Jim Hendry's 2010 Strategy: Play Better
A few months back I wrote a piece on the Cubs and the merits of inaction. Sometimes when it's not your year, the best moves are the ones you don't make. Chicago battled injuries and under-performance all season long, and stumbled their way to a disappointing 83-win season.
Prompted in part by this piece from David Cameron at Fangraphs, I now realize that I had not thought through the Cubs roster and how they might project for 2010 properly. The gist of my piece was that, with their rock-solid pitching, bounceback seasons from key players could well be enough to catapult them back to the top of the National League Central. The problem, of course, is that their pitching is unlikely to hold up as well as it did in 2009.
Now, it's one thing for a guy who follows and roots for the Cubs from a distance to make a mistake of this nature. It's another thing entirely for the individual tasked with making sure the best Cubs roster possible takes the field on Opening Day to make a similar error. Consider the following remarks by Jim Hendry from yesterday's edition of suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald:
"We have to have our best players play like they're our best players, and that's something they didn't do that last year,'' Hendry said in a quiet moment amid the insanity of the Cubs Convention. "We had five guys have terrible years all in the same year at the same time, and you don't figure that to happen, but it sure happened to us.''
One of the players Hendry identified was Carlos Zambrano.
"It would be huge for us if he does what he's capable of doing, which is 18-20 wins with a lot of innings and a lot of quality starts,'' Hendry said. "The good thing is he's upset about it. He knows it wasn't a good year and he says he's mad about it.
And you knew this one, a favorite of Craig Calcaterra's, was coming.
"He's also in better shape than I've seen him, so that's a real good sign.''
Of course he is. Anyway, in one sense Hendry is spot on. Leaving aside Zambrano for a moment, let's assume Hendry is referring to Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Marmol. Soriano has $90 million left on his contract, and turned in a .241/.303/.423 year in 117 games last year. It's safe to say Chicago needs more from their left fielder and should get a lot more output in 2010. Bradley has been shipped off to Seattle and replaced with the more dependable but less talented Marlon Byrd. Ramirez was excellent, but in only 342 plate appearances. Marmol struggled with his control all season long. You could also toss Geovany Soto in there, too. Chicago's backstop figures to be much better in 2010. So, yes, the Cubs will need better play from these roster spots and should be able to count on it.
For Cubs fans, though, there are a couple of red flags in Hendry's thinking as revealed by these comments. The first is that he thinks Zambrano was a problem for the Cubs last season. But when you look at Zambrano's career numbers, 2009 seems right in line. He threw fewer innings than you'd ideally like (169.1) and his walk rate was up but the rest of it was a typical Zambrano season. In fact, his strikeout rate was up too, and Fangraphs had Zambrano at 3.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), his best total since 2006. If the bedrock of an improved Cubs team in 2010 is a drastic uptick in Zambrano's output, then they're already in a hole.
The second problem with Hendry's thinking, and the one I alluded to at the outset of this piece, is the notion that the rest of the team will just stay constant while the disappointments from 2009 pick up the slack. Let's start with the starting pitching staff, an impressive 2009 unit that returns in place aside from Rich Harden. With rumors of an imminent Ben Sheets signing swirling, for our purposes, let's assume similar output from Sheets (or Gorzelanny) as the 2009 Harden. For the other four, here are their 2009 ERA's, 2009 xFIP (a fielding-independent and more accurate and predictive measure of actual pitching quality), and their 2010 CHONE and MARCEL projections.
ERA xFIP CHONE MARCEL
Dempster 3.65 3.81 4.12 3.76
Lilly 3.10 3.98 4.21 3.73
Zambrano 3.77 4.27 4.28 3.84
Wells 3.05 4.24 4.53 3.66
The Cubs team ERA+ was 117 in 2009, good for 2nd best in the National League. Their starters' ERA was 3.71, another excellent figure. In 2010, Chicago's pitching will not be as good. Three of the four pitchers listed above figure to under-perform their 2009 levels, and don't even get me started on what happens if Carlos Silva starts to take a regular turn. It's a good pitching staff, but I don't see it as one of the league's very best the way it was in 2009.
Offensively, because 2009 was such a disappointment for the Cubs, it's easy to forget just how good Derrek Lee was last year. At age 33, he hit .306/.393/.579 while in his 30-32 seasons, from 2006 to 2008, he hit .301/.378/.485. As you might imagine, projections have him closer to those levels for 2010. While the Cubs offense figures to improve year over year, it figures to do so in spite of lost production from Lee.
One of the most common themes in year-end performance self-evaluations at companies across America and around the world is the tendency to overstate successes and gloss over or ignore failures. Hendry's comments are not entirely analogous, but you can see a similar phenomenon taking hold. He's glossing over the great performance the Cubs got from their starting pitching in 2010. Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee were two of the very best players in baseball last season. He's brushing off the bad seasons in 2009 as though they were somehow fluky, but is someone like Soriano a guarantee to come back strong in 2010? How he thinks he's getting more out of Zambrano is beyond me. It seems like Hendry does not want to own some of his roster failures.
The best teams project future performance through an honest assessment of successes and failures, what's predictive and what's not. Taking the successes from a given season, penciling them in for the next season and banking on disappointments to return to form is a sure way to stay a few steps behind the teams more dynamically and realistically striving to improve.