So, it's another disappointment-soaked season in sudsy Wrigley. Adding to the Carteresque malaise and general blanditude as the string gets played out, the Cubs don't even have the benefit of their ever-entertaining skipper, Lou Piniella. That grand old man, recognizing that the end was not merely nigh, but comfortably unpacked, settled in, and asking what's in the fridge, decided to abbreviate this last spin with ambition.*
This year's losing campaign could be treated as an obvious capstone to a brief bit of glory for a franchise that has started to get used to October disappointments. After all, this club has made four playoff appearances in the last 12 years. That might sound depressing, but not by Cub standards—things haven't been this good in Wrigleyville since the Great Depression. The question now is whether the Cubs need to call a recess for the balance of the Recession**.
It isn't quite so easy. However presently dead the Cubs may be, they're already stuck with a nine-figure budget for the 2011 season. The deals for Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, roughly $19 million apiece through 2012—and on through 2014 in Soriano's case—are the biggest of the big-ticket expenses, but they also have nearly $30 million to pay over the next two seasons to Ryan Dempster, and at least another $16.6 million going to third baseman Aramis Ramirez, for a player option he'd be hard-pressed to top on the open market, plus $2 million due for a buyout of his $16 million 2012 club option. There's also the perk-laden problem of paying Kosuke Fukudome his $14.5 million in the last year of his deal with the Cubs next season.
Worse yet, because of the way these deals are structured, it's hard to suggest that any of these expensive veterans are really tradable. Acquiring Ramirez guarantees his 2012 option year. Soriano, Zambrano, and Fukudome have no-trade clauses, and while no-trade doesn't mean no trading whatsoever, making any deal involves compensating and cajoling the potentially dealt. Fukudome might seem the most obviously movable of these otherwise sessile signees, but he's the guy with a deal larded up with expensive extras he's unlikely to dicker over.
Now, of course this particular Chicken Little was hatched months, nay, years ago, so all of this is old news. And it might seem to be cause for glacial do-nothingism: the Cubs are stuck with this crew, so they can sail this lot to the edge of oblivion and beyond. After all, money will still be made, Recession or no, because there are still enough trust funders knocking around Lakeview, the Corn Belt's Riviera, to keep their sozzled watch with semi-indifference. But is that really the way things will play out, providing further fodder for the cynics who suggest that this is a club satisfied with box office success? I don't really think so, not unless the Ricketts family wants its newly acquired stewardship defined by decline, and not when GM Jim Hendry has his own job security to defend. Looking at those combined circumstances, cast against the backdrop of this year's bids of the Reds and Cardinals to rule the National League Central's roost, and you can see a Cubs club that shouldn't consider itself as DOA in 2011, not then, not now, and certainly not across the intervening winter.
The question is whether there's much that they can do in the meantime to improve their chances. The quality of the competition and the methods of its construction provide ready guides for how building a contender in the NL Central can be equal parts planning and fortune, balanced against the exploitation of other people's problems. The Cardinals' platform for success rests on a stars-and-scrubs roster relying on some of the very best stars—start off with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and odds are that's a team that will be somewhere in the mix. The Reds' opportunity relies on equal doses of home cooking (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto) and choice discards (Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Bronson Arroyo), not unlike the Brewers' bid a couple of years ago, but just as Milwaukee wasn't a division-cracking powerhouse, Cincinnati is not one now, and looks unlikely to become one.
So the division is in play, leaving Hendry to consider his club's viability. The roster's immobile financial commitments really don't give him much of an option—he can slowly retool the talent base in the organization in the meantime, but he can't really break down his big-league team into its component parts to support the rebuilding effort. Let's face it, there isn't much of a market for Zambrano or Soriano that doesn't involve discounts so steep as to near similar non-value to their simply being cut outright.
To my way of thinking, the Cubs' conundrum for 2011 and beyond is much like the Tigers' lot in the equally parity-enabled AL Central heading into last winter's offseason. Like the Tigers then, next year the Cubs are going to be a bit removed from their recent run at relevance. Also like the Tigers, they're stuck with naughty Aughties financial commitments that are the legacy of their brief spin with contention in the previous decade. Where the Cubs have their freedom of action curtailed by huge deals with players who aren't putting them back on the post-season schedule of late, the Tigers had the misfortune of their extended commitments to Jeremy Bonderman, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen to work through, hoping for some combination of health and competence. Of course, they also had to deal with the tail end of their multi-year mistakes with Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis—deals little better than a dung beetle by the unappetizing end, Dave Dombrowski was left choosing between calling the inevitable dumping or eating, or both.
More importantly for the Cubs, even in their last run with these lamented commitments, the Tigers didn't just curl up and die last winter, whimpering over the expense while waiting for their payroll pain to go away. Instead, acquiring Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson while trading away Curtis Granderson (before he got expensive) and Edwin Jackson (before he departed for free agency) wasn't a case of throwing in the towel before the season even started—Dombrowski snapped up Jose Valverde and Johnny Damon once the free agent market had taken shape. If, for the sake of argument, some or all of the expensive vets suddenly looked like they'd be able to contribute, Dombrowski would have a present-day contender, but he also made moves with an eye toward his club's long-term picture. It was flexible and adaptive instead of pointlessly self-pitying—the Tigers weren't going to be the Astros.
Can Hendry achieve what Dombrowski did? Keep in mind, Dombrowski put the 2010 Tigers into the contention picture for at least half of a season without adding any value for any of his big-ticket veterans, only to see these limited ambitions thwarted in no small part because of the fragility of the expensive dudes he kept around. But the Tigers got even that far because Dombrowski responded to the market by dealing the lower-cost, mid-career types like Jackson and Granderson to add the younger talent he can win with beyond 2010. That's a better plan of action than wishcasting some sort of sports radio-style coup that puts the Big Z in DC for Stephen Strasburg and a lifetime supply of cannoli.
Looking at the Cubs' roster, keeping Fukudome and Soriano won't be the end of the world. Fukudome can continue to be an OBP threat, while Soriano can slug when he's around. Any shot at contention will depend on Zambrano's returning to full functionality, but so does any ability to trade him for anything of value, so let it ride. Ramirez might draw an offer in light of his slugging .576 and pounding 15 homers since his late-June return from the DL, but if he keeps on keeping on next spring, he might be worth even more with that much more certainty attached to his performance through 2012.
So, the first element of my three-point plan for a 2011 contender starts there. Nobody's going to knock your socks off, so:
1. Keep the expensive guys, and run with them.
But is that really enough to contend next season? I'd agree with the proposition that it isn't, but here again, take a page from the Tigers' recent playbook: deal a short-term vet with a more manageable contract to somebody with a specific need who might fulfill one of your own. Who, and for what?
2. Trade Marlon Byrd for either a rotation veteran or a first baseman a year or two removed from free agency.
Byrd is signed through 2012, and has managed to play a pretty good center field this season. Given that finding people who play a decent center don't grow on trees, and Byrd's contract is relatively modest in terms of expense, why not leverage that cost certainty? Even though his power predictably slipped even with a move to the weaker league (and away from Texas), he might be able to bring you somebody of value in the two spots you have to find something, another rotation arm or a first baseman. Maybe you offer the Braves some cost savings by swapping Byrd for Derek Lowe. Maybe you decide James Loney is going to shine if he gets a change of scenery. Maybe you get bold and make a move in-division, and wind up with Bronson Arroyo, picking up his $11 million club option for 2011. And sure, Byrd would shine in Cincinnati—pretty much everybody does, but you might have a rotation you can win with because it's less dependent on Zambrano and Carlos Silva playing key roles.
What does that leave you with in the lineup, if you deal Byrd for starting pitching? You still have three right-handed boppers, in Geovany Soto, Ramirez, and Soriano. A pair of lefties who get on base in Blake DeWitt and Fukudome. You'd have to stick it out with Tyler Colvin in center field for a year, which invites a follow-on decision to sign a quality defender for a fourth outfielder and in-game replacement in center, but that's not the most expensive item to find on the market. Getting a lefty power source at first base would rank pretty high at this point, though. Happily, the market provides options, leading to my third recommendation.
3. Sign whatever it is you didn't get from dealing Byrd.
Maybe you want to gun for incentive-laden risk and take a chance on Erik Bedard or Chris Young in the rotation, or settle for somebody like Carlos Pena or Adam LaRoche at first base, or Kevin Correia in the rotation. Maybe you splurge and bring in Adam Dunn. Regardless, you probably don't have to move as quickly on this, because the market's likely to drive people's prices down, not up. Leave this for January after you sort out what you can get for a moving part with Byrd's value.
Some folks will note that I've left two things out of this: the “Draft Joltless Joe Girardi” movement and the bullpen. These aren't oversights. Joe Girardi is an OK skipper holding down the premium job in the industry, but he isn't Earl Weaver, and whoever you put in the dugout, barring a Jim Essian-level mistake, you don't need a “name” skipper, not if you're anticipating Ryne Sandberg's eventually landing in the job.
As for the pen, admittedly that's an item of personal faith, faith in Andrew Cashner joining Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall to give the team a quality trio, and faith as well that any GM can fill up the back end of his bullpen with low-cost journeymen, situational specialists used to good effect, or kids you decide to break in. After all, the organization's strong suit is supposed to be young pitching, so why not use it now? Leave openings to be earned, and you might have something brag-worthy in a minor key. Admittedly, it requires Hendry to learn from bitter past experience from his overpaying middling middle relievers, but how can you write about the Cubs and not have to resort to some sort of mad hope to keep the whole house of cards propped up?
Would this short course of action guarantee 90 wins? Of course not, but it should provide a better bid for contention in 2011, providing a necessarily positive association between the Ricketts and the future by not running up a premature white flag on 2011.
*: I'll leave Lou's lot for Hall-worthiness to minds more numerical than my own, but let's note that he's in the top 20 in wins, and the only guys in that group who aren't in the Hall of Fame or headed for it are Gene Mauch and Ralph Houk. That's not shabby company, but if Piniella has the weaker combined player/skipper case than the still-active Joe Torre, that doesn't diminish its merits.
**: Promoted to capitalization as part of a bipartisan bill declaring something really very important, like unreserved Congressional support for the funding of mohair pants research.