This is one of a series of posts in which we eviscerate teams for their offseason blunders and grudgingly praise them for the occasional wily move. Guest author Melissa Rakestraw is a life-long Cubs fan and a first-time poster on UmpBump.com.
On October 14, 1908, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Detroit Tigers to become baseball’s world champions. It was their second consecutive title; they have failed to win a championship since that time. They haven’t even won their division two years in a row since then. But despite a century of futility, expectations around this team have been elevated after their come-from-behind NL Central title last year. And after watching previously futile franchises like the Red Sox and the cross-town White Sox take titles in ’04 and ’05 and then seeing their arch-rival Cardinals win it all in ’06, Cubs fans (and Ryan Demptster) are tired of the lament, “wait ’til next year,” and in 2008 ask, “Why not us?” But that may be asking too much.
On the surface, it does appear that GM Jim Hendry has improved the team enough to repeat as division champs, but will these moves provide what’s necessary to win a World Series? For those looking for signs that the Curse of the Goat is still alive and well, the advent of spring training has already seen numerous oddities arise, which include the twisted testicles of Felix Pie, the fighting cocks of Aramis Ramirez, a fractured middle finger for Alfonso Soriano, the surgically repaired heart of Mark DeRosa and a convenience store smackdown suffered by Jose Ascanio. Let’s take a look at the offseason moves of a team whose season has already gotten off to a memorable start, regardless of the final outcome…
In ’07 the Cubs had enough talent to overcome a slow start and make a second half push to win a weak division. But once they were swept by Arizona from the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were deficient in several areas. The most glaring weakness the Cubs suffered from was the lack of a #2 starter after Carlos Zambrano. Lefties Ted Lilly and Rich Hill certainly didn’t look the part and no one acquired in the offseason can be considered able to fill this role. The Cubs would have been well served to have made an effort to acquire Eric Bedard, Dan Haren, or Joe Blanton. The addition of any of these pitchers could have made them the clear favorite in the NL.
The Cubs have a fairly deep arsenal of young pitching prospects that surely would have made them competitive bidders. Although when asked why he never made an attempt to acquire Johan Santana, Hendry claimed that Santana refused to waive his no trade clause for a team that trained outside of Florida, I find it doubtful that the Cubs would have been willing to sacrifice the prospects necessary to complete the deal. In the past they have refused to deal top prospects only to have them fizzle out on the major league level (think Corey Patterson).
Hendry did make progress in upgrading his position players by somehow managing to unload the undisciplined and unfocused Jacque Jones on Detroit for utility man Omar Infante. This move set up Hendry’s acquisition of the crown jewel of the Cubs’ offseason – Kosuke Fukudome, the former Japanese-league MVP – who signed with Chicago for $48 million over 4 years. He was the primary free agent the Cubs targeted and his strengths should bolster areas that have been known weaknesses for the club. Defensively in right field, look for him to showcase impressive fielding skills and a rocket arm. Right field bleacher fans should not be surprised when they see him hitting the cut-off man or gunning down runners attempting to stretch singles into doubles. Moreover, the Cubs lineup is dominated by right handers, and his left-handed bat with some power and a high OBP was sorely needed. His combination of plate discipline, speed and power should make him an excellent fit in the 2nd or 5th slot of the batting order. PECOTA projects 550 plate appearances at .289/.401/.504, with 21 HR and 81 RBI.
Fukudome is a major upgrade for the Cubs in one position, but they also expect improvement at two other positions that they intend to fill from within. They allowed the defensive liability and offensively neutered Jason Kendall to walk in order to make room for top catching prospect Geovany Soto. Soto was impressive last season in his September call-up even though he had only 16 starts. Geovany had a stellar season in AAA and carried that success with him to the big league level where he showed plate discipline and the ability to drive in runs and hit for power. His defensive skills and his arm are well above average and offensively in 54 major league AB he had a line of .389/.433/.667. He looks poised to have a break-out season.
The other open position, still up for grabs, is center field. Felix Pie will be given the first opportunity to take over the reins at a position he could not hold last year. The 23-year-old product of the Cubs farm system has stellar defensive skills, and speed, but looked over-matched at the plate in ’07, hitting only .215/.271/.333 in 177 AB. To succeed this season Pie must show a better command of the strike zone. He needs to cut down on a big looping lefty swing in favor of making contact, and must be more willing to sacrifice power in order to get on base. Unfortunately the Cubs brought him up through the minors as a #3 hitter when he is clearly not ever going to be a #3 in the Majors. They made the same mistake with Corey Patterson and he was either unwilling or unable to make the adjustment to being a table setter. Expect Pie to continue to languish at the plate if placed in the 8th slot which is where he likely will bat in the current projected lineup. It would serve Pie better to spend another year in AAA trying to adjust his approach at the plate.
The other top contender for the job in center is the Arizona Fall League MVP, Sam Fuld. Fuld is nearly as good a fielder as Pie and has shown that he is actually more advanced at the plate. Even if he doesn’t win the job in center, expect him to stick around as a 4th outfielder. Another avenue the Cubs are rumored to be pursuing is possibly dealing starting pitcher Jason Marquis to Boston for Coco Crisp. If the Cubs can pull it off, this would probably be the best option available, since Crisp is a proven major-league quality centerfielder, and the Cubs consider Marquis expendable due to the free agent signing of Jon Lieber and the moving of closer Ryan Dempster into the starting rotation.
The Cubs appear to have a solid pitching staff on the whole. They had the 2nd best ERA in the NL last season, led the league in strike outs, and were the most difficult NL team to manufacture runs against. Their top 3 starters, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Hill, are certainly capable of combining for at least 45 wins. It’s most likely that Jon Lieber and Ryan Dempster will fill in the final two slots with youngsters Sean Marshall, Sean Gallagher, and Kevin Hart having outside chances. They don’t want to put Dempster back in the bullpen, even though in his career he is below .500 as a starter, and there was no point in acquiring Lieber if they did not intend to use him in the starting rotation. But placing much confidence in Lieber’s ability to stay healthy seems unwise due to his propensity for injury over the last 6 seasons. Since 2001, when he was the Cubs’ last 20-game winner, he has pitched over 200 innings only once and that was back in 2005. Still, at only one year and $3.5 million, the Lieber signing is not a huge gamble and, should he come up lame, they do have numerous young arms that could fill the slot.
What does make the Lieber signing rather curious, however, is that they refused to offer this same deal to Mark Prior, who has also been injury-plagued but is only 27 and has more upside than a 38-year-old Lieber. Prior has only made 57 starts in the last 4 seasons and hasn’t shown signs of the brilliance he possessed in 2003 when he won 18 games. But I would’ve rather seen them gamble on the younger player who has the potential to be a top of the rotation pitcher when healthy. When Prior balked at agreeing to a club option for a second year on the one year offer, the Cubs finally threw in the towel on one of the most heralded draft picks in franchise history.
So Prior no longer figures into the Cubs future, but they did re-sign oft-injured former phenom Kerry Wood to a one-year deal. Moving Dempster out of the closer role creates an opportunity for Bobby Howry, Carlos Marmol, or Wood to win the position in spring training. Woody seems the least likely to win the role in spite of being the hardest thrower. He has always had a propensity to walk batters and it’s uncertain if his arm can withstand working 2 or 3 consecutive days. Last season, Manager Lou Piniella tended to avoid using Wood in situations when the game was still in contention.
Carlos Marmol, possessor of the devastating slider and no doubt the closer of the future, may not yet be ready to move into the closer’s slot. While it is true that last season he had the 2nd lowest ERA (1.43) of all NL relief pitchers, and held batters to the 2nd lowest batting average (.169), the 25-year-old has not had the experience of facing the pressure of even a single major league save opportunity. Lou said last season that he liked having the flexibility of being able to bring Marmol into the game in the 6th, 7th or 8th when close games hung in the balance. He stranded inherited runners 87.8% of the time, which was better than all other NL relievers. Due to Marmol’s inexperience it is most likely they will start the season with veteran Bobby Howry in the closer role. Howry has done it before and it may benefit the club to ease the younger player into the role later on in the season if Howry falters.
In other bullpen moves the Cubs avoided salary arbitration with middle reliever Michael Wuertz by signing him to a one-year, $860,000 deal. The hard throwing right-hander was a solid contributor in ’07 with a 3.48 ERA and stranded 86.8% of inherited runners, second in the NL to teammate Marmol. Neil Cotts was also resigned to a one-year deal, avoiding arbitration. He has a live arm but may return to the minors if he can’t regain the control that gave him the success he had in ’05 with the White Sox. In a move with a lot of upside, Hendry dealt left hander Wil Ohman and utility man Omar Infante to Atlanta for Jose Ascanio, who has a 95+ mph fast ball and will likely begin the year at AA. Rule 5 draft pick-up Tim Lahey could also bolster their bullpen depth. These moves could serve dividends down the road and the Cubs have added young depth. Overall, I would say the pitching staff is slightly upgraded from last season, but more should have been done.
This offseason, the Cubs have made several moves that have improved their ballclub. It is still possible that they will attempt to bring in lead-off man and second baseman Brian Roberts, which would improve their lineup even more. That move would allow them to move Soriano and his strike outs down in the order and free up Mark DeRosa to fill the utility role which best suits him. But even if they are able to pry Peter Angelos’ pet out of Baltimore it probably won’t be a move that helps them capture the NL pennant. Their best chance of ending the centennial suckfest would be to acquire another top of the rotation pitcher. My prediction is wait ’til next year.
Offseason Grade: B
Additions: RF Kosuke Fukudome, SP Jon Lieber, RP Jose Ascanio, RP Tim Lahey, SS Alex Cintron, RP Chad Fox, RP Shingo Takatsu
Losses: OF Jacque Jones, C Jason Kendall, SP Mark Prior, RP Wil Ohman, OF Angel Pagan, OF Omar Infante
Projected Lineup, Rotation and Closer:
LF Alfonso Soriano – .299/.337/.560, 33 HR
SS Ryan Theriot – .266/.326/.346, 3 HR
1B Derrek Lee – .317/.400/.513, 22 HR
3B Aramis Ramirez – .310/.366/.549, 26 HR
RF Kosuke Fukudome – .294/.443/.520, 13 HR (Japan in 81 games)
2B Mark DeRosa – .293/.371/.420, 10 HR
C Geovany Soto – .389/.433/.667, 3 HR, 54 AB
CF Felix Pie – .215/.271/.333, 9HR
RHP – Carlos Zambrano – 18-13, 3.95 ERA
LHP – Ted Lilly – 15-8, 3.83 ERA
LHP – Rich Hill – 11-8, 3.92 ERA
RHP – Jon Lieber – 3-6, 4.73 ERA
RHP – Ryan Dempster – 2-7, 4.73 ERA, 28 SV
CL – Bobby Howry 8 SV, 3.32 ERA