Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Looking Ahead: Chicago Cubs

2006 W-L Record:66-96
2006 pW-pL Record: 70-92
Runs Scored: 716 (15th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 834 (15th in NL)
Free Agents: Henry Blanco, John Mabry, Wade Miller, Juan Pierre
Pending Options: Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Derrek Lee
2B -- Ryan Theriot/Eric Patterson
SS -- Cesar Izturis/Ronny Cedeno
3B -- Aramis Ramirez*
LF -- Matt Murton
CF -- Felix Pie?
RF -- Jacque Jones
C -- Michael Barrett

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Carlos Zambrano
Mark Prior
Rich Hill
Kerry Wood*
Sean Marshall/Jae-Kuk Ryu

2007 Proj. Closer: Ryan Dempster

The Good News:
Dusty Baker is gone. Rejoice.
If Derrek Lee is healthy and Aramis Ramirez decides to stay in town, the Cubs will have a potent combo at the corners. They also have a plethora of middle infield options. None of them are stellar, but there are the makings of a solid bunch here. You'll forgive me if this entry starts reading more like a minor league recap special. The Cubs don't really have any "star" prospects ready for the majors, but they have enough mid-level guys ready to make it that they could be dangerous.
At second base, the most likely starter will by Ryan Theriot. Theriot has absolutely no power; but, he hits for a good average, draws his walk, steals a few bases, and solid defense. He's best suited at second, but could play shortstop in a pinch. Young Theriot made a big name for himself when he took over the second base job toward the end of the 2006 season, hitting an outstanding 328/412/522. Now, he will not be hitting that well again. A more reasonable batting line would be closer to his Triple-A numbers last year: 304/367/379. Combine that with his reliable defense, and he could be a very solid contributor. He'll be 27 years old next year and is making the league minimum. It's very important that the Cubs exploit as much young talent as possible, giving them more money to spend on a possible big-time free agent.
While his 2006 numbers should win him the starting job, Theriot could get some competition at second base. Young Eric Patterson has proven to be a much better hitter than the Cubs anticipated. Like Theriot, he hits for a high average and draws his walks, but he's also shown great speed and promising power. He looked like a king in the low minors, but has yet to produce that well above Class A. For this reason, it's likely that he'll start the season in the minors, although if he hits well, he could find himself in the bigs fairly soon. Patterson will be just 24 next year, and his broad base of skills makes him a promising prospect, but it doesn't look like he'll be making much noise in the majors next year.
At shortstop, there's less to get excited about. I mentioned that Theriot could be stretched to the shortstop role, but then that just creates a hole at second. The competition for the starting job will likely come down to Ronny Cedeno and Cesar Izturis. Izturis is the veteran and is a better fielder than Cedeno, although Ronny's not too shabby himself. But Izturis has never been worth a damn as a hitter, and young Cedeno hasn't looked very good either so far (a horrific 245/271/339 in 2006). The Cubs will probably just have to resign themselves to great defense and terrible offense from the shortstop position. If I had my druthers, I'd go with Cedeno, who at least has the promise to develop as a hitter, using Izturis as a super-sub. But I doubt that will happen, or the simple reason that Izturis is a veteran. Sigh.
There are some good signs in the outfield, although it's a fuzzier picture. Matt Murton wasn't great in left field (297/365/444) but he was good enough, and he should only get better. The Cubs are stuck with Jacque Jones in right field, which is their own fault. They should just hope that his semi-renaissance in 2006 (285/334/499) was for real.
Unless the Cubs do something really stupid like re-sign the overrated Juan Pierre (which is quite possible), the starting center fielder will be Felix Pie. This is just an educated guess; the final word probably won't come down until Spring Training. But not only is Pie a cheap, homegrown talent, he's also the best choice they've got. Pie was having some trouble turning his tools into production, but he had a promising enough season in Triple-A last year (283/341/451) that he should at least get strong consideration for the center fielder's job. He's still got issues, namely plate discipline and base-stealing, a dismal 98-for-155 (63%) in the minors. But he's probably the best option the Cubs have, and while he may not be much better than Juan Pierre, he is much cheaper, and that matters.
Catching-wise the Cubs are set with Michael Barrett, who's given the club three good seasons now, the first Cub catcher to do that since the Vietnam era.
As far as pitching goes, the Cubs are in trouble, as their 2006 runs allowed would suggest. But there are several promising prospects in the system. They cycled through most of them during 2006, and only Rich Hill was able to stick and show any strong durability. But even if these guys aren't ready to start 2007, there are plenty of good arms here to shore up the Cub pitching staff in the near future.
Carlos Zambrano is the ace of the staff, and he certainly pitches like one. He's perhaps the most volatile pitcher in baseball today, but it doesn't stop him from being very effective. The only thing that will stop him is a big arm injury, which I fear may be inevitable at this point. The good news for Zambrano (and especially the young Cub prospects) is that Dusty "Simon Legree" Baker is gone. That's not to say that Lou Pineilla is Mr. Rogers to his players, but at least he doesn't abuse them in the physical sense.
Behind Carlos is a lot of hope and very few guarantees. Mark Prior will be returning, but we have to be amazingly skeptical about his durability at this stage of his career. Prior has still been able to pitch well through thsee injuries, so there is some hope. But getting him healthy is looking more and more like a lost cause. That's doubly true for Kerry Wood, who has an even more extensive injury history than Prior and has much less hope for the future. The Cubs would have to be insane to pick up Wood's $13.75 million option for 2007. It's a mutual option, so it could mean that Wood will exercise his half and end up staying anyways. If I were the Cubs, I'd try to get him to sign a new deal full of incentives.
The pitching prospect that's done the most in the majors so far is Rich Hill. Hill has a solid minor league track record of success and was pretty successful in 2006, managing a 4.17 ERA with a 39:90 BB:K ratio in 99.1 IP. This was after he absolutely dominated Triple-A in the first half of the season, earning himself a call to the majors. Hill will be 27 next year, which is the biggest mark against him; he's not likely to get much better than he already is. But if he can reach even some small measure of his potential, it will be a blessing for the Cubs, who haven't found anyone to replace Prior and Wood since they started getting injured in 2004.
Sean Marshall represents the other side of the Cub farm system. The Cubs have done a fine job of producing prospects over the past 5 or 6 years, but unfortunately they have a large number of outright failures (Corey Patterson & co.) as well as several careers derailed by injuries. Marshall is a very promising starting pitcher, his dismal 2006 in the big leagues notwithstanding. The biggest issue with him will be staying healthy; 2006 was the first time in his professional career that he'd thrown more than 100 innings in a season -- and he's supposed to be a starter.
Other pitchers of note: Jae-Kuk Ryu will be just 24 next year, but should be ready for the big leagues. He doesn't have such a high ceiling as some of the other prospects, and he's also had some injury problems that could pop up again. Even so, he had a fine season in Triple-A Iowa this year, although he was greeted rudely (8.40 ERA) in 15 major league innings. Carlos Marmol is another prospect who got handled roughly in the majors. He's still got some time to spend in the minors before he breaks into the rotation.
The Cub bullpen isn't all wine and roses either. Ryan Dempster had a rough year as closer, and while Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry pitched well in middle relief, both were worked hard and are still overpaid as they get even older. The Cubs don't have much in the way of bullpen arms ready to break into the majors. Hopefully, they will avoid overspending on relief help. But if Jim Hendry has a middle name, it's probably "I'll Pay You a Gazillion Dollars for the 7th Inning."

The Bad News:
The bad news for the Cubs is pretty apparent. They're at best a 90-loss team who doesn't appear to be improving very much in 2007. There are a lot of promising rookies, but few if any have made any impact in the majors yet, so it's folly to predict that they will all reach their potential next year. And while Baker and team President Andy MacPhail are gone, Jim Hendry is still there. With Hendry and new manager Lou Pineilla, there's just no guarantee that the young players will a) get a chance, or b) be handled well even if they do.
The success or failure of the Cubs' efforts to be competitve within 2-3 years rely almost entirely on the front office's ability to handle their success and not buy up any more Jacque Joneses, and also the ability of the prospects to produce at the major league level. The continued presense of Jim Hendry makes the former a really big problem; the good news is that he's on a short leash and may not make it past this season. As for the latter, a lot of that depends on the Cub minor league system (which is better at producing prospects than it is at turning them into major leaguers) and new manager Lou Pineilla.
I think I've mentioned this before, but I just don't think that Lou Pineilla is the right manager for the Cubs. Pineilla left the Devil Rays because he had many problems with the organization and had become very frustrated. In Chicago, he's entering a situtation that is strikingly similar to the one he faced in Tampa. He's going to have to bring along young players and show great patience with him, and patience is most definitely not Lou's strongest suit. He's going to have to deal with a front office that could lay a few eggs and hamper his chances on the field. And he's going to be under a huge amount of scrutiny and a much higher expectation of success than he was in Tampa. I'm not saying that Lou is a bad manager; I'm just saying that I don't think he's the right manager for the Cubs.

Offseason Game Plan:
If you can trade for A-Rod, go ahead and do it. Get the Yankees to eat a big chunk of his salary, and you won't be paying much at all. F*** the Tribune Company; they can afford it. You may have to give up one of your good pitching prospects, but it's worth it; you've got the benefit of depth in that department.
Focus on middle infield help and perhaps a corner outfielder. The odds are remote that the Cubs will do either of these things. They have a great opinion of Cesar Izturis that would seem to indicate either severe brain damage or a built-up immunity to common sense. And getting a corner outfielder would mean getting rid of Jacque Jones. Not only would this be admitting that Hendry made a big boo-boo in signing him last year, but it would also be hard to find anyone who would take him without the Cubs getting left with 30-40% of his salary.
The best advice I would give is to look into trades. The A-Rod trade would, of course, be at the top of the list. This will be tough for Jim Hendry, because Hendry has a bizarre weakness for signing lots of supporting players for inflated contracts, leaving very little money to spend on the guys who are actually good. I also wouldn't expect Hendry to accurately assess his weaknesses; re-signing Juan Pierre or getting another bloated relief pitching contract would only make matters worse. Resist the urge, Jim.
The best thing for the Cubs to do is to take a conservative approach to the off-season. This will be very difficult for Hendry to force himself to do, or for the Cub fans (and reporters) to accept. Fans become inflamed by moronic reporters who think that a team has to "make moves" in the off-season, or else they've incompetent. Someone should break it to these clowns that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all. Overspending on what should be an irrational free agent market wouldn't do anyone any good. The Cubs aren't one good player away from contending; they lost 96 f'n games last year! They won't have to wait 5 years to contend, not with their young players; but they shouldn't go into another do-or-die off-season where they shoot themselves in the foot.
The more the Cubs do this off-season, the worse it will probably turn out for them.

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