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Fixing the Chicago Cubs

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In a division that features the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the nearly-as-dreadful Chicago Cubs are sitting a distant fourth, nine games behind first place Cincinnati and 12th place among all teams in the generally inferior National League.

More to the point, the Cubs have only three position players on the 25 man roster under the age of 28: C Geovany Soto, SS Starlin Castro, and OF Tyler Colvin.  The good news for the Cubs — really the only good news — is that all three have been positive contributors this year.  A 2010 offseason acquisition on CF Marlon Byrd has also worked out very well for the Cubs, and Byrd will be back in 2011 and 2012.  At $5MM per year and just 32 years of age, he’s got a very team-friendly contract.

Beyond those contributors, the Cubs are getting a “late-career year” out of left fielder Alfonso Soriano, whose .898 OPS should feel like good fortune.  Instead, it’s more like a blast of temporary contract relief: Soriano is scheduled to make $18MM each year through 2014.  He will be 38 before he plays the final year of the contract.  If offensive levels continue to plummet, the Cubs could possibly get value out of a 36 year old who can OPS .800 still, but thats the thing about baseball contracts: you’d rather not have to cross your fingers just to break even.

Partially through their talent level, and partially through bad contracts, the Cubs are set in the outfield for the next two seasons, meaning that 2008 international signing Kosuke Fukudome appears to be the odd man out.  He’s under contract through 2011 at more than eight figures, so the Cubs would love to sell off an outfielder whose best asset is his career .366 on base percentage.  Fukudome might be leadoff man material in the American League, where his power probably doesn’t play in a major league outfield, but the Cubs have to eat a lot of his contract to move him.  He could be a good trade deadline pickup for the Tampa Bay Rays who will need to secure a short-term Carl Crawford replacement for 2011.  The other team to watch for Fukudome might well be the Kansas City Royals, who don’t project to have a centerfielder for next season (Mitch Maier is still under contract, but has a career .320 on base percentage).  The Royals were the other finalist for Fukudome back in 2008, when their money eventually went to RF Jose Guillen, whose contract expires at years end.

Any money that the Cubs are able to save by moving Fukudome’s 2011 salary should be put towards a Derrek Lee extension.  The Cubs first baseman is going to headline the 2010-11 free agent market from his position, and the Cubs just don’t have a long term solution for both corner infield positions in the minor leagues.  They’ve tried to push their 2007 1st round pick, Josh Vitters, aggressively through the system, promoting him to AA after just a month with an .800 OPS in A+ Daytona, but he’s a little bit behind the curve there, and figures to start the 2011 season at the same level no matter what he does the rest of the year.  In practice, this means that the Cubs have to ride out Aramis Ramirez’ contract, even though the clubs’ incumbent third baseman has been comically awful this season.  Ramirez isn’t old enough to possibly suggest that these two months of a sub-.600 OPS spells the end of his career, but his struggles just show the need for the Cubs to keep Lee’s bat in the lineup for another three years or so.  Ramirez has a contract option for 2012 if he shows up after the all-star break and rakes for the next year and a half, but with any luck, that option is more of an insurance measure against Josh Vitters’ development than anything that has to do with Ramirez himself.

One thing the Cubs do well is defense: the team is littered with plus defenders at all positions, outfield and infield, with the lone exception of Ramirez (who, historically, is a very good defender).  It’s possible he could be taking his troubles at the plate to the field with him, in which case, the Cubs would project to be one of the league’s best defenses next year if they can move Fukudome and sign a catcher with plus defensive skills to back up Soto.

Pitching is a strength right now, but probably is more of a concern long term.  The farm system is loaded with live arms, but not at levels close to the major leagues, and while recent Cub drafts have focused on pitching, there would seem to be a gap between the guys who are currently making up the pitching staff, and what the farm system can provide.  There’s also a lot of question marks regarding who will actually be on the team to finish the year.  Ted Lilly could, and probably will, be traded.  Ryan Dempster figures to eat innings for two more seasons, and the Cubs will try to squeeze Carlos Silva into their plans for 2011, though at a net cost of $6MM to the team, they are essentially already paying to not have Milton Bradley on the roster.  If and when Lilly gets traded, the Cubs need to decide if they are going to turn either Andrew Cashner or Jeff Samardzija into a starter to pitch out of their rotation.  If they both successfully convert, the Cubs would already have their five man rotation for next year.  If not, it’s probably going to be a shopping trip to the open market to land another starting pitcher for next year.  They could also turn to the trade market in the offseason.

The biggest problem, from the Cubs pitching perspective, is that Carlos Zambrano went all crazy on his teammates and basically made himself an untouchable asset who kind of sucks at pitching.  The Cubs have really handled Zambrano horribly all year.  Zambrano’s biggest issue is that his fastball velocity is down, turning his best pitch into a hitters pitch.  However, when he gets ahead in the count, he’s still missing bats, and when he gets behind in the count, he’s still walking a lot of batters — that’s just Carlos Zambrano.  His ERA is badly inflated by a .377 BABIP and a career low 65.5% left on base mark.  He can probably be a league average starting pitcher for the rest of his contract, but it will be interesting to see if the Cubs want to put up with him for more than another year.  I would not.

For a team that is both bad and old, the Cubs really do have a lot of build-in solutions to their roster, which shows particularly good design in the face of this mess of a roster, however, because they are so old, and so expensive of a team, their farm system is not really helpful for the next year or so, and so the losing will probably continue into 2011 no matter what the team does.  With a bunch of money already committed to veterans 32 years and older, they have payroll flexibility for about one more veteran, and simply don’t have the trade pieces to land top prospects.  Lilly will bring something in return, Fukudome will likely bring salary relief, but the pitching staff is merely innings eaters for a great defense, and so the Cubs need to remake themselves as a run scoring powerhouse in the mold of the 2008 team.  However, if players like Ramirez and Soriano and Byrd aren’t big time contributors in 2010, 80 wins will seem a bit optimistic.

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