2011 Cubs: Year in Review

Join Jim Hendry, Kerry Wood, and me for a look into the Cubs’ future.
Image courtesy of Worst Photoshop Ever, Inc.

If you have yet to take a virtual stroll through the 2010 recap unfolding over at Aisle 424, you’re missing out. Last I checked he was reliving the horrors of June. Since Tim’s doing such a remarkable job of it, and since I have no desire at the moment to write anything about the ghosts of failures past, I thought I’d jump into the DeLorean and investigate what happens this year.

I won’t spoil the whole season; we all need some reason to watch, right? But as long as I have the means, you can bet your flux capacitor I’ll take more than a few peeks at the upcoming candidate for the position of The Year. Okay, 2011, whatcha got?

February 2011
1: The Cubs and Matt Garza avoid arbitration by agreeing to a 10-year, $250 million extension to be paid over the next 30 years.

11: Individual game tickets go on sale at Wrigley Field and online. The lucky person with wristband number 12 gets first place in line, followed by 13, and then the line starts over at wristband number 1. Dozens of fans across the country and abroad complain of online wait times up to 30 to 40 seconds.

14: Pitchers and catchers and Marlon Byrd report to spring training. Geovany Soto shows up with an extra 100 pounds of abdominal weight and with only one eyebrow.

19: All players except Alfonso Soriano report to camp. Everyone is super skinny except for Tyler Colvin, who has bulked up with 25 pounds of muscle and 15 pounds of chain-mail under armor.

26: Alfonso Soriano reports to spring training on the mandatory reporting date and refuses to tell reporters how much he weighs or who he is wearing. Steve Rosenbloom prepares the tar and feathers.

27: Cubs Cactus League opener against Oakland. Ryan Dempster takes the mound and pitches 2 shutout innings. Cubs fans celebrate the return of competitive baseball and the rebirth of hope, joy, and all that is good about human existence.

(later that day): Esmailin Caridad surrenders a ninth-inning homer to Adrian Cardenas. Rich Harden pitches a perfect bottom-half for the save. Cubs fans reach consensus that they’re sick of spring training.

15: Max Ramirez hits three homers, his 10th, 11th, and 12th of the spring, in a split-squad game against the Rockies.

16: Max Ramirez is cut from the active roster and designated for assignment.

28: The last remaining fan who still cares what happens in spring training . . . stops.

1: The Cubs open the season at home against Pittsburgh on a Friday? Blake DeWitt leads off and goes 0-7 in a 13-0 complete game win for Ryan Dempster. Cubs reveal it was all part of a hoax to make Cubs fans believe the team was good.

22: Kosuke Fukudome gets his 30th hit of April, a walkoff homer against Jonathan Broxton. It’s his 6th homer of 2011. And his last with the Cubs.

30: The Cubs finish April with an 18-8 record (one rainout) thanks to a thorough domination of their 18-game slate against the NL West in the opening month. “This is the year,” “It’s gonna happen,” and “The Cubs are winning for Ronnie,” are uttered more than any other phrase in Wrigley Field history, ousting the previous record holder, “Aw crap,” by a wide margin.

12: With 2 down in the 9th, Starlin Castro commits his 10th error of the season on a routine grounder that allows Ryan Theriot to go from 1st to 3rd. It turns out to be a game-winner anyway, however, as Theriot is thrown out trying to score on the play to end the game.

20: New Cubs radio play-by-play man Keith Moreland makes headlines by calling Fenway Park “a house of festering donkey caca” coming out of a station ID. The hubbub provides some distraction to the Cubs being swept in their first trip to the HOFDC.

18: Carlos Pena hits a walkoff triple against Mariano Rivera to drive in Jeff Baker from first base and win the game for the Cubs against a Yankees lineup depleted by a rare strain of the flu virus carried by manager Joe Girardi. Pena runs all the way to third despite being terribly slow and not needing the extra base simply because he figured “no one would have predicted it.” Having not read this blog entry, the irony eludes him, as does the Yankee flu.

29: The Cubs welcome the World Series champion San Francisco Giants to Wrigley Field. Carlos Zambrano congratulates Mike Fontenot by pounding him into the ground, only not in the just-for-fun method he formerly employed in the Cubs dugout. Z tells reporters after the game, “Mike Fontenot is the enemy. All those short little white guys who left the team are the enemy.” The next day he is spotted having breakfast with Bruce Bochy.

Losing. So much losing.

More winning than any sane person could have predicted.

World Series. Duh.

I confess, I just got lazy and stopped time traveling. It’s exhausting, and I need to respect the Space-Time Continuum and all that. And when I saw that Gorzelanny was traded to the Nats after this very post originally had him going to Detroit on February 2, I realized the future probably isn’t written yet anyway, at least not by me.

Except for the October part. Obviously.

Muskat Ramblings: 1/13 Leadoff by committee

Muskat Ramblings: 1/13 Leadoff by committee

I don’t really like to listen to the guy talk in press conferences, but I like Mike Quade. He’s almost unquotable, but at least he doesn’t appear to care very much about spin and psychological manipulation. He pretty much just thinks out loud in front of the press, which should be funny to watch over time.

“You look at this club, as I do right now, and you say, ‘Who’s a perennial leadoff guy?'” Quade said. “‘Who’s the prototypical leadoff guy? Do we have one?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t think so.’ OK, when the answer is ‘I don’t think so,’ I can mix and match. Maybe somebody asserts himself as that guy, again, keeping an open mind and just making sure you weigh all the variables.”

I like the approach.

Cubs Refuse to Sell Tickets to Game with Yankees

Wally Hayward—executive vice president, chief sales and marketing officer for the Chicago Cubs and proud owner of the longest title of anyone whose occupation is not British royalty—says that if you’re planning on seeing the Yankees play at Wrigley in mid-June (and the Cubs will be there too), you’d better buy as many tickets as you can to the Cubs’ Pick 13 Plan that, as of . . . right now, will go on sale in an hour. The reason? He claims the series will probably be sold out by the time individual game tickets go on sale in February (no date yet announced).

According to Paul Sullivan, Hayward doesn’t expect the single-game crowd to see any tickets trickle down their way:

Hayward said season ticket renewals are ahead of last year, and that the Cubs expect to sell out the New York Yankees series before individual tickets become available to the public.

“People who do wait for that on-sale date will most likely get shut out,” Hayward said.

I find this extremely interesting, since . . . well, just look at the picture.

I see Friday tickets. I see Sunday tickets. I smell baloney.

 I’m curious to know how the Cubs plan to sell out the series against the Yankees through a combination of season-ticket sales (and I’m sure Hayward is being absolutely forthcoming about the strength of those) and this Pick 13 promotion that offers bleacher tickets and “bowl” tickets (their term for the reserved sections, which, in true Wrigley style, aren’t configured to resemble a bowl so much as a trough) to just two of the three games.

The only conclusion I can muster is that the Cubs will not be selling tickets to the Saturday, June 18 game. Just won’t sell them. No deal, Burns. Take your interleague lust and shove it.

I guess it’s possible Paul Sullivan misunderstood the gist of Hayward’s comments. Similar things have happened.* But this isn’t that complicated of an issue. Is it possible Hayward was just twisting what everyone knew to be true already? You don’t get to be the head of marketing for the Chicago Cubs without knowing how to put a good light on things. Of course most people who want to get Cubs/Yankees tickets won’t get them. Between the two teams there are tens of millions of interested fans and only about 120,000 tickets, many of them already claimed by STH scalpers who, with the assistance of the Cubs and MLB will happily take your money and an appendage in exchange for as many tickets as you like season ticket holders.

But still, there’s an entire game not even subject to this sale. How could anyone remotely acquainted with the virtue of honesty say that he expects those tickets to sell out before they’re even made available for sale? Part of me wants to say that Hayward could just be a big fat liar who should check his pants for signs of potential spontaneous combustion.

Instead, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the Cubs and Yankees will engage in baseball competition in front of an empty bowl and deserted bleachers. At least we’ll have McCarver and Buck to bring us the action.

*It’s interesting to note that the Trib has retroactively changed the original headline of ‘Milton Bradley Calls Cubs Fans Racist’ to ‘Milton Bradley accuses some fans of racial taunts.’ It’s also interesting that they have yet to produce a single quote in which Bradley ever did call Cubs fans racist, say that they made racial taunts, or bring up the topic of race in anything but an answer to a question about racism. They even specifically state that when asked if he received racial taunts, he refused to give them an example. Milton Bradley accused fans of hating him. I have yet to see a single example of anyone either a) proving him wrong, or b) showing that Milton implied the racial connotation that Paul Sullivan inferred. Good to see the Chicago Tribune is willing to water down their false statements without actually correcting them.

Cubs Stats Video Masterpiece: FIP vs. ERA

If you know what Fielding Independent Pitching is, you’ll enjoy this video. If you don’t know what Fielding Independent Pitching is, you’ll enjoy and learn from this video. If you don’t enjoy this video, I honestly don’t know how I can possibly help you.

No matter the group into which you fall, I recommend you devote your time and attention to checking out Cubs Stats. It is a place of peace and enlightenment, and the genius behind that blog is also the visionary responsible for the aforeplayed video.

Cubs Trade What They Need for What They Don’t

The Cubs will traded, have traded, or are in the process of trading pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, and outfielders Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld to the Tampa Bay Rays for accomplished pitcher Matt Garza and not-so-accomplished, minimum-wage outfielder Fernando Perez. All of this is according to Bruce Levine, so I’ll give him full credit for unearthing the news.

Reaction among Cubs fans has run the gamut from high praise to meh to pshaw to #@!$. I don’t even have an emotional response. I’ll just try to make this simple. Let’s look at this in terms of baseball assets and liabilities.

Players who can play well

Player contracts

I apologize for the insult to your intelligence, but I’m simplifying it for my own sanity. That’s really the equation in a tiny little nutshell.* If you’re trying to win at Major League Baseball, you want good players, you want money, and you are contractually obligated to pay your players. Let’s examine the Cubs’ assets and liabilities.

Players who can play well.
The Cubs have a great catcher, a promising shortstop, corner infielders looking to rebound, a void at second, an overcrowded but undertalented outfield, a galvanized bullpen, and 12 starting pitchers. Heading into today, they also had a farm system of considerable depth if not overwhelming potential. John Sickels offers a quick grade card of the top 20 prospects in the system and a synopsis of the system as a whole, which unsurprisingly varies little from the big-league team. Strong up the middle, weak at the corners, a lot of good-to-very-good pitching.

So you could say the Cubs need corner outfielders and, given the expiring contracts of their current corner infielders, corner infielding prospects at the very least. They also need . . .

When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs for $3 zillion, they spent more money than they had, at least in cash. The last we heard from them, they were saying they could really use $300 million that they would pay back to the citizens of Illinois by not not paying their taxes for the next 30 years. But we’ve also heard whispers that the Cubs were looking to cut payroll by a-lot percent.

Player Contracts (all numbers courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts
Alfonso Soriano: $18 million per year through 2014
Carlos Zambrano: $17.875 million in 2011, $18 million in 2012, and a $19.25 million vesting option in 2013 if Z finishes in the top 2 of the Cy Young vote this year or the top 4 next year, so . . . yeah.
Aramis Ramirez: $14.6 million in 2011, $16 million club option in 2010 that vests if Aramis wins the MVP or the NLCS MVP or if he is traded, so . . . yeah.
Kosuke Fukudome: $13.5 million in 2011
Ryan Dempster: $13.5 million in 2011, $14 million player option in 2012, as well as $3 million in deferred payments over the next two years
Carlos Silva: $11.5 million (Cubs are getting $5.5 million from Seattle) in 2011 and a mutual option in 2012 for $12 million
Carlos Pena: $10 million in 2011 of which $5 million is deferred until 2012
Marlon Byrd: $5.5 million in 2011, $6.5 million in 2012
Jeff Samardzija: $3 million (?) in 2011
John Grabow: $4.8 million in 2011
Carlos Marmol: Pending re-signing/arbitration, probable increase from $2.125 million last year
Kerry Wood: $1.5 million in 2011
Jeff Baker: $1.175 million in 2011
Sean Marshall: Pending re-signing/arbitration, probable increase from $950,000 last year
Tom Gorzelanny: ($800,000 in 2010)
Koyie Hill: ditto ($700,000 in 2010)
Geovany Soto: ditto ($575,000 in 2010)
Randy Wells: ditto ($427,000 in 2010)
Bunch of guys making league minimum…

Has that been simple enough? Is it a big mystery what the Cubs need and what they need to get rid of? The Cubs have a ton of starting pitching. They have no one all that promising at second base. They have a farm system well stocked with what they already have at the big league level. They have a lot of giant contracts.

I’m sure you can notice the disconnect between the Cubs’ assets and their liabilities, too. Geovany Soto is the Cubs’ best player. He made $575,000 last year. He’ll make a bit more this year. By WAR, Randy Wells was the Cubs’ 2nd best pitcher last year, and he had to borrow money from Geovany Soto. Players who are good don’t necessarily make the most money.

Prospects like the Cubs just traded away make, relatively speaking, almost no money at all. Since the Cubs profess to have almost no money at all, it seemed like a match made in heaven. What’s more frustrating is that the Cubs just let go of, as Callis ranks them, their number 3, 4, 8, and 15 prospects in exchange for a player who fits into one of the Cubs’ current strengths.

These weren’t just players without contract liabilities, these were players who could play well.

Are the Cubs a stronger pitching team now? I don’t know. Some people would say they definitely are, but I’m not convinced. If they are, I don’t think it’s by any great stretch. He’s got postseason experience, which is great. But guess what, Matt: you won’t be getting any more.

The argument I’ve heard most is that the prospects had a chance to succeed in the big leagues, but Matt Garza has proven he’ll succeed now. Really? He’s 27 years old, right about the age Carlos Zambrano was when he signed his current contract.

I also hear that Garza isn’t eligible for free agency for another two or three years, but he did make $3.35 million last year and will make quite a bit more this year. That number will keep going up, even if he disappoints.

So, let’s return to simple. The Cubs were a team with a lot of pitching, a lot of prospects, no money, and a lot of contracts. They got more pitching, unloaded prospects, and acquired a new, soon-to-be-ballooning contract. What did they keep? All their big contracts. And what’s supposed to be the real good news is that the Cubs might trade one of their underpaid pitchers.

Okay, yeah, I still don’t get it.

Maybe the Cubs’ new 6th outfielder can shed some light on the subject. What’s it like to be paid the league minimum?

I was going to include “Players with big contracts who can’t play very well” in the Liabilities column, but the fact of the matter is that it’s the contracts that are the true competitive liability. If it weren’t for the contract, Alfonso Soriano wouldn’t be a liability to the Cubs, he’d just be out of work.

Comments Elsewhere: the Morality Police

I frequently comment on other blogs, and usually somewhere around the 3rd or 4th paragraph I wonder why I don’t just make the tome a post over here as well. So I’m finally making my verbosity work double duty.

Over at Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra responded to some nonsensical chatter that the BBWAA makes for a suitable morality police squad. The discussion is interesting—not so much the argument over the factual reliability of history books in the United States public education system, but more the part about the issue at hand. Here’s my response in the discussion of a post that accurately describes the case made by many writers over the infamous Character Clause, but one that ignores the rules applied to the rest of a player’s credentials:

“That means that voters are asked not merely to decide if there is something “negative” in a player’s record, but whether he deserves to be enshrined BASED on his integrity, character, and sportsmanship. This invites a qualitative assessment, and suggests that players significantly deficient in these areas ought not to be admitted regardless of their other accomplishments.”

Except you (and voters who make this argument) fail to mention what the standard is for enshrinement in those areas. The Bible? The Constitution? Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition? Some voters are defiant that any cheating is grounds for dismissal. Others are at a loss to define it for themselves, begging the Hall to clarify or give some statement as to how to determine how to weigh integrity and sportsmanship.

It baffles me. Just use the same methods employed in baseball statistics: compare the player’s record with the record of his peers and that of other HOF members. Are McGwire and Bonds lower forms of life than the untold throngs of their contemporaries who cheated in the exact same way and competed against them? Does a steroid user have less integrity and weaker character than the amphetamine users, ball doctors, and racists who are currently enshrined? Because that’s the precedent. That’s the slope that thus far has proved anything but slippery.

If perfection is the standard, clear out the Hall. If being a really, really good person who never played a dishonest inning is the standard, There should still be dozens of ejections. But that’s not the standard. It’s not close to the standard. Anyone with an open and slightly functioning brain should be able to recognize the obvious standard: gambling is the only unpardonable sin baseball has ever formally recognized. Cheating successfully has long been greeted with open arms. The voters are changing that policy, and THAT is the slippery slope.

Obviously there’s a big difference between ethical and moral standards in general and the standards historically applied when considering a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. I’m not arguing there was nothing wrong with PED use, I’m just saying it’s foolish to pretend that PED users established a new low or that HOF members represent baseball’s moral elite. No one truly thinks that even a little bit, except when they consider their HOF ballots.