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2009 Chicago Cubs: A Window Closed 2008 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
March 27, 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.

2008 Standings - NL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Chicago Cubs 97 64 .602 0 55-26 42-38 855 671 .609 64-48 33-16
*Milwaukee Brewers 90 72 .556 7.5 49-32 41-40 750 689 .539 57-52 33-20
Houston Astros 86 75 .534 11 47-33 39-42 712 743 .481 60-55 26-20
St. Louis Cardinals 86 76 .531 11.5 46-35 40-41 779 725 .533 59-47 27-29
Cincinnati Reds 74 88 .457 23.5 43-38 31-50 704 800 .442 44-63 25-30
Pittsburgh Pirates 67 95 .414 3.5 39-42 28-53 735 884 .416 52-67 15-28

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.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Milton Bradley OF
Kevin Gregg RP
Aaron Heilman RP
David Patton RP
Departed Pos.
Kerry Wood RP
Mark DeRosa Util
Jim Edmonds OF
Jason Marquis SP
Ronny Cedeno INF
Felix Pie CF
Rich Hill SP

It is hard to not go getting all excited about Catcher Geovany Soto. By all standards this guy looks like a legitimate star. He had the third lowest catcher’s ERA in baseball last season, and the Cubs team ERA was significantly higher in games he didn’t catch. He hits on the road as well as he does at home – like Soriano, he had 22 of his 35 doubles on the road in 2008, and his OPS was only 20 points lower on the road than at home. He was also amongst the leaders in things like least errors committed and passed balls allowed, and he gave up a low number of stolen bases while finishing middle of the pack in caught stealing percentage.

Now, Geovany, let’s see if you can avoid a sophomore slump.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Derrek Lee at First Base. To say that this is probably the beginning of the end for Lee would miss the point – we have likely reached the end of the beginning of the end. The beginning of the end came in 2006, when he broke his wrist in a collision with Rafael Furcal. Lee has had two good seasons in 2007 and 2008, but they have been greatly aided by Wrigley Field. In 2005, when he was an MVP candidate, he played at a very high level both at home and on the road, and actually hit for a higher average away from Wrigley.

Now Lee has struggled through camp, and isn’t getting any younger. Either this season or next, Lee will go the way of Chicago Cubs heroes past, who enjoyed several seasons hitting in the Cubs’ bandbox, but then faded prematurely.

The Cubs’ middle infield is stable, which is to say that it features solid but unimpressive defense and offense from Shortstop Mike Fontenot and Second Baseman Ryan “the Riot” Theriot. As much fun as this former LSU Tiger double play combination is, it is hard to know what to expect from them. Both seemed to be competing at the top of their talent level in 2008, but then both players played better on the road than at home, so maybe these guys have something to them.

If the Cubs made the World Series (which I do not expect) and these guys played an obvious role (say they start converting highlight reel double plays), get ready for “the Chicago Cubs’ Cajun Connection” to become all the rage in the Chicago and Louisiana newspapers, even though Theriot was born in Baton Rouge, many miles from “cajun country” per se, and Fontenot is from Slidell, Louisiana, which is even further from any native French speakers.

Cubs Fun Fact
In college, Ryan Theriot once broke up a no-hitter being pitched by future Cub Mark Prior, and Mike Fontenot became the second LSU infielder to win National Freshman of the Year, after future Cub Todd Walker.
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 needed to replace him with a guy who is just as old and inferior to DeRosa on both offense and defense. But whatever. Watch for Miles to get off to a wicked start before finishing the season with a .270/.320/.340.

Third Baseman Aramis Ramirez has gone from being one of my favorite current players to being, in my opinion, one of the most overrated players in baseball. Though he has cut down on his errors, A-Ram is not a good defender at the hot corner, and his road OPS the last two years has been in the mid-700s, making him look more like Luis Salazar than Ron Santo. One must wonder whether Ramirez even tries to hit on the road. Switch Ramirez with Kevin Kouzmanoff (wait, what an idea. Think the Padres might fall for it?) and A-Ram’s numbers would be lucky to look as good as Kouzmanoff’s.

You heard it here first – there are very few teams who may be more undone by their Outfield defense than the Cubs will be this year. Moving Kosuke Fukudome to centerfield to make room for Milton Bradley in right field means that the Cubs will have an aging, fragile outfield with three guys that aren’t playing their natural positions.

Can the Cubs get a full season out of Alfonso Soriano in 2009? Good question – even though he’s hit over 60 homeruns with the Cubs in two seasons, he has done this despite missing 70 games during that span. Soriano did some really odd things in 2008 – despite playing in only 109 games, he nearly hit 30 homeruns; he matched his previous season’s stolen base total (19); he topped the previous season’s RBI total (75 vs. 70); and he took 43 walks, the second most of his career.

What you really have to give Soriano props for, though, is his anti-home field hitting. Two years ago, he hit 20 of his 33 homeruns on the road, and posted a 1.003 OPS there, as opposed to his .794 at Wrigley Field. Last season, he came back down to earth a bit but still maintained an .828 OPS on the road, which is high for this team. When you have a lineup, like the Cubs, where half the team goes dead when you head out on the road, guys like Soriano are worth their weight in gold.

(Humorously, gold is currently trading at roughly $1,000.00 per ounce, or $16,000.00 per pound. Alfonso Soriano weighs 180 pounds. Thus, Soriano's weight, in gold, would be worth $2.88 million, which is far less than his actual salary which is somewhere in the $13 million range. Looks like we need to retire that cliche, at least in baseball talk. At the same time, maybe that should be the standard for being paid too much - if you are being paid more than the value of your weight in gold, you're being paid too much!)

After making one of the most disappointing free agent acquisitions in all of baseball in the 2007-2008 off-season (Kukudome),
Future Star
Micah Hoffpauir

I don’t think he is for real. He has “get three sources to check for typos” style numbers. How can you put up 25 homeruns and 100 RBI in a minor league season, let alone 71 games of a minor league season? With 34 doubles? Who slugs .752? The most telling sign is that Hoffpauir is not in the starting lineup as the Cubs break camp – with those numbers, he should be starting over anybody in the league, let alone Milton Bradley, Kosuke Fukedome, and Alfonso Soriano. If he is for real, look for 50 doubles and 35 homeruns just as soon as he becomes a full-timer, whenever that is.
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 seasons with ANY team – and this is a very risky contract for the Cubs to have undertaken.

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.

What player is the biggest throwback to the speedsters of the 1970s and 1980s, who were fast as could be but couldn’t get on base to save their lives? Wily Taveras and Michael Bourn probably lead the category, but Joey Gathright is definitely on the list. For the record, the Cubs have Gathright on their spring roster, and he is likely to go north with the team. Shame, though – he is one of those guys you’d like on the team just to watch him run (remember Ced Landrum?). If I were a manager with Gathright on the team, his end of the year numbers would start with "162 games played, zero at-bats," as he would appear as a pinch-runner in the late innings of every game.

Cubs Team Capsule

7/20/10: Lou Makes It Official - Cubs manager Lou Piniella has made it official that his 23rd managerial season will be his last. Piniella will finish the 2010 season as skipper of the Cubs and intends to continue to work as a consultant for a major league team, but currently at 1,826 career wins, Lou's bid for the 2,000 win milestone is guaranteed to fall short. He is nevertheless an obvious Hall of Fame manager, with being the first Cubs manager since Leo Durocher (1970-72) to lead the franchise to three straight winning seasons and and the first since Frank Chance (1907-08) to lead the Cubs to consecutive playoff appearances as the latest in a long line of accolades.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has confirmed that Jim Hendry will be the Cubs' general manager heading into the 2011 season and that Hendry will be leading the search for Lou's replacement. Hendry would only reveal that Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who has been managing in the minor leagues for the past four seasons, was a candidate, and that the Cubs would explore both internal and external options for the position, plus that previous MLB managerial experience was not a prerequisite. The speculation at Baseball Evolution, however, is that Ryno is the obvious frontrunner for this vacancy.

The key to the 2008 Chicago Cubs was the Starting Rotation, and since it is essentially the same crew from last season – Zambrano, Dempster, Lilly, Harden, plus whomever – I won’t spend too much time on it except to say the following: I don’t expect the Cubs to perform in 2009 they way they did in 2008 because I don’t expect these four guys to do what they did in 2008. I don’t think Ted Lilly is the guy we’ve seen the last two years. I think Carlos Zambrano has succeeded better than anyone can in Wrigley Field, and he is starting to wear down. I think Ryan Dempster did something he’s never ever done before last season, and the odds of repeating it are terrible. Finally, I think Rich Harden was healthy,
Silent But Deadly
I fell asleep at the wheel on this one, but check out this totally awesome sequence of moves that the Chicago Cubs pulled off in just two short weeks.

The Cubs started by shipping Felix Pie to the Baltimore Orioles for Henry Williamson, a pretty good looking Single-A pitcher, and Garrett Olson, a good looking minor league pitcher with no success whatsoever at the major league level.

Then, ten days later, they package Olson together with Ronny Cedeno and send them off to Seattle for Aaron Heilman.

In two fell swoops, the Cubs went from Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno to Henry Williamson and Aaron Heilman.
which is a miracle not likely to reoccur, and the National League hitters weren’t used to him, which is no longer true.

If each of these four guys proves me wrong, the Cubs win the division going away and are, again, the World Series favorites. But I don’t think they will.

If Carlos Zambrano can get back to his usual 200-innings, 130 ERA+ self, this could be the year that he becomes the Greatest Pitcher in the History of Wrigley Field. Something to watch for.

The Cubs will 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. Say what you will about diminished expectations – Heilmann and Marshall as fifth starters are not good options.

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 three of the last four Cubs playoff appearances, Kerry Wood. In the last ten years, the Cubs’ fate has been tied to Wood’s right arm. Wood, who came out of the Bullpen for the first time and led the team in saves in 2008, is now a Cleveland Indian, leaving Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol to take over the closer role for the Cubs. Lou Pinella must see the same things in these two guys that he saw in Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble in the 1990's, because not making Marmol the closer ouright is somewhat incredible. Nevertheless, the Cubs bullpen remains deep, if slightly less talented, with a selection of unproven arms being counted upon to get through the late innings.

What does being a former wide receiver for Notre Dame get you in the major leagues? Lots of attention, to be sure, but Jeff Samardzija is quickly learning that what happens on the football field at South Bend impacts little what happens in the big leagues.
Cubs Fun Fact
Of Chicago Cubs teams to make the playoffs since 1901, 25% of them had Kerry Wood on the roster.
Frankly, it is difficult to figure why – other than his Notre Dame-ness – this kid gets so much love. He was never a dominant minor league pitcher, and he has always walked too many guys to be considered a legitimate major league starter. Samardzija will begin the season in the bullpen after not looking good this spring at all.

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.

Outlook for the Season

It is around this time of the spring that I think Lou Pinella might be wondering if the Cubs should have done more to improve the team over last season. Oh, sure, last year’s roster was good enough to post the best record in the National League, but wasn’t that roster built to win last year? Aren’t the Cubs just a little bit older now? Can we really expect Rich Harden to stay healthy, Ryan Dempster to keep it up, and Ted Lilly to continue to pitch effectively? Isn’t Aramis Ramirez due for an injury (check the stats, he’s hurt literally every other year)?

Hard to imagine things going as well for the Cubs in 2009 as they did in 2008. Or did I already say that?

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.

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