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Readers repeatedly asked me if I was going to write a “Why the 2009 Chicago Cubs Will Suck” article, as I had for the rest of the N.L. Central. My answer, in turn, was a repeated “no.” How could I? There is no objective, reasonable basis to conclude the Cubs will suck this year. But to sate the masses, I have prepared this article, which highlights what could go wrong.

Yes, the Chicago Cubs are the prohibitive favorite to win the N.L. Central this year. In fact, I’d put it at even odds that they have the best record in the National League.

But that’s paper baseball. We have only some names on a computer screen to go by; and of course, we all realize that baseball is played on the diamond, not on a computer. In paper baseball, guys always perform up to their career averages – or sometimes, slightly better. They never get hurt. The team never changes.

We know, intellectually, the 2009 season will not play out as we project. Seasons never do. However, we assume that it will play out closer to the averages, to our expectations, than something else.

But what if that something else happens? What if – God, yes God, forbid – the worst happens? Not just for a couple players, but for every single Chicago Cub. What would that season look like, and would you survive it?

Let’s make this a simple run-down of the players expected to make the Cubs, and the terror that might befall them … and us. These are the 2009 Chicago Cubs worst case scenarios:

  • Geovany Soto, Catcher. Soto broke out, offensively in 2007 – first in Iowa, and then to end the year in Chicago. He followed it up last year with a Rookie of the Year campaign. But what if Soto succumbs to what so many players before him have: the sophomore slump?Worst Case Scenario: His offensive numbers sink slightly below his average offensive years in the minors before 2007 – a disappointing .250 / .330 / .400 line. Still acceptable for a catcher, but a substantial and damaging drop.
  • Derrek Lee, First Base. Let’s face it: Derrek Lee is in decline. We’re past the point where his lack of power can be blamed on the Rafael Furcal broken wrist “accident.” Even if the decline pauses in 2009, Cubs fans can hope only for Lee to top .800 in the OPS department. But because much of Lee’s numbers are batting average driven, if that slips, the rest go with it.
    Worst Case Scenario: Batting average drops 10% – as it did from 2008 to 2009 – and Lee barely manages to hit .265. This takes his OPS down into the .770 range. Oh, and his defensive skills continue to decline.
  • Mike Fontenot, Second Base. In a part-time role, Mike Fontenot has been excellent. But he hasn’t been a full-time starter in the big leagues.
    Worst Case Scenario: Mike’s not up to the task, and Aaron Miles becomes the starter by June. And the best case scenario for Miles is still a worst case scenario for the Cubs.
  • Ryan Theriot, Shortstop. I’ll confess that I’ve been waiting for Theriot to fall flat since day one, and it just hasn’t happened. Yet. If Theriot finally figures out that guys don’t just become productive hitters all of a sudden at the Major League level in their late 20s, the Cubs are in for a sub-par offensive and defense shortstop.
    Worst Case Scenario: Theriot’s limited range and weak arm haunt the Cubs, and a miserable .260 / .320 / .330 line does nothing to assuage the pain. His one asset that “doesn’t slump” doesn’t help either – he gets caught attempting to steal as many times as he’s successful.
  • Aramis Ramirez, Third Base. There isn’t a serious risk of Ramirez’s offensive production falling off, but we all know what the real dangers are: his health and his glove.
    Worst Case Scenario: On and off, Ramirez misses time. This means even more Aaron Miles, and at a power spot, he’s a thoroughly inadequate replacement.
  • Alfonso Soriano, Left Field. Soriano is easily the streakiest player in MLB, and usually, his absurdly hot streaks more than make up for the painful cold streaks.
    Worst Case Scenario: The cold streaks last much longer than the hot streaks, and there is never that definable stretch where Soriano carries the Cubs. Without that streak, the Cubs slip into a few prolonged losing stretches. You know exactly what I’m talking about.
  • Kosuke Fukudome, Center Field. Do I really have to explain the worst case scenario? We all saw it for about four months last year, when pitchers realized anything off-speed and away was enough to dispatch of Fukudome.
    Worst Case Scenario: Not only is Fukudome brutal at the plate, his transition to center field is equally brutal. This leads to Reed Johnson becoming the de facto starter, and Joey Gathright seeing more time in center. And if there’s one guy that makes a struggling Fukudome look like an all right hitter, it’s Joey Gathright.
  • Milton Bradley, Right Field. Gulp. I hate to even think about the worst case scenario, because of all the worst case scenarios, it might be the most likely to actually happen.
    Worst Case Scenario: Bradley never sees the field. Injuries late in spring training delay his premier, and when he’s finally physically able to perform, emotional instability keeps him off the field.
  • Carlos Zambrano, SP. Zambrano has developed a really nasty slow start habit (except last year, of course). Combine that with serious maturity/sanity issues and a scratchy shoulder, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
    Worst Case Scenario: Zambrano’s slow start lasts well into June as it did two years ago. When he finally starts to get back on track, his shoulder gives out. He comes back to close out the year because he’s a tough dude, but he’s not the same.
  • Ryan Dempster, SP. No one but Jim Hendry thought Ryan Dempster starting again after five years in the pen would be a success. But not only was it a success, Ryan Dempster got in great shape, and wound up the Cubs’ best starting pitcher. Of course, then he got paid.
    Worst Case Scenario: It was contract year magic, and/or the league figures Dempster out. His ERA returns to what it was the last time he started: a nasty 6.54. By the end of the year, everyone’s wondering how he’d fare back in the pen.
  • Rich Harden, SP. As with Bradley, it’s frankly tough to allow myself to consider the possibilities (actually, more like prossibility in this case).
    Worst Case Scenario: He doesn’t pitch. The shoulder tear he’s dealing with gives way late in spring training, and his only option is surgery, and rehabing on the Cubs’ dime. Fortunately the Cubs have options to replace him – Mitch Atkins, Aaron Heilman and Jeff Samardzija – but none even come close to pitching like Rich could have.
  • Ted Lilly, SP. Another guy who seems to start out very slowly. He’s also been fairly good with the Cubs, but before that, he was never anything particularly special.
    Worst Case Scenario: Lilly pitches like he did in Toronto and the ERA hovers around 4.50 all season long. That is, until he and Lou Piniella get into a very public fight at the mound, and Lilly gets his ass kicked, ending his season in early September.
  • Sean Marshall, SP. Marshall has been great in a limited starting role. He’s been great in a swing role. But as a full-time starter? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the most innings Marshall has *ever* thrown was back in 2006 when he managed just 147 innings between Chicago and Iowa. He doesn’t go deep into games, and he doesn’t go deep into the season.
    Worst Case Scenario: And that’s just what happens. Marshall wears down consistently by the fifth inning, taxing the bullpen, and wears down for good by August. With Harden already out, and the other three starters largely ineffective, the rotation is an unmitigated disaster.
  • The Bullpen. The pen will largely be in flux throughout the season, regardless of relative success. We know Marmol and Gregg will be near the end of games, but that’s all that we know for sure.
    Worst Case Scenario: Remember that stretch last year when Carlos Marmol was perhaps the worst pitcher in all of baseball? It was inconceivable, but it happened. And it could happen again. Couple that with Kevin Gregg’s knee issues, Luis Vizcaino’s continued descent into suckiness, and no one else standing out, and the pen that looked so bright on paper ends up a serious hole in the team.

So there you have it, friends. Not a pretty picture.

Do I think all or even many of these things will happen? Of course not. But what if they did? Though they are the projected worst case scenarios, they are not unrealistic. What if three of them happen? Five?

How many will it take to derail the prevailing assumption that the only part of 2009 that will matter is the playoffs? How many will it take for the playoffs to be but a dream?

  • Cardfan

    Worst Case Scenario: What if the Cardinals actually had 4 starters that could get the job done? What if Chris Carpenter is really back? What if Piniero has a career year to go along with Lohse and Wainwright? (forget Wellmeyer – he’s done) What if the Cardinals had the pitching to correspond to their explosive offense?

    Let the dogs loose, we’re ready!

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