Off-Season Preview: The Chicago Cubs.
Well, no team was more disappointing in 2009 than the Chicago Cubs. After a remarkable 2008 campaign and the acquisition of Milton Bradley, many thought that the Cubs would be the favorite to win the National League in 2009. However, because of a run in with injuries and under performances, the Cubs only managed 83 wins in 2009 and saw the rival Cardinals run away with the division. After winning two straight division titles and being expected to win a 3rd, the Cubs failed to make the playoffs and fans are left saying "Wait til next year" for the 101st consecutive year. Not much needs to change this off-season for the Cubs, outside of bullpen help and a slugger in the offense, and the biggest thing that the team needs is to stay relatively healthy for the 2010 season.
Pitching: After a very, very strong pitching performance in 2008, the Chicago Cubs actually improved as far as ERA goes. A 3.84 team ERA was good for 5th in baseball, and always kept the team in games. The only pitchers with an ERA over 4 within the rotation was Rich Harden, who had an ERA of 4.09 in 141 innings. A low team WHIP of 1.325 was also seen, and the only true weakness in the staff was the back end of the bullpen. Let's take a look at individual performances within the staff:
After being kind of shaky in 2009 at times, Ted Lilly was freakishly consistent in 2009 when he was on the field. In 177 IP, he posted an ERA of 3.10 and a WHIP of 1.056. The most impressive part of Lilly's performance was his SO/BB ratio of 4.19, which is very impressive for a starter. His one weakness was homers, but with being a fly-ball pitcher, one can expect that (he gave up 22 homers). However, he consistently kept the team in games and only allowed 66 runs to cross the plate in 177 innings.
Well, he gave Cubs fans something to cheer for for a while, with his contention in the ROY race, but fell off a little bit in the second half. Either way, Randy Wells had a great debut season for the Chicago Cubs. In 165 innings, he posted an ERA of 3.05 and a WHIP of 1.276, and has all but guaranteed himself the #5 starting job next year for the Cubs. Wells does not have good "stuff", but his control is prime, and he will likely live in the high 3's and low 4's in ERA for the majority of his career. After the failure to trade for Jake Peavy and the injuries/suspensions to other pitchers in the rotation, Wells' contribution to the team was very welcomed and surprising to most people.
The 2009 Cubs struggled in the bullpen, and only had one good performance, really. Guzman posted an ERA of 2.95 in 61 innings in 2009 and has likely locked up the set-up role for next season. A 1.049 WHIP in the bullpen was by far the best result out of the bullpen.
Now to other things:
Many people (including myself) thought that Derrek Lee's career was on a decline. They thought he was washed up, finished, and DONE. 2009 was a statement season for Lee. In 615 plate appearances, Lee batted .306/.393/.579 with an OPS+ of 147. He might finish top 5 in the MVP voting, but I doubt it. His contribution was really the only consistent offensive performance the club saw throughout the season, considering he was one of few major players to avoid missing significant time due to injuries, even though he missed 20 games. 35 homers and 111 RBI sure were good production totals for Lee in 2009.
Early in the season, Ramirez dislocated his shoulder, and wound up missing 50 games in one stretch and several games due to shoulder soreness. He actually wound up missing 80 of 162 games in 2009, which killed the Cubs' offense. However, in the 82 games he played, he batted .317/.389/.516 with an OPS+ of 131, continuing his great career performance. When healthy, he and Lee are one of the better 3/4 combos in baseball, but this year, that combination was rarely in the lineup together, which led to lack of offensive production.
Well, the off-season program Kosuke went on sure did help him. He never tailed off in the second half. Fukudome also made major improvements in OBP and SLG this year, increasing the former by 16 points and the latter by 42. In 146 games, he batted .259/.375/.421 with an OPS+ of 105, which was a great improvement over his 2008 campaign.
Well, this all starts with the offense:
Replace Mark DeRosa with Mike Fontenot and Jim Edmonds with Milton Bradley, and you change the 2008 Cubs offense, which was the best in the NL to the 2009 Cubs offense which was one of the worst in the NL. This seems to make little to no sense, but it is true. Injuries led to under-performances in 2009, and between Soto, Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, and Bradley, 241 games were missed. It's not an excuse for under-performance, but it is a factor in why the team underperformed. The team was 12th in the NL in BA, 9th in OBP, 8th in SLG, 10th in OPS, and 10th in runs scored. Major change from 2008 when they were 1st in all categories besides batting average, in which they were 2nd.
No player who makes this much money should perform this badly. In 522 plate appearances, Soriano batted .241/.303/.423 with an OPS+ of 85, all pathetic numbers for a "slugging lead-off hitter". He stole only 9 bases and hit only 20 homers, and went the entire month of June without hitting a home run. He's not exactly the 40/40 guy the Cubs hoped he would be. He finally lost his job as the leadoff hitter, and will have to work extremely hard to ever bad lead-off again for the Cubs.
A horror story in a season, this is. He didn't produce very well on the field, and he was absolutely horrendous off the field. Why Hendry signed him over Dunn I do not know, but Bradley batted .257/.378/.397 with an OPS+ of 101 in 473 PA. A player who signs for 10 million dollars does not give this kind of production to a team, if he wants to be what he is supposedly worth. The signing was terrible, and it wouldn't be shocking if Bradley was not a Cub in 2010.
Back end of the bullpen:
Letting Kerry Wood walk and trading for Kevin Gregg were two terrible moves for Jim Hendry. Gregg was lights out at home, never blowing a save at home, but on the road, he was awful, and blew several saves. He had a 4.72 ERA as the closer, and his setup comrade Carlos Marmol had a WHIP of 1.459, because he walked 8 batters per nine innings. Marmol has basically locked down the closer role for 2010, and Gregg will not be back next year as a Cub.
Where to Improve:
1. Bullpen- It's very rare to ever see a good Cubs bullpen. This year, the pen was terrible, with only one pitcher (Guzman) having an ERA under 3. Additions to the pen like John Grabow and Tom Gorzellany are likely to be brought back for next year, while Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman will not likely be back. The bullpen took 28 combined losses in 2010 and needs to be improved upon.
Possible FA Acquisitions- Jose Valverde. It's not likely that the Cubs go after him, but if they want a good closer and are willing to pay a pretty penny for one, then Valverde is the man they should go after.
Minor League Watch- Jeff Samardzjia. He pitched 34 innings in 2009, and was not very good, but definitely shows promise as an arm out of the bullpen in the future.
2. Leadoff hitter- Ryan Theriot is a 2 hole hitter by nature, and Soriano is obviously not fit to leadoff any more, so the spot is currently open. The most likely candidate for the job: Free Agent utility infielder Chone Figgins. His OBP and SB help would spark the offense and likely help get it back to 2008 form. Many reports around Chicago are saying that the Cubs are interested, and Hendry has said that he will do anything to help the team win. Well, Jim...go get him.
Possible FA Acquisitions- Chone Figgins
Minor League Watch- Andres Blanco. Blanco is more known for flashing the leather than anything else, but with a little work from a new hitting coach, Blanco could develop into the future leadoff hitter.
3. Health and recovery from underproduction- much like the Mets, the Cubs simply need to be healthy in 2010 in order to have success. Health will hopefully lead to consistency, which will likely lead to success. None of that is guaranteed, but being on the field for the majority of the season sure would help the team.
Outlook on 2010:
I think the Cubs are going to bounce back from the 2009 campaign and be set and ready for success in 2010. The talent is there in the pitching staff, in the offense, and on defense. With a solid closer and a good leadoff hitter, this team would be able to compete with anyone in the National League, and maybe all of baseball. I'm not making any guarantees, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Cubs took back control of the NL Central in 2010.
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