Christopher Reina. 5th April, 2010 - 3:13 pm
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The Cubs went from a 97 win team in 2008 to an 82 win team in 2009, unable to reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season for the first time since the 1906-1908 stretch.
Lou Piniella's club went 6-10 against the Cardinals, who won the NL Central by a margin of 7.5 games.
Other than maybe the Blackhawks' playoff run, the best thing to come out of Chicago in 2009 was the new Wilco album.
2009 Opsera Finish: 8th
What Happened In The Winter
It wasn't an offseason where they made huge free agent signings like Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly after the 2006 campaign, nor were there any blockbusters, but Jim Hendry did some fairly significant rearranging.
The Milton Bradley experiment was too tempestuous to continue, so he unloaded him for one of the worst contracts in baseball in Carlos Silva. Replacing Bradley was another former Texas DH/OF in Marlon Byrd. Maybe Hendry isn't familiar with looking at split stats, but if there's ever a player who fell into a $15 million contract over three seasons because of playing in a specific ballpark, it is clearly Byrd. His old hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo came over to the Cubs ahead of the signing and he advocated for Byrd, but I don't see him having an OPS over .800 in Chicago. His OBP drop from .380 in 2008 to .329 in 2009 is even more disconcerting.
Passing Byrd and Jaramillo going in the opposite direction south to Texas was Rich Harden. The Cubs were sure enough they didn't want to take on his money for 2010 that they didn't offer him arbitration. The same went for Kevin Gregg, who was acquired from Florida for Jose Ceda after the 2008 season. Gregg was always thought of as a setup man and his 4.72 ERA and extremely high homer rate (1.7 HR/9) reflects that.
Chicago also did some more housecleaning in their bullpen by unloading Aaron Heilman to Arizona for Ryne (another Chicagoan born in the 80's, named after Sandberg) White and Scott Maine. Continuing to fill the job of lefty specialist will be John Grabow, who was re-signed to a lucrative two-year, $7.5M contract. His K/BB rate (1.43 in 2009) is very scary, especially considering the price.
I liked the moves the Cubs made on the cheap, signing Xavier Nady to a $3M deal, as well as minor league deals for Chad Tracy and Kevin Millar.
Cubs Offensive Preview
The Cubs were already too right-handed in their lineup in 2009 and by trading out switch-hitter Bradley for righty Byrd, they're left with Mike Fontenot and Kosuke Fukudome as the only everyday lefties. Nevertheless, they were ranked 24th in OPS against lefties and 16th against righties. Regardless of that fact, the Cubs fell from third in all of baseball in OPS and runs scored in 2008 down 21st and 9th respectively in 2009.
At the top, Derrek Lee was nearly as good as he's ever been, having his best season since he was an MVP candidate in 2005 by hitting for an OPS of .972 with 35 homers.
Unfortunately, Lee received little help behind him as Aramis Ramirez was limited to just 342 plate appearances, Alfonso Soriano was either hurt or declined and Geovany Soto fell from his .868 OPS during his ROY campaign to .702 while also weathering injuries and a positive WBC test for ganja.
Lee is in his walk year and this will be his last chance at a big free agent contract, which makes it a good bet that he will at least come close to his 2009 production. The Cubs simply need Ramirez, Soriano and Soto to remain healthy and put in seasons in the .850 OPS range. If they do, then the Cubs once again should have a playoff team on their hands, neck and neck with St. Louis.
It is difficult to determiner whether Soriano is capable of a comeback from his .726 OPS. His knee will never allow him to be the threat he was on the bases, but I think he can be a 30 homer guy again and he is bound to play in at least 135 games this season after being banged up the past two seasons.
As far as the rest of their lineup, I don't anticipate very many surprises. Fukudome and Byrd will be a little above or below an .800 OPS, while their middle infielders (Fontenot and Ryan Theriot) will likely be a little above or below .700. None of those four guys will be the reason why the Cubs either reach the playoffs or fail to reach the playoffs.
Cubs Pitching Preview
The Cubs had good starting pitching across the board in 2009 with an ERA range of 3.05 to 4.09. Harden was the high man amongst those with the most starts and he will likely be replaced by Tom Gorzelanny, though Carlos Silva and Jeff Samardzija will be in the mix.
The trio at the top of Carlos Zambrano, Lilly and Ryan Dempster all have nice live arms that will strike people out, but I don't think any of them could be considered a top shelf ace. They are three nice number two or three starters, which is excellent for the regular season, but likely why they haven't advanced out of the NLDS. That trio compares to the dual aces of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in 2003, who were absolutely dominant but became injury-plagued.
Randy Wells' very promising rookie season was kind of lost in the overall disappointment in 2009. He had a 3.05 ERA in 165.1 innings of work. How he settles into his second season with the possibility of upping his K/9 rate a little bit will be crucial for the Cubs' rotational depth.
As far as the bullpen, Carlos Marmol has always been the kind of guy you love to see in the eighth, but a little scared of in the ninth. He has a career ERA of 1.93 in the eighth inning and 3.18 in the ninth. Marmol has always struggled with his control, but it was utterly out of hand in 2009, as he walked 7.9 batters per nine innings. His season would have been an even bigger disaster if not for his ability to decrease his home run rate down to just two in 74 innings.
Supporting Marmol will be Angel Guzman, Gabrow, Sean Marshall, David Patton and whomever doesn't win the fifth starter job. They are clearly not an elite unit, but they should be middle of the pack and the Cubs routinely improve this area of the team in-season.
What Are Their 2010 Chances?
Unquestionably, the Cubs have enough talent to reach the postseason for the third time in four years, but they'll need a little help from the Cardinals being ordinary and they also will need to have up seasons from that group of hitters beyond Lee.
If they do reach the postseason, I don't believe they have enough potentially dominant starters to win 11 games. This feels like a transition year for the Cubs, where they will be just good enough to hold Chicago's interest to sell beer at Wrigley through the summer.
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