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September 12, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Chicago Cubs

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today we bid adieu to: the Chicago Cubs, who endured poor defense and another Carlos Zambrano blow-up, and saw its GM get fired. It's time to kiss 'em goodbye.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
Starlin Castro has progressed at the plate and held his own on the field (when he's remembered to face the right way), pacing Cubs position players with 2.8 wins above replacement at age 21. Setup man Jeff Samardzija has looked more like a reliever than a receiver for the first time since 2008. The Cubs have gotten 212 1/3 innings and a 6.23 ERA out of a fifth-starter slot that has rotated between Rodrigo Lopez, Casey Coleman, Doug Davis, James Russell and Ramon Ortiz. A healthy Andrew Cashner could fill that role in 2012 if he makes it out of the Arizona Fall League intact. With former GM Jim Hendry out of the picture, the Cubs will conduct an exhaustive search for his successor, who likely will come with a remarkable résumé and a blueprint for sustained success. Despite the team's struggles, fans have continued to flock to Wrigley Field, enabling the Cubs to place fourth in NL attendance for the third straight season.

Signs of disaster: The Cubs are among baseball's least efficient spenders, converting the National League's third-highest payroll into its third-worst winning percentage. Among the major culprits is an inability to catch the ball. Led by the Senior Circuit's worst-fielding third baseman (Aramis Ramirez, minus-12.6 fielding runs above average) and pitcher (Carlos Zambrano, minus-3.6 FRAA), the North Siders have turned just 69.6 percent of balls in play into outs, the lowest success rate in baseball. Thanks in part to their faulty fielding, the Cubs can claim only a single starter (Matt Garza) with an ERA below league average, and closer Carlos Marmol leads the league in blown saves while dealing with dramatically reduced velocity. Unfortunately, the Cubs' miscues can't be chalked up to inexperience; with an average age of 29.6, they've fielded the majors' fifth-oldest club, and one of the youthful bright spots on the 2010 team, Tyler Colvin, hit .147 in his sophomore season. Although Hendry has been relieved of his duties, the largesse that led to large contracts during his tenure continues to cripple the Cubs, who have $38 million committed to Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano—fresh off a replacement-level performance—for 2012.

Signs you can ignore: Second baseman Darwin Barney became a fan favorite for his scrappy style and hot start to the season (.326/.351/.449 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage in April), but he's hit .263/.303/.326 thereafter, showing himself to be utility material. The Cubs will continue to court second-division status unless they disregard that initial success and reduce his role (or at least hit him lower in the lineup). Overall, Cubs batters have struggled in the clutch, hitting .232/.314/.373 with runners in scoring position compared to a .259/.315/.404 overall line, a pattern that has made the offense appear slightly worse than it is and isn't likely to be repeated. —Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
It's more like bold moves. The Cubs should start their offseason by hiring Hall of Famer Pat Gillick as senior VP of baseball operations and Red Sox assistant general manager Ben Cherington as GM. Then, they should let Carlos Pena leave via free agency, release Zambrano, decline the $16 million option on Ramirez, trade Marlon Byrd and talk Ryan Dempster into accepting a trade to a contending team. Chicago should reinvest all of its potential savings into player development and scouting, and that includes staffing in addition to players. The Cubs should pursue the game's top evaluators from other teams and be willing to pay them at the top dollar. Then Chicago should go to MIT, Harvard, Stanford and every other top college in the country and hire some of the best computer science and statistical minds available and start building an analytical and research department to start catching up with the times and break new ground.

There shouldn't be an amateur player available internationally that the Cubs don't scout and at least attempt to outbid—even the Yankees—for their services. Every top-round talent who falls on the board because of signability in next June's draft should be selected and signed. The Cubs should sign some Type B free agents to one-year contracts with hopes that these stopgap-type players get traded at the deadline or bring them a sandwich pick in the following year's draft. The hirings of Gillick and Cherington would put them on that path for both short- and long-term success. —Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case-scenario ZiPS projection: 85-77

The Cubs have had one of the worst performing rotations in baseball this year, with Dempster, Zambrano and Randy Wells all having poor seasons. There's a reasonable expectation for a rebound to at least adequacy for all three, assuming that Zambrano does in fact return—no guarantee after the sparks last month that led to his season ending prematurely. The team doesn't have a lot of offensive upside with several players well into their decline phase and some pretty big unknowns. Castro is the exception but not enough to put the Cubs in the hunt without some serious luck. I assumed a 50 percent chance of the Cubs picking up Ramirez's option.

Worst-case scenario: 69-93
Although this team knows how to underperform, there are too many talented players for the Cubs to threaten 100 losses. Even this year, with very little going right, they will fall short of the century mark. It's unlikely that the rotation gets even worse next season, and Marmol is also a good bet to have a much better season, which makes it very difficult for the team to be Astros-level bad. This could change depending on what direction a new GM takes, but after 2011, the team would have to eat most of Zambrano's or Dempster's contract, so it may hang on to them for a final season if the organization chooses a rebuilding route. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Cubs have a strange minor league system. It's more deep than star-studded, with plenty of potential big leaguers but few who can actually help turn around a moribund franchise. The most likely player to help in 2012 is center fielder Brett Jackson, the club's 2009 first-round pick who hit .274 with 20 home runs in 23 stolen bases in 115 games split between Double- and Triple-A. He'll fight for a job next spring and likely have one by midseason, and although he's an outstanding athlete with above-average power and speed, his alarming strikeout rate (138 in 431 at-bats this year) prevents scouts from seeing him as a true impact player in the big leagues. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Matt-Chicago

I love Bowden's approach, however unrealistic. On a more reasonable note, I think not enough consideration is being given to Aram's brutal D when discussing his option. If this team is being remade -top to bottom- , it's probably a good idea to start with repairing the SP and defense, first, and fill in around there.

Sep 12, 2011 05:54 AM
rating: 2
 
Peter7899

Why not move Aramis over to 1B next year?

Sep 12, 2011 07:39 AM
rating: 2
 
Sacramento

If anything the Cubs should exercise his option and see if they can flip him during the season for goodies instead of just letting him walk. But his 10 and 5 rights might mess things up.

Sep 12, 2011 08:49 AM
rating: 1
 
Mike W
(830)

It's no secret Bowden isn't a fan of Jim Hendry, so his scorched-earth recommendations might seem a bit overwrought, but it's a testament to how hollow the Cubs organization is that he's basically correct all around.

Start over. Get some analytics people, and listen to them. Build a farm system that DEVELOPS players.

Sep 12, 2011 06:07 AM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

If the Pirates, with less financial resources and less talent on their major and minor league rosters can sandblast their organization and rebuild, the Cubs should be able to do it.

Sep 12, 2011 22:52 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt-Chicago

Agreed on the wretched state of the farm. I just fail to see any, outside of MAYBE Jackson, everyday players in the pipeline who will be part of a contending ballclub. On the pitching front,their main assets are failed starters who now project as power relievers(Dolis,Carp, Jay Jackson?, Cabrera). As KG pointed out, the talent in the system is supplemental , not core.

Sep 12, 2011 06:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

The system isn't as bad as it sounds. Trey McNutt had an injury plagued season, but has decent upside. I don't think it's be fair to write off 2010 1st rounder Hayden Simpson just yet, and 2nd rounder Reggie Golden showed promise at Boise. The 2011 draft was a solid draft with Baez, Maples, and Vogelbach. There's some talent there, it just won't be ready in 2012.

Sep 12, 2011 07:44 AM
rating: 1
 
Peter Benedict

A ad that blasts music and advertising into my space after I walk away from my computer?

Terrible, terrible decision, BP.

Sep 12, 2011 09:12 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Dave Pease
BP staff
(2)

You should not be seeing such an ad at BP--no sound or "site surveys" rolling over the content. Please send us any detail about the ad's content by using the "Contact Us" link at the bottom of any page and we'll get it pulled. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Sep 12, 2011 13:30 PM
 
Richie

Interesting that Bowden's advice for the Cubs is massively different than what he offers the Orioles. Due to differing resources, perhaps?

Sep 12, 2011 09:13 AM
rating: 1
 
Lloyd Cole

As a resident of Chicago's North Shore, who therefore seems to be obliged to root for the Cubs (or at least follow them), I think that Jim Bowden is right on track here. Extreme problems call for extreme measures! These seem to have the best chance to succeed in the medium term (all we can hope for) and they wouldn't even cause a fan revolt. After the last few years, I'm not even sure that Cubs fans CAN revolt. Not if the Cubs could finish fourth in NL attendance with THAT team and especially with THAT management!

Sep 12, 2011 10:33 AM
rating: 1
 
Peter7899

The attendance figures are misleading. It's tickets sold, not people passing through the gates. I think you'll see attendance down the next few years as the out of town season ticket holders drop their tickets after a couple of years of losing money selling them.

Sep 12, 2011 12:39 PM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

"...the Cubs will conduct an exhaustive search for his successor, who likely will come with a remarkable résumé and a blueprint for sustained success."

errrr, no. No one with a remarkable resume or bluprint for sustained success will go anywhere near the National League's Chicago franchise.

"Despite the team's struggles, fans have continued to flock to Wrigley Field, enabling the Cubs to place fourth in NL attendance for the third straight season."

The core of Cub suckitude.

Sep 12, 2011 14:05 PM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

You wouldn't want to add a Cubs championship to your remarkable resume? All indications are that the Cubs GM job will be highly coveted, and for good reason.

Sep 12, 2011 14:19 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Part of the overall problem is how spoiled the Cubs fan base has become. Hendry and/or the money and/or an expanded playoff format resulted in the Cubs going more to the playoffs in the last ten years then they had in the half century before. Cubs fans have been chomping at the bit since 2003 and are so eager for anything that might seem productive, they latch onto Darwin Barney like he is a superstar or slam on Aramis Ramirez who has been the Cubs best third baseman since Ron Santo. I'm tired of trying to explain to Cubs fans on Facebook that the Cubs problems won't magically go away if the Cubs replace Quade with Sandberg. Not only does the front office need a bit more development on the statistics and analytical side, but the Cubs fans need to learn a bit more about the "modern game" too so that they can gain some patience and let plans develop.

Sep 12, 2011 22:56 PM
rating: 0
 
mmontice

I think your first problem is arguing with Cubs fans on Facebook. Your second problem is assuming the ones you do argue with on Facebook (most likely teenagers and college students) know what they are talking about. There are delusional and over-optimistic fans in every fanbase. The trick is to ignore them.

Sep 14, 2011 08:45 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Eh, well I live in Denver now, so I either talk about the Cubs or smile and nod when they talk about the Broncos.

Sep 14, 2011 17:17 PM
rating: 0
 
ddufourlogger

OTHER than on BP, I think MOST baseball fans that blog or comment on ANY site including (especially?) Facebook really are wholly uneducated about the grand old game. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

Sep 15, 2011 09:35 AM
rating: 0
 
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Premium Article Kiss'Em Goodbye: Balti... (09/12)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Kiss'Em Goodbye: Balti... (09/12)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Kiss'Em Goodbye: Seatt... (09/13)
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Premium Article Divide and Conquer, NL... (09/12)

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