This is part of a series of posts wherein we rake teams over the coals for their offseason blunders and sparingly praise them for the occasional wily move.
It has been a dismal 12 months for Chicago’s Northsiders. Just one year ago, the Cubs were coming off of a 97-win season, had seemed to have improved an already good team even further in the offseason, and there was talk about them finally making that long-awaited World Series run.
But then the 2009 season happened, the Cubs battled injuries and Milton Bradley’s mercuriality, stumbling to an 83-win finish, and the magical 2008 run was exposed for what it really was – a flukish run of improbable good luck. One year later nobody is talking of the Cubs as a “lock” to win the NL Central, let alone as a serious World Series contender.
After what was basically a dismal year, given the high expectations, the Cubs then followed up with a dismal offseason. After destroying any trade value Milton Bradley may have had or any negotiating leverage the team may have had by constantly badmouthing him and making it clear they were going to trade him no matter what, the Cubs were forced to settle for a swap of castoffs, getting starter Carlos Silva (he of the 8.60 ERA last year) from the Mariners.
The M’s also threw in $9 million of cold hard cash, which makes it sound like a good deal for the Cubs until you realize that they are still on the hook for the remaining $19 million on Silva’s contract for two more seasons. And sure enough, at that price the Cubs have felt compelled to offer Silva a role in the starting rotation, despite the fact that either Sean Marshall or Jeff Samardzija would almost certainly be a better option. Sure the team saved about $4 million when all is said and done, but at the probable cost of hurting on field performance, which has to make you wonder if they might be better off just releasing Silva.
The sad thing is, saving those $4 million off of the less-than-thrilling Bradley trade may actually have been the most exciting thing the Cubs did in an otherwise stagnant offseason. Their biggest free agent move was signing Marlon Byrd to take over in center to the tune of 3 years and $15 million, but while Byrd is a decent enough player, he’s more of a fourth outfielder type and signing him through his age-36 season does not seem like a particularly adept or necessary move.
The Cubs also shipped position-less masher Jake Fox and futility infielder Aaron Miles to the A’s for mediocre reliever Jeff Gray and another prospect in a trade of spare parts and dumped Aaron Heilman (who they were going to nontender anyway) to the D-Backs for a pair of marginal pitching prospects.
Finally, they signed outfielder Xavier Nady to a 1-year, $3.3 million dollar deal to provide pop off the bench and bequeathed lefty reliever John Grabow with a 2-year, $7.5 million pact. I didn’t like either of these deals. While Nady would be worth the money if he were to play every day, the Cubs outfield is already full and $3.3 million strikes me as a bit much to pay for a bench player when you can get nearly identical performance at the plate (and probably better defense) for less. The Grabow deal makes even less sense, as this is an eminently replaceable player, whose mediocre peripherals strongly suggest he doesn’t deserve anywhere near $3.25 million a year and certainly not a 2-year deal.
All in all, it seems that the Cubs didn’t do nearly enough to improve their team, especially given that they can most likely expect continuing decline from aging stars like Derrick Lee, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Alfonso Soriano.
The huge and intractable problem the Cubs have going forward is that they have obscene amounts of money locked away in long-term deals to players who are already into their decline years. For the 2011 season, the Cubs have $95 million already committed to just 6 players, and that’s before they hand out even a single cent to the rest of their roster. The problem really doesn’t clear up until 2013, when the only player currently signed is Alfonso Soriano at a ridiculous $19 million for his age-37 season.
In the meantime, unless the Cubs are willing to bump their payroll up to a Yankees-esque $200 million range, it’s not clear how they can fill all the holes from year to year with quality players, so I’d say that 2013 is the earliest the Cubs can make a serious run at contention again, and even that would require some careful management and judicious deals.
Which is not to say that the Cubs can’t sneak into the playoffs if all goes right but the odds are very very long, as this is no longer a team in the upper tier. On one hand, it’s hard to blame GM Jim Hendry for the lackluster offseason this year, given the preexisting contract constraints on the team, but then again Hendry is the one who gave out all those backloaded contracts, living only in the present (and living large at that), heedless of any thought of the future.
This is the year the Cubs start paying the Piper, and it looks like it’s going to take several seasons to pay up in full.
Offseason Grade: D+
Acquisitions: CF Marlon Byrd, OF Xavier Nady, SP Carlos Silva, RP John Grabow, RP Jeff Gray, UT Chad Tracy
Losses: SP Rich Harden, OF Milton Bradley, RP Kevin Gregg, RP Aaron Heilman, IF Jake Fox, IF Aaron Miles, OF Reed Johnson
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer
C – Geovany Soto
1B – Derrek Lee
2B – Mike Fontenot
3B – Aramis Ramirez
SS – Ryan Theriot
LF – Alfonso Soriano
CF – Marlon Byrd
RF – Kosuke Fukudome
SP1 – Carlos Zambrano
SP2 – Ryan Dempster
SP3 – Randy Wells
SP4 – Carlos Silva
SP5 – Tom Gorzelanny
CL – Carlos Marmol