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September 15, 2009
Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 95-67, first place in NL Central
This was perhaps the most surprising tumble in the entire senior circuit.
ESPN.com's Buster Olney's Take
What went wrong: The Cubs reacted aggressively after getting swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the '08 playoffs-and in retrospect, they probably overreacted, trading Mark DeRosa and giving Milton Bradley a three-year, $30 million contract that turned out to be a major mistake. Some rival talent evaluators believe that a handful of the key Cubs were simply not prepared for success in 2010. "Geovany Soto is overweight, and so is Carlos Zambrano," said one scout. "They've got to get everybody motivated again. They looked like a dead-(bleep) team, anyway, and then Aramis Ramirez got hurt, and then they were toast." Said another evaluator, "That's a dreadful defensive team and, for a National League team, they're very slow."
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: Alfonso Soriano has one of the most immovable contracts in the majors, with five years and $90 million remaining for a player who will be (a) 34 years old in January; (b) coming off a season in which he hit .241; and (c) doesn't have a natural spot in the lineup. Lou Piniella already has announced that Soriano won't be his lead-off hitter next year. So what do you do with him? "They need to create some competition in that clubhouse," a rival evaluator advised. "Make it clear to all those veterans that they're going to have to fight for playing time. Tell 'em that if they don't get it done, then Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir are going to get the at-bats." And Cubs GM Jim Hendry needs to settle the closer situation, one way or another, because there were too many days of uncertainty.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
Blame injuries or blame a number of ill-advised exchanges, but perhaps more properly blame the risk implicit in relying on an aging roster built to win now. No matter how you slice it, the Cubs came up snake eyes on every off-season risk they took in tweaking the league's best team of 2008. Six of nine regular hitters are having worse years at the plate than they did in 2008; only Derrek Lee is having a decisively better season.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: 0-for-4
That might sound like a bad day at the office for a hitter, but that's how badly the Cubs did with regard to how all four units performed this year compared to last. While the bullpen gets singled out because Kevin Gregg hasn't been Kerry Wood while Carlos Marmol has conjured up memories of the Wild Thing, the pen wasn't really the big sore point this year. "Wait Till Next Year!" Cubs fans' familiar refrain didn't yield much in 2009. Check these drop-offs:
Unit 2008 (NL rank) 2009 (NL rank) Offense by EQA .271 (3) .255 (12) Rotation by SNWP .537 (1) .518 (5-t) Bullpen by FRA 4.52 (8) 4.51 (11) Defense by PADE 2.46 (1) 2.21 (3)
The real disaster has been the lineup, and it's been costing the Cubs wins hand over fist. One of the usual hallmarks of a team benighted by bad bullpen work is a worse-than-expected record and a poor split on one-run ballgames, but that's not especially true of this Cubs team-they're 15-19 in one-run games (ungood, but also infrequent) and projected for an even worse 71-70 record at this point, so they're actually slightly lucky relative to how they've performed.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Free Agency: The Cubs aren't just hamstrung by a lack of performance, they have those under-performing or dinged-up players signed to immovable contracts-their outfield of Soriano-Fukudome-Bradley has 43 home runs combined, at $36.5 million in 2009. So how to inject some needed speed and a true leadoff presence? Try Chone Figgins, who can play anywhere and has 40 or more steals in five of the last six seasons. The problem? He's 32, and according to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, "If Raul Ibaņez could get three years at $10.5 million a year last winter heading into his age-37 season, it wouldn't shock me if Figgins got $11-12 million a year for three or four years." How many of these contracts can the Cubs carry, even after their ownership situation us ultimately resolved?
Who 2 Watch 4: John Gaub, LHP
The Cubs have one of the weakest minor league systems in the game, especially at the upper levels, but Gaub will be get a good look next spring for a bullpen job. One of the arms received from Cleveland in the Mark DeRosa trade, the 24-year-old put up some gaudy numbers in 2009, striking out 80 in 60 innings while allowing just 36 hits, but he's not a pure power guy, relying more on deception and movement than anything else. As a reverse-split guy who is actually more effective against right-handed hitters, he's more than just a situational reliever, and is just a few command improvements away from becoming a fixture in the middle of the Cubs bullpen.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 27 of 50
The Bottom Line
You'd normally figure the offense should regain some ground, but Soto is the only lineup regular who will be under 30 next season, and the farm system has nothing readily available to help address that problem. Then there are the questions about whether or not players like Bradley or Zambrano are worth the headaches when you don't win. The existing financial commitments of around $120 million to next year's payroll without adding anyone to help fix the offense suggest the Cubs need to see if they can make one more play for the post-season with their aging core, but finding takers willing to absorb some of the cost and all of the heartburn that comes with employing their problem children suggests that Jim Hendry's going to have to be much more careful in his exchanges this winter than he was last time around.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .