins other recent high-priced acquisitions Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome in the outfield. Soriano is probably the most underrated defensive outfielder in baseball, which coming in left field is actually not a very big deal but certainly worth noting. He is consistently elite in terms of range and he somehow managed 10 outfield assists in just 108 games there last year. At the plate, he hit 29 homeruns in 109 games. Imagine how many he could hit if he is completely healthy this year.
While the Cubs need Soriano to be healthy to positively impact the team, only Fukudome’s absence is a positive for Chicago. His meager .359 on-base percentage is his strongest attribute, and his 10 homeruns and 12 stolen bases make him the Sean Casey of outfielders, without the upside. The funny thing about Fukudome is that the only reason he looks like a major leaguer is because of playing in Wrigley Field – in 75 games away from the Friendly Confines in 2008, Fukudome put up a .225/.322/.333 with four homeruns. Not good. He is very much in danger of become to the Cubs what Kei Igawa has become for the Yankees – a high-priced Triple-A player.
It is not completely clear why the Cubs decided to acquire Aaron Miles. Sure, the Cubs traded Mark DeRosa to the Cleveland Indians in what can only be described as robbery (how the Indians parted with Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer, and John Gaub for an aging, overrated middle infielder who DEFINITELY uses HGH is beyond me). But that didn’t mean they needs to replace him with a guy who is just as old and inferior to DeRosa on both offense and defense. In Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, the Cubs have two middle infielders who have been playing together since their college days who are a) both in their prime; b) both adequate defenders; c) both light hitters who know how to get on base; and d) both better than Aaron Miles. But whatever. Watch for Miles to get off to a wicked start before finishing the season with a .270/.320/.340.
The departure of Kerry Wood brings to a close the saddest chapter of this generation of Cub-Fandom: the “It-Could-Only-Happen-to-Us” failure of the Kerry Wood/Mark Prior Era. A mere six years ago Wood/Prior looked to become the greatest pitching duo in baseball history. But their success was fleeting, and their run was short. For all the brilliance and beauty that Kerry and Mark displayed early in their careers, the dismay and disappointment has been at times overwhelming. I don’t know if I speak for all Cubs fans, but there can be no doubt that there will always be a not insubstantial part of my heart that wishes it could be the fall of 2003 all over again, and perhaps even forever.
One thing is for sure: 2009 will not be 2003. And it probably won’t be 2008 either. Expect only the weakness of the NL Central to keep the Cubs afloat this season.