The Chicago Cubs are in a liminal state. The club’s farm system has shown considerable improvement recently, with the emergence of prospects like Starlin Castro, Josh Vitters, Hak-Ju Lee, Brett Jackson, Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson. But outside of Cashner and perhaps Castro, those guys aren’t ready for prime time.
At the major league level, the Cubs could once again be expensive and ordinary in 2010. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Chicago enters the season with a payroll topping $140 million. Despite spending big bucks, though, the North Siders have run-of-the-mill win totals from most projection systems. The FANS (78 wins), CHONE (79) and PECOTA (80) all call for a sub-.500 campaign. Oliver (86) is more optimistic, with a forecast that has the Cubs keeping pace with the Cardinals and staying in the Wild Card hunt.
The Cubs figure to be strong at the infield corners. Derrek Lee isn’t likely to eclipse 5 WAR again next year, but CHONE calls for a three win season. At third, Aramis Ramirez had a hard time staying on the field last year, suffering shoulder, back and calf injuries (he has been slowed by a triceps issue this spring, too). But if healthy, his potent bat should produce another 3+ WAR campaign. Both are very good players, but it’s hard to call either a huge bargain or a long-term asset: the 34 year-old Lee will pull down $13 million in 2010 and hits free agency after the season, and the 31 year-old Ramirez will earn $15.75 million this year, with a $14.6 million player option for 2011.
Up the middle, Ryan Theriot‘s slick glove work and decent offense make him a good, if not breath-taking option at shortstop. He might slide over to second when Castro arrives, though he has some trade value as a guy with a few years of team control remaining. At the keystone, Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot have the makings of an average duo.
Behind the dish, Geovany Soto looks like a great bet to bounce back in 2010. A plummeting BABIP obscured what was otherwise another season in which he displayed patience and pop at a premium position (and he’s skinny now!) CHONE forecasts a 3+ WAR season.
In the outfield, Kosuke Fukudome and Marlon Byrd are average to slightly above-average starters. And then, of course, there’s Alfonso Soriano in left, he of -0.7 WAR in 2009. The 34 year-old, hampered by calf and knee injuries in recent years, is owed $18 million annually over the 2010-2014 seasons. Even if there’s a dead cat bounce in Soriano’s performance, he’s going to be a drag on the bottom line for years to come. This is what happens when a team signs a free agent at or around his current market value, but then pays him that same rate years and years into the future, as if the player is a baseball version of Richard Alpert, impervious to the effects of aging.
On the bench, Xavier Nady is a fringe starter/good fourth outfielder, though a second Tommy John surgery that wiped away his 2009 season continues to give him problems. Manager Lou Pinella said that Nady might not be able to uncork a throw from the field until June, limiting him to pinch-hit duty. Sam Fuld, a 28 year-old with on-base chops and speed, could be the reserve outfielder called upon most often. Micah Hoffpauir will lace some extra-base hits, but limited defensive ability and so-so strike zone judgment curtail his value. Tyler Colvin, a 2006 first-rounder, could also enter the picture. A lack of plate discipline means he’s probably a long-term fourth outfielder. Koyie Hill will back up Soto at catcher.
Like Soriano, Carlos Zambrano is owed enough cash in the years to come to buy his own magical island. The 28 year-old will earn $17-18 million annually between 2010 and 2012, with a possible vesting option for 2013. He’s still a quality starter, but the mileage on Z’s arm belies his age, and shoulder, back and hamstring injuries over the past two years have kept him far from the 200 inning mark that he zipped by from 2003-2007.
Free agent-to-be Ted Lilly has been one of the better open market values over the past few seasons (providing $43.5 million in production from 2007-2009 while earning $24 million), but knee and shoulder injuries figure to sideline him in April. Ryan Dempster proved that his breakout 2008 was no fluke, providing another season of quality pitching. But, his salary ($12.5M in 2010, $13.5M in 2011, $14M player option for 2012) makes him more of a “get what you pay for” player than someone who provides cost savings. Randy Wells had a nifty rookie season, though his peripherals were more in line with a mid-to-low four’s ERA than the sparkling 3.05 mark that he posted. Former Pirate Tom Gorzelanny looks like the best bet of the back-end candidates, a group that also includes Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall and Carlos Silva.
In the bullpen, Carlos Marmol channeled Rick Vaughn last year, posting a sub-50 first-pitch strike percentage (58 percent MLB average). He’s absolutely filthy, but all of the free passes and plunked batters preclude him from relief ace status. Samardzija or Marshall could end up in the ‘pen, should they fall short of securing a rotation spot, and Cashner could arrive at some point this season. John Grabow is a slightly above replacement level reliever, yet he figures to occupy a late-inning role and earn a decent chunk of change ($7.5 million) over the next two years. Sadly, Angel Guzman (shoulder) has been dealt another career blow, and will miss the 2010 season. Keep an eye on Esmailin Caridad. The 26 year-old righty originally signed with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League, but the Cubs nabbed him during the ’07 off-season. A starter in the minors, Caridad impressed in relief last season. He seems better suited for ‘pen duty, given his impressive fastball and fringy secondary stuff.
Even in the most sanguine scenario, Chicago figures to pay Rolls Royce prices for Honda Civic production. There just aren’t a lot of players that you can point to and say, “man, is that guy a steal.” There are a couple of ominous long-term deals and several market-value contracts, with a few players who provide production at below-market prices sprinkled in. The Cubs are lacking in young, cost-controlled talent, something that the next wave of well-regarded prospects could fix. To contend in 2010, the team needs Ramirez, Soto and Zambrano to stay healthy, while hoping that Soriano can rise from the ranks of the undead.