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During the offseason coming into 2009 the Chicago Cubs and
GM Jim Hendry made a concerted effort to improve their lineup and shake up the
team which was coming off a second consecutive three-game sweep in the Division
Series. In 2007 the Arizona Diamondbacks
unceremoniously knocked the Cubs out, while the Dodgers were the culprits in
2008. That 2008 series, and the utter
disaster that was the team’s offense, cemented in many people’s minds the idea
that the Cubs needed to revamp their roster in order to go deep into the
Keep in mind, that the Cubs had the best record in the
National League, featuring a potent lineup that was the only NL club to score
more than 800 runs. Also, the
Northsiders’ pitching staff was one of the most consistent and dominant in the
league, leading all NL clubs in strikeouts and tied for second in ERA. This collection of obviously talented hitters
and pitchers proved, over 162 games, that they were the class of the National
League. They battled off the Milwaukee
Brewers, who charged hard by riding the coattails of rental star CC Sabathia
and headed into the playoffs as prohibitive favorites.
Everyone liked their dangerous lineup featuring Derrek Lee,
Aramis Ramirez, and led off by the potent Alfonso Soriano, and the only problem
on their staff was who to start in game 1 between Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano,
and the surprising Ryan Dempster. Within
a week, however, opinions had completely changed. Suddenly Big Z wasn’t a true ace, Soriano was
too old, and the entire team was too right-handed. The fact that the Dodgers never once used (or
warmed up) a southpaw was constantly harped on and served as the catalyst for
many of the decisions made during the winter.
No one seemed to notice that the Cubs sudden lack of
production coincidentally aligned exactly with their facing the top ERA team in
the NL and 2nd in MLB. They
also faced an extremely hot team which was flying high and loving life in “Mannywood”
ever since they claimed the superstar from Boston
near the trade deadline. The Cubs simply
ran into a buzz saw at the wrong time which, coupled with an all too familiar
tightening of the team’s collective sphincter, quickly and painfully erased the
“Cubbie Magic” of the previous six months.
Heading into the winter meetings and an offseason of
discontent there was one mission. Many believed the
team could only truly succeed if it found left-handed hitting consistency. Kosuke Fukudome had been a disappointment in
his first season in America and despite the myriad of All-Stars throughout the
lineup, including the Rookie of the Year, management decided that six games (2007
and 2008 NLDS) of futility should outweigh 323 games (2007 and 2008 regular
season, only 161 in 2008) of overwhelming evidence that the team was just fine,
and in fact much better than its NL competition. Hendry and manager Lou Piniella wanted to
freshen things up with some new blood, not a bad decision by any means, but the
way in which they did it has proven to be a total failure.
It seems every major move they made has backfired. The team elected to let go of veteran utility
man Mark DeRosa, a fan and clubhouse favorite who played several infield and
outfield positions at average to above average and provided an additional spark
in the lineup. DeRosa could always be
counted on to show up and play well, regardless of his spot on the field or in
the lineup and was a calming presence whenever injuries or situations required
some maneuvering. He was particularly
key in replacing Soriano when he was injured and Fukudome when he was simply ineffective. Imagine what he could have done in place of
the injured Ramirez this year when instead the team relied on Mike Fontenot and even Jake Fox, a Triple-A
star with no real position and no discernable defensive aptitude.
To take DeRosa’s place came Aaron Miles from the Cardinals. In addition to coming off a career year in
which he hit .317, Miles fit the necessary left-handed requirement as a switch
hitter and could play both position in the middle infield or even third base if
need be. So far this year Miles is
hitting a robust .177 and rarely sees the field as a starter due to his lack of
production. DeRosa, meanwhile, has hit a
combined .260 with 21 HR, 17 2B, and 67 RBIs with the Indians and now the NL
Central-leading Cardinals. He’s battled
injuries, but will almost certainly come up with at least one key defensive
play and one key hit for St. Louis
in the postseason.
Elsewhere on the field, the productive duo of Reed Johnson and
Jim Edmonds was split up when the Cubs let Edmonds
go. The two had combined to be a
formidable platoon in center field, and Edmonds
provided far more pop than expected at his age.
Kosuke Fukudome moved to center field (and has had a much more consistent
year in his second campaign, not surprising for a foreign player adapting to a
new culture) while high-priced Milton Bradley took over in right field. Bradley was to bring not only the necessary
left-handed swing as a switch hitter, but also more power and perhaps more
important a spark and fire that would help carry the team in the postseason and
keep them from the jitters that plagued them the previous two Octobers.
Bradley enjoyed an impressive 2008 with the Texas Rangers,
batting .321, but many of those hits came as a DH and as soon as he signed
questions about his durability as a regular player arose. Those issues have not arisen as of yet, but
Bradley has had a terrible season from the get-go. He’s struggled mightily (a second half surge
has him hitting almost .260) and has
battled boos and a perceived lack of support and respect from the home crowd. Milton’s
personality and the baggage it carries will be gladly accepted when ‘s hitting
.300 with power, but in a season of malaise at Wrigley he’s been the focal
point of much of the frustration.
On the other side of the ball, Hendry also made several
questionable moves. He chose to let go
of steady starter Jason Marquis, who has enjoyed a stellar 2009 with the
Colorado Rockies. While the breakout of
Marquis is quite surprising, it’s just another example of how Hendry chose to
let all the wrong pieces go, increasing rather than eliminating the team’s
weaknesses. Additionally, the team let
veteran closer and lifelong Cub Kerry Wood go.
His trials and tribulations over the past decade are well documented,
but Wood had proven to be a reliable closer in his first full year out of the
pen. With the spot vacated, the team
picked up Kevin Gregg of Florida
and allowed him to compete with star reliever Carlos Marmol for the big spot.
Falling in line with the rest of the offseason acquisitions,
Gregg has been inconsistent at best, a disaster at worst. He leads major league relievers in HR allowed
and blew several games before finally losing his job to Marmol. Since then the club has had little need for a
closer as they’ve spiraled out of both the division and wild card races during
an August tailspin that has them reeling.
While Kerry Wood has blown five saves to Gregg’s six and actually has a
higher ERA, the fact is Hendry made the decision on who should replace him,
Piniella selected Gregg over Marmol (who’s been bad himself despite keeping the
same role he previously dominated in) and the results on the field have been lackluster.
Now, anyone who’s paid attention to the team this year knows
that there’s much more to the poor performance than the utter failure of the
new guys to contribute. Geovany Soto has
redefined the term sophomore slump with his horrendous play, he was also
injured and missed significant time.
Additional injuries include Carlos Zambrano, Reed Johnson, Ted Lilly,
Ryan Dempster, and the huge loss of Aramis Ramirez for two months. Soriano has performed well below expectations
and leaves some wondering if his given birth date is as inaccurate as those of
his countrymen. Fontenot has performed
as poorly at second base as Miles has, and many of the most significant
contributions have come from players who started the year at Triple-A Iowa,
including Randy Wells, Jake Fox, Bobby Scales, and Jeff Baker.
The pitching staff held together for long periods without
run support, but injuries to nearly all the starters and a bullpen with one
reliable pitcher, Angel Guzman, has faltered too many times to remain close in
playoff contention. There is still
plenty of time for the team to rebound and make a late season run at either the
division or wild card spots. However,
the Cardinals show no signs of slowing down and there are just too many teams
to jump over in the wild card chase.
This team shows all the signs of an epic letdown season following one
filled with excitement. The 2008 team
featured surprising or overachieving seasons by many players. Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot both played
over their heads, and Geovany Soto figured out Major League pitching much
quicker than anyone expected. Ryan
Dempster blossomed into a stopper and the injury bug stayed mostly at bay.
This team couldn’t expect such great seasons from so many
players again, but the total collapse of the team all at once has been a
shock. One has to wonder if the loss of
Wood and DeRosa’s clubhouse presence has been missed as much or more than even
their on field contributions. Zambrano is
too fiery, Derrek Lee simply a quiet leader, and Aramis Ramirez lets his bat do
the talking. Perhaps those steady,
reliable vets could have calmed the waters and stopped the bleeding in time to
save the season. As it is, the team that
was built to win in October can’t get it done from April to September and won’t
get a shot at the postseason. The taster
of a three-game sweep was bitter, but a six-month train wreck has proven to be
worse. This winter Jim Hendry doesn’t
have to worry about fixing nonexistent problems. Now he’s got real issues and must find better
answers than he did a year ago. If he
can’t, perhaps the real problem isn’t the people in the lineup, but rather the
ones putting that lineup together.
Hendry was able to put together the best team in the
National League, but his shortsightedness and reactionism to a one-week failure
showed a lack of patience and perspective.
The silver lining has been the play of all the youngsters who’ve had to
fill in this year. September will
provide a more extended look, and perhaps that is the new blood necessary for a
return to the top of the Central.