With the Cubs placing their crosshairs on a 2012 run like Sarah Palin, it’s worth considering the chances that they could aim a little bit higher. The Cubs have now added a solid No. 2 starter in Matt Garza, a slugging first baseman—albeit with an OPS (.732) lower than Starlin Castro’s—in Carlos Pena and a suitable bridge to Carlos Marmol in Kerry Wood. These additions fill GM Jim Hendry’s top three offseason priorities—adding a frontline starter, a lefty power bat who can play first base and a power reliever—despite lacking payroll flexibility. Well done, Mr. Hendry…
Unless you consider that the Cubs are still likely to finish behind the Reds, Brewers, Cardinals and maybe the Astros. Since going winless in back to back postseasons in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs have broadened the definition of mediocrity to include August in Wrigley.
The Cubs are the middle managers of MLB; clock-punching, knit tie-wearing lunchbox carriers looking up admiringly to the elite in baseball. Those elite franchises, like the Phillies and Red Sox, spend their league-leading payrolls to become the league’s CEOs—the Beemer-driving, luxury box-sitting, swagger-mongers. The Cubs, who will likely have the National League’s highest payroll, will enter 2011 with a scratchy quilt of overpriced vets and unproven question marks, with the faraway dream that they could one day mesh into a championship unit.
But what if that day was sooner rather than...never? With gaudy pieces like Castro, Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner and Brett Jackson potentially for sale and available suitors looking to cast off today’s stars in favor of tomorrow's dreams, would the Cubs be willing to dash it all for a 2011 run? Signs indicate that they might be, after sending four of their top 12 prospects to Tampa last week for Garza.
So look into that crystal ball, Mr. Hendry, for here are the top moves the Cubs could make to secure a trip to the playoffs in 2011…
When Cubs fans ask themselves what the strength of the team is, how often is the answer Wrigleyville? What if the Cubs had a genuine strength on their roster? Signing Soriano for the 8th inning would immediately make the bullpen that strength, and give the Cubs the best back end in the NL.
The Cubs were 10 games under .500 last year in one run games, and 12 games under overall. Soriano, who has 72 saves over the last two years, would combine with Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall to instantly alter the complexion of the team.
Is his asking price too high? Is it too high compared to the price of empty bleachers in September?
The Cubs leading run producer in 2010 was Aramis Ramirez with 83 RBI. Ramirez is likely to bat fourth in the Cubs 2011 lineup, behind Marlon Byrd and ahead of Carlos Pena. There’s no doubt that adding Upton to the middle of the lineup would make Ramirez look much better in the five-hole, and Pena likewise in the six-hole.
Seem unlikely? Until the Diamondbacks pulled him off the table following the trade of Mark Reynolds, they were looking for two frontline prospects in exchange for Upton (i.e. Brett Jackson and Andrew Cashner).
Upton comes with a reasonable contract, five more years of control and massive upside. The Diamondbacks are in full scale rebuilding mode and might submit to persistent requests, as the Rays did prior to the Garza trade.
Committing two years to Pavano is a terrible move for the Cubs, who have a full rotation and would like to give youngsters like Cashner more experience at the big league level. It would probably make Carlos Silva’s contract expendable but untradeable and eliminate Randy Wells from their roster.
However, if the Cubs want to win this year, they might consider that Pavano won 17 games last year, would be the front-of-the-rotation arm they need to keep pressure off of Garza and Carlos Zambrano and has a track record of battling through adversity. All would be novelties on the North Side.
Zambrano’s rebound from dugout maniac to team ace was the bipolar equivalent of my Aunt Frieda after three gin and tonics at Christmas dinner. He finished 8-0 in August and September with a 1.58 ERA in the second half. He’s the only Cub with ace stuff, the only Cub to throw a no-hitter and he has more career home runs (21) than the Cubs starting middle infield combined (20).
He is also somewhat volatile (and by volatile, I mean NASDAQ, circa 2008, volatile). He is the Lindsay Lohan of Cubs pitchers, except less jail and more bloating. If the Cubs are unable to trade him, they’ll only go so far as Big Z takes them.
Anyone know a good shrink in Chicago?
Quick, Cubs fans. Name the Cubs’ last genuine leadoff hitter. I’ll give you a moment. Okay, here’s a hint…he had only 208 ABs in his only year with the Cubs but he captured your heart, and second base. Cubs fans have seen a lot of Juan Pierre, Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot since Kenny Lofton left, along with the Cubs' chances of finally winning a World Series in 2003.
Ichiro and Castro would give the Cubs’ beleaguered run producers a lot of chances to cash in. Ichiro has a highly back-loaded contract that the Mariners have to want to part with. If the Cubs could throw in Kosuke Fukudome, who is in the final year of his mammoth four year deal, along with a prospect, the Cubs lineup would immediately have a Hall of Fame presence at the top.
Starting Blake DeWitt to start the season would be an immediate, opening day white flag to the rest of the division. Dewitt had the 27th best OPS (.709) among regular 2Bs last year. His weak bat is exceeded slightly by his below average range and limited upside.
Kelly Johnson or Chone Figgins would both provide a superior top of the order bat and plus defense. At 28 and set to become a free agent at season’s end, Johnson may be primed to pick up where he left off at the end of 2010, when he put up career numbers across the board (.284/.370/.496). Figgins would give the Cubs the leadoff hitter they lack and fill in at 3B when Ramirez eventually gets hurt.
Both the Mariners and Diamondbacks need to get young fast, and neither player will be around when their respective teams become playoff contenders. The Cubs’ stance on their second baseman will signal to players and fans alike how they really regard their chances in 2011.
Reyes would galvanize the entire Cubs lineup, allow Castro to move to 2B while he develops a big-league body and quickly become the best SS in the division.
One year remains on Reyes’ contract, and reports this offseason suggest that new GM Sandy Alderson has dangled Reyes in trade talks. The luster is clearly off of the former franchise cornerstone. Reyes is 27 and oft-injured. His struggles the last two years have coincided with those of the Mets, who appear committed to building a youthful foundation.
The Mets in turn would likely want two major prospects, along with MLB-ready talent. The chances of such a deal might seem remote now, but if it’s June and the Mets are below .500, new management might look to make a splash.
Choo is a .300-hitting, perennial 20-20 offensive player with tools galore. He’s also a free agent at the end of 2011 and has hired Scott Boras as his agent. Meanwhile, the Indians have become the Dollar Tree of the AL, having signed exactly one free agent this offseason (Austin Kearns). The likelihood that Choo will sign an extension with the Tribe ranks alongside the likelihood that Cleveland will contend this year in the AL Central.
Would it be worth it to trade Brett Jackson and a starting pitcher to Cleveland for Choo? Absolutely. Acquiring Choo would send Fukudome to the bench and let first year manager Mike Quade fill out a lineup card that would rival those of the Cardinals and Reds.
The Dodgers are outwardly committed to keeping Kemp, who is arbitration eligible for one more year, and who scouts, management, fans, fellow players and peanut vendors all feel has yet to reach his potential. In 2009, Kemp was a Gold Glove center fielder who received MVP votes. Kemp regressed in 2010, during which he hit a paltry .249/.310/.450, was publicly questioned by teammates and became the subject of trade rumors (mostly started by his agent).
The Dodgers will no doubt have a decision to make, one that could be affected by their unstable ownership situation. On one hand, the Dodgers are always among the leaders in revenue and merchandising and play in the nation’s second biggest market. On the other hand, they haven’t signed a Type A free agent in years and seem only slightly interested in signing their own free agents.
An aggressive Cubs front office could win over the potential star and his troubled franchise.
No player move the Cubs could make in 2011 would approach a change in the overall culture of complacency that has plagued the Cubs since 2008. Last year saw Zambrano lose his faculties, Lou Piniella seem disinterested and then retire and Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez disappear for long stretches of the season.
Quade will be managing for more than September sell-outs and the approval of new owner Tom Ricketts. As an unproven, new manager he’ll be managing for his job in his first year, with all the pressure associated with the Chicago market and the NL’s highest payroll.
If Quade can turn around the culture of complacency that has plagued the Cubs, they could make a run sooner than even Cubs fans think.