The Cubs and the Virtues of Inaction
Coming off consecutive NL Central crowns, 97 wins in 2008, and with bigtime acquisitions like Rich Harden and Milton Bradley set to be in the fold for a full season, Chicago Cubs fans had every reason to believe that the 2009 edition of their club could finally end their century-old title drought. Then the Cardinals started hot, the Cubs suffered some injuries, good players did not play to their potential and before long, it was evident that 2009 was going to be anything but the Cubs' year.
Human nature compels us to identify and address problems. It also compels us to shield ourselves from external criticism. Action, therefore, trumps inaction. "Do something" and fail, heck, at least you tried. As the Cubs look to rebound from their disappointing 2009, the boys in the buffet line smell blood. Milton Bradley must go, say the mainstream baseball commentariat. "He's too volatile." "They need to just release him." But you know how the old saying goes, "If you're taking your player personnel cues from Jon Heyman, Jay Mariotti and Phil Rogers, you've already forfeited any hope for 85 wins." Or something like that.
Barring exceptional opportunities in the trade or free agent markets and outside of some run-of-the-mill year-to-year tinkering, Cubs GM Jim Hendry should more or less stand pat this off-season. He returns a top-notch pitching staff, and has a stable of bats ready to bounce back from down years. Let's look at the Cubs hitting in 2009 and compare it to how Sean Smith's CHONE projection system sees them in 2010. If you are skeptical of such improvement up and down the lineup, remember the unit that could only muster a team OPS+ of 88 in 2009 had the second best figure - 102 - in 2008. Coming off one of the finest years of his career, only Derrek Lee figures to regress.
2009 2010 AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG Soto .218 .320 .382 Soto .265 .354 .456 Lee .306 .390 .579 Lee .283 .363 .485 Cubs 2B .254 .310 .357 Fntnot .260 .329 .397 Theriot .286 .346 .372 Thriot .280 .350 .367 Cubs 3B .278 .352 .466 Ramirz .291 .361 .504 Cubs LF .240 .304 .414 Sriano .259 .312 .471 Cubs CF .260 .358 .417 Fukdme .258 .363 .403 Cubs RF .264 .373 .412 Bradly .275 .383 .461
On the pitching side, Chicago's 117 team ERA+ trailed only the San Francisco Giants in 2009. They return Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Tom Gorzelanny. They may miss Harden, the electric righty whose stuff can dominate when he manages good enough health to take the mound. But his high walk-rate and tendency to give up the long ball make him dispensable. Kudos to Hendry for not feeling as though he needed to retain Harden. In limited action last season, both Sean Marshall and Gorzelanny outpitched him.
Since any GM needs always to prioritize improving the club, Hendry should be on the lookout for a bigtime deal, should one present. Given their woeful center field defense, a play for someone like Curtis Granderson at the right price would make some sense. Replacing Soriano should be a priority, but that will be tough to do given Soriano's contract and besides, that option already seems to be available with their current personnel. Sam Fuld in center, with Fukudome and Bradley in left and right is arguably a better outfield. A great defensive 5th outfielder could help. Hendry might consider one more starter to provide a little insurance at the back end of the rotation. I think Mike Fontenot is a perfectly acceptable everyday option at second base but if you want to find an upgrade there, I understand.
The point is that, coming off of an 84-win Pythag season in which so much of the roster underperformed expectations, the Cubs should not feel in any way desperate to make sweeping changes. This is especially the case considering key free agents Matt Holliday and Joel Pineiro look set to depart the 2009 NL Central Champion Cardinals. Jim Hendry's approach should stem from two beliefs: (1) that Milton Bradley's value as a Cub far exceeds his trade market value and (2) that the Cubs are already darn close to a 90-win team as is. From there, a sober look at where the realistic and cost-effective upgrades can be had should get the North-siders right back into contention.