If you would’ve asked me to write a post-mortem for the Cubs’ season in April, here’s what I would’ve written: “An overpaid roster of veterans that aren’t nearly as good as they were five years ago will occasionally play good baseball, but more than likely find themselves in the bottom half of the NL Central and well under .500.” That’s pretty much exactly what happened, though obviously from here on out the Cubs and their fans are hoping that their new management team will keep it from ever happening again.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Let’s not mince words: firing Jim Hendry and replacing him with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer is probably the best thing to happen to the Cubs since Merkle’s Boner. If we want to actually focus on what happened on the field, Starlin Castro looks like a bonafide star-in-the-making after hitting .307/.341/.432 in his first full big league season and Matt Garza quietly had a pretty solid year in his first season with the Cubs. Since those are two young players that the Cubs can actually count on for a few more seasons, that’s a good place for Theo and co. to start building around this winter.
WHAT WENT WRONG
$18 million for Alfonso Soriano. $17.9 million for Carlos Zambrano. 16 starts for Rodrigo Lopez. Darwin Barney. Basically, the Cubs paid a ton of money to a lot of guys that were supposed to carry the team and quite a few of those guys ended up not being very good. Then, they had no role players in place because they were counting on the incredibly overpaid guys to produce. The overpaid guys didn’t, and the other roster chaff wasn’t very good either, and so the Cubs spent $134 million to finish behind the Pirates.
Unless you want to count Aramis Ramirez’s bouncing back from an ugly 2010 and a May swoon a surprise, I suppose I’d go with the very, very solid performances by Sean Marshall and Jeff Samardzija out of the bullpen this year. Both guys pitched a ton (75 appearances/88 innings for Samardzija, 78/75 2/3 for Marshall) and were lights out for most of the year. Marshall was actually quite good last year, too, but the duo made a heck of a tandem in getting the ball to Carlos Marmol (who wasn’t nearly as good as he was last year, actually) in the event that the Cubs actually had a lead. There’s also Brian LaHair, who’s almost 29 and entering this year looked like a career minor leaguer. He erupted for 38 homers in Triple-A Iowa this year, though, with a .405 OBP and a .664 SLG. That’s impressive no matter what the age, and it earned him a September call-up. He mashed his way through that, too, hitting .288/.377/.508 in a 20-game cameo.
Where to start? Soriano and Zambrano, obviously, though I guess being disappointed in them would indicate that there were some kind of expectations on them to begin with. Geovany Soto continued his every-other-year pattern and since 2011 is an odd-year, he was pretty terrible at the plate. Ryan Dempster seems to be getting just a little bit worse every year. Marmol went the wrong way over the wild/wildly effective line pretty regularly. In three years, Randy Wells has gone from “surprisingly good,” to “decent” to “flat-out awful.” I could probably keep going, but this just feels mean at this point.
Who knows? Honestly, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen to the Cubs this winter since they’re now Red Sox Midwest. Carlos Pena is a free agent, which would leave them room to sign Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols (though the new management team should be smart enough to know that one free agent isn’t a cure-all) and if that happens, they might be able to swing a trade with LaHair. It’s also probably a safe bet that they’ll probably shop Soriano and Zambrano to anyone willing to pay anything for them — especially if they have interest in Fielder or Pujols — though that isn’t likely to bear a lot of fruit. There’s also the question of Ramirez’s option, which is for $16 million. He played awfully well in the last two-thirds of the season, but that’s a lot of money to pay an aging third baseman. The Cubs’ best bet, though, might be to pick up the option and offer to eat the salary for prospects (a la the Carlos Beltran trade this year) at the trade deadline.
Again, with so much up in the air it’s hard to see where there might be position battles. Blake DeWitt might push Barney for more time at second, though he also might be the de facto third baseman if they let Ramirez walk and don’t pick anyone up to fill the position. Obviously something needs to be done about the back end of the rotation, because Wells and Lopez aren’t going to cut it. Casey Coleman could get a full year in the rotation if he improves his command some, but things are still pretty open behind him and Garza. Cubs’ fans (and everyone, really) are expecting a lot from Epstein and Hoyer and rightly so, but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.