March 5, 2009
Change For Its Own Sake
Reviewing the Cubs' Offseason
You can understand how dissatisfaction can inspire a desire for wholesale change. After the crushing disappointment of last season's LDS shutout at the hands of the underdog Dodgers, it was taken for granted that the Cubs would be shaking things up this winter. As the Hot Stove's drama played out, general manager Jim Hendry was definitely busy, retaining Ryan Dempster, turning over two lineup slots, turning over his club's bench and bullpen, and dealing away several top prospects.
However, after the Jacob Peavy trade rumors petered out and it became clear the Cubs would not be adding yet another ace to their rotation, there has been an anticlimactic quality to the exercise. Where other teams have been involved in flirting with or chasing down the marquee names of this winter's market, the Cubs seemed to be taking on some strange risks, while getting very few guarantees. For a club perhaps already feeling scorchy from their big-ticket addition of Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome last winter, should the Wrigleyville faithful anticipate being burned again by the decisions to bring in Milton Bradley and retain Dempster at high cost, not to mention waving good-bye to Kerry Wood?
Well, maybe they will, and maybe they won't, but we're still projecting a handy victory in the NL Central for the Cubs, currently averaging 94 wins in our million-simulation run of 2009 to the Brewers' 85, the widest spread between first and second place in any of the six divisions. Certainly, the unbalanced schedule and playing in the weaker league's weakest division helps; the Astros and Pirates rate as the two worst teams in the National League, and that's a fifth of the schedule right there. The Reds might be a little better, the Cardinals a bit worse, and the Brewers' Sabathia-free rotation seems more likely to be in the running for the lower stakes of the Wild Card instead of sparring with the Cubs down the wire.
The new standards in play are part of the problem-after a 97-win season that lived up to expectations, they're not sneaking up on anybody. With eight-figure deals already invested in Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly in the rotation, with Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Fukudome, and Alfonso Soriano in the lineup, and despite having their ownership situation up in the air, it isn't like Hendry had an easy task. Employing Lee and Soriano took left field and first base out of the mix for positions at which to add a lefty bat, which took the Cubs out of the mix as far as pursuing free agents like Mark Teixeira or Adam Dunn.
To add some lefty-batting variety to the roster, Hendry effectively settled for trading in last year's risk with their short-term snag of Jim Edmonds for an even riskier three-year, $30 million commitment to the Rangers' DH, Milton Bradley. As noted by Joe Sheehan on BP.com on Wednesday, counting on Bradley to be able to play the outfield on a regular basis in the DH-less league requires faith that Bradley can do something and stay healthy doing it for the first time since 2004. It's a bad bet, but one motivated by the wishcast that a healthy Bradley can deliver seasons like last year's. Considering that PECOTA projects a relatively healthy Bradley to deliver a .311 Equivalent Average that falls just outside of the top 10 marks in the majors, that's not just wishful thinking. The danger is that when-not if-Bradley gets hurt, he plays through it and delivers something less, and less than Edmonds' .306 EqA with the Cubs last year. If Bradley hits the DL for an extended period of time, the Cubs are stuck with a low-powered outfield employing both Fukudome and Reed Johnson instead of platooning them in center; using Joey Gathright only adds a third wheel to that already dubious dance card.
The other unhappy result in the drive to mix things up in terms of handedness and to add some tactical variety for Lou Piniella was that they've brought in a pretty miserable collection of journeymen. Gathright, Aaron Miles, and Paul Bako might all be able to bat from the left side of the plate, but that's not to say they'll be good at it. Neither Gathright nor Bako should play regularly in any circumstance, but that's not the worst of it. Trading away Mark DeRosa to cut costs and make Mike Fontenot a regular risks over-exposing Fontenot, but to replace him on the bench, Miles is coming off of his career year with a 57 percent chance of having what we'd consider a "collapse," losing more than a fifth of his value as a hitter.
The multi-year commitment to Dempster is even easier to second-guess, but Hendry struck early, anticipating that the bidding war for one of the best starters on the market might price Dempster out of reach and make injuries to either Rich Harden or Carlos Zambrano that much more dangerous. The commitment was born of an equally bold bit of faith that what Dempster did with last season's breakthrough is something he can repeat. A review of his top comparables at a similar age-Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Dave Stieb, Bobby Witt-suggests that the Cubs could be OK a year into the deal, perhaps two, but from there it could get ugly in the third. Given that getting Dempster for anything less than three years was unlikely, you can accept the risk, but we'll see how badly it plays out.
The pen might draw the most attention because of its Wood-lessness, but between Carlos Marmol's overpowering stuff and Kevin Gregg's bouncing back from a season that, in its cumulative total looks worse for a knee injury that he tried to pitch through, it might be the area of least concern. The number of live arms that Hendry has lined up, from having Jeff Samardzija and Chad Gaudin on hand, to trading for Luis Vizcaino and Aaron Heilman-two hard throwers made miserable by their previous associations with the Rockies and Mets, respectively-might only leave the question of can they make do with Neal Cotts as their lone lefty. The real controversy is whether or not this becomes a LaTroy Hawkins-style situation, where one noisily blown save or two in April has a snowball effect that leaves Piniella mistrustful of his options, but there's certainly enough talent to win a division with.