The Rise and Fall of the Lou Pinella Cubs
I was reading around last evening, and trying to make some sense of Royals-related win-loss trends…only to find that all I had to do was wait for Joe Posnanski to do the work for me:
Well, there are at least two ways you could look at it. One, you could point out that some really bad teams have gone 18-11 or so over 29 games. The 2002 Kansas City Royals lost exactly 100 games. They were 18-11 from June 22 to July 23. The 2006 Chicago Cubs lost 96 games and were one of the great bad teams in recent memory — they had an 18-11 stretch. The 1980 New York Mets lost 95 games — that’s the last full year of Joe Torre in Queens. They had TWO 18-11 records. The 1996 Detroit Tigers lost 106 games had one of the worst pitching staffs ever. They had a 30-game stretch of 17-13, which isn’t quite 18 games, but that team was awful.
Now, the other point is that the Royals have gone 19-46 since that 18-11 start. Does that tell you anything? Um, yeah. In 2008, only one team managed to go 19-46 over a 65 game stretch: The worst team in baseball, the Washington Nationals. In 2007, the only team to do it was … the worst team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2006, the only teams to do it were … the Kansas City Royals, the Chicago Cubs (who also went 18-11, you might recall) and the Tampa Bay Rays, the three worst teams in baseball. In 2005, only the Royals and Tampa again, two worst teams. In 2004, it was Kansas City (again), Arizona (horrendous) and Milwaukee, which was actually not the third worst team, but was plenty bad, a 94-loss dud.
And so on. So being that bad over 65 games just about ALWAYS tells you that a team is terrible. Being 18-11 over 29 games, meanwhile, doesn’t tell you much at all.
Poz is simply commenting on the small sample value of winning 18 games in a month of play as an indicator of strength, but I see something else at work here. As noted in his post, a team that wins fewer than 20 games in a 65 game stretch is an awful team. But, there are different kinds of awful teams. And, more to the point, not all awful teams will be awful in year n+1. A lot will. Some will not. And it seems to have little to do with the on-field product in year n, but with the circumstances surrounding those teams. Let’s take a look at the 2006 Cubs, a team that, like the 2009 Royals, had the talent to win consistently for about a month, but was too flawed to be anything but a last place team.
I remember the 2006 Cubs well. That was Dusty Baker’s last hurrah, at least with a team with a fighting chance in March. It was Juan Pierre’s only season with the Cubs, although in my mind, he might as well have always been a Cub. The 2006 Cubs were as much a “Dusty” team as the Cubs were in any other season, but a lot of the starting lineup was made up of Jim Hendry’s acquisitions, players who were younger than the typical Dusty player. It remains, to this day, Matt Murton’s career year. If not for Angel Berroa, Ronny Cedeno would have been the worst regular in baseball that year. That team ended up playing with Todd Walker at first base for about half the season when Derrick Lee was injured. Trust me, it was bad.
The rise of the Cubs from the Baker-led mess of the year before went further than having some notable injuries and the outsting of an inconsistently competant manager. And, maybe to the surprise of many, it didn’t really benefit from the development of it’s young talent. Offensively, in fact, the first version of the Pinella Cubs barely improved at all over the bunt-em-over, hit-em-in, out machine laden 2006 team. They scored 40 more runs in 2007, a total that could be attributed to so many small things that it’s not possible to conclusively argue that the offensive talent improved.
Furthermore, the Cubs also made some questionable decisions about their young talent going into their 2007 season. Matt Murton, going into his age-25 season, had his role decreased. The team signed Cesar Izturis to play as Ronny Cedeno for a year while Cedeno was sent down to triple A Iowa for seasoning. The Cubs made a curious choice to rush five-tool prospect Felix Pie up in the middle of the season and give him 200 PAs. The Cubs didn’t improve because their young talent did anything of note. They got better, overnight, because they spent money. They bought Mark DeRosa, Cliff Floyd, and Alfonso Soriano, and all three were productive for the Cubs in 2007, and frankly, probably saved the team the embarrassment of losing production from the Dusty Baker offense that couldn’t score in the first place. But the biggest, most critical signing, was pitcher Ted Lilly, who filled a huge hole in the Cubs rotation as a 1a-type starter. Zambrano, Lilly, Hill was a 1,2,3 punch unmatched in the NL-Central, and this came only a year after the Cubs would throw Zambrano, and then pray for rain before going to Hill.
The result of the money spent was a worst-to-first job by the Cubs, a spot where they would stay for another 162-game season. Only, the next Cubs team actually did get a kick in the pants from it’s young talent, specifically C Giovanny Soto, SS Ryan Theriot, and 2B Mike Fontenot.
By 2008, the Cubs had used their financial resources to completely import an outfield that, by the end of May, had booted it’s last Baker-holdover (Jacque Jones) and consisted of Kosuke Fukudome, Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds, along with Soriano and DeRosa. Murton and Pie were blocked, this time for good. Unwilling to let Rich Hill work through some severe control issues in 5 April starts, the Cubs banished their last young pitching prospect from the rotation, eventually replacing him in a trade for Rich Harden, a 24 year old pitcher who sports the body of a 34 year old. None of the Cubs prospects from the Hendry era: Cedeno, Pie, Hill, or Murton, made it into Pinella’s third year with the team. When you have that many prospect failings, for any reason, superior financial resources will only keep you afloat for so long.
Of course, the 2008 Cubs were every bit as good a Cubs team as we’ve seen in the last 100 years. They didn’t just float to the top of the perennially weak NL Central, the Cubs destroyed the division. A late season run by the Brewers made the standings look closer than they ever were. And, I think, the dominance of the Cubs in the 2008 regular season, I think it overshadowed a very unsteady organization.
Relief pitcher performance, in general, tends to be very fickle. However, the Cubs had produced a much better than average bullpen in three and a half consecutive seasons, heading into the 2009 all-star break. Whether in first or last, the Cubs had always been able to get batters out late in the game at relatively little cost. This has proven to be sustainable thus far, however, it also appears to be a fickle principal that the Cubs have grown reliant on.
Still, given all the underlying problems, the Cubs outscored their opponents by 184 runs in 2008, and in 2009, the Cubs are on pace to give up the same number of runs against as they did in 2008 when they were the best team in baseball. As noted above with the bullpen, they can’t necessarily expect to keep that up, although the fact that the Cubs are a strong defensive team certainly helps.
The culprit has been the offense. They are averaging over a run per game less than last season. But, as stated above, this is more or less the team the Hendry-led Cubs have always been. Last year’s team led the NL in scoring, but in hindsight, involved nearly a perfect storm of career years, as well as excellent depth, and had much less to do with the development of it’s young talent, which has always been this organizations main issue. Theriot and Fukudome have progressed naturally, Derrick Lee is chipping in his usual 120 OPS+ season, Aramis Ramirez has been hurt for a significant part of the year, but truly, only two players on the Cubs offense have been underachieving: Soto (who is hurt), and Soriano (who may just be in decline).
The Cubs have actually found depth in other places: 1b/3b/c/of Jake Fox tore up triple-A this year before taking his anger out on big league pitchers, while 2b/3b Bobby Scales was a pleasant surprise as well, and the Cubs have gotten use out of the glove of UT Andres Blanco. None of these players, however, can fix the larger problem. If Soriano is in fact in decline, if the Cubs don’t get another productive season with their Catcher spot, and if Mike Fontenot’s 2008 season was just a small sample fluke, we’re talking about three black holes in a national league lineup going forward that would have to be fixed, once again, through free agency…which, if you’ll remember got the Cubs into this mess in the first place
And when you look at it from a year-to-year perspective, the Cubs are one of the oldest offenses in the league, with only one starter (Soto) having theoretically his best years ahead of him, and given his decline this year, that isn’t even a foregone conclusion. Their lone hitting prospect, Josh Vitters, will not be with the major league team in 2010, except in the most optimistic of projections.
What Pinella has brought to the Cubs was consistency in the pitching rotation, which has been excellent for three consecutive seasons under his watch. Lilly and Zambrano should be a nice one-two punch next year, and Randy Wells is at least a fringe number four starter. The team will likely need to add a single starting pitcher in the offseason as Harden’s contract is expiring, and he’s giving the team little reason to consider bringing him back.
When the Cubs rose from the ashes of their 2006 season, they did it with strong pitching and a developing defense which has improved behind it’s staff in every season. The offense, however, has hardly improved at all since the Dusty days, and not for lack of money that has been dumped into it. It’s two best offensive players (Lee and Ramirez) are the same two players who led them in hitting back in 2006. The year to year variation in runs appears to be simply a function of relative health, and improvement every year at the shortstop position.
Whether the Cubs’ fall is long or short term is entirely reliant on it’s offense, on 30-something players like Soriano, and Fukudome, and on long-time contributors like Lee and Ramirez. In my estimation, the true level of the Cubs offense is much closer to what we’re currently seeing than to what they produced like last year, and thanks to a generally unproductive farm system, this is more or less a .500 team with great pitching and below average offense who has played pretty much up to it’s potential every year since Dusty was ousted.