To say there were big expectations for the 2009 Chicago Cubs would be a bit of an understatement. Heading into the season, the Cubs were widely considered the class of the National League Central by both fans and prognosticators alike, and why not?
A disappointing showing in the playoffs notwithstanding, the Cubs enjoyed great success in 2008. The team won a league-leading 97 games in the regular season (capturing its second-consecutive division title in the process), boasted one of the best lineups in baseball, and featured a strong, effective pitching staff.
Despite this success, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry reacted strongly to Chicago’s sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series and decided to make big changes to the roster.
He traded away fan-favorite and jack-of-all-trades Mark DeRosa, allowed closer Kerry Wood to leave via free agency, traded away starting pitcher Jason Marquis in what was essentially a salary dump, and decided to part ways with outfielder Jim Edmonds. To offset those losses, Hendry traded for relievers Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman and signed second baseman Aaron Miles and outfielder Milton Bradley.
Although many fans did not like these moves, on paper, the Cubs still appeared poised for a return trip to the postseason.
But as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.
Rather than run away with the division, the Cubs have hovered within five games of the .500 mark for most of the season, a far cry from the lofty expectations most had going into the season.
Many people place the blame for the Cubs’ struggles squarely at the feet of Hendry, and I would have a hard time disputing that notion. The wheeling and dealing he made in the off-season has yet to pay off. Bradley has struggled to adjust to life in Chicago, Gregg has blown five saves and allowed 11 home runs in just 53.2 innings of work, Miles can barely hit above the Mendoza line, and Heilman has been a gas can out of the bullpen.
And yet, as poor as his decisions have looked, Hendry alone is not to blame for the mess on the field.
The lineup is riddled with key players who are underperforming. Alfonso Soriano is having the worst year of his career, Carlos Marmol needs a GPS just to find the strike zone, and Mike Fontenot can’t hit his way out of a paper bag.
The Cubs have also been plagued by injuries, with Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden, Geovany Soto, and Reed Johnson all having spent time on the disabled list.
And while these all may be valid reasons for the team’s problems, they simply hide the larger truth of the matter: the Cubs are not a very good baseball team.
After Wednesday night’s 12-5 shellacking by the Phillies, Chicago is just 20-34 against teams with winning records.
Think about that for a moment.
A team with playoff aspirations is 14 games under .500 against the very teams it would have to play in the postseason. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence.
For much of the year, people have been saying to give it time. The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Once the team wakes up, they will be fine.
The problem with that line of thinking is that there is little to suggest the Cubs will wake up. At some point, you have to stop thinking its lousy play has been an aberration and realize that this is who the 2009 Chicago Cubs are. It is an average team that struggles against good teams but can hold its own against the poorer ones.
With all that being said, the Cubs still have a chance to make it into the postseason. Of Chicago’s last 50 games, only 12 are against teams with winning records. But at this point, just making the playoffs is not enough. The fans are restless and want a World Series title. Unfortunately for them, that does not appear likely to happen this season.