Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Top Ten reasons the Cubs will take a step backwards in 2009

Look, I like Jim Hendry. He’s one of the better general managers in baseball. After the Cubs won 66 games in 2006, they’ve won 85 and 97 respectively the last two seasons, with a lot of that credit going to the moves Hendry made (the Fukudome signing aside).

So, just like I’ve done with Kenny Williams in the past, I want to give Hendry the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is the same guy who in consecutive years got Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee for basically nothing.

With that said, I’m looking at the changes the Cubs made this offseason and asking myself, huh? As it stands now, I would have to grade the Cubs offseason a D. Luckily, everyone else in the NL Central got worse too, so it’s still clearly the Cubs’ division to lose.

Still, I don’t see this new-look team winning anywhere close to 97 games again. In fact, here are 10 reasons why I think they’ll take a pretty big step back in 2009.

10. Disappointing end to last season For six months, the Cubs had the city in a frenzy. Winning the World Series and breaking their 100-year curse seemed very much within reach. Then, it was all over in a span of three games, where the heavily favored Cubs were outscored 20-6 by the Dodgers. How will the team bounce back from last October’s disappointment? We won’t know for quite a while, but it’s a fair question to ask.

9. Injury concerns Outside of Alfonso Soriano missing eight weeks in the first half of the season and Kerry Wood’s customary DL visit, the Cubs were relatively healthy for all of last season. Chances are, that won’t happen again this year, especially when you consider the history of both Rich Harden and Milton Bradley. Also, keep an eye on Carlos Zambrano, who wasn’t the same pitcher from August on last season in large part due to a sore rotator cuff.

8. It’s only natural It will be virtually impossible for the Cubs to play as well as they did in the regular season last year. Ryan Dempster probably will come back down to earth a bit. Same for Ryan Theriot, Ted Lilly and Geovany Soto. Jim Edmonds was better than anyone could have expected in center. The only player key players that underachieved last year were Fukudome, and, to a lesser extent, Lee.

7. Not trading for Jake Peavy Now there’s still a small chance this could happen in the next month, but it appears the Cubs blew their big chance back at the winter meetings in Vegas. It’s pretty simple really: Peavy is one of the top 10 pitchers in the league. Sean Marshall, who will likely become a starter unless the Cubs acquire Peavy, is okay, but he is better suited for a long relief role. Imagine a rotation where Harden would be your number four and Lilly your number five.

6. New ownership Cubs chairman Crane Kenney said back in mid-December that he expects the franchise to be sold by spring training. There is a lot of uncertainty right now in regards to the new owners. Will they keep the same payroll or increase it? Will they leave the same management to run things or will they bring in their own people? This situation could prove to be a major distraction for a team that is already always in the spotlight.

5. Getting rid of Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood DeRosa was arguably the Cubs MVP last season. He actually drove in more runs and scored more runs than Bradley, while hitting only one fewer homer. His versatility and leadership will be sorely missed, qualities that neither Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot can provide. With Carlos Marmol moving to the closer role, Wood’s absence will be felt in middle relief, where guys like Jeff Samardzija, Kevin Gregg, Neal Cotts and Chad Gaudin will all have to step it up.

4. Age Taking a look at the roster, the window of opportunity is closing real fast. Soto and Theriot are the only young guys in the lineup. Lee and Soriano are both past their primes, Lee especially. The pitching staff should be one of the NL’s best, even without Peavy, but it’s getting up there in age, other than Marmol and Samardzjia. The Cubs don’t really have anyone in the minor league system who will make a significant contribution this year, with the possible exception of Micah Hoffpauir.

3. Pressure from fans and media
Despite what happened in the playoffs last year, as soon as the Cubs are in first place by July, talk of a World Series will begin. That’s just the mindset of Cubs fans, and it always will be, no matter what happened the previous year. There’s even more pressure than usual this year, considering last season’s playoff debacle. If the Cubs get off to a slow start, fan patience will be severely put to the test.

2. Still no leadoff hitter It’s the same problem the Cubs have had ever since, gulp, Juan Pierre left. As we all know by now, Soriano should be hitting third, in front of Ramirez, Bradley and Lee. Theriot is a fine number two-hitter, but doesn’t get on base enough to hit leadoff. Joey Gathright can run, but if the Cubs are counting on big things from him, that’s not a good sign. Miles, nope. Calling Brian Roberts/Chone Figgins.

1. Signing Milton Bradley
The Tribune’s Rick Morrissey just doesn’t get it. He wrote two different columns in the span of a month saying how Bradley’s interesting and intense personality will light a fire under a Cubs team that sleepwalked through its last two trips to the postseason. It doesn’t work like that, not in a sport like baseball. Bradley’s competitive nature isn’t suddenly going to grab the rest of his teammates attention at crunch time. It’s more likely his sulking will create unnecessary drama in a veteran clubhouse. Add in the fact that Bradley played only 20 some games in the outfield last season, put up career numbers in a contract year, and will have to deal with the pressure of being expected to produce right away, and this seriously has all the makings of another Jacque Jones deal.

Ed. note: For those of you who think it’s too early to be talking about baseball, consider two things; 1) spring training is only about a month away 2) what else am I going to write about in Chicago? (you could argue the Blackhawks, but I have as much business writing about hockey as Luol Deng does getting 71 million guaranteed from the Bulls.)


Phil Barnes said...

Danny, nice list but you are completely undervaluing Milton Bradley. Yes he can't play defense, but neither could the Cubs other two choices (Dunn and an aging Abreu). Peavy is a luxury, not a necessity by any stretch of the measure and having four guys in the rotation with the ability to win 18 games and post sub .350 ERA should be enough to get them them half the games alone. Also while totally personal opinion, I truly believe that baseball players don't care about pressure from media or fans. Really nice list, I don't think you're going to be disappointed with MB though.

Anonymous said...

I love the list (even though I disagree with a few things). For the most part though, I agree the Cubs have made some very questionable moves this offseason. Now if they did sign Peavy, then I would change my opinion totally, but I dont see that happening.

Eric said...

The Cubs would be better served winning 88-90 games in the regular season, and then going into the playoffs not as an overwhelming favorite like they did last year. The NL Central is awful (especially with the Brewers losing Sabathia and Sheets), so 88 or so wins should be plenty to win it.

Tuffy Rhodes said...

Considering how many games there are in a season alone, a team that won 90 games could have just as easily won 85 or 95 - one or two guys playing at 75% for a month instead of 90-100% due to a tweaked arm or something can account for that range in wins and more. But that can be the difference between making or not making the playoffs. On top of that, the teams with the four best records in either league are not usually the four teams that make the playoffs.

I could see the Cubs having a more solid, balanced team this year than last because of the focus on left-handed hitting alone. The shake-up in the pitching staff could go either way. In the end, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cubs field a better team this year and NOT make the playoffs. You can always count on St. Louis and Houston making a run in the Central alone.

The truth is, the Cubs probably won't finish any lower than 4th this year, but they're not even close to being considered a truly dominant team either. With the question marks in CF, RF and 2B, not to mention at the leadoff spot and in the closer role, this is starting to feel more like a transition year to me.

Few teams go into a season not being a couple pieces away from looking like a World Series team. The ones that go in like that wind up being terrible half the time anyway (see: '08 Tigers).

The teams that go all the way are usually the ones whose pieces fall into place over the course of the season as a couple of unknown guys progress into MLB-caliber starters. The thing is, those guys usually don't really surface or get widely noticed at all until mid-season anyway.