The Summary: With Kerry Wood and Mark Prior fading from memory, the brand of Dusty Baker is no longer on the Cubs, right? Wrong. Don’t forget that Carlos Zambrano was ridden hard as a youngster by Ol’ Johnny B, and while the bill might have come later, it always comes. Zambrano’s large contract and fading arm are just one of the plethora of problems a new ownership group is going to have to deal with. The current medical staff righted a troubled ship and over the last three years has been solid, if not spectacular. A lot of the poor results can be blamed on accepted risks, like bringing in Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster, but if the medical staff can’t keep those type of players healthy, it’s not that great a strategy.
Days Lost: 687
Dollars Lost: $19,627,956.52
Injury Cost: $15,614,027.78
The Cost: The 2009 season proved to be a rough one injury-wise for the Cubbies. Chicago’s loss of $19.6 million made up nearly half of the Cubs total dollars lost over the last three years ($40.7 million). Almost all of the Cubs’ high-salaried players found time on the DL last year, as Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Alfonso Soriano made up $15.2 million lost. Chicago was about $5 million above the league average for dollars lost, not too much by itself, but when added to the increasing payroll, Chicago was strongly limited in the money it had to spend. As a result, the Cubs only spent about $10 million in the offseason. In years past, the Cubs would have spent that on one player alone.
The Big Risk: Risk? With all these back-loaded deals and no-trade clauses, almost every big-dollar, big-name player on this team is a risk. That makes the biggest risk the one that could cost the most money. Soriano has gotten more problematic each year since coming to Chicago, though many were distracted by Milton Bradley last season. The Cubs really don’t have much of a backup, with Kosuke Fukudome as the fourth outfielder and Xavier Nady-who should be able to play both corners despite coming off Tommy John surgery-the available alternatives. There are some options, like Sam Fuld, who are a phone call away, but Soriano has never played more than 135 games in a season in his three years with the Cubs. If Soriano is not all the way back from minor knee surgery, the Cubs will be looking up at a lot of National League Central teams.
The Comeback: Zambrano signed his big deal and promptly had the worst year of his career. According to PITCHf/x, he had similar velocity, similar movement, but the real change was his selection, going with more cutters and less fastballs. That’s often a sign that the fastball isn’t holding its velocity. Since Zambrano’s known shoulder problems often cause him to drop down in his arm slot and cause more issues, was that the problem? No, that looks roughly the same and it was never noted during the season. In other words, there’s nothing apparent here and certainly nothing like what the team saw in ’08. If it was just the luck of BABIP, Zambrano can come back, especially if he learns to trust his heat again.
The Trend: The Cubs seem to float toward the training room like The Gentlemen, but don’t get the idea that it’s because they’re aging. This team does show some sharp divisions between the high-dollar, long-term guys and the cheaper ones, but that’s more about accepted risk than age. Age is a poor predictor of injuries. Younger players get hurt more, but they heal more quickly. Older players get hurt less, a variant of the survivor effect, but heal more slowly. The Cubs took on players with known problems or extended players that were already risky. That makes it nearly impossible to tell how good the medical staff might be. If nothing else, they’ve stabilized things since the problems of the last decade and kept things nearer average than I’d have expected over the last three years. The next three years will be a bigger challenge.
3B Aramis Ramirez: Ramirez’s gruesome shoulder dislocation derailed his season. He avoided surgery, but the question is whether another incident could do even more damage. Well, yes, but since he’d gone five years between incidents with the shoulder and a lot of slugging in between, it’s a reasonable gamble.
LF Alfonso Soriano: See The Big Risk.
SP Ted Lilly: It looks like this one’s headed towards an automatic red. Lilly’s going to start the season on the DL after an off-season shoulder scope and knee soreness early in camp. He’ll be well behind schedule, and with early-season schedules often allowing teams to go with four starters, expect Lilly to be back in late April to early May. He’s enough of a pitcher that he should be able to adjust early. Risky? Yes, but a pretty predictable risk.
CL Carlos Marmol: Marmol gained the closer’s job but never found his control. He was dominant, but all the while looked like something was going to break. If we’ve learned anything from Francisco Rodriguez, it’s that we just don’t know by looking. But man, when you do look…
RP Angel Guzman: Angel Guzman has a long history with arm injuries and ended the season with an odd shoulder area injury. (Yes, area.) He’ll start this season coming off a knee scope. He’s good, no question, but so flammable that he should have a warning label instead of a number on his jersey. I’m stunned he’s yellow.
C Geovany Soto: Soto lost 40 pounds in the offseason, which is as much a statement on how much he’d gained than how much he’d lost. Kevin Federline bulked up before going on Celebrity Fit Club… and I hate myself for knowing that. Soto didn’t “get off the juice” as a lot of Chicagoans have wondered aloud. He merely stopped taking his job for granted and started working out. He’s risky by nature as a young catcher, but there’s no physical reason now that he shouldn’t be able to regain his form.
1B Derek Lee: Derrek Lee is solidly in the yellow band not because of any one injury, but the combination of age and a number of injuries. Those small, nagging injuries get tougher to deal with as a player ages. Lee played well last year, but he’s at a stage where he’d be better off getting more days off. Having signed Kevin Millar, the Cubs might be thinking the same thing.
CF Marlon Byrd: Byrd’s not young and hasn’t held up well when he has gotten a starter’s load. With a big contract and a solid hold on center field, Lou Piniella‘s biggest challenge is figuring out how to best use Byrd.
SP Carlos Zambrano: See The Comeback.
SP Ryan Dempster: Dempster went from closer to 200-inning starter without any issue. He wasn’t as good last year, but he wasn’t problematic either. At 33 and in the second year of a four-year contract, the Cubs need his decline to stay shallow.
SP Randy Wells: Wells came out of nowhere last season, but it’s not the innings increase that worries PIPP. No, it’s that he’s a converted catcher. Those guys have a terrible track record of staying healthy. There’s some evidence it’s anatomical, so Wells bears watching closely for elbow problems.
SS Ryan Theriot
OF Kosuke Fukudome
SP Tom Gorzelanny: Gorzelanny has recovered from being slagged by Jim Tracy a couple years ago. He was never as good as Tracy thought or as bad as he looked after that. He’s a back-end arm, which is pretty good considering most would still be rehabbing after that stunt.
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