But a lot hasn’t changed. The team still has a huge payroll and lots of holes. They still don’t value defense in the middle infield. They still don’t have a leadoff hitter. They still don’t have a closer who can throw strikes.
But did I mention they cleaned the bathrooms?
Then again, here’s the thing. They still have a pretty good team. They still have a really good manager. It’s just that when you pay nearly $140 million for players you don’t expect to have a 240 pound man roaming center field or a 300 pound starting pitcher with a mommy complex.
The Cubs won 97 games two years ago and then everybody got fat and or hurt and it dropped to 83 wins last year. So you just get everybody in shape and things will work out, right?
If you look around the NL Central, the Cubs have the most talented roster 1-25. The Cardinals have four really good players, and a lot of white guys. A lot.
The Brewers have two great offensive players, a really good starting pitcher and not a lot else.
Cincinnati is a young team managed by Dusty Baker, and we all know how ill-suited he is to that.
Houston is a mess and Pissburgh is barely even trying.
So this is certainly a division the Cubs can win. But can isn’t should, or will.
So, for the 12th time in 13 years (Desipio started in July 1997) let’s tour around the roster, opening day style.
Derrek Lee – Some of you dopes gave up on Derrek last May when he was hitting under .200 and looking old. OK, fine, I was one of the dopes. But he bounced back and was a terror the last four months of the season. Too bad nobody else who played more than half the season joined him. Lee is in the final year of his contract and he’ll be 35 this year. This might be it for him with the Cubs. You don’t expect to get another .306/.972 35, 111 out of him. Of course that would be nice. The best thing about Derrek is that he’s the rare player who has been just as good as advertised. A good hitter, a great defender and a helluva guy. The Cubs don’t need to add phony rah-rah types, but they could use another Derrek Lee or two. As if that’s easy to find.
E-ramis Ramirez – Those of us who thought the season was in the pooper when E-ramis ended up in the fetal position last April at Miller Park (it happens to people all the time, but it’s usually because they had too much kielbasa), were right. He missed half the season, the Cubs could never adequately replace him (not that Ryan Freel didn’t try). He’s their best hitter, their best clutch player and their best all-around player. For the first time in 2010 (of hopefully many times) let’s just sum it up with: E-ramis is the balls.
Ryan Theriot – Nobody’s spilled more digital ink lamenting the fact that Ryan Theriot should be the kind of guy we can all get behind–but isn’t–more than me. I even created an imaginary uncle to defend him, because it wasn’t in me to do it. I’ll sum it up this way. I don’t hate Ryan Theriot, I just wish I could like him more. Part of it isn’t his fault (he should not be playing shortstop for a playoff contender) and some of it is (if we’d never seen Ronny Cedeno, Ryan would be the worst baserunner ever). That said, I admire the little bastard for working hard and playing hard. Would playing smart be too much to ask?
Mike Fontenot – He may not know it, but he’s the only thing standing between Starlin Castro and his big league debut. If Fontenot flops like last year, sometime before the official start of summer, Theriot will be at second and Castro will be at short. The Cubs would like to give Castro an entire season in the minors, and the only way that’s even a remote possibility is if Fontenot can be the “other” lefty bat in the lineup. But if he doesn’t hit, he’s got no value because he’s not a good defender. That’s the kind of thing that will force the Cubs to say “screw the second lefty bat” and bring up Castro. In part-time duty in 2009, Fontenot’s OPS was .909. Last year it was .677. To say he needs to split the difference this year is to say the least.
Jeff Baker – Baker will platoon with Fontenot, and in that role he’s valuable. Baker’s one of those guys who you love to have because he can play several positions. He can play second, third, first and left. He even has been taking grounders at short in case they need him there in an emergency. But he’s not an every day player. So even though he hit .305 for the Cubs in 62 games last year, he’s probably not the full-time answer at second if Fontenot flops again. Then again, a guy that Cubs fans love to an irrational extreme was a part-time player whose value was that he could play lots of defensive positions and he ended up under Rudy Jaramillo’s tutelage and suddenly he was an actual every day player. That man, of course, was Jeff Huson. What? Oh, I mean Mark DeRosa.
Chad Tracy – You have to love how little faith we have in the Cubs front office. Going into the final day of roster cuts, it was clear as a bell what the final roster decision should be. Tracy was a no-brainer. He bats lefthanded, he’s an excellent pinch hitter, he can play four positions and they still have lots of SPF 99 left over from the stuff they used to buy for Matt Murton and David Patton. And yet, we were all sure that they were going to keep Kevin Millar, the older, bad pinch hitting, first baseman only. They didn’t, and for a moment we acted like Jim Hendry cured cancer. But then we remembered what Milton Bradley taught us. Jim Hendry doesn’t cure cancer, he signs it to three year deals.
Geovany Soto – I would like to think that Soto’s tremendous production drop from his rookie of the year 2008 season to his up in smoke 2009 was just that he was fat. But he was fat in 2008 and he hit. Now I’m not going to say it wasn’t a good idea for Soto to lose 40 pounds, I’m just saying it won’t automatically turn him back into a hitter. I think he’ll bounce back and be a pretty good player again. Then again, I’m still letting the DVR record “FlashForward” so I’m admittedly an imbecile.
Koyie Dolan Hill – He’s no Hank White, but he’s got a kickass middle name, doesn’t he? Never mind that, and I won’t go back into the whole he cut his fingers off and took them to the ER and had them sewn back on thing (BUT THAT NEVER GETS OLD). I’ll just go with this. The Cubs are 60-36 over the last two plus seasons when he starts. He can’t hit for shit, but he calls a great game. In other words? He’s a backup catcher.
Alfonso Soriano – It’s easy to hate on Soriano because he’s so overpaid and he’s going to be for so long. But I certainly don’t blame that on him. Is it his fault that the Cubs signed a 31 year old DH to an eight year contract knowing they’d have to live with him playing left field like a statue? They had to know that at some point he’d no longer be a basestealing threat (that ended up being two years ago), and that he never walks and that he strikes out at a hellacious rate. But because he’s a hard worker and he doesn’t complain I have a hard time hoping he gets hit by a bus. Now, when he singles off the wall? I’ve been known to check the bus routes then.
Marlon Byrd – Sorry, I meant heavy legged Marlon Byrd. Leave it to the Cubs to counter the shaky left field defense Soriano provides with a limited range fielder like Byrd. I know that Jaramillo claims Byrd is one of the best defensive outfielders in the big leagues, but he’s just not that fast. You can make up for a lot by knowing where to be and learning to anticipate pitch locations and where a batted ball is likely to go, but at some point you just have to run, right? I do like that he can play shallow, because Soriano plays with his shoulders in the ivy and when Kosuke Fukudome plays center he does the same thing. As for Byrd hitting fifth? I hope Soto hits so they can switch. Otherwise Soriano ought to be hitting behind Ramirez, not Marlon.
Kosuke Fukudome – We’ve seen him for two years now, so we know what we’re getting. He’s an excellent defensive right fielder and a passable defensive center fielder. He’s got below average power, good plate discipline and when he stays back on the ball he’s a threat. In other words, he’s a guy you’d love to have for $5 or $6 million. The Cubs are paying him $13 million this year and $13.5 next year. Whoops.
Xavier Nady – Nady had surgery to correct his Tommy John Disease in July last year. It typically takes position players 10 months before they can start to throw full out. So that means it’ll be May before Xavier can even start to let it fly. And he’s going to be playing in the outfield before that. Yay? If he were healthy this would have been a really nice signing. Nady can play right and left, and he’s played center before. He’s also a pretty good hitter. So maybe in May or June we’ll start to say “Hey this was a good move.” But in April, anytime a ball is hit to him, we’re going to re-live the Juan Pierre era out there. And I love how some people think that it’s not a big deal because the Cubs can just have their cutoff men go farther out in the outfield for him. But when those guys are weenie arms like Theriot and Fontenot that doesn’t really help, now does it?
Tyler Colvin – I understand the point Lou makes about how you can’t ignore a guy who hits almost .500 in spring training in a crapload of at bats, otherwise, what does spring training really mean? But here’s my only problem with the Cubs bringing Colvin north to start the season. He didn’t walk once in 77 spring at bats. Sixteen strikeouts, no walks. If he’s ever going to be worth the first round selection the Cubs used to get him, he’s got to learn some plate discipline. The odds of him learning it in part time big league duty are pretty slim. That’s what Iowa is for. That and corn. And horsefucking. (What?)
Carlos Zambrano – I want everybody who asks questions like “Will this be the year Carlos finally pitches like an ace” to write that question down and shove it up your asses. I kind of thought that when the led the NL in wins in 2006 and won 18 more in 2007 that he did that. Did he have a shit year last year? Yes. But don’t act like he’s never gotten it all together. He has. He just needs to get back to that. (And I say “just” like it’s easy. Maybe I should write that down and shove it, too?)
Ryan Dempster – Here’s another guy I don’t like. I just find his whole act–the bad Harry Caray impression, the Alex Kaseberg level jokes, the Captain America costume, etc.–to be tiresome. And though I’m a forgiving person, it’ll be a long time (never) before I forgive him for walking seven Dodgers in game one of the 2008 NLDS. But Dempster deserves a lot of credit for the starting pitcher he’s become after a few years of set-up and then closer duty. Even in a down year he threw 200 innings, and it would have been 20 or 30 more if he knew how to jump over a friggin’ dugout railing (or better yet, used the steps.) If it’s one of those rare years when Karen Carpenter will be healthy in St. Louis, the Cubs can’t match the 1-2 punch of Carpenter and Adam Wainright, but…
Theodore Roosevelt Lilly – …when Ted Lilly is healthy (hopefully April 19) it shifts, because nobody in the division has a 1-2-3 as good as Zambrano, Dempster and Lilly. Of all the big free agent pitchers in the offseason before 2007 (it included horrible contracts like Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt) Lilly has been clearly been the best signing. There’s something about a lefty in his early 30′s, guys just start to “get it.” I don’t just want Ted back this year, I think he’s worth another three year deal after this season. Then again, I’m the same guy who had a stereo receiver that I only used to play my XM Radio and my iPod through the speakers on my deck, and I gave it to Goodwill so I could replace it with a smaller device. And I ended up having to buy another receiver to make it all work.
Randy Wells – Sometimes a young pitcher comes up and posts a decent record and you know it’s crap, and that he’s just not that good. (Shawn Boskie) I never got that feeling with Wells last year. He only throws three pitches. He can control them all. He’s never going to be a staff ace, but he’s pretty good. And when you get to the back end of your staff you need a guy like him.
Carlos Silva – Here’s the problem. Silva’s another guy like Wells. Three pitches, good control, not a lot of strikeouts. And his season by season stats show just how much the success of a guy like that can fluctuate. Granted, I don’t think Wells is going to gain 80 pounds this year, but you know what I mean. After a terrible debut this spring, Silva got to work with Greg Maddux and Larry Rothschild. They redid his motion and where he stands on the rubber, and the results were striking. When he was at his best in Minnesota, Silva pounded his sinker and got lots of ground balls. If he does it for the Cubs he should have success. Well, as long as he steers the grounders away from the middle of the infield where they’ll roll for days with the dwarves chasing after them. He should be a decent pitcher for the Cubs. Wow, $24 million worth of decent. Let’s all try not to be overwhelmed with joy.
Tom Gorzelanny – When you see Gorzelanny pitch on those rare occasions when he’s got it all going, you can’t understand why he isn’t more successful. He throws hard enough. He’s got good enough off-speed stuff. It’s part of the reason why Pissburgh got frustrated enough with him to ship him to the Cubs for the immortal Kevin Hart. Even in his two months with the Cubs, you see that. He was 4-2, and he struck out 40 guys in 38 innings and only walked 13. But his ERA was 5.68. In his first start with the Cubs, he pitched into the eighth and beat the Reds. Then he made six more starts. He didn’t get past the fifth inning in any of them, and got bounced in the second in one (his first start after the effort against Cincinnati) and the third in another. So if it seems like I’m not high on him, you’re right. I might have to get high just to watch him pitch.
Sean Marshall – I know he wants to start. Every pitcher wants to start. It means you get four days off every turn in the rotation. But he’s so much more valuable in the bullpen, especially one as young as the Cubs this year, that it would have been dumb to have not put him in the bullpen this year. His ERA was two full runs lower last year as a reliever (3.32), and he got to play a third of inning in left field, which made him the best defensive leftfielder the Cubs had.
John Grabow – Dear Dave Kaplan, Dan Bernstein, Steve Stone and whoever else likes to prattle on that Grabow is a Mike Remlinger-esque lefty who can’t get lefties out. Last year lefty batters had lower batting averages (.222 to .238), lower on base averages (.323 to .341) and lower slugging averages (.284 to .357) than righty batters against him. And for his career, he holds them to lower averages across the board. At the time of the trade last year Grabow’s splits (for 2009 only) with Pissburgh showed he was getting righties out slightly better than lefties. Obviously his two months with the Cubs got his numbers back in line. So shut up. You’re lying to people because you’re too lazy to look it up.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Cubs should have given him a two year deal, because he’s just never been THAT good.
Jeff Samardzija – Based on pure stuff, Samardzija should be a successful bullpen guy. But despite a 2.28 ERA in 26 relief appearances in 2008 he blew up with a 7.53 ERA in 20 games last year. He pitched well in the Mexican League this winter, and didn’t get a real shot at winning a starting role this year because the Cubs bullpen was in such need, but he has no right to bitch. He still hasn’t proven anything. And, if he can’t get it all together this summer he’d look pretty good in the slot in the Mike Martz offense, wouldn’t he?
James Russell – Admit it, you didn’t have any idea who this guy was when the Cubs announced he’d made the team. Hell, admit it, you still don’t know who he is. He’s Jeff Russell’s kid. Jeff was a furry reliever in the 80s and 90s. He’s a lefty and the plan is for him to be in the bullpen until Lilly comes off the DL. Then Russell goes to Iowa and Gorzelanny goes to the bullpen. But remember the sage words of Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What? Oh, never mind.
Esmailin Caridad – They always say that March and September are the worst times to evaluate a player, but that’s pretty much all we have to go by with Caridad, and in both cases, he was impressive. After being an average starting pitcher in the minors, Smiley posted a 1.40 ERA in 14 games, struck out 17 and only walked three last season. He was excellent this spring. So who knows? He’s not real big, but he throws real hard. Let’s just watch and see what happens.
Justin Berg – The only good thing to come out of the Cubs short-lived Matt Lawton experiment, Berg made his big league debut last summer and he sported a 0.75 ERA in 11 innings. He struck out seven and only walked one. In other words, I have no idea.
Carlos Marmol- And now, the biggest question mark of all of 2010. How will the unbelievably talented Marmot do as the full-time closer? If he’s at his best, he’ll be the best closer in the National League. If he can’t throw strikes, he’ll be a disaster. He’s almost always unhittable, but it doesn’t always equate success. In 307 career innings, he has struck out an absurd 362 batters. But he’s also walked 200. Two-hundred! And he’s hit 27. Opponents only hit .170 against him last year, and lefties hit only .136. So it’s beyond apparent that if he throws the ball near the plate, he’s awesome.
On the good side, once Lou sent Kevin Gregg out to pasture, Marmol saved all 11 of his chances at the end of the year. In September when he was only used as a closer, he struck out 20 and walked nine in 13 innings. (Still nine walks in 13 innings is bad–then again 20 K’s in 13 innings is awesome.) I wish I knew what to tell you.
I do like that the Cubs are giving him this shot. Let’s see what he does with it.
Lou Piniella – When Lou signed with the Cubs before the 2007 season his contract was for three years with a team option. This is that option. He’s not signed beyond this season, but he’s also not talking like a guy who is certain he’s going to retire. I’ve enjoyed the Lou Piniella reign, and as far as I’m concerned it can continue on for years beyond this one. I don’t think Lou had a good year last season. I think part of it was beyond his control (lots of injuries that limited what kind of talent he had on his roster at any given time), but part of it was all him. He seemed so determined to just leave Milton Bradley alone (that was supposed to be the recipe for getting something out of Milton) that he was way too slow to react to Milton’s pathos bringing the rest of the team down with him. I think without that festering turd in the clubhouse Lou can go back to handling the team the way he’s done in the past. And if he doesn’t? Well, then it really would be time to retire.
Rudy Jaramill0 – I think we all overstate the importance of hitting and pitching coaches. The mere presence of Rudy isn’t going to turn guys who can’t hit into guys who can. But people who watched him closely in Texas thought his biggest strength was his ability to get a hitter back to what he does well when he starts to slump. That, to me, is a tangible benefit of a good hitting coach. We saw it in 2007 with DeRosa. He had started to slump, and he and Rudy crossed paths during the season. Rudy took a look at what DeRosa was doing, saw something that DeRosa had changed that Mark didn’t even know he was doing and got him back in a groove. It’s the same thing with good golf instructors. They work with what you have and get a little better result out of you. But they aren’t going to make you Tiger Woods. (Even if you do score with a cocktail waitress every once and a while.)
Larry Rothschild – He’s been the Cubs pitching coach since Don Baylor was the manager. Only Carlos Zambrano predates him. That’s it. I just always find that interesting.
Outlook – I think I’m more optimistic than most about this Cubs team. But I think most of it comes from my belief that the Cardinals aren’t nearly as good as people want to make them out to be. If the Cubs get a decent year out of this talented (but really young) bullpen I think they have a good chance of winning the division. If the bullpen sucks?
Then they’re screwed.