Nate On Sports: A Chicago Cubs Eulogy

I am a Chicago Cubs fan, although it’s hard to admit sometimes.  By association, I’m lumped in with the Cubs “fans” that throw garbage onto the field from the bleachers, and the “fans” that pour a perfectly good beer (okay, it’s Old Style, but I digress) onto an opposing team’s center fielder.  And no, this isn’t a cry for pity.

I still love this team though.  Because I love this team, you can probably figure out how much I hate seeing the team under-perform, and for lack of a better word, suck so much.  I don’t want to pretend to be some visionary, but the fall of this team was pretty easy to see coming;  I just thought it would happen a year later.  This is a season that is quickly going the way of 2006, when the Cubs went 66-96.  It probably won’t end up that bad on paper, but in the eyes and mind of this Cubs fan, it’s going to end up even worse.

In 2006, every Cubs fan (at least the ones who can name the starting rotation) knew change was coming.  The team promised to spend big in the off-season, and they did.  There was hope.  As a Cubs fan, that’s all we have sometimes most of the time.  Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, and Mark DeRosa would join Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Carlos Zambrano to make this team legitimate again.  It was legitimate, reaching the playoffs, only to get swept in the divisional round by Arizona.  But after that brief taste of success, there was more. There had to be more!

And more there was.  In 2008, the Cubs were the best in the National League in the regular season, posting 97 wins to 64 losses.  If there ever was a Cubs team that had “it” – this was the team.  The spending blitz continued, as the Cubs brought in Kosuke Fukudome in the preceding winter and traded for Rich Harden at mid-season.  Kerry Wood completely reinvented himself as a closer, and with Carlos Marmol setting him up in the eighth, there was hardly a more feared tandem at the back-end of a bullpen in the majors.  Ryan Dempster was suddenly a borderline ace in the rotation, giving the Cubs a championship-caliber 1 through 4 with Harden, Lilly, and Zambrano.  Guys in the offense were having solid years at worst, with multiple guys having career years (see Ryan Theriot and his .387 OBP; Geovany Soto and his .868 OPS; Mark DeRosa and his .857 OPS.)  Yes, 2008 was the perfect blend of sabremetrics and history, and nothing was going to stand in their way.

Nothing except the Los Angeles Dodgers, of course, who beat the Cubs into submission in three straight games.  What exactly happened that postseason is a mystery.  Yes, the Dodgers were the prototypical “hot” team going into the postseason, do in large part to Manny Ramirez’s arrival.  But this was also a Cubs team that had lost its mojo, a team that went down without a fight, a team that looked like it had lost 97 games instead of the opposite.  I knew at the time that 2008 was the year, but refused to give up belief in the team.

2009 was wholly unspectacular.  The Cubs, while finishing above .500, never felt like a threat to do much.  It was easy to blame the lost season on a multitude of injuries (Aramis Ramirez’s shoulder dislocation chief among them) and many were stupid enough to blame it on the trade of Mark DeRosa (note: it’s called selling high – and I’m sorry, but Mark DeRosa would not have have meant 8 more victories and a Cubs playoff berth) and the failure to resign Kerry Wood.  But the cracks were deeper than that.  The roster itself was becoming old and the contracts were growing evermore cumbersome. The youth movement; Starlin Castro, Andrew Cashners, and Josh Vitters were nowhere near ready to make any kind of impact yet.

So here we are in 2010, and I would be sensationalizing if I called this season an unmitigated disaster.  But it’s been bad.  Derrek Lee, fresh off a bounce-back year, has been bad.  “Bad” doesn’t even begin to describe Aramis Ramirez.  Fukudome still can’t hit a slider down-and-in from a right-handed pitcher.  Ryan Theriot forgot how to draw a base on balls.  Carlos Zambrano still thinks he’s a good pitcher, when it’s clear he is not.  Alfonso Soriano has looked really good by comparison, when in reality, he’s had a pretty average year by his standards (.884 OPS.)  But you want to know the really bad part of it?  All of these guys, excluding Theriot, make at least $12 million a year.  All of these guys, again, with the exception of Theriot, have no trade clauses (good luck trading them anyways, but that’s besides the point.)  If my numbers are correct, those six, minus Theriot, will make $75 million this year.  That’s at least $40 million too much, and that’s being nice on my part.

Only one of these contracts come off the books this year – Derrek Lee’s, who probably has the best contract of the bunch when considering production.  Ted Lilly’s $10 million comes off the books too, but he’s performed well, so he’s immune from any scrutiny in this post.  And I’m not going to blame Derrek Lee too much either.  No, I’m blaming Jim Hendry, the Cubs (hopefully soon ex-to-be) general manager.  He put this train-wreck together, and I pray to God that he’s not the one who gets to pick up the pieces of it.  I’ll give Jim credit where credit’s due – he’s made some terrific trades (Harden, Lee, and Ramirez jump to mind) and an occasional good signing (Lilly and more recently, Marlon Byrd.)  But the crap (horrible contracts, no-trade clauses up the wazoo, and that dreadful Juan Pierre trade) has far outweighed the good.

And another problem I have with Hendry is that I fear he is not forward-looking enough.  He’s the type of GM that wants to win today, not two years from now.  And that worries me immensely.  The Cubs, in their current state, are not going to win.  If they can’t win this year, what makes you think they can win next year?  Essentially, this team needs to start restructuring – not necessarily rebuilding, but restructuring.  Try to trade Lee and Lilly (more likely) and get some good specs back in the deal.  Hell, get really crazy and sell high on Marmol. Before you Cubs fans jump on me, consider these points:

  1. He’s about to get really pricey, and pricey relievers are never a good thing
  2. His mechanics scream injury
  3. The Cubs are stocked with relievers in the minors
  4. His value will never be higher than it is right now
  5. The Cubs will not be good in the coming two years when he will be arbitration-eligible, and thus, cheaper

Need more ideas? Well I have them. See if you can get rid of Zambrano for a bag of peanuts or sunflower seeds – I’m more convinced than ever that he’s a clubhouse cancer.  Continue to see what the kids (Colvin, Cashner, and Castro) are made of.  Bring more kids up (Jay Jackson especially) and let them develop.  And, for the love of God, please limit the no-trade clauses.  Oh, and before all of that, get rid of Jim Hendry.  And, as much as I like Lou, he’s not right for this team or it’s direction either, so don’t extend him.

Does it make me a bad fan to want this team to lose for the next month?  Maybe.  If this team wins 10 out of 12 or something like that and decides not to sell because they’re only seven games out of the division lead, that would be more than I could take.  It’s always darkest before the dawn, but it has to get a little darker yet.  I’m willing to wander into the darkness a little deeper for the opportunity of a brighter tomorrow.  Such is the life of a Cubs fan.

(Publisher’s note; the views of this author do not represent the views of The Rational Middle or its Dodger-loving publisher. But we would appreciate your gentle kindness at this (traditionally) difficult time for Cubs fans everywhere. MC)

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