The State of the Chicago Scrubs
Things are getting a little heated on the North Side of Chicago these days, and I'm not talking about Vito Spatafore visiting the Man Hole. Before beating the Giants 8-1 last night, the Cubs had dropped 8 games in a row and are now in fifth place in the NL Central, 6.5 back from the Cincinnati Reds. Wrigleyville is getting a bit restless, and rightfully so.
Their offense has been pathetic, scoring just 52 runs in 19 games since Derrek Lee's injury, a measly 2.73 per game. Their team ERA is a mediocre 4.52 and control issues are plaguing their pitchers. Led by Carlos Zambrano's 33, Cubs pitchers have given up 142 walks in 289 innings. After some quick research on MLB.com, I found that number to be the second highest in the league, trailing only the Florida Marlins, who probably would be more at home in the International League rather than the NL.
There is plenty of blame to go around on the North Side, but after attending games at Wriggles and speaking with friends who bleed Cubby blue I've found that most of their spite is being directed at manager Dusty Baker. The most popular criticism is that he's too much of a player's manager and doesn't get after his players to perform better. The truth is that Dusty Baker is a very good manager, but his team has been HAMMERED by injuries. My only question about Dusty is how he keeps from swallowing his toothpick in the dugout. He has an array of tricks and moves with that toothpick that seem borderline dangerous. Anyway, he should be re-signed to a 2 year deal regardless of how the Cubs finish the season.
Everyone knows that his 3 best players are on the DL in Lee, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood. Free agent signee Wade Miller is also rehabbing, so the Cubs could have 3 fresh, although questionably sound, arms become available over the next 2 months. Obviously, the Cubs desperately need Lee back in the middle of the lineup, but he will be lucky to be back by July. So, with their most valuable player out until after mid-season, where do the Cubs go from here?
There are almost 130 games remaining on the schedule, but if the team stands pat then the return of their injured stars will be too little, too late. Wood and Prior can not be counted on to make it through even a half season and I have a bad feeling that Lee will be out until August. Aramis Ramirez is their only threat to eclipse 30 homers and Maddux isn't as good as his 5-0 start. In order to win their division, the Cubs would need to pass defending NL Champion Houston Astros, the Great Pujols, the up-and-coming Brew Crew, and the upstart Reds. This would be tough enough to do with their 3 best players in the lineup for a full year.
If the Cubs still hope to contend this season, they need to make a major move. Roger Clemens, the most obvious star player available, won't happen. He's expensive, won't be pitching until June at the earliest, and the 'Stros would never let him go elsewhere in the division. Barry Zito's name continues to surface in trade rumors, but the Mets are the front runners for him. Billy Beane is in no rush to trade Zito and will probably wait it out until Rich Harden returns or the Mets offer up Lastings Milledge. Names that have been connected to the Cubs of late include Kevin Millar, Mike Sweeney, and Doug Mientkiewicz. None of these guys figures to make much of a difference. If there were any way to convince Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin to trade within the division, Carlos Lee (contract year) might be a good fit. A trade of Matt Murton and Rich Hill might work and Lee would look great in the middle of the lineup. Unfortunately, Melvin is not inclined to deal with the Cubs and "El Caballo" won't be saving the Cubs offense this year.
Since the prospects of adding an impact player don't look good, perhaps the Cubs should go the opposite route and deal a player or two from the group of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Todd Walker, or Juan Pierre. The Cubs would target major league ready talent and perhaps would find their second baseman of the future or a premier young starter. This idea probably doesn't appeal to GM Jim Hendry, but if his team is 10 games below .500 in June or July, it will be his best option.
Of course, Hendry could have saved himself from this mess by investing more money in player salary this offseason. The Cubs actually lowered their payroll this offseason, even after adding more bleacher seats to Wrigley Field. The Tribune Company makes tens of millions of dollars in profit on the franchise every year and their payroll should be in the top 5 in MLB. There is no excuse for this, and Cubs fans have every right to be upset. While a lot of this mess has been caused by injury, an extra $10 million would have gone a long way towards strengthening the team. Perhaps the team could have signed or traded for a better outfielder than Pierre or Jacque Jones (Torii Hunter or Johnny Damon?) and the offense wouldn't be so lost without Derrek Lee. Instead, the Cubs might once again be waiting 'til next year.