This is one of a series of posts in which we call out all 30 teams for their offseason blunders and begrudgingly praise them for the occasional savvy move.
Did any team in baseball make more moves and near-moves this offseason than the Chicago Cubs? In a flurry of activity, the Northsiders nearly traded for Jake Peavy after long negotiations before backing out due to unreasonable demands, resigned last year’s ace Ryan Dempster to a 4-year, $52 million dollar deal, inked outfielder Milton Bradley to a 3-year, $30 million pact, shipped 5th starter Jason Marquis to the Rockies for reliever Luis Vizcaino, dispatched SS Ronny Cedeno and pitcher Garrett Olson to the Mariners for swingman Aaron Heilman, sent utility infielder Mark DeRosa to the Indians for three prospects, traded centerfielder Felix Pie to the Orioles for two pitching prospects, acquired closer Kevin Gregg from the Marlins for flamethrowing reliever Jose Ceda, signed speedy outfielder Joey Gathright and switch-hitting infielder Aaron Miles, and dealt away starting pitcher Rich Hill to the Orioles and reliever Michael Wuertz to the A’s for prospects.
Whew. Did you follow all of that?
Then again, it’s not surprising that Cubs GM Hendry would make so many moves. After all, this is a man who was still swinging deals from his hospital bed following a heart attack.
But are the Cubs better off than they were when the offseason started? That is a hard question to answer, because pretty much every move the Cubs made this offseason was some kind of gamble, and a lot depends on how the players they acquired play versus how well the players they lost play.
The Cubs were in a pretty tight situation heading into 2009, because with a lot of backloaded contracts coming into effect, their payroll was set to soar to around $130 million even if they did nothing at all, but at the same time they had some areas of clear need.
This meant that the Cubs had to pick their battles. They did spend some money to fill holes in the outfield and rotation by signing Bradley and re-upping Dempster, but this necessitated some cost-cutting moves such as sending Marquis to Colorado, letting closer Kerry Wood walk as a free agent, and dealing away the hugely popular “team MVP” Mark DeRosa and his 114 OPS+ at four different positions.
Stepping in for DeRosa at second base is the pint-sized Mike Fontenot, who put up monster numbers last year in a backup role. Last year’s setup man Carlos Marmol is slated to take over the bulk of Wood’s closing duties, while Gregg moves into the setup role, which may be wise since Gregg is highly overrated despite the closer tag (tied for worst in the NL last season with 9 blown saves), but on the other hand it may be better to let him close since when Marmol was the setup man he actually pitched in higher leverage situations, which now fall to Gregg.
Milton Bradley, meanwhile, will be the starter in right, assuming he can keep himself on the field. Although famed for his wild rages, Bradley’s more serious problem is his balky knees and hamstrings, and he has averaged less than 100 games played over the past 5 seasons. But assuming Bradley can play, his signing pushes Japanese import and 2008 second half bust Kosuke Fukudome to the bench, or possibly a platoon in center with Reed Johnson.
The Cubs won more games under Lou Pinella in his first two years as their manager than they had in back-to-back seasons since 1935-36, and after back-to-back NL Central crowns followed by back-to-back 0-3 playoff flameouts, both expectations and frustrations are high heading into 2009.
Most prognosticators are assuming that the Cubs are a lock to win the central and that their main problem is just figuring out how to win in the postseason, but the Cubs may have more trouble making it to the dance this season than many people expect.
The big worry for Chicago should be that while they won an NL-best 97 games last season, an awful lot went right for them to do so (as is almost always the case when a team wins 97 games), and questions abound for this season. For example, can Ryan Dempster come anywhere near repeating his 2008 career-year again? Can Bradley really play the field after being protected all last season as a DH? Is Mike Fontenot for real?
Another worry is that the Cubs’ aging, expensive core, which returns intact and is signed to big bucks long-term, but showed signs of real decline last season. Derrek Lee posted his lowest OPS+ in 11 seasons, Aramis Ramirez’s power is eroding as he enters his 30s, putative ace Carlos Zambrano saw his K/9 fall from 8.8 to 7.3 to 6.2 over the past three years, and Alfonso Soriano started having to battle through a variety of leg ailments, curtailing the speed which is normally one of his main weapons.
The offense led the NL in runs scored last year, and was second in the whole MLB only to the Texas Rangers, so there is room to give a little at the plate, but the big concern has to be the pitching staff. Zambrano is battling a sore shoulder, starter Rich Harden is as good as any pitcher who ever played when healthy but is never healthy, and Dempster just had a season for the ages after a decade of mediocrity. Throw in the maddeningly inconsistent Ted Lilly and you have a rotation that is almost as liable to collapse under injury and suckage as it is to impress.
Meanwhile, the late-inning bullpen combo of Gregg/Marmol is clearly inferior to Marmol/Wood, and losing Ceda to get Gregg seems to be a questionable move at best, although the rest of the pen, led by hot prospect Jeff Samardzija, looks solid.
The Cubs made a ton of moves this offseason, but are returning a team that is roughly equivalent to the team they fielded last year. That is not a bad thing, as last year’s squad was the best in the league, and the Cubs are definitely favorites again this year, but it is unlikely that they will win 97 games again, and they may have to squeeze by on a thinner margin for error. They did manage to hold the line on payroll, and picked up a number of fringy prospects, which is nice, but they may also miss Wuertz, Cedeno, Pie, and Ceda, and they will definitely miss DeRosa and Wood.
Overall Jim Hendry did a decent job of shuffling the deck chairs, but it remains to be seen if the ship he was on was the Titanic or a more fortunate vessel. Some of the icebergs which may have been created by this years’ dealings might not become apparent for several months or even years.
Offseason grade: B
Added: Milton Bradley, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman, Aaron Miles, Luis Vizcaino, Joey Gathright, Corey Koskie, Paul Bako, So Taguchi, Mike Stanton, Luis Rivas
Lost: Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, Jim Edmonds, Felix Pie, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill, Henry Blanco, Jon Lieber, Daryle Ward, Jose Ceda
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:
C Giovanny Soto
1B Derrek Lee
2B Mike Fontenot
3B Aramis Ramirez
SS Ryan Theriot
LF Alfonso Soriano
CF Reed Johnson/Kosuke Fukudome
RF Milton Bradley/ball of pure rage
SP1 Carlos Zambrano
SP2 Ryan Dempster
SP3 Rich Harden
SP4 Ted Lilly
SP5 Sean Marshall
CL Carlos Marmol