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March 23, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Chicago Cubs Can Win the World Series

by John Perrotto

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Brad talks with WGN Radio's Dave Kaplan about the Cubs' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Faith and hope?

That's all Chicago Cubs have to go on, especially after the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox have ended long championship droughts in recent years.

The Cubs haven't been to the World Series since 1945 and haven't won it all since 1908.

Maybe it's the Curse of the Billy Goat. Perhaps it's inept management. Or it could just be bad luck.

Whatever the reason, the Cubs have gone nearly an entire century without a World Series title, 99 years to be exact. That's longer than the 86-year drought the Red Sox ended in 2004 and the 88 years the White Sox went without capturing a world title before winning in 2005.

The Cubs didn't give their fans much reason for optimism last year, as they went a National League-worst 66-96 in a season that went downhill quickly after star first baseman Derrek Lee broke his right wrist April 19. Lee won the NL batting title in 2005 what a .335 average while hitting 46 home runs and driving in 107 runs.

Yet the notoriously tight-fisted Tribune Company opened the coffers this past winter and enabled General Manager Jim Hendry to remake the Cubs. Hendry's first order of business was to lure Lou Piniella back to the dugout after a one-year detour to the broadcast booth.

While it is debatable how much of a difference a manager makes in improving a club, Jim Leyland was a major reason reasons the Detroit Tigers went from 12 straight losing seasons to an American League pennant last season.

Piniella has even more fire than Leyland, and those close to the 61-year-old insist the fire still burns even after three dismal seasons running hometown Tampa and a season as a broadcaster for Fox.

After chafing under the penny-pinching ways of former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli, Piniella vowed he would only return to managing if it was under ownership willing to spend money. The Tribune Company lived up to its promise by allowing Hendry to spend a whopping $296.05 million on nine free agents.

Hendry first took steps to keep three of his own by giving third baseman Aramis Ramirez five years and $75 million after the slugger opted out of the final two years of his previous contract to test free agency. The Cubs also retained backup catcher Henry Blanco at two years and $5.25 million and right-hander and one-time phenom Kerry Wood with a one-year, $1.75-million deal.

The Cubs' biggest splash of the winter, though, was lavishing outfielder Alfonso Soriano with an eight-year, $136-million deal. That is the fifth- highest contract, in terms of total dollars, in baseball history.

That wasn't the only big money the Cubs handed out.

Hendry, while hooked up to a heart monitor in the emergency room of an Orlando hospital after experiencing chest pains at the winter meetings, signed left-hander Ted Lilly to a four-year, $40-million contract. The Cubs also gave right-hander Jason Marquis three years and $21 million. Mark DeRosa was signed to a three-year, $13-million contract to play second base, Left fielder Cliff Floyd was lured to his hometown with a one-year, $3-million deal and Daryle Ward was added for one year and $1.05 million to be a pinch hitter.

So how much hope and faith can nearly $300 million buy in today's market?

If nothing else, the Cubs' spending spree enabled them to break the chains of having hope and faith that Wood and Mark Prior could lead them to glory. As talented as the right-handers are, Prior has only won 18 games combined in the past three seasons and Wood has 12 victories in that span. While Lilly and Marquis have their flaws, they do take the ball every fifth day.

Lilly has pitched at least 178 1/3 innings in three of the past four seasons and was 15-13 with a 4.31 ERA in 32 starts with Toronto in 2006. Given the usual lift pitchers get from moving from the American League to the National League and away from the designated hitter, it's safe to assume Lilly can improve upon those numbers.

Marquis had a disastrous 2006 with St. Louis as he went 14-16 with a 6.02 ERA in 33 starts and led the NL in losses. However, Marquis is only 27 and fixable as he also had two solid seasons with the Cardinals, going 15-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 2004 and 13-14 with a 4.13 ERA in 2005 while topping 200 innings each year.

The Cubs already have a true No. 1 at the top of the rotation in Carlos Zambrano and a rising star in left-hander Rich Hill. If Wade Miller, who has looked sharp this spring, comes even close to being the pitcher who combined for 45 wins for Houston from 2001-03, then the starting rotation should be fine.

Hendry says the Cubs' bullpen is the best in the NL and that's debatable. The Cubs need a bounce-back season from closer Ryan Dempster, who melted down late in 2006 and finished with a 4.80 ERA. Wood was the fallback plan at closer but he is again felled by another arm malady and will almost certainly begin the season on the disabled list.

However, if Dempster or Wood can pitch up to their potential, it would strengthen a bullpen that has plenty of quality set-up and middle men in left-handers Neal Cotts, Scott Eyre and Will Ohman and right-handers Bobby Howry and Michael Wuertz, who is highly underrated.

The Cubs absolutely had to bring Ramirez back as he is only 28, has hit at least 31 home runs in each of his three full seasons since Chicago stole him in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates and set career highs with 38 homers and 119 RBIs last season.

While it's easy to criticize Soriano for his lack of plate discipline and question whether he can handle the defensive rigors of moving to center field, there is no denying he had a fantastic first season in the NL last year as he hit 46 homers and stole 41 bases for Washington despite playing his home games in cavernous RFK Stadium.

Expecting DeRosa to be an everyday second baseman is a leap of faith, as is hoping Floyd stays healthy enough to play every day. DeRosa was a career utility player until hitting .296 with 13 homers for Texas last season. Floyd was limited to 97 games with the New York Mets in 2006 and has played in more than 113 just once in the last four years.

While shortstop Cesar Izturis is an offensive cipher, he does have a Gold Glove in his past and the Cubs have some pretty good holdovers in the lineup, including Lee, catcher Michael Barrett and maligned right fielder Jacque Jones.

The Cubs aren't the perfect team, but they are certainly better after shelling out all that cash. And they don't have to be great to win the NL Central, the weakest division in baseball, as St. Louis captured the title with only 83 wins last season.

The Cardinals then went on a surprising October run that resulted in them winning the World Series.

Could the Cubs follow suit? Well, they are certainly due.

Brad talks with WGN Radio's Dave Kaplan about the Cubs' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3

John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. He can be reached by clicking here.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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