It’s only February and the Cubs are already hitting speed bumps. Ted Lilly’s recovery from November surgery was apparently going well, but now he hits a bit of a set-back with illness. Angel Guzman hurt his knee and his shoulder is acting up. The Cubs expect Lilly back on track this weekend and Guzman will take 7-10 days off. These seem like minor issues, but don’t forget who we’re talking about here. The Cubs aren’t a team with the history of getting past speed-bumps (cough… Bartman!… cough). The Cubs are also not lucky enough to get past injuries when the team should’ve already prepared insurance for such instances.
Entering the off-season, GM Jim Hendry and manager Lou Piniella each made it publicly known that acquiring a veteran right hander for the bullpen was a necessity. Pitchers and catchers have reported and the only veteran righty they’ve acquired is Carlos Silva who won’t be competing for a setup role (at least I hope not!). The Cubs have missed out on affordable righties like Matt Capps, Octavio Dotel, Guillermo Mota, LaTroy Hawkins, and Chan Ho Park. The only reasonable options left on the market are Kiko Calero and David Weathers. But let’s be honest, “reasonable” is stretch for these two given Kiko’s questionable health and David’s old-ness.
The best solution for this dilemma may have to come via trade. The Blue Jays are currently rebuilding so setup man Jason Frasor is probably available. Luke Gregerson has been mentioned as a target as well. A trade offer for Gregerson could start with Mike Fontenot as the Padres don’t have a promising second baseman waiting in the wings. Cubs fans have to hope that Jim Hendry judged the market correctly for once and will make a smart move, but I wouldn’t bet on that.
But at least Hendry found some insurance for Lilly and added depth at the back end of the rotation… Or wait… He didn’t. If things continue to go the Cubs’ way, Lilly’s illness will lead to a sneezing attack that will keep him out of action for a couple months (See Sammy Sosa). Further down the rotation, the Cubs will be relying on at least one of Tom Gorzelanny (5.55 ERA), Jeff Samardzija (7.53 ERA), or good old Carlos Silva (8.60 ERA) to provide crucial innings. In case Hendry is reading this, allow me to let him in on a secret: The lower the ERA, the better… A team with playoff hopes can’t wait for these types of players to figure it out.
In the end, Hendry missed out on many proven winners who could have given the Cubs the depth that’s necessary to win a World Series. Doug Davis and Jon Garland got inexpensive deals and Joel Pineiro didn’t even get the cash he was hoping for this off-season. No, they’re not Cy Youngs, but they are serviceable. Due to the lack of starters left on the market, I expect Hendry to go all-in for Ben Sheets once he proves his health with the A’s. A different option could be a guy like Kevin Correia who should be attainable from the Padres.
Instead of addressing a pitching staff known for injuries (Zambrano, Dempster, Guzman, and possibly Lilly), Hendry decided to go down his usual path of disappointment. On paper the Cubs’ hurlers look great, but when you scratch the surface you see a bullpen lacking experience and starters lining up for their turn on the DL. Unless there are some changes in the near future, Cubs fans could be in store for another season of falling just short. As newest Cub Kevin Millar would say, it’s time for Jim Hendry to “Cowboy Up!”
One bright-spot of the Chicago Cubs last year was the stride of improvement their ’09 class of prospects made.
Pitcher Randy Wells was discussed as a National League ROY candidate while Jake Fox played five positions and banged 11 home runs. Angel Guzman was healthy for a full year and and posted a 2.95 ERA in 55 outings. There were also some part-time players who contributed big-time. Esmailin Caridad appeared in 14 games, struck out 17, and walked only 3 en route to a 1.40 ERA. Justin Berg found similar success in 11 outings, only allowing one run. Backup outfielder Sam Fuld and reserve infielder Andres Blanco provided exceptional defense and reasonable offense.
Now to Jim Hendry all of this is just fine and dandy but it doesn’t matter. After a couple division titles and two disappointing trips to the NLDS, Hendry is on the hot seat. The window may be slim. Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly are entering the final years of their contracts. Meanwhile, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano aren’t getting any younger…
These factors raise the question: Why not continue getting younger? The bullpen is already almost all products of the organization’s farm system. It consists of mainly pre-arbitration arms, providing the team with some financial security and still the possibility of a future. The rotation will have openings after this year which top prospects Jay Jackson, Andrew Cashner, and even ‘the other’ Chris Carpenter should have opportunities to fill.
The offense has an opening in center with the plans to move Kosuke Fukudome back right after the imminent Milton Bradley disposal. Instead of replacing Bradley with a high-priced center fielder (Curtis Granderson, Vernon Wells, Aaron Rowand, etc.), I would plan on leaving the spot open for an internal replacement. Tyler Colvin made his debut last season and is a lefty gap hitter who plays center. He hit very well at AA. Kyler Burke is another top outfield prospect but he is only 21 and still a few years away.
As for the middle of the infield, Starlin Castro is the young phenom rising fast in the club’s inner circles. Still only 19, Castro will not break camp with the big league club this spring. But that’s not necessary. Leave him at AAA to get some more seasoning and let Jeff Baker hang onto the starting gig which he earned last summer. If Castro can prove himself in Iowa and the right situation arises, a promotion is likely as Ryan Theriot has already agreed to moving to second base if it would help the team.
Going along with these moves will be tough for a GM under fire and a manager in the last year of his illustrious career, but will set up the Cubs for a financially functional future. The Ricketts have big plans for Wrigley so saving money when possible would be nice. Instead of the huge free agent/trade targets, the Cubs need to pursue a right handed outfielder to split time with Colvin in center and share the load with Kosuke against tough lefties. If Marlon Byrd’s value really does drop as far as some say it will, he would be a perfect fit as would guys like Randy Winn, Coco Crisp, and Reed Johnson. Otherwise, acquiring this outfielder as part of the return for Milton Bradley makes sense with such possibilities as Gary Matthews Jr. and Nick Swisher. The other spot Hendry needs to focus on is the rotation because it sounds like Ted Lilly will miss extended time next year.
I don’t predict this to be a huge off-season for the Cubbies, but I also don’t think they need huge changes. Saving some money now may give them the flexibility to add payroll in a couple winters when the free agent class will offer better values.