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May 17, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

Trouble in Wrigleyville

by Nate Silver

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Three weeks ago this Wednesday, I did an in-studio radio gig with Dave Kaplan and Tom Waddle at WGN. The Cubs were 12-7 at the time. Derrek Lee had just been injured, but we couldn't help but look at the upcoming schedule--which featured plenty of games against the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Padres--and find ample reason for optimism. Will Carroll called in with a report that Lee might be back sooner than expected; Kerry Wood had thrown off a mound that afternoon, and we received a tip that his performance had been very impressive. In 2005, just about everything that could go wrong for the Cubs did go wrong; perhaps 2006 would be the year that they caught a few breaks.

Since then, the Cubs have gone 3-15, including an 0-7 mark against the Padres, which as the Tribune reported on Monday, represented the first time that the Cubs had been swept in the season series by an NL opponent since they adopted their ursine moniker in 1907. It has been absolutely terrible baseball; the Cubs have allowed exactly six runs per game since April 29th, while scoring just 2.3. They were shutout on Monday--not just shut out but two-hit--by Clay Hensley, a result only slightly more dignified than being shut out by Clay Aiken or Clay Davenport.

Happy precedent aside, the Cubs' 2006 is over. They began their day of respite on Monday as a roughly 125-to-1 shot to so much as make the postseason, and will enter the 2007 season at 99 years and counting since last winning a World Championship. Indeed, not much has gone right since the Curse of the Billy Goat has been supplanted by the Curse of the Bartman. If the White Sox haven't yet supplanted the Cubs' as Chicago's favorite nine, they're at least right on their heels in terms of fan and media attention.

What can be salvaged from all of this? It all depends on how quickly Jim Hendry and company can recognize that the time for building for 2007 and beyond begins now. The Cubs have many admirable qualities as an organization, but tractability has not usually been among them.

This is more editorializing than I usually do, and the truth is that at least a dozen franchises in baseball would happily trade places with the Cubs, both for the stock of talent on their 40-man roster and for their inherent organizational strengths and competencies. Let's take a look at the franchise through a series of Tufte-like infographics; everything you should need to decode these is right here:

chart 1

Okay, so perhaps a little bit of explanation is required. A 'protected' contract is one in which the player is arbitration-eligible or subject to the reserve clause; everything before he reaches six years of service time. We highlight player option years but not team option years because only in the latter case does the club have control of the asset (and the trouble with player option years is that they usually tend to be exercised when the club would rather that they weren't). Finally, there are the color codes, which will surely create some controversy. We apply a stringent grading curve, which reflects my personal belief that that there are relatively few genuinely valuable baseball players, especially for a team that has aspirations to reach the playoffs. "Fringe-Average" is much closer to "Average" than it is to "Fringe," and the red-coded "Non-Asset" category will include players that are discernibly better than replacement level. A "Star" player is a truly elite player indeed; a top 50 overall talent. To reiterate, the frame of reference is whether the player is likely to be part of a championship-caliber core of talent.

These charts should include anyone currently on the 25-man roster, anyone currently on the major league DL, and any prospects that have bright enough futures to have a material impact on the club's long-term planning. These reports are compiled from unoffical sources, and we do not vouch for 100% accuracy. First, the situation in the infield:

chart 2

The Cubs are all right here, and ought to remain so for the next three or four years. They will probably need to re-sign Michael Barrett, since there's nobody else in the organization who looks like he will become an adequate big league catcher by 2008. Ronny Cedeno is not all that far removed from Jose Reyes (although it should be remembered that Reyes is not all that far removed from Luis Rivas). Eric Patterson is an underrated prospect and has handled Double-A well this year in spite of having skipped a level; neither PECOTA nor the scouts envision a huge upside for him, but the flip side is that he may be an average big league regular by next year.

chart 3

The outfield is the place where the Cubs' lack of analytical savvy really does them in. Picking up Juan Pierre was a marginal idea to begin with, and the trouble with a guy like Pierre is that once his batting average goes into the tank, he becomes an offensive millstone. I do not believe that Pierre will get back his relatively adequate 2003-04 level of performance. Although speed is an important complementary skill, speed-only players do not tend to age well--take a look what happened to Willie Wilson's OBPs after the age of 28 or so.

The silver lining is that Pierre ought to wind up with poor enough numbers that the Cubs won't feel compelled to re-sign him, but they ought to do one better than that and trade him now. The Cubs aren't the only team in baseball liable to overrate his skill set. If that means calling up Felix Pie immediately, I think that is fine. Sure, we all know what happened to Corey Patterson, but clubs like the Braves and the A's have promoted their prospects aggressively for years with few observable adverse consequences. All of this becomes more attractive, of course, in a Wrigleyville world without Dusty Baker in it.

Jacque Jones was actually closer than Pierre to getting the "Fringe-Average" designation, but this is mostly because he would be a passable alternative if paired with a better platoon partner than Freddy Bynum or Angel Pagan. Left to his own devices, he projects to create fewer than ten points of VORP per season, which might be better than replacement level, but doesn't belong in a playoff-caliber starting lineup. Nor am I especially optimistic about Matt Murton's future, as I don't think he'll build enough power to be more than a Todd Hollandsworth type. He should provide for a good enough OBP to make for an adequate leadoff hitter, allowing the Cubs to concentrate on adding power at a position like center field or second base.

chart 4

Don't let the injuries fool you: the Cubs have a wealth of riches on their pitching staff. This is particularly true if they can produce a good #2 starter and a good #4 starter from the group that includes Sean Marshall, Angel Guzman, Rich Hill, Mark Pawelek, and Sean Gallagaher.

However, two things are clear. First, 2007 is an awfully important year for the Cubs, since after that time there is no guarantee that they will retain the services of Carlos Zambrano and Mark Prior. It might be worthwhile to tie up Zambrano with an extension right now, before he gets back on track this season, but that is not how most teams behave, and certainly not how the Cubs behave.

Second, the most important decision that Jim Hendry will face this year is whether or not to trade Greg Maddux. Maddux shouldn't have too much trouble accumulating ten wins by the All-Star break, which could make him tremendously valuable in a year in which it looks like five of the six divisions could feature multi-team pennant races. Maddux does not have a no-trade clause, and there's a reasonable possibility that whoever loses the Roger Clemens derby might be willing to flip an A-minus prospect or a decent arbitration-eligible outfielder to "settle" for Maddux. Even someone like Bobby Abreu, perhaps with the Phillies picking up some contract, would represent a better allocation of baseball resources for the 2007 club. A 2007 lineup of:

LF Murton (.287/.350/.436)
RF Abreu (.281/.393/.463)
1B Lee (.288/.375/.543)
3B Ramirez (.290/.353/.540)
C Barrett (.268/.330/.438)
CF Pie (.268/.318/.447)
SS Cedeno (.275/.323/.402)
2B Patterson (.259/.326/.418)
…would be reasonably competitive in front of a strong pitching staff, even before any free agent reinforcements (Those are 2007 PECOTA projections in parenthesis).

chart 5

I am giving Jim Hendry the benefit of the doubt for the time being. His major league scouting judgments have generally been good, as witnessed in the deadline trades of 2003 and 2004, and the addition of assets like Lee and Barrett. However, I think Hendry's lack of financial background is not a good fit for a corporate parent that sticks very tightly to a budget. I do not know how close the Cubs were to signing Rafael Furcal this winter, but the rumors we had heard--the same rumors that were being heard by other sources in the Chicago media--were that they were very close indeed, perhaps coming down to a difference of "only" a couple of million dollars. Strategically overpaying for Furcal--even allowing for his not getting off to a very good start--would have been a lot better than unstrategically overpaying for Jones, Bob Howry, and Scott Eyre.

That the Cubs did go ahead and overpay for those other players is revealing unto itself. Most people, given a rigid budget, will do their best to spend it, even if they wind up spending it on junk. What I think Hendry needs, in essence, is a Stan Kasten or John Henry figure at Tribune Corp., a baseball-savvy businessman who is given wide latitude to liaise with Hendry and ensure that he can make aggressive but prudent baseball decisions. I recognize that Andy MacPhail is supposed to be this person, and I have a lot of respect for MacPhail, but I think he is ultimately too close Hendry in skill set, personality and philosophy.

Hendry would also be more effective if not for Dusty Baker, to whom he is too deferential. The Cubs have had a lot of little things go wrong over the course of the past 35 months, which in turn have snowballed into much bigger problems. They have also not shown much dignity in defeat. Since the start of the 2005 season, the Cubs have had four streaks of seven losses or more, two more than the Devil Rays and the same number as the Royals. Ordinarily, these would be exactly the sorts of things that indict the manager. And Baker, of course, has been somewhat more directly responsible for certain of the Cubs' problems, whether it's Corey Patterson turning into a pumpkin, the injuries to the pitching staff, or even Sammy Sosa's ungracious exit from town. It is hard to get full trade value for a player like Patterson, Sosa, or Hee Seop Choi once it has become clear to the rest of the league that he cannot get along with his manager.

One hopes that we are not seeing a repeat of the Ed Wade/Larry Bowa scenario in Philadelphia, where the GM was too frightened to fire his field general out of fear that it would shed light on his own inadequacies. But Hendry would do well to remember that by waiting too long, Wade only outlived his manager by one season.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Cubs,  Jim Hendry

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