Eager to put a year filled with trials and turbulence in the distant past, the Chicago Cubs enter the 2010 season with both a new attitude and a different perception in the public eye.
Chicago captured back-to-back National League Central titles in 2007 and 2008 and was the consensus choice to seize a third straight division crown last season after returning virtually all the key parts from a team that won a league-best 97 games the previous year. Instead of fulfilling that prophecy, however, the Cubs fell victim to bad luck and the weight of enormous expectations and finished with a disappointing 83-78 record.
The reasons for Chicago's startling dropoff were plentiful. A rash of injuries took its toll on the talent base, with each of the team's top four starting pitchers spending time on the disabled list and a dislocated shoulder to valued cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez having a profound effect on the offense. A shaky relief corps blew its share of late leads and often drew the ire of the long-suffering Wrigley Field faithful, while chemistry issues within the clubhouse clearly affected the Cubs on the playing field as well.
With Ramirez missing half the season and players such as perennial All-Star Alfonso Soriano and 2008 NL Rookie of Year Geovany Soto going through prolonged slumps, a lineup that easily topped the Senior Circuit in runs scored the season before placed just 10th in that category. The Cubs were a station-to-station team on the basepaths, ranking dead last in the majors in stolen bases and relying way too heavily on the long ball.
Outfielder Milton Bradley, another of the offensive underachievers, became a fitting symbol of last year's frustrating campaign with a litany of public rants criticizing both the organization and the fans for creating a "negative environment." The volatile switch-hitter was suspended by the team in late September and traded to Seattle over the winter for pitcher Carlos Silva. Also gone is Kevin Gregg, the chosen successor to popular closer Kerry Wood who was removed from that role in mid-August after a series of failed save attempts.
The Cubs didn't do much more in the way of retooling during the offseason, save for the signing of free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd to take Bradley's place and bringing in esteemed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to help improve the sagging offense. With many of the core players still around from the recent division-winning squads, general manager Jim Hendry and skipper Lou Piniella believe a major overhaul wasn't necessary for Chicago to be back contending for the NL Central crown this summer.
The Cubs won't be wearing the favorite's label this time around, however, with the rival St. Louis Cardinals being hailed as the preferred preseason pick to repeat. That may be a good thing, considering Chicago's meltdown under pressure a year ago and its early ousting in the playoffs the two seasons prior.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Chicago Cubs, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(83-78) - Second Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
CF Marlon Byrd, 1B Chad Tracy, OF Xavier Nady, RP Jeff Gray, RP Carlos Silva
Key Offseason subtractions
RF Milton Bradley, SP Rich Harden, RP Kevin Gregg, IF Aaron Miles, IF Jake Fox, OF Reed Johnson, RP Aaron Heilman
While Chicago's offense underperformed as a unit, the team did receive a banner 2009 season out of first baseman Derrek Lee (.306, 35 HR), who knocked in a career-best 111 runs from his customary No. 3 spot in the order and had his largest home run output since 2005. The highly-respected veteran is also a huge asset in the field, having won three Gold Gloves over the course of his career.
Shortstop Ryan Theriot (.284, 7 HR, 54 RBI, 21 SB) also turned in a solid season, both defensively and at the plate, and the gritty Cajun will be counted on to be a catalyst as the Cubs' primary leadoff hitter and one of the lineup's few sources of speed.
Ramirez (.317, 15 HR, 65 RBI) made an impact when able to play, but the standout third baseman was only able to participate in 82 games due to his injury. The 31-year-old also missed some time this spring with a sore triceps but is a consistently-good run producer when healthy, having averaged 32 homers and 105 RBI over a five-year span prior to last season.
Soto (11 HR, 47 RBI) also battled injuries during an awful sophomore season in which the 2008 All-Star hit an anemic .218, nearly 70 points lower than his rookie year. After admitting to being out of shape in 2009, the Chicago catcher dropped 40 points during the offseason and was hitting the ball this spring, making him a strong candidate for a bounce-back year.
Piniella would also like to see improvement out of second baseman Mike Fontenot (9 HR, 43 RBI), who hit a disappointing .236 last season after posting a .306 average with nine homers in part-time duty during 2008. One of the few lefthanded bats among the regulars, he's expected to split time with utilityman Jeff Baker (.288, 4 HR, 24 RBI) at the position.
While Bradley's subpar showing and boorish behavior made him an easy scapegoat for Chicago's downfall, Soriano's drastic dip in production clearly played a part in last year's slide. A career .278 hitter with four 30-30 seasons under his belt, the enigmatic former second baseman hit just .241 with 20 homers, his lowest total since 2001. A leadoff hitter for most of his tenure in the majors, Piniella now slots the seven-time All-Star in the middle of the order due to his free-swinging ways and declining speed.
Byrd (.283, 20 HR, 89 RBI) parlayed a career season as one of Jaramillo's pupils with the Rangers into a three-year, $15-million contract to be the Cubs' new center fielder and No. 5 hitter. Whether or not Hendry made a sound investment remains to be seen, as the stocky 32-year-old did most of his offensive damage in the hitter-friendly confines of Texas, but he'll almost certainly be less of a headache then Bradley was.
With Byrd on board, Kosuke Fukudome (.259, 11 HR, 54 RBI) will shift from center to right field, the position the Japanese import primarily played during his debut season in the majors in 2008. Although he hasn't quite lived up to the hype since being lured away from the Far East a few years back, the lefthanded hitter is a fundamentally sound player with the ability to get on base, having drawn a team-best 93 walks a year ago.
The Cubs' starting pitching was also an area that didn't quite live up to its advance billing in 2009, with ace Carlos Zambrano struggling through an injury-plagued off year and holdovers Ryan Dempster and the since-departed Rich Harden unable to match their outstanding numbers of the previous season.
Chicago's most consistent starter was Ted Lilly (12-9, 151 K), who posted a career-best 3.10 earned run average in 27 starts and was the club's lone All- Star representative last year. The gritty left-hander underwent shoulder surgery in November, however, and will likely miss at least the first few weeks of the season.
Dempster (11-9, 3.64) also turned in a solid showing, although the converted closer couldn't duplicate a banner 2008 in which he won a career-best 17 games and placed fourth among NL hurlers with a 2.96 ERA. Poor run support played a part in last year's low victory total, making the veteran righty a good candidate to rebound if he can remain healthy.
Zambrano (9-7, 3.77), a three-time All-Star and one of the NL's premier hurlers for a good part of the past decade, battled both command and back and hamstring issues and failed to win double-digit games for the first time since 2002. The excitable Venezuelan showed up in excellent shape this spring, however, and appears focused on regaining his past form.
While Zambrano's performance was disappointing, the Cubs did receive an unexpected lift out of No. 4 starter Randy Wells, whose 12 wins as a rookie tied Lilly for the team lead. Called up from the minors in early May as an injury replacement, the 27-year-old wound up being a rotation fixture and finished with an impressive 3.05 ERA in 27 appearances.
After opting not to retain the injury-prone Harden, Chicago went into the spring with four candidates -- southpaws Tom Gorzelanny (7-3, 5.55) and Sean Marshall (3-7, 4.32) and righties Silva (1-3, 8.60) and Jeff Samardzija (1-3, 7.53) -- for that open spot. Although no clear-cut front-runner had yet to emerge late in camp, Gorzelanny could have the edge after pitching fairly well down the stretch of last season. The Illinois native won 14 games for the Pirates back in 2007 before being sidetracked by control problems.
Piniella believes he's found his closer in hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Marmol (2-4, 3.41, 15 SV, 93 K), who converted all 11 of his save opportunities upon displacing Gregg as the ninth-inning guy in mid-August. Armed with an explosive fastball and devastating slider, the 27-year-old has held opposing hitters to a .170 average last season but can be wild at times.
Getting the lead in Marmol's hands figures to be Piniella's greatest challenge. Talented righty Angel Guzman (3-3, 2.95, 1 SV) was slated to be the primary setup man after excelling in that role last year, but could be lost for the season after needing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his throwing shoulder. The top choices now appear to be left-hander John Grabow (3-0, 3.36), a midseason pickup from Pittsburgh who was re-signed to a two-year deal in November, and youngster Esmailin Caridad (1-0, 1.40), an intriguing prospect with just 17 big-league appearances to his credit.
Jeff Gray (0-1, 3.76), brought over in an offseason trade with Oakland, is also in the mix along with fellow right-hander Justin Berg, who allowed just one run in 10 games during a September callup last year and followed up with a strong spring. Samardzija (1-3, 7.53) becomes an option as well if he can't land a rotation gig, as the former Notre Dame wide receiver performed capably in a 26-game stint out of the pen in 2008.
Marshall also has significant experience as a reliever, having served as the team's main lefty specialist prior to Grabow's addition, and is a lock to make the Opening Day roster in some capacity. Silva, a free-agent bust with Seattle, is guaranteed a spot as well and could begin the year as a starter until Lilly comes back. The Cubs are hoping a change of scenery benefits the veteran swingman, who combined for a 5-18 record with a 6.81 over two forgettable seasons with the Mariners.
Baker hit .305 in 69 games after coming off in a midseason trade with Colorado and gives Piniella plenty of flexibility with his ability to play every infield position but shortstop as well as the outfield corners. He's part of what should be a quality reserve corps that was further bolstered with the signing of ex-Yankee Xavier Nady, a .280 lifetime hitter with power who will be used as the team's fourth outfielder once he's fully recovered from elbow surgery that cut short his 2009 season after only seven games.
Koyie Hill (.237, 2 HR, 24 RBI) will reprise his role as Chicago's backup catcher after flashing strong receiving skills and throwing out 40 percent of runners attempting to steal last season. Switch-hitter Andres Blanco (.252, 1 HR, 12 RBI) is a defensive whiz as well who returns as Theriot's main understudy at shortstop.
Veterans Chad Tracy (.237, 8 HR, 39 RBI with Arizona) and Kevin Millar (.223, 7 HR, 29 RBI with Toronto), both non-roster invitees, are competing for the final bench spot as a reserve first baseman and late-inning bat. Tracy owns a .306 lifetime average as a pinch-hitter and swings from the left side, while the 38-year-old Millar is renowned for his work as a clubhouse leader.
With the preseason spotlight focused on the Cardinals, Chicago finds itself in what may be a welcome position of an under-the-radar team entering the season. This is a group that shouldn't be taken lightly, though, as there's plenty of talent on board and players like Soriano, Zambrano and Soto are fully capable of coming through with rebound years. On the flip side, questions exist regarding the bullpen and back end of the rotation, and the Cubs still remain an older team that's more suspectible to injury and lacks the overall organizational depth to withstand the loss of several key performers. While Chicago shouldn't be counted out as a possible playoff participant, odds are the Cubs' longstanding championship drought will continue in 2010.