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Earlier this week, the Chicago Cubs tried to exorcise some demons by bringing back the one that got away. A little more than 10 years after allowing him to leave for Atlanta, they signed Greg Maddux to a two-year, $15-million contract. The deal includes a vesting option for 2006 at $9 million, one that kicks in based on Maddux’s 2005 innings pitched. Even so, the deal looks pretty good in a market where Kelvim Escobar got a guaranteed $18.75MM over three years and Andy Pettitte got more than $31 million for three seasons.

Maddux gilds one hell of a lily. The Cubs’ four returning starters were among the best front four in the game in ’03, with the rotation dragged down statistically only by the Lerchian performance of #5 man Shawn Estes. The upgrade Maddux provides over Estes is significant, but that’s not the relevant comparison. With Estes long gone, Maddux actually replaces Juan Cruz, a hard-throwing 25-year-old who has struggled to establish himself in three major-league seasons.

PECOTA projections for the two:

             IP    ERA    H   BB    K   HR   VORP
Maddux    188.0   3.56  194   37  104   17   33.8
Cruz      100.0   4.23   95   44   86   10   11.6

Note: Maddux projected into Turner Field, not Wrigley

Cruz has a career ERA of 4.43, with 185 strikeouts and 104 walks in 203 innings. He throws hard with a sinker and change-up that give him the potential to be a power groundball pitcher in the Kevin Brown mode. PECOTA shows Maddux to be two wins better than Cruz, but much of that is playing time; if you project Cruz to Maddux’s innings, which would have been the case before the signing, the difference between them drops to about a win. The Cubs have spent a lot of money to add that win.

This move is about certainty. Having Maddux minimizes the risk associated with having Cruz in the rotation; he is less likely to be terrible, and less likely to be a Cy Young candidate.

It’s not like the Cubs lose Cruz, of course. He’ll move to the bullpen, which is where some people feel his future is, anyway. Allowed to establish himself in the role, it’s possible that Cruz could become the Cubs’ answer to Octavio Dotel, a dominant multiple-inning reliever who shortens games to 18-21 outs. The Cubs’ pen, despite the signing of LaTroy Hawkins is not a strength; Cruz gives them a chance to change that. It’s a secondary benefit of the Maddux signing, but a real one.

The move is another step in the steady aging process the Cubs have undergone since Dusty Baker arrived 15 months ago. Bobby Hill lost the second-base job that was to be his to Mark Grudzielanek and was traded; Hee Seop Choi lost his first-base job to Eric Karros and was traded. Now Maddux replaces Cruz. Only Corey Patterson has been able to establish himself under Baker, and his 2003 season was cut short by an knee injury before he had a chance to fall out of favor. The Cubs may win a championship, but there’s no question that Baker’s impact has shortened their timeframe for doing so. I’ll stand by what I wrote after last year’s NLCS: the Cubs will never again be so close to a World Series under Baker.

I’m disappointed in how the Cubs have handled their younger players, but my real problem with the signing is that it doesn’t address the Cubs’ main need: scoring runs. I’m unimpressed with a lineup that is overwhelmingly right-handed, aging, and includes just two players with good OBPs:

                            2004 PECOTA
                   AB   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Corey Patterson   411  .272 .321 .441  13.9
Todd Walker       507  .272 .332 .405  18.4
Sammy Sosa        448  .276 .374 .549  38.1
Derrek Lee        504  .279 .375 .522  40.8
Moises Alou       392  .270 .338 .418   6.5
Aramis Ramirez    525  .276 .334 .481  35.2
Michael Barrett   255  .247 .311 .393   7.3
Alex Gonzalez     403  .250 .313 .406  13.0

M. Grudzielanek   410  .273 .321 .379  12.2
T. Hollandsworth  262  .273 .336 .449   9.3
Tom Goodwin       130  .253 .307 .347  -1.4
Ramon Martinez    221  .254 .320 .362   6.0
Paul Bako         150  .231 .307 .356   0.4
Jose Macias       177  .240 .289 .391  -4.5

The Cubs are going to need all the pitching they can get. This offense could miss the 700-run mark unless Patterson comes back strong from his knee injury, and at that they’re still going need someone in the bottom half of the lineup to outperform expectations. The bench isn’t going to be a strength, which is certainly not a surprise under Baker. The Cubs are going to play a lot of 3-2 games, and that’s going to increase the pressure on a rotation that will be throwing a ton of innings, coming off a season in which two young pitchers, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, blasted past their previous highs in innings pitched.

Could the money spent on Maddux have been used on a hitter? One Cubs’ problem is that they don’t have an obvious need to address, no sub-replacement-level players to replace. Ivan Rodriguez may well have been a better fit, but you can understand the organization’s resistance to giving the high-mileage catcher a four-year contract. Many of the Cubs’ problem spots are manned by players who either have contracts that make them hard to displace (Alou, Gonzalez) or simply aren’t as good as perceived (Patterson, Walker, Ramirez).

Conceding that it would cost them both money and talent, I still think that the Cubs should pursue Carlos Beltran. I wrote this more than a year ago:

There’s one big move the Cubs can make that I believe would make them the division’s favorite: trading for Carlos Beltran. They have the talent to make the deal, the need for a Beltran, and the resources to sign him beyond his walk year of 2004.

The Cubs can start their offer with Patterson, two years from arbitration and five from free agency, and they can back it up with a major-league-ready live arm in Cruz. The Royals need position-player prospects, so in addition to those two-who might be enough on their own, and who the Cubs would never miss–toss in a David Kelton, who might be able to patch third base once the Joe Randa contract ends. That’s a good package for a player who isn’t going to do anything the next two years but hurt the Royals’ draft position. Patterson and Cruz have a chance to be part of something in Kansas City; Beltran doesn’t.

Beltran would provide the left-handed bat (he’s a switch-hitter) and OBP the Cubs desperately need, while improving their defense and eventually inheriting the team from Sammy Sosa. Sosa can be a free agent after 2005 and will be one after 2006, and if the Cubs have to choose between spending on the 27-year-old center fielder or the 36-year-old right fielder, it should be an easy decision. Acquiring Beltran makes as much sense today as it did a year ago, and would make this team the division favorite.

Some people inside BP have pointed to the deal as the dawn of a new day at the Tribune Company, one on which the ownership will make the necessary investments to make a good team great. I don’t see that; I see a signing that fell into their lap, with the backstory of Maddux’s 10-year exile in Atlanta and the lack of suitors who interested him combining to make this happen. I don’t see the organizational commitment beyond that, and if you’re a Cubs fan, you have to be concerned that the Maddux deal is going to be a barrier to further improvement–or at least the excuse–as the year goes on. This team needs at least one hitter, and the only way to get one is through the trade market. If signing Maddux keeps them from doing so, it’s a net negative for the team on the field.

Greg Maddux is one of my favorite players, and I appreciate that his return to Chicago is a great baseball story. But for the Cubs, it’s not clear that this deal does much more than feed ticket sales and Dusty Baker’s veteran fetish. They need a bat, and until they get one, they’re not clearly better than the Astros and Cardinals.

Thank you for reading

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