The NL Central Offseason Revue: Ursine Children

Sure, I've used it before. It's a good picture, damn it.

 But first, a story. (Just so you know it's a Baron post.)

Last weekend, my mother and I went shopping. The Cherokee Street Antique Row Association was holding their annual Cookie Spree, and we go every year. There's always people milling around, free hot apple cider, and most of the shops are decorated.

We met up in South County, deciding it was a better idea to take one car. Mom tends to get motion sickness when not driving, so I generally just ride with her. We headed up 55 toward the city, then exited at the 4500 block of Broadway.

At the bottom of the ramp was an old woman holding a sign. A square of cardboard scrawled all over in black marker, I couldn't read exactly what was written but the message was clear nonetheless. It was cold out, and the ragged old overcoat she was clutching around her looked woefully inadequate. I've been conned before, I'm sure, but this was no panhandler. This was an old woman with no place to go who badly needed help.

We came to a stop at the bottom of the ramp, and I dug out my wallet. Mom reached for her purse, and I told her I would get it. I opened my wallet and grabbed the first two bills in it, a ten and a twenty. Then, guided by some internal calculus I don't at all understand, I put the ten back. I handed my mother the twenty, she motioned the old woman over, and gave it to her. The old woman said something, toothless mouth moving quickly, blessing us and wishing us well, but by then the car was moving and I couldn't entirely tell what it was. We continued on our way, had hot chocolate and apple cider and cookies. I bought an antique light fixture; it seemed like a fine day.

I tell you all this not to make you think I'm some sort of saint for giving this old woman twenty dollars, but because ever since then I haven't been able to stop thinking about the ten dollars I didn't give her. I had almost $300 in my wallet that day, and a credit card nowhere near the limit to boot. In no way, shape, or form would that extra ten dollars have hurt me, yet I put it back. And worst of all, I don't understand why. I like to think I would do whatever it takes to help someone in need, but apparently that only goes so far. Apparently there's a price on my generosity, and it's painfully low. A truly good person would have been willing to hand over everything they had in hand and never thought twice about it; I certainly didn't need another antique to litter my already cluttered house.

We went back the same way later, on the way back to my car, but the old woman was gone. I hope what I gave her was enough to help, but I can't stop thinking about that moment, when I arbitrarily decided the limits of how much I was willing to help another human being.

I've had these posts in mind for a while now, trying to take a look around the division at our rivals and what their offseasons might look like, but simply hadn't had the chance to do so yet. With my inability to post a full post on Wednesday, I thought I might ask Dan if he minded me taking today. He seemed amenable to the idea, unsurprising given the dearth of real meat to work with this time of year and what is undoubtedly a crowded schedule for everyone. So here I am, telling you what the Cubs need to do this winter.

I begin with the Cubs because they are our chief rivals and also because it simply fits. We care more about the Cubs. So here we are.

As the Cubbies head into their first offseason with new ownership, the question of payroll undoubtedly must be raised. Their new owner, Tom Ricketts, has pledged to update the stadium and build a winner, but just how much one will impact the other remains to be seen. For now, it looks as if Ricketts is willing to pour money into the franchise in order to win, and we'll have to operate under that assumption.

Offense

The Cubs' offense took a huge hit last season from the high times of 2008, due to several players underperforming. Alfonso Soriano was the biggest culprit, stumbling to an OPS+ of 84 after three seasons over 115. Geovany Soto went through an awful sophomore slump, falling from a 118 OPS+ to 79. Aramis Ramirez missed significant time with a shoulder injury, and Derrek Lee struggled mightily early in the season before turning it around.

There were bright spots, such as the improvement Kosuke Fukudome made from his first season in the majors or the continued non-suckitude of Ryan Theriot, but overall it was an intensely disappointing season for Chicago at the plate. In 2008 the Cubs scored 855 runs; in 2009 they plated only 707. Enough said.

Starting Pitching

If the Cubs' offense was decidedly disappointing, the pitching was underwhelmingly good. Carlos Zambrano continued his human roller coaster act, yet still managed to post an ERA under 4.00 for the eighth straight year. Nonetheless, the Big Z is no longer quite the intimidating force at the front of a rotation he once was. He's still solid, but he doesn't really scare you anymore. (Well, unless you happen to be something edible or punchable in the dugout, that is.)

Ryan Dempster fell off from his 2008 performance, but was still a plus pitcher for Chicago. He was awful much of the early portion of the year, but came on strong late to lower his ERA to 3.65. Dempster provides much-needed innings, and at a reasonably high level. After Z and Dumpster, though, things get a bit murkier.

Ted Lilly, a relatively unsung contributor to the Cubs' back-to-back division titles, has had shoulder surgery already this offseason. It was minor shoulder surgery, yes, but then again, I'm not entirely sure there is such a thing. Lilly was absolutely brilliant in 2009, posting a 3.61 FIP, but until he can prove his shoulder is unequivocally sound, he has to be a concern.

 Perhaps the brightest spot of all for the Cubs in '09 was the performance of their rookie hurler, Randy Wells. He went 12-10, 3.05 in his first extended taste of the majors at 27. His peripherals were mostly in line as well, so it doesn't appear he did it all with smoke and mirrors. Still, Wells is a relatively unknown commodity, and may simply be waiting until the time is right to give up a crippling home run, then rip open his jersey, revealing the Cardinal jersey underneath. So there's that.

The Cubs' fifth starter spot was, for the most part, a disaster. Sean Marshall continued to impersonate Sean Marshall. The Cubs acquired Tom Gorzelanny from the Pirates, and he picked up basically where he left off in Pittsburgh. There were positives in his performance, but for the most part it was another disappointing season for the man once voted Most Likely to Actually Live Up to His Billing  among all Pittsburgh left-handed starting prospects.

Relief

Carlos Marmol is sort of the pitching equivalent of a British motorcycle. Yeah, it's a whole lot of fun when it's working, and it certainly looks impressive, but damned if the thing isn't broken down and spilling oil all over your driveway more often than not. Marmol has some of the nastiest stuff in the game, but not much idea where it's going a fair amount of the time. Hitters did a much better job of laying off his slider in 2009, and he had a tough time throwing it for strikes. He still struck out a bunch of hitters (93 in 74 innings), and didn't give up many hits (43), but he also walked 65 hitters, leading to a 1.46 WHIP fueled almost entirely by batters simply standing there and doing nothing.

Kevin Gregg was solid, though not the force the Cubs were undoubtedly hoping for, and he has now departed via free agency. Angel Guzman was impressive, combining a repertoire just a step down from Marmol's with actual control, but he remains very young and was shut down late in the season with an injury. Neal Cotts was, um, how do I put this?- shitty, only to be replaced as the primary lefty by John Grabow. Grabow did what he always does, and should be a definite plus in the 'pen for 2010.

Jeff Samardzija continued his enigmatic career arc, following up his 2.28 ERA in 2008 with a 7.53 in 2009. Sure, he's talented, but at some point Samardzija is going to have to come up with something more than a big fastball and a passing resemblance to Andy Samberg if he wants to succeed at the major league level.

Needs

Any discussion of the Chicago Cubs' offseason has to begin with the outfield, where they badly need to figure things out. Milton Bradley wasn't a bad player for them in 2009; on the contrary, he was probably still their best outfielder, but all signs point to him being dealt this offseason, and I'm not sure I can blame the Cubs. As much as Bradley wasn't the problem with the team this year, I just don't know if his relationship with the fans, not to mention his teammates, is a tenable one.

If Bradley is dealt, the Cubs will have to come up with someone to try and replicate his offensive contributions, and several names have been floated. Rick Ankiel was thought to be their first choice until fairly recently, but things seem to have cooled slightly on that front since Scott Boras made his comments about multiple years and big dollars for Swingin' Dick's services. The Cubs don't seem to have much interest in Matt Holliday, perhaps being a bit gun shy after witnessing how horribly wrong a seven-year deal for an outfielder can go. They also haven't been mentioned all that much in the Jason Bay sweepstakes, so I have to assume they're looking at lower-hanging fruit.

Beyond the outfield, it's somewhat doubtful the Cubs will be able to make any substantial upgrades to their offense. Both corner infield positions are set, and rightfully so. Soto will be looking for a bounceback season; it's far too early to write him off as a one-year wonder. The only spots the Cubs could look to upgrade are the middle infield positions, but I'm not sure how much help is really available at those spots this offseason. Perhaps the Cubbies get involved in trying to trade for Dan Uggla? They do have an exciting young middle infield prospect in the pipeline named Starlin Castro, who has garnered plenty of comparisons to Edgar Renteria, and could draw interest from Florida, but little beyond that.

The bullpen has to be an area of concern, and priority one has to be sorting out who will at least begin the season as the Chicago closer. Marmol, I'm sure, will have the inside track on the job, but after his 2009 performance it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion. I doubt the Cubs will go outside the organisation to find a stopper, but it's likely they'll try to acquire at least an arm or two to bolster the overall depth of the 'pen.

Priorities

  1. Deal with Milton Bradley situation. Trade is most likely outcome.
  2. Acquire offensive upgrade to replace Bradley's production. Left-handed hitter would be desirable.  
  3. Shore up bullpen, likely through trades. (Bradley?)
  4. Look at other possible offensive upgrades, i.e. Uggla or Mark DeRosa as utility player.
  5. Acquire 5th starter/ insurance arm for Ted Lilly.
  6. ???
  7. World Series title.

The Bottom Line

The Cubs are by no means in dire straights. They underachieved badly last season, but the offense should receive a boost from a full season from Ramirez and, hopefully, better years from Soriano, Soto, and Lee. The same can't really be said for the pitching, which performed right about where one would expect, given the talent level. The starting rotation will remain their biggest strength, while the bullpen remains somewhat suspect.

At this point, the Cubs have to be considered the Cards' main competition for the division again in 2009. Both teams are clearly a step or two ahead of the pack.

There you go, folks. One in the can, four to go.

The Baron's Playlist for the 11th of December, 2009

"The Blizzard" - Camera Obscura   A cover of the Jim Reeves/ Johnny Cash classic. Any CO fans out there (and I know there are some), you might want to check out their holiday 7" release, with the Blizzard backed by Swans. 

"My Wife and My Dead Wife" - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

"Oh You Pretty Things" - Peter Noone   I just heard this on Pop! The Beat Bubble Bursts yesterday morning, and I can't stop listening to it. It's a Bowie cover by the former Herman's Hermits frontman, and it has a bit of an early Harry Nilsson vibe to it. Really great.

"Intermezzo Sinfonico" from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana - James Levine

"Take On Me" - A.C. Newman    Another tip of the hat to KDHX, this time to Nick Acquisto and the Space Parlour. Outstanding cover of the A-Ha classic.

 Edit: And, of course, on the day I write this, some actual news comes down the pipeline, as the Cardinals have now apparently made an official offer to Scott Boras and Matt Holliday. Sigh. They couldn't have waited just one more day? Really?

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