By Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue
There can’t be a fanbase happier to see 2009 end than Cubs fans.
Two straight division titles produced enormous expectations and as it turned out, enormous pressure. The Cubs started out 2009 reasonably well and then everyone started getting hurt (this almost immediately after TV broadcaster Len Kasper noted on Opening Day that it had been the first time in decades that the Cubs began the year with no one on the DL), others produced far below their career norms and to be fair, the Cubs were fortunate to come out of 2009 with their third straight winning season – the first time that had been accomplished since 1972.
There’s new Cubs ownership in place this spring for the first time in 28 years – but if you expected an instant spending spree, remember that Tom Ricketts & Family went fairly deep into debt to buy the team. They’re beginning needed upgrades to Wrigley Field, but on the field, change has been incremental, not "back-up-the-truck".
This is the fourth year of the Cubs’ two-year window for playoff success with the current bunch. Veterans like Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano can still be productive, but they’re all in their 30’s – Lee and Soriano in their mid 30’s – and that window may be closing. Ramirez is coming off a separated shoulder that cost him half of 2009, although he was productive when in the lineup. Lee had a fine 2009 season; he’s in the final year of a five-year deal, which sometimes can motivate a player.
Soriano is always the Cubs’ wild card (sometimes literally, with his outfield play). The eight-year deal he signed before 2007 was widely panned, but other teams were offering seven and the Cubs wanted to make a free agent statement that offseason; Soriano was the premier free agent on the market at the time. When he’s been productive – in 2007 and 2008 – the Cubs have made the playoffs. Last year he banged up his knee running into a wall at Wrigley in April and instead of being scoped, missing a few weeks and coming back, he tried to play through it, with predictably bad results both offensively and in the field. He was finally shut down in early September, had surgery and is supposedly at full strength. If so, that’ll be a big bonus – after playing 156 or more games in five of the six years before he came to Chicago, his games-played high with the Cubs is only 135, in 2007.
Catcher Geovany Soto dropped 40 pounds in the offseason; he made no excuses for his poor 2009, saying "I was just fat." The Cubs need his offense to come back to his 2008 Rookie of the Year level.
Kosuke Fukudome, who will move back to right field with the departure of Milton Bradley, has not fulfilled the offensive promise that he had when he signed a four-year deal prior to 2008. He’ll improve the outfield defense in right, his natural position, and likely will be platooned with Xavier Nady – if Nady is healthy enough to throw (he’s coming off Tommy John surgery). That would provide a productive offensive RF platoon, as Fukudome simply cannot hit lefties (.242/.343/.324 lifetime).
Marlon Byrd, the second straight Cub free-agent signing of a former Texas Ranger with the initials "MB", will man center field. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, also signed from the Rangers, is credited for helping Byrd become the offensive force he has been the last two years (former Cub Mark DeRosa also gives Jaramillo credit for his offensive surge).
The DP combination will be SS Ryan Theriot – who may be the most talked-about Cub on blogs; some love him, others hate his double-clutches and lack of power – and Jeff Baker, acquired from the Rockies for the charmingly-named Alberto Alburquerque last year. While 19-year-old phenom SS Starlin Castro turned heads in the Arizona Fall League last year and so far in spring training, the consensus is that he needs another year in the minors.
Only two of the Cubs’ bench spots are locks: catcher Koyie Hill, who at one point started 26 consecutive games (the longest such stretch for a Cub catcher in 18 years) with Soto out and Lou Piniella not trusting Jake Fox, backs up Soto again. Hill’s defense is outstanding – he threw out 40% of runners trying to steal on him and pitchers like the way he calls games – and he hits well enough for a backup. The Cubs were 42-27 in games Hill started in 2009.
Mike Fontenot, who had a fine year in 2008 (.909 OPS in 284 PA), was awful last year (.669 OPS in 419 PA). He may have been overexposed by having to play too much vs. LHP (he can’t hit them –.232/.286/.344 lifetime), and forced to play 3B – a position he’s not suited for – when Ramirez went down. Fontenot will either back up or platoon with Baker, and he’s been given some SS time in spring training to attempt to increase his versatility.
The other spots are mostly open. Nady seems locked into one outfield spot. Though he’s not 100% defensively, the brass seems committed to not having him start the year on the DL – the TJ surgery doesn’t affect his hitting. Lefty hitting Sam Fuld, a fan favorite for his hustle on the basepaths and his daring dive-into-walls fielding style, has a good shot at the fifth-outfielder spot, as he can play all three OF positions, draw a walk as a PH (.409 OBA last year in 115 PA), and pinch-run. He’s being pushed by 2006 #1 pick Tyler Colvin, who had a brief major league trial last September, put on 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and is pounding the ball in spring training games.
The rest of it is up for grabs. Micah Hoffpauir, a 1B pushed to play out of position in the outfield last year, didn’t hit well and is being pushed by non-roster guys Chad Tracy (who can play several positions) and Kevin Millar (also a multi-position player), who got a reputation as a great clubhouse guy as one of the "idiots" on the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. Millar’s several years past his good seasons, but he was a teammate of Dempster and Lee with the Marlins, and both have praised his presence in spring training. The loser of this roster derby may wind up in Triple-A with a promise to be the first callup or be released if another major league team calls (Tracy or Millar) or in Japan (Hoffpauir, whose lefthanded uppercut swing would seem well-suited for the smaller Japanese ballparks).
The Cubs have three starters who can match up with anyone in the National League. Even having a down year, Carlos Zambrano was productive – his total of nine wins was a result of bad bullpen work more than his own efforts. The bullpen also doomed rookie Randy Wells. Despite having good outings in six of his first seven starts, he wound up with four no-decisions and three losses – again, the bullpen was the culprit. Wells finished with 12 wins, a 3.05 ERA and sixth place in NL Rookie of the Year voting after having started the season off the prospect radar in Triple-A. Ryan Dempster, who had a fine second half after a rough beginning caused in part by having to fly back and forth between Arizona and Chicago to help look after a newborn daughter born with a rare genetic disease, completes this troika.
It’s the fourth and fifth spots causing the Cubs worry this spring. Ted Lilly is coming off shoulder surgery. He says he’ll be fine, but the Cubs don’t expect him back until mid-April. In the meantime, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija, Carlos Silva (in pinstripes only because the Cubs couldn’t get anyone else in return for Milton Bradley) and Sean Marshall are competing for the remaining slots. None has been impressive so far in spring training.
The Cubs’ bullpen could be outstanding – or get lit up as it did last year. The difference is, veterans who got pounded a year ago (Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman) are gone, and no vets were signed to replace them. Carlos Marmol, who was 11-for-11 in save opps after Gregg was demoted in August, starts the season guaranteed the closer’s spot. Angel Guzman, who was slated to set him up after a fine middle relief season in 2009, is shelved – maybe for good – with shoulder problems. It will be up to veteran lefty John Grabow, the losers of the starter derby, and kids – Esmailin Caridad, Justin Berg, Thomas Diamond, James Russell, John Gaub, and maybe 2008 #1 pick Andrew Cashner – to pick up the slack. Russell and Diamond have been good in camp. Berg was solid in limited duty last September, as was Caridad; manager Lou Piniella says a slot belongs to Caridad unless he pitches himself off the team.
In The System
The Cubs' system is finally on the upswing after years of bad drafts and win-now trades, but after graduating Jake Fox, Micah Hoffpauir, and Randy Wells a year ago, there's not a whole lot left that looks ready to make a difference in 2010. The bulk of the talent, such as Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner, could use at least another year of seasoning. 22 year old righty Jay Jackson could be a possible midseason callup if the rotation has a need, and he offers a four-pitch repertoire with a fastball in the low 90s. But outside of him, there's not a lot of high-level talent knocking on the door right now.
The staff returns intact from last year, with one notable (and one not-so-notable) change: highly respected batting coach Rudy Jaramillo joins the Cubs after 15 years (and four managers!) at Texas. Hitters universally praise Jaramillo’s approach and help. A batting coach may not make all the difference for a team – but if you’re going to have one, might as well have the best. Also, coaches Matt Sinatro and Ivan DeJesus switch roles; DeJesus, a special assistant, will now coach first base, with Sinatro, a confidant of Piniella’s since their Seattle days, will take a more behind-the-scenes role. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve driving Lou anywhere – last time these two tried that, in September 2008 from Chicago to Cincinnati, Sinatro google-mapped directions, missed a turnoff and wound up east of Cleveland.
This may be Lou’s last year managing – or not; both he and the Cubs are being coy about the future. Lou will turn 67 in August, but there are managers this age (Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre) still going strong. If the Cubs have a successful season, Lou may be back. Otherwise, Cubs Hall of Fame 2B Ryne Sandberg, who will manage their Triple-A team at Iowa this year, appears to be manager-in-waiting.
The Cardinals, who won the NL Central last year, will be a formidable foe again for the Cubs – although, as poorly as the 2009 season went in Chicago, the Cubs finished only 7.5 games out of first place. Everything will have to break right for the Cubs to return to the postseason – but then again, everything broke wrong a year ago. Why can’t it switch around? As always for Cubs fans, hope springs eternal.