As practiced last year when the Dodgers swept the Cubs in the NLDS, I will try to limit my sportswriting to those events which merit mention. Last night the Cubs were eliminated from contention in the National League Wild Card Race. The 2009 season will continue for a few more days, but there will be no playoffs this year for the Cubs, the first time that has happened since 2006, one of their worst years ever.
The Cubs have become a "serious contender," I would argue, since 1998, the year Kerry Wood struck out 20 in a game and became Rookie of the Year, the year the home run record was broken (though history has proven this an insignificant accomplishment), and the first year the Cubs went to the playoffs since 1989. The 2003 season remains the high watermark for the franchise in their recent years, and the Piniella years (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, we all hope) represent their greatest chance at ultimate success than anything they have previously cobbled together.
What follows is a report card of all the major Cubs players from this year, as well as the top 5 reasons they failed, and the top 5 things they will need to do to succeed in 2010. We may as well try to go from highest paid to lowest paid.
Carlos Zambrano: C+
Big Z did not have a terrible year statistically, but I think it is fair to say that it has been his most frustrating season to date. His attitude seemed to become a problem at a couple points, but he is a Cubs mainstay and should return next year in very good form. Maybe he will win another Silver Slugger. He caused a lot of controversy when he announced that he wanted to retire at a young age, and various jokes about how much he wanted to stay with the Cubs. But everyone would be sad to see him go. He is the only pitcher in the recent era to record a no-hitter for the team, and he still has potential for improving talent at his age.
Alfonso Soriano: D+
I maintain that the acquisition of Soriano, along with the hiring of Piniella, are the two single most important moves the franchise has made towards serious baseball contention. Soriano is now roughly halfway through his contract. He has made the All-Star Team each of the last two years. I believe this is the first year that he has not made it. To be sure, he had his moments. He started off the season fairly well, got mired in a slump, briefly resurfaced for a quality few weeks of play after the All-Star break, and then slumped for the remainder of the season. He barely finished with 20 home runs. He has lost his spot at the top of the order. Many maintain that he does not belong in the lead-off spot but I will persist in believing that the greatest success will come with him there. His average this year, somewhere in the high .230s or low .240s, is pathetic for a player of his caliber. He had an off year, but he will make the adjustments necessary (as Derrek Lee has, for instance) and I believe recover from whatever injuries may be bothering him and improve significantly in 2010.
Aramis Ramirez: A-
Aramis ended up having one of the best seasons of his career--for the amount that he played. I believe he came back at less than 100%, and his return to the lineup was a big event of the summer, when it coincided with Manny Ramirez's return from suspension, and ESPN touted, "Which Ramirez return means more to the team? It's not the one you would think." Ramirez is another mainstay on the team and if he can be anywhere near as his consistent as his numbers in limited action dictate, then the Cubs will be very, very lucky to have him in 2010.
Derrek Lee: A
Arguably Derrek Lee's best season--certainly his best since 2005. Lee's 2005 season is a year to end all years--but his performance has been nothing short of spectacular this season as well. It is somewhat impressive to consider that he posted these numbers while not making the All-Star team. He was behind Pujols at 1st (and Prince Fielder), but that is the disadvantage of the league. Pujols should win the MVP, no problem, but Lee did everything he could to take this team to the postseason.
Ted Lilly: B+
Lilly was the Cubs only All Star, and ended this season with numbers that are not exactly All Star like, but good for 2nd best starter on the team. Lilly could flirt with being the ace of the staff, but the irrepressible Zambrano stands ahead of him. And Dempster has made a case for himself as well. On the whole this was a great pitching staff. But Lilly was the sole All Star, and turned in a very solid performance again. I expect him to be capable of greater things next season.
Kosuke Fukudome: B-
Fukudome is capable of way better than this. Maybe his first season's first half was a fluke--but I doubt it. This guy is a proven talent, and I expect him to have a much better season next year. He turned in a decent performance nonetheless. He lead the team in doubles and walks, and had a pretty good on base percentage, and had the third most hits on the team. He was reliable, and he has to stay on the team. He is a great presence to have at Wrigley.
Ryan Dempster: A-
Dempster has probably turned in the 2nd or 3rd best season of his career. It would be tough to beat his numbers from last year--17-6 with a 2.96 era--but he was a much better 11-8 with a 3.51 era than the numbers dictate. He was a constant presence on the team, which was much needed with frequent injuries popping up all over the place. It seems like he's kept improving late into the season, so expect a career year next year.
Milton Bradley: F(+)
The player everyone wanted to talk about this year does not appear to be returning next year, despite being signed to a 3 year contract that paid him something like ten million each year. Milton seemed to draw a lot of walks, which is the reason for the + after the F. He always seemed to toss his bat rapidly after seeing the 4th ball. I am probably being too critical. His story is reminiscent of Jacque Jones's tenure with the team in 2006, but Jacque will not be remembered as sorely as Bradley. Jacque had a better year, for one, and nobody questioned whether or not people were shouting racist comments from the bleachers of Wrigley. Most seem to deny that ever happening with Bradley. I am generally sympathetic to those with emotional problems and those that like to cause a stir with the media. But I am not sympathetic to people that make as much as he does a year and whine like a baby all the time. Sure, there is a lot of pressure being the new guy on the Cubs that's going to save the team--but have a little respect for the franchise, please. It is arguably the greatest institution in baseball and one should be excited by the opportunity to play in its hallowed grounds, not critical when one's own shortcomings are responsible for the failure of the collective. Milton's on base percentage wasn't all that bad, but his RBI total was pathetic for a player of his ability. If any single player was responsible for the team's not getting into the playoffs this year, most will point to Bradley. I will agree that he is most responsible, but several others (near the top of this list) also contributed significantly to their demise.
Rich Harden: B+
Rich Harden, like Ryan Dempster, is a better 9-9 with a 4.09 era than the numbers dictate. He has basically been a rock in the rotation for all of the anxieties about his susceptibility to injury. He is one of the key components to this pitching staff and should play a major role in the 2010 team.
Kevin Gregg: D+
If anyone besides Milton Bradley gets as much crap for being a big off-season mistake, it's Kevin Gregg. He blew a lot of saves, and lost the closer position. I think he has a doubtful future in this franchise. Maybe he will get the chance to stay on the team, but not as the closer. I think he might be able to have success in a middle relief or setup role. Who knows, I won't be totally upset if they keep him, but a lot of people grumble about him now.
Reed Johnson: B+
Reed made a case for himself being everyday centerfielder and lead-off hitter in replacement of Fukudome. His fielding has been a case of highlight reels. He plays hard, and has earned everyone's respect in the city. Look for him to become secure in some kind of expanded role next year.
John Grabow: B
New acquisition that I did not get to see very much of, but he seems good enough to keep.
Aaron Miles: D
Weak performance. His future is doubtful. Would like to see him return to form because he seems like a nice person.
Aaron Heilman: B
Heilman logged a lot of innings with Marmol and Guzman in the bullpen. His performance was never lights out. He was okay.
Geovany Soto: C+
His performance late in the season has given his grade a raise. If he continues to play like this, we will have the Geo we remembered and loved back. There was a good joke when Piniella mentioned to the media about how he had tried smoking pot once and didn't like it. It was so random. But it was in relation to Soto, and his tests, and his added weight in the spring. I don't think anyone really cares so long as he keeps performing at the level as he has in September.
Carlos Marmol: B+
He had some control issues this year, and seemed to lose more games than in the past, but he has earned his status as the new closer, and in that role so far he has been amazing. He had some problems this year, sure, but look for him to return to All-Star form.
Ryan Theriot: A-
Theriot led the team in hits and proved to be a reliable and consistent presence at shortstop. He is probably one of the best shortstops in the game that is not an all-star, and look for him to be named to the team next year. He's a great player.
Koyie Hill: B+
He turned into an "ironman" when Soto went down with the injury and set a record for consecutive games catched--or most in 20 years, at least. His percentage of runners thrown out was excellent. His hitting saw a little bit of improvement, and he remains an excellent back-up catcher.
Sean Marshall: B+
Had a great year, developing into a dominant presence in the bullpen. Maybe this is what he was meant to do--I think his stock went up with his performance this year.
Tom Gorzelanny: B
Had a couple good performances. Like Grabow, I say keep him.
Mike Fontenot: C+
Fontenot could have had a better year for sure. But give him credit sticking through the slumps and turning in better performances late in the year. A fan favorite, he needs to stay.
Angel Guzman: A-
Gave Carlos Marmol a run for his money as the bullpen ace. Excellent performance, and we hope to see more of the same.
Jeff Baker: B+
Baker kind of came out of nowhere and was awesome. He played second base with Fontenot and turned in really good numbers, I was tempted to give him an A-. He should stay.
Micah Hoffpauir: B-
Hoffpauir could have had a better year. He showed flashes of greatness.
Jake Fox: B+
Not as much as Jake Fox did though. Look for him to have an official "breakthrough" season next year.
Randy Wells: A-
He may not win the Rookie of the Year award, but he proved to be one of the most reliable starters during turbulent times this year. He was very, very impressive, and now someone that needs to be locked up in a long term deal.
Bobby Scales: B
Please give him a spot on next year's team. He was great.
Sam Fuld: B
Showed some prowess in the field. 2nd most highlighted player behind Reed Johnson. Sad that he hasn't gotten an RBI. Remains the best reason to watch the last games--to see how big his cheer is for his 1st.
David Patton: B-
Whatever, I have no opinion.
Top 5 Reasons They Failed:
5) The Cardinals were too good.
4)The loss of Mark DeRosa.
3)Poor years from Soriano and Zambrano, comparatively.
2)Kevin Gregg's signing
1) Milton Bradley's signing
Top 5 Things They Need to do to Succeed:
5) Get more consistency out of their big ticket players.
4) Resign Mark Derosa.
3) Sign a big name in addition to him.
2) Improve their overall approach to offense, and not leaving so many runners on base.
1) Not make any big mistakes in the off-season.
They had a pretty good year in spite of everything. There were a few bright spots, and there is no reason to believe the Cubs will be any less of a contender next year than they have been in the three past.