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June 28, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Recounting Cubs Contracts

by Larry Granillo

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The evidence is mounting, and it's beginning to point to one conclusion: the 2011 Chicago Cubs are not a very good team. True, we’re still two weeks from the All-Star break, and all it takes is a few weeks of inspired play to change a club’s narrative from "miserable underachievers" to "second-half sweethearts," but there is little reason to expect something like that from Mike Quade's team.

For fans of the Cubs, who saw their team in the playoffs only three years ago, the 2011 edition’s first-half disappointment is amplified by the team's large payroll. When fans see their team shelling out more than $130 million in payroll, they expect to see a winning team; it’s not unreasonable to suppose that a collection of big contracts might yield a collection of quality players, and by extension, a successful team.

The Cubs have no shortage of big contracts sitting in the cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano are each making $18 million in 2011, while their teammates Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, and Carlos Pena are taking home a combined $51 million. Throw in the $11.5 million owed to Carlos Silva, and the Cubs are pushing $100 million on seven players. Only one other team in the division is paying as much as $100 million to its entire team (the Cardinals, who racked up an $109 million Opening Day payroll). After being outscored by 70 runs so far this season and recording a 32-46 record (putting them 11.5 games behind the division-leading Brewers), this collection of contracts clearly hasn’t made for a competitive team.

When Soriano’s contract was signed in November 2006 in the wake of a 66-win season for the Cubs and a 40-40 campaign for Soriano, then-new manager Lou Piniella said, "[Soriano is] a young man who can get on base and steal some bases and hit the ball for extra-base power and hit it for a homer. We are talking about the best leadoff hitter in all of baseball."

Cubs GM Jim Hendry called Soriano "lean" like a "greyhound," with a "very, very young body for his age." Speaking about the length of the contract, Hendry said, "Who knows if somebody is going to be as productive at 38 as they are at 30 or 31. But, like I said, there's a lot of guys in this game right now swinging the bat at a very high level in their late 30s or even early 40s."

For his part, Soriano said, "I think the money isn't that important to me. I'm not looking for the money. I'm looking to be happy, and I think this is a good place for me to play and be happy."

In the fifth season of the eight-year, $136 million deal, Soriano has a first-half WARP of 1.0. His .310 OBP is only partially redeemed by a .509 slugging percentage. With 14 home runs, Soriano has rounded the bases more often than he has taken a free pass to first. It's safe to say that the Cubs and their fans were expecting something more when the contract was signed.

Carlos Zambrano signed his five-year, $91.5 million contract extension in August 2007. The contract calls for a $17.875 million salary in 2011 and a raise to an even $18 million in 2012. If Zambrano concludes the season with a first- or second-place finish in the Cy Young voting—admittedly, a far-fetched scenario—his $19.25 million 2013 option vests.

Zambrano's infamous temper has been a part of his reputation as a player for a long time. At the time of the signing, words like "emotional" and "animated" were used to describe Big Z. But it was Zambrano's talent that Hendry focused on when talking about the contract. "We certainly expect him to be a No. 1 starter, and he's hitting the age where he's going to be better... It was imperative in moving forward that we kept him in the fold for five years and continue to build homegrown pitching around him and fill in the missing pieces."

Zambrano echoed Soriano’s words about staying in Chicago: "Not everything is about money, you know. I know if I got to free agency there were a lot of things that would come to me and offer me. I feel comfortable here. I feel good here and my family feels good here."

Zambrano's last few years haven't been quite as happy. The low point came last year, when he was indefinitely suspended by the team before being demoted to the bullpen. His 2011 has been somewhat better, as his durability has helped the Cubs. Zambrano's 17 starts lead the league, and his 111 innings are good for fifth in the NL, though his ERA is a middling 4.38, just a nose better than his 4.56 SIERA. Those roughly league-average numbers over so many innings have been enough to put Zambrano atop the club's early WARP leaderboard at 2.0, which says more about the state of the Cubs than the righty’s performance. It may not be exactly what was envisioned back in 2007, but at least Hendry and the Cubs can say that one of their $18 million men is having the team's best season.

Aramis Ramirez is next on the list of highest-paid Cubs players; his $75 million contract signed (like Soriano’s) in November 2006 pays him $14.6 million this season. Ramirez started the season with a hot bat. On April 16, he was batting .358/.433/.509 with six extra-base hits in 60 plate appearances (though only one was a home run). In the two-and-a-half months since, Ramirez has hit only .265/.305/.395.

First halves have always been hard on Ramirez. In his career, Ramirez has an 806 first-half OPS versus an 869 second-half OPS. There is some hope, though. In 2010, Ramirez's first-half OPS was an abysmal 648 before he rebounded for a second-half 847 OPS. Ramirez would need a similar turnaround in 2011 to come even close to earning the nearly $15 million he'll make this year.

Ryan Dempster and Kosuke Fukudome round out the five highest salaries on the 2011 Cubs, with each player earning $13.5 million this year. Dempster signed his contract in November 2008, only a couple of months after he made the successful transition from closer to starting pitcher. In that 2008 season that won him the contract, Dempster went 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 206 innings pitched. The four years he had spent in the Chicago bullpen seemed only to make Dempster better.

Did the Cubs pay too much for one unexpectedly great season during a contract year? Jim Hendry didn't think so. "When we were going to give him a chance to make the rotation, there wasn't any doubt in his mind, not only was he going to make it, but win at a high level... He's still got five or six good years in him. You win a lot of baseball games with this guy on your ball club."

Dempster isn't having a great season for Chicago, sporting a 5.31 ERA through 17 starts. His 8.42 K/9 is helping keep his SIERA at 3.71, with his 1.28 HR/9 responsible for much of the difference. On the whole, Dempster's 98 innings pitched have helped him to a 1.1 WARP so far this year. That's good enough for the third-best WARP among Cubs pitchers, behind Zambrano and Matt Garza (1.3 WARP).

On the offensive side, the top WARP belongs to the young Starlin Castro at 1.9. The second-best mark among position players is that of Kosuke Fukudome, at 1.3 WARP. Fukudome’s value comes mainly from his outfield defense, though his ability to get on base cannot be ignored. Despite a .282 batting average and a .390 slugging percentage, Fukudome has a .286 Equivalent Average thanks to his .390 OBP. It’s never a good sign when a player has identical on-base and slugging averages, but a healthy OBP makes Fukudome playable despite the power outage.

Of course, when the Cubs signed Fukudome to a contract that would pay him $13.5 million in 2011, they were hoping for something a bit more. In nine years in Japan, Fukudome slugged 192 home runs to go along with a .305 batting average. Hendry did not hold back his excitement: "We think we have the whole package. We feel we have a high-average player, a high-on-base-percentage player. He certainly has enough power, and he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He's a Gold Glove-caliber defender with a tremendous arm in right field, and he can steal bases. All the things we felt or we hear about on a regular basis that we might have lacked—on-base percentage, more speed, better defense in the outfield—he fits the bill for all of us."

The defense and on-base abilities are still there for the current 34-year old, but the stolen bases and power are nowhere to be found. In his three-plus years in the National League, Fukudome has hit 37 home runs and stolen 26 bases. In 2011, he has only three home runs and one stolen base to his credit. He is still a useful player, as the 1.3 WARP attests; he just isn't worth the $13.5 million he'll earn this year.

The Cubs’ $134 million Opening Day payroll was the third-highest in the National League and the sixth-highest in the majors. That wasn't the best set-up for the season, as a payroll that high dictates that anything short of the playoffs is a disappointment. It appears now that disappointment is almost inevitable. Cubs fans who choose to blame the team's highly-paid veterans like Soriano and Zambrano wouldn't exactly be wrong to do so, but the reality is more nuanced than that. Zambrano and Fukudome, for example, are putting up pretty decent seasons—they may not be worth what their paychecks show, but that doesn't make them responsible for the Cubs' losing record.

Long-term contracts are signed too far out in the future to know with certainty what to expect four years down the road. That's the GM's job to judge properly, and in the case of the club’s current albatross deals, Hendry did his job poorly. As these contracts expire and money frees up (Fukudome, Ramirez, and Zambrano will all come off the books in the next year or two), Cubs fans will have to hope either that Hendry has learned his lesson or that ownership will replace him with someone less prone to making the same mistakes. That’s the only way to get back into contention for that elusive World Series title that every Chicago free agent hopes to help claim.

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Cubs,  Aramis Ramirez,  The Who,  Jim Hendry

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