Chicago Cubs: Are They Legitimate Contenders in the NL Central, Part II

Tom LeshContributor IIIFebruary 6, 2011

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 30:  General manager Jim Hendry (R) of the Chicago Cubs introduces Alfonso Soriano #12 during a press conference to announce the sigining of Soriano to an eight year free agent contract November 30, 2006 at the Stadium Club at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Chris Chambers/Getty Images

Besides the relatively rosy picture Cubs management paints, described in Part I, there is another view as to why the Cubs lost last year. The bottom line is that one really doesn’t have to buy into the bad luck or underachievement excuses.  There are legitimate doubts about the steps that have been taken to improve the team.

Actually, you could go on and on analyzing just what happened to this team in 2010, and I have done so to some extent on my blog.  The truth is there was only a little bad luck and in terms of underachievement, well, a lot of that was not unexpected and much of it can more readily be explained by bad decisions in the front office and on the field.

The only bad luck part was that Ramirez was hurt through most of the first half of the season and continued to play hurt.  This is the second consecutive year that injuries to Ramirez brought down the club.  The Cubs need to face facts here.  They don’t score runs unless Ramirez is healthy and they have no bench. If he goes down again, the Cubs will be in trouble—again.

Maybe there was a little bad luck when Geovany Soto was banged up after a fast start, but then you have to factor in Lou Piniella’s bizarre decision to play Koyie Hill most of the time for the month after Soto had recovered.

Much of the rest of the so called underachievement can be chalked up to holding on to Lou Piniella for another year and supporting him in his lunatic decisions.  That and a case of age and declining skills leading to an overvaluation of players, Derrick Lee and Alfonso Soriano being cases in point.

The Cubs had the second best starting pitcher performance in terms of quality starts last season.  Granted, they had terrible pitching in middle relief, but they also had two really good back end guys in the bullpen, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol.  They should have done a lot better in terms of winning games even when you factor in Piniella’s idiotic game management decisions and the whole Zambrano fiasco.

They didn’t win games mainly because they didn’t score runs and they didn’t score runs for a number of reasons.  They ran the bases poorly.  They didn’t get on base because they were impatient. 

But mainly, they didn’t score because they did not build a lineup that made any sense. For some reason, the Cubs rarely seem to construct their teams with a view to building a lineup or a batting order that gets men on base and scores.

This is because the Cubs never seem to look at the numbers and performance stats and take logical actions based on them.

Take the following.  The Cubs were a predominantly free-swinging right handed hitting team that rarely worked the count or walked.  They struck out far too often.  As such, they were easy to pitch to.

They didn’t help matters by lining up Ryan Theriot, Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, Marlon Byrd and too often Xavier Nady in the heart of the batting order every single day.  Pitchers were pitching to the same type of hitter all the time and quickly figured this out.

To some extent, the addition of Blake DeWitt and Carlos Pena alleviates this problem. However, DeWitt isn’t exactly a superstar and Pena is coming off a bad year.

To succeed the Cubs have to recognize that the only genuine everyday right handed hitters they have are Ramirez, Soto, and Starlin Castro.  The only genuine everyday left handed hitter is Pena.  If you look at the numbers without sentiment, the rest of their players are platoon players or are seriously flawed or one dimensional at best.

If you look at the Cubs as a whole, the infield and catching is pretty well set and can be balanced and productive by introducing a platoon at second base. 

The outfield is where the problem is.  It is a problem because the Cubs do not recognize that Soriano and Byrd are strictly platoon players and that Kosuke Fukudome is the only guy who plays consistent defense and gets on base.  Soriano is actually only worth something as a platoon DH.

Unless Brett Jackson is ready for the majors or they get some production from the switch-hitter Perez that has been lacking so far, they are once again faced with a four man outfield rotation.  Implementing this rotation seemed to be beyond the ken of Lou Piniella last year, and, to be honest, Mike Quade didn’t do a whole lot better.

Most commentators think Tyler Colvin, who has some potential, will get playing time mainly at the expense of Fukudome. It’s a big mistake if the Cubs choose that route.  The Cubs will be a better team the more playing time Colvin costs Soriano and Byrd.

On a deeper level, the Cubs have a real problem with consistency in their approach to building a team.  Just this fall, they made a big deal about having built a terrific farm system and how they would grow from within.  Then they proceeded to trade away five prospects for a good but not great established starter.

I happen to think, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard, that you first have to decide whether you are a major player or a bottom feeder.  Hendry has a difficult time with this concept.  His one foray into the major market tier is still with us today in the form of some really out-sized contracts and the person of Alfonso Soriano, probably the dumbest and most useless player anyone could have signed for eight years and still be stuck with for four more years at $18 million per.

Taking the comparison to the Phillies that I have made in earlier posts a step further, it is clear the Phillies have a plan and that they act like a major market team even though they cannot compete with the Red Sox or Yankees in terms of payroll size.  The one thing these teams do is to go after the difference makers, the premier players you can build a franchise around.

This offseason, there were arguably four such players available—Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, who were free agents, and Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke, who were clearly on the block.  Take Crawford out of the equation because, one, he probably is not as good as the others, and, two, the Cubs already have a logjam in the outfield as it is.

They made no serious effort to acquire either Lee or Greinke.  In the case of Lee, the excuse was he would bust their budget.  With Greinke, there was no real explanation, other than the general supposition that the price in terms of prospects was too high, and they were maybe worried about his substantial drop in performance after his Cy Young season in 2009.  Instead, the Cubs targeted Garza and wound up trading away a greater package of prospects to land him.

The guy they really needed to haul in was Gonzalez, and it appears they made some sort of effort that fell short.  None of us know the players who were involved in the talks, but it is hard to stack up the package they dealt off for Garza and the package the Padres received without concluding the Cubs package looks a lot better on paper.

The most successful teams of the last decade or so, and I mean the most successful year in and year out in reaching the playoffs and advancing, not the teams that go three and out every few years, are built around a nucleus of home grown talent and the addition of one or more superstars, real difference makers—dominant players.  The Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies are built along these lines.

The model requires that you develop a core of players you can control through their arbitration years as well as the ability to retain the best of them when they are eligible for free agency and to trade for or sign players your competition cannot afford in order to plug any holes.  Small market teams, Tampa Bay, for example, and the Twins, have had a lot of success in building the nucleus, but they cannot afford to retain it.

The Cubs should be in the same class as at least the Phillies, but they don’t seem to be able to develop position players from their farm system, at least not in the recent past.

They have made a hash of most of their forays into the free agent market.  They just don’t seem to have a plan, nor the will to carry one out in a logical way.  The result has been that they seem to reinvent themselves every other year.  Unless you have an unlimited budget and some really sharp scouts and management, well, it just cannot be done.

So I guess what I am saying is that the Cubs success this coming season is going to depend on making some reasonable decisions.  The more they deviate from the decisions an objective evaluation of their personnel forces upon them—which is to say the more they believe they have an all around great bunch of talent that for some obscure reason underperformed—the less likely they are to make the most of the hand they are dealt and the more likely they are going to have to rely on breaks.

That or hope their pitching—which is pretty good—holds up and they win all those one run games they are going to be playing.