Change-UpJanuary 20, 2010
Do the Cubs Need More Risk?
By Patrick Sullivan

The Chicago Cubs boast a core group of championship caliber position players that includes Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot. Their front three starting pitchers, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano, form a perfectly adequate top end of a World Series aspirant club. In the bullpen, arms like Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, John Grabow and Sean Marshall offer Manager Lou Piniella a pool of live and (often) dependable arms for late in ballgames. All of this is to say that the Cubs, as currently constituted, look like a solid club.

Of course a "solid club" when you're looking up at the St. Louis Cardinals might not do the trick and to their credit, the Cubs are looking to round out their roster with a player or two still available on the free agent market. As I concluded in my piece over the weekend, it's likely that the Cubs will still have a strong pitching staff, just not one that stacks up to their outstanding 2009 unit. They can expect some improvement offensively, but for a team looking to make a big leap from 83 wins to contender, it doesn't look like the offense will do enough to get them over that line. The Cubs are looking for another starter.

Now, if you were to diagnose what went wrong with the Chicago Cubs in 2009, you would point to four separate players. Soriano and Soto battled injuries and sub-par performance all season long, Ramirez missed too many games and Milton Bradley failed to live up to his potential. The Cubs signed three of those four players to splashy free agent contracts, and Soto was the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year. All four are stud talents, and while the Cubs SHOULD be able to pencil in improvement from Soriano, Soto and Ramirez (Byrd fills in for Bradley), there is still a high-risk high-reward element at play.

This brings me to their starting pitching decision. The Cubs are rumored to be in hot pursuit of right-handed pitcher Ben Sheets, the man whose medicals are said to be disastrous. Even for smallish money, the choice to depend on Ben Sheets for 2010 would amount to a classic high risk/reward strategy for Chicago. With lingering uncertainty offensively, why fill out a borderline contender with another player who brings along as much downside as Sheets would?

If one were to assess where the Cubs might struggle in 2010, you might start with starting pitching depth. With the likes of Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wells, and good grief, Carlos Silva filling out the back end of the rotation, and with some injury concerns surrounding Lilly and Zambrano, I am not sure a flier on Sheets is the play. Make me in charge of Cubs personnel choices and I would opt for the guy I know will take the ball every fifth day and give the offense a chance to win the game. In my estimation, the right target for the Cubs would be Jon Garland.

Garland is by no means the superstar some might have thought he would become after his breakout 2005 campaign with the Chicago White Sox, but his 162-game career average of 208 innings at a 104 ERA+ clip could be just what the doctor ordered for a Cubs team searching for stability.


You lost me at... "Chicago Cubs boast a core group of championship caliber position players".


The Cubs won 98 games two seasons ago w/ the core I mentioned in place. Not sure why you'd be so dismissive.

Tragically, with Soriano having falling off a cliff (aging?) and Soto below expectations, the Cubs really struggled with offense. Zambrano had one of his best FIP seasons in 2009, yet most people in Chicago think he had an off year (because his W-L was way down). Last year, Lee was just about the only thing scoring on the north side.

Wells will probably regress a little this year, but he and Gorzo could round out the bottom of the rotation nicely. Sheets or Garland might be nice additions, but it won't matter if Soriano can't find his stroke or Lee starts acting like his age.

Got to agree with the first comment. Fukudome is championship-caliber only in the sense that he could be the worst starter on a championship team. Soriano is on the slide down, and Byrd is an average hitter who will be playing for a team where his superior fielding is relatively unimportant (high-strikeout pitchers, small field). Can the Cubs win 85-plus games? Sure. Will they? Only if everything goes right.

Will and Kevin are being a bit harsh. All of those guys could be reasonably expected to be on a championship team (and not in the Pokey Reese sense). If Fukodome is your worst starting position player, your team is very good, Kevin.

But Sully, my question is when would you want risk? It seems to me that the best time to gamble is when you are expected to come up just short. If not then, when would a team most benefit from taking risks?

The risk part has to do with other options available. In Garland, you have an innings eater who is going to tack on a win or two over and above what the Cubs are looking at now. Only one Cubs SP threw more than 180 IP last year, and it was Ryan Dempster who threw 200 even. Garland throws 200+ every year.

The Cubs are close enough to contention that their remaining roster moves should be made with the goal of ensuring improvement through that particular transaction. Sheets might accomplish that, but there's a large probability he will not.