Oh those Chicago Cubs. They are, as always, predictably unpredictable – with the exception that they are predictably disappointing. Now, with the advent of 2010, we can finally reflect dispassionately on the 2009 Chicago Cubs.
The 2009 iteration of the Cubs was no exception in the disappointment department. We didn’t quite know how things would play out, but we knew it would end with us nestled up to a gutter, clinging to our hopes for next year like a vagrant clings to his dwindling bottle of booze – to which we are also clinging.
Still, we didn’t think it would be quite this bad. The 2008 Cubs, after all, had been the best in the National League, and the team had added a full year of Rich Harden and a new, stellar switch hitter in right field. But a certain level of skepticism was necessary for protection from heartache. To that end, we had this to say:
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?
And with that, we laid out the worst case scenarios for the 2009 Chicago Cubs – never believing, of course, that the foreboding predictions would prove closer to reality than the outlandish fiction they were supposed to approach. Like a certain episode of the Simpsons, we thought, certainly something bad could befall one of the Cubs. Maybe even two. Maybe even three Cubs would struggle for various reasons. But all of them (except Homer)? Surely that’s the stuff of fantasy.
Or nightmare. Because those “worst case scenarios” absolutely became our hellish reality in 2009.
So here they are. The unaltered worst case scenarios for each of the Cubs, as predicted at the beginning of the 2009 season. Yup, it’s pretty much what happened.
- 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.
After being busted for smoking weed and ostensibly packing on a few pounds, Soto was thoroughly disappointing. His numbers were actually worse than that terrible line, and he only managed to play 102 games due to shoulder problems. Soto’s sophomore slump was worse than most.
- 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.
Derrek Lee may have been the singular shining bright spot on the 2009 Cubs. Lee put up his best numbers since his unbelievable 2005 campaign. It’s a shame his .972 OPS was squandered this year, and it’s also a shame that I wrote him up second – he’s making things look like they weren’t quite as worst-casey as they could have been.
- 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.
Sigh, but, bingo. Fontenot was simply not up to the task to being a full-time regular at second base, and forced the Cubs to go out and get Jeff Baker to help out. Had Aramis Ramirez not gone down, perhaps the Cubs would not have leaned on Fontenot quite so hard. Still, he was expected to be the starter, and got in nearly a full complement of games. And in that time, he put up a horrendous .236 / .301 / .377 line. Not quite the .905 OPS he had in 2008.
- 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.
Theriot didn’t light up the world defensively, but he did manage better production at the plate than his worst case scenario. He still made too many mistakes on the base paths, including being thrown out stealing 33% of the time. But ultimately, by the end of the year, no one was really complaining about Theriot’s season. And in 2009, that made you a superstar.
- 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.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened to Alfonso Soriano. He was never particularly warm all year, and struggled with knee problems, which limited him both at the plate and in the field. That meant that, not only did Soriano muster a meager .726 OPS (the worst of his full-time career), but he also regressed from a solid defender to a bit of a joke.
- 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.
Though it is little discussed, the Fukudome Fall-Off, as it will come to be known (or FukFlop, if you’re so inclined), is exactly what happened. Just as he did in 2008, Fukudome struggled down the stretch. Fortunately for the Cubs, he only disappeared in September this year. He was actually quite good in July and August, which hopefully bodes well for his continued transition to MLB. Fukudome’s defense in center was poor, as feared.
- 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.
If it hadn’t been so easy to predict, and if it hadn’t been so painful to watch, I’d really be thinking I was pretty awesome right about now. At least Bradley managed to actually play a lot of games, right? Right?
- 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.
Again, this was sadly spot on. Zambrano was brutal in March/April, with an ERA approaching 5. But he turned things around quickly and was brilliant until August, when the wheels came off. The wheels were apparently in his back this year, though, and not his shoulder. He did come back in September to close out the year, but he wasn’t quite as good as he’d been in May/June/July.
- 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.
Thank God Dempster’s ERA didn’t skyrocket quite that high. A sick daughter may have caused Dempster some early season struggles, but thankfully she pulled through, and Dempster’s season turned around. He actually put together a solid year, though it did not rival his 2008 season.
- 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.
Harden did pitch, almost all year, in fact. He just didn’t pitch particularly well – 4.09 ERA and just 9 wins in 141 innings. We’ll see what happens with him next year, but it would not surprise anyone to learn that Harden’s shoulder tear gave him problems all year in 2009.
- 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.
No fight, obviously, and Lilly put together a very good 2009 – the best of his career. Most would consider him the Cubs’ ace. He was better in the second half than in the first, and he did struggle in March/April.
- 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.
This was an interesting one, as Marshall did indeed fail as a starter in April and May. Relegated to the bullpen, Marshall finds success, and so do the Cubs in a previously unknown starter named Randy Wells.
- 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.
Marmol once again had a stretch where he disappeared, Kevin Gregg was intermittently awful, Luis Vizcaino got dumped, Aaron Heilman was poor. It wasn’t pretty. Angel Guzman turned into a very fine reliever – just in time to get hurt.
So many worst case scenarios largely came true for the 2009 Cubs, but what about the team in total? After all, the team finished in second place in the Central, and five games over .500. Was that the worst case scenario, really?
The 2008 Cubs were five games better than any other team in the entire National League. In 2009, yes, they lost Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood, but they added a full year of Rich Harden and Milton Bradley. Treading water would have been a disappointment. Losing 14 more games than in 2008? That’s as bad as anyone could have realistically feared. That, my friends, is a worst case scenario. We lived it.
So that means things can only get better – emotionally – in 2010, right? Right?