Two straight NL Central Division titles. Two straight first round playoff exits. This is the story of the Chicago Cubs for the last two seasons.
A dramatic improvement from what the Wrigley faithful were used to seeing decades ago. But still, the fans are demanding more in 2009.
The off-season for the Chicago Cubs has been busy this year. Departures of Ronny Cedeno, Felix Pie, Jim Edmonds, Henry Blanco and what many fans and media types considered the 2008 MVP, Mark DeRosa forced Jim Hendry to find vital ingredients during the hot stove period.
These players were jettisoned for reasons from payroll to lack of development. In DeRosa’s case the idea of removing a player one year too early as opposed to one year too late sent him east to Cleveland in exchange for younger talent.
Last year's 25-man roster had tremendous chemistry, but could not produce when it mattered most. The looming question for the Cubs was how to get a 97-win team in the regular season to an 11 win team in the playoffs.
The biggest splash in the Cubs off-season was the acquisition of the switch-hitting RF Milton Bradley. Cubs manager Lou Piniella voiced his need to break up the block of right handed hitters in the middle of the Cubs lineup. Bradley will do just that.
His defense and clubhouse demeanor could be questions during a 162-game campaign, but if he can stay healthy, the addition of his league-leading OBP for the Cubs could be critical.
The void left by 2B Mark DeRosa will likely be filled with new acquisition Aaron Miles or bench player Mike Fontenot.
Fontenot had an above average season as opposed to previous years with the Cubs. 2B, accompanied by CF, will likely be the areas of greatest concern for the Cubs in ’09.
With 2B and CF unlikely to have consistent everyday starters even after Spring Training, those two positions up the middle of the field will be Lou Pinella’s greatest challenge in 2009.
Edmonds was able to provide an inexpensive spark for the 2008 Cubs in CF but the captain of the outfield this year will rotate between scrapper Reed Johnson and the import Kosuke Fukudome.
Fukudome's splits last year were drastically different (.279/7/36 first half, .217/3/22 second half). However, Johnson is not used to playing everyday recording just 333 ABs last year.
Will Piniella choose to start these two in matchups with Johnson starting against LHP and Fukudome against RHP? It would be safe to assume Johnson will get all the starts against LHP but he should see his fair share against RHP as well.
At 2B, the Cubs could have a difficult decision. Fontenot is only 29 and if they see him as a solution for the next few seasons it would be wise to allow him to get a lion’s share of the starts at 2B.
Miles is a much better defensive 2B and had his best season since 2003 last year posting a .317 average.
With the abundance of ground ball pitchers in the Cubs staff, it would seem likely that Miles will get more of the starts at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, expect to see Fontenot stealing more starts.
The Opening Day lineup should be very familiar at the first four slots, with most of the changes coming to the last four. Expect Soriano to continue to lead off, followed by Theriot, Lee and Ramirez.
Bradley should slot into the RBI 5-hole followed by sensational second-year backstop Geovany Soto. The No. 7 and 8 spots will be the splits of Johnson or Fukudome followed by Miles or Fontenot, giving the nod to Johnson and Miles on opening day in Houston.
In pressure situations, the Cubs excelled in 2008 having come from behind in the seventh inning or later 17 times. Leaning on the strong bat of Aramis Ramirez and streaky Alfonso Soriano in clutch situations will be a theme again in 2009.
Derrek Lee had a solid year hitting .308 with RISP and .265 with RISP and 2 outs. However, he had a knack for grounding into untimely double plays with 21 last year. That will be something for Lee to prove he can stay away from in 2009.
Having Geovany Soto and Milton Bradley raise their sub-.200 averages with RISP and less than two outs will be crucial for the middle of the Cubs lineup to produce runs.
Clutch hitting in the regular season has not been a problem for the Cubs in the last 2 seasons. Solving that post-season dilemma will be a high priority for this year’s squad.
Scoring six runs in three games isn’t going to rain ticker tape down State Street in Chicago come October.