As a Cubs’ fan…no, that’s too narrow…as a Chicago sports fan, you learn never to expect anything. So even thought the Cubs won 97 games and were playing an 84 win team in the first round of the playoffs, you’d have been daft to expect them to win.
But to get swept? Again?
But there they were, the flaws of the team as obvious and exposed as Patricia Heaton in High Definition. All 97 wins bought the Cubs was three games, six runs and six errors.
No wonder the Cubs extended Lou Piniella’s contract before the series. They probably figured he’d be tempted to quit by the time it was over.
I suppose, we try to figure out what the Cubs need to add to this team to finally milk a playoff win or two out of it.
1. Lack of a great player. The Cubs currently pay at least four players as though they are superstars. Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, E-ramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano all are paid as though they are great players. They are not. They are good players. They all have flaws, and it’s true they are better than most humans at playing baseball. But all four of them earn well above $10 million per year and all of them have complete no-trade protection. Paying a guy more won’t make him better. Though, if someone would like to try that with me, I’m all for it.
2. Kosuke sucks. The conventional wisdom was that Kosuke would struggle early on while he became accustomed to the big leagues. The opposite happened. He was really good in April and May, and then he fell off a cliff. Defensively he’s a very good player, he’s a smart baserunner, but you know what? So is So Taguchi. And frankly, that’s what Kosuke played like. The Cubs have to make a pretty big decision, pretty fast. Are his problems fixable? If they aren’t, they’re probably going to have to turn him into a very expensive, platoon centerfielder. At best.
3. They need an adult at shortstop. I know Ryan Theriot hit over .300, and I know his on base average was over .380. Those are good things. But they don’t make him a shortstop. He’s too little, doesn’t have the arm for it, nor the instincts. He’s a second baseman at best, a utility infielder in all likelihood. Truth is he saved the Cubs in 2007 when he wasn’t terrible at short after the predictable failures of the Cesar Izturis experiment. But he wasn’t any better defensively this year, and won’t ever be.
I know, I know, two teams in the 2000s have won shortstops with a dwarf (the 2002 Angels and I forget who won it in 2006). That doesn’t make it any more likely to ever happen again. It probably makes it less likely.
The Cubs are going to have to go out and find a shortstop, because clearly they don’t have one on the roster or in the organization. I know Ryan Theriot is gritty and cajun and all that meaningless bullshit. It won’t make him a real shortstop.
4. They need a real lefthanded bat. The fact that Lassie’s 19 homers, all of them completely unexpected gave the Cubs their only lefty bat threat should be enough to smack Jim Hendry to action. A washed up, 37 year old was your best lefthanded hitter. Gee, how could that have failed?
When you look at the potential spots to add hitters, there aren’t many. First, third and left are taken, and you couldn’t move any of them even if you wanted to. You have your catcher. That leaves, center, right, shortstop and second base. It’s pretty likely that center will be the timeshare domain of Reed Johnson and Fukudome. You can shake every tree everywhere and a lefthanded hitting shortstop isn’t going to fall out of it. So that leaves second and right.
You know what? You probably need to add a lefthanded hitter to both spots. Anybody have the numbers for Jeromy Burnitz and Todd Walker? Oh, never mind.
The biggest misnomer of the season was that the Cubs failure to scrape up enough minor league fodder to pry Brian Roberts from Baltimore didn’t end up hurting them. Hell, some people (Dave Kaplan) even think it helped, because look at the “great” year Mark DeRosa had.
DeRosa did have a good year. He was a huge part of the Cubs 97 regular season wins. Hell, except for the ground ball that he fell on in game two, he was one of the few Cubs who showed up for the playoffs.
Problem is, DeRosa’s biggest value to the Cubs is as a guy who can play anywhere. First, second, third, left or right. Every team needs a guy on the bench who can do that. It’s hard to do that when you have to play second base every day.
There was, and still is, a place on the Cubs for both DeRosa and Roberts. Roberts is a far better defensive player at second base. He stole 40 bases in 50 attempts. He bats lefty (and righty). He’d be a real leadoff hitter. The Cubs need to make another run at him, or someone with his basic skill set.
In right field? They’re going to need a lefthanded hitter with some power to break up the Soriano-Lee-Ramirez middle of the order (Soriano in the middle? We’ll get to that.)
One name that pops out is a free-agent-to-be. A Gold Glove player who bats lefthanded, has driven in 100 or more runs six years in a row and seven of the last eight. A guy with power (career slugging percentage of nearly .500) who has also finished in the top ten in his league in walks eight times, and he’s “only” 34.
He’s Bobby Abreu. Oh. Shit. Well, that’s not going to work.
Why? He’s another addition to the growing club of good players you pay like great ones. Another guy who is laid back (somewhat comatose) like Soriano and Ramirez and Lee. What the Cubs need is one position player who’s actually a leader.
Abreu would fit right in in the postseason, since he’s been in the playoffs three times and his teams haven’t advanced past the first round. He is a career .303 hitter in the postseason. But don’t worry, I’m sure he could bring that down.
Would that be enough? If you added Abreu and Roberts? Can you even pull it off and add both, or either of them? Abreu will only cost money. Roberts would still cost prospects, and it’s hard to see where the Cubs have added to that depth much since last March when they tried to get him.
5. The batting order doesn’t make sense. After a horrendously slow start, Soriano got hot and carried the team for a couple of weeks and got his stats all pretty again. His on base average was up at .350 or just over for most of the second half of the season. Conveniently it nose dived (nose dove?) and he ended up at .344.
It was inevitable that at some time in his long run with the Cubs that Soriano would have to leave the leadoff spot, even if he won’t like it. That time has come (and gone and come back). Let’s pretend for a second that the Cubs add players in the offseason.
This would make for a nice batting order.
1. Brian Roberts-type second baseman
2. Reed Johnson/Kosuke Fukudome platoon in center
3. E-ramis Ramirez
4. Alfonso Soriano
5. Bobby Abreu-esque right fielder
6. Derrek Lee
7. Geovany Soto
8. Adult Shortstop
6. How are they going to sort out the pitching? When the Cubs re-sign Ryan Dempster (and you know they’re going to), it will give them six starting pitchers under contract for 2009. Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Rich Hill. Hah! You forgot about Hill, didn’t you? Fact is, you likely can forget about him. His problems went from mental to physical to metaphysical? Oh, who knows? And then you’ve got Sean Marshall and his Ron Darling “yellow hammer.” Not to mention some will begin the clamor for Jeff Samardzjia to become a starting pitcher, even though it’d be nice if he could first become a competent (strike throwing) seventh inning set-up man.
Bob Howry’s contract is up, and I have a hunch (you’re all going to cringe) that he’ll be back. Not at the $3 million per year, but back none the less. And given that relievers are so unpredictable from year to year (for example, Grant Balfour of the Rays (ERAs on the last three teams he’s pitched for 20.25, 6.14, 1.54) who the hell can tell what’s a good middle reliever signing and what’s a bad one? OK, Derrick Turnbow is a bad one.
Kerry Wood will be back and with him and Marmol, and one would hope a better Samardzjia, the bullpen shouldn’t be much of a problem. Especially if they can keep Chad Gaudin from falling into a dumpster again this year.
There aren’t really that many pitching problems. Obviously Harden’s health is always a concern, so you’re almost compelled to keep a guy like Marshall on the staff somewhere in case he suddenly has to jump into the rotation for a month or three.
This really is a team in need of two lefty bats, and somebody in the lineup with some fire.
Seriously, if you ranked the 2008 Cubs by toughness, you’d probably have top five of:
1. Ted Lilly
2. Kerry Wood
3. Carlos Zambrano
4. Ryan Theriot
5. Reed Johnson
Three pitchers (two of whom are insane, one just more outwardly so) a 170 pound middle infielder and the fourth outfielder. Great? You know what’s sad? If we extended the list to six, Mike Fontenot probably makes it. He’s 130 pounds soaking wet! (Actually, the catchers probably make the list before Theriot, but this made a much more dramatic point. I’d rank the catchers, Hank-Geo-Koyie. No, wait, Koyie cut four of his fingers off, put them in a plastic bag went to the hospital, they sewed them back on and he was ready for spring training. Koyie wins. We have a new number one.)
Maybe more than the bats, the Cubs just need some balls.