Chicago Cubs: (83-78, 2nd Place in the N.L. Central in 2009)
The Cubs are a tragic story. It’s difficult to type a sentence like that and not worry about coming off as derisive and condescending, but it’s truly difficult for me to view the Cubs over the past ten years as anything but one missed opportunity after another, fortified by more than their fair share of bad breaks.
How often do we hear about a team’s “window” of opportunity, wherein they’re perceived to have their best shot at contending for a title? Well, the window for the Cubs has all but passed them by. Promises of 2003 with sugarplums and Mark Prior and Kerry Wood dancing in Cubs fans’ heads are long gone. Derrek Lee did rebound to have a stellar year and post a .306/.393/.579 slash line with 35 homers and providing 5.3 wins above replacement, his highest total since his ridiculously good 2005 season (7.5). Aramis Ramirez played well in the time he was healthy, but played only half a season. Geovany Soto, the much-hyped catcher from 2008, had a major regression and never really provided anything of note.
In the outfield Kosuke Fukudome and, yes, Milton Bradley had nice seasons. Both OBPed .375-plus, but only hit 23 homers in a combined 1,076 plate appearances. That, plus Bradley’s rather public feelings of isolation and resentment, led to his being shipped out to Seattle for…Carlos Silva. A mind-boggling trade of a productive player that was, essentially, forced by the fanbase. It isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last time such a thing happens, but it left the Cubs off worse heading into 2010, whether they rid themselves of a distraction notwithstanding.
What the Cubs did get out of their staff was adequate, perhaps even a fair bit above average at points. The five most frequently used starters all posted ERA+ figures of 110 or better, and a few relievers put up some nice numbers. Sadly, whatever the pitching contributed, the offense counteracted with its poor play, and a defense that posted a -19.8 cumulative UZR. In other words, their run prevention did anything but prevent once a pitch was put in play.
Besting 100 years since their last title, the Cubs have teased baseball fans with the possibility of breaking their storied curse with season after season of renewed potential. Unfortunately, things aren’t exactly looking up as the Cubs enter their 102nd championshiplesss campaign.
The core is aging. The rotation is full of question marks from top to bottom. The bullpen will provide anything but a relief, especially since the loss of Angel Guzman to major shoulder surgery leaves the ‘pen with only Aaron Heilman and David Patton backing up Carlos Marmol with right arms.
Is Carlos Zambrano going to return to primo form, or will he continue to only talk a big game? Can Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster stave off the inevitable power of aging for another season? It’s not as if they’re old, but they’re beginning to reach a point where their stuff will begin to decline.
Marlon Byrd is a nice signing, but will likely not replace Bradley’s on-base skills, though he should remain on the field a bit more. And Alfonso Soriano, for all he’s being paid, looks as though he’s cooked and will continue to be an albatross in left field.
The bench isn’t much to speak of, either. Only Jeff Baker, acquired from Colorado, posted a decent line, and even that came with a .374 BABIP draped across his neck; he’s likely due to regress, as well.
The Cubs are a decent team. In the N.L. – and the Central to boot – they always have a shot at the division crown. But with the Cardinals looking solid and the Brewers featuring a far more potent offense, their window seems to close a bit more as the days go by. I speak pessimistically about their chances, but they will be far from a pushover in 2010. In fact, I like them to be a few games above .500, unspectacular though the season might be.