Well, 2008 ended much like the last century has for the Chicago Cubs...in disappointment...so I'm not going to waste time spewing the old "Wait til next year" rant, or whine and moan about the lack of performance in the playoffs. Instead, I'd just like to grade the players/manager on the 2008 the season, and try and forecast what changes might be needed for the Cubs to be successful.
Catchers Grade: A
Geovany Soto almost certainly will win the ROY award for '08, and deservingly so. He ably handled a veteran pitching staff, was not a defensive liability. His bat was a big reason why the Cubs got as far as they did, and if the Cubs can get more years like that, he'll be a perennial All-Star. Also kudos to Henry Blanco...great defensive catcher, and I can't count how many times he came up with a clutch hit in what limited games he played in.
First Base Grade: C-
Derek Lee had a great start in 2008, then tailed off the second half. His numbers, while respectable for most MLB players (.291 20HR 91RBI) were down from previous campaigns...and certainly not comparable to a #3 hitter on just about every other team in MLB. He also led the league in hitting into double plays...and that's something that is unacceptable from your #3 guy. Is Lee on the downside of his career? That question will certainly be in the minds of Jim Hendry and Lou Pinella during the of season.
Second Base Grade: A
I'm going to grade Mark DeRosa here, as this was where he played most of the season. If you could name an MVP for the Cubs in 2008, DeRosa's name would certainly be a first or second choice. He set personal career highs in HR's (21) and RBI's (87) while dropping only slightly in batting average (.285) on the season. He plays a decent second base, and as we all know...fills in just about everywhere on the field...Pinella has to love this guy!
Shortstop Grade: B
Don't get me wrong...I like Ryan Theriot...but he was better in 2007, than in 2008. His batting average did improve 40 points,but that number would have been higher had it not tailed off the last month or so. He had dropoffs in HR, RBI's, Stolen bases and percentage stealing...and his fielding % dropped off a bit as well. Not overly concerned though...Pinella did move him around in the lineup quite a bit, and unless some blockbuster deal is made...we can expect him back in 2009.
Third Base Grade B
Aramis Ramirez had a solid 2008 Campaign, matching or bettering his HR & RBI totals of '07. His average and slugging did drop this season, but, I think some of that had to do with the guys hitting in front of him. Defensively...it was not a good year for 'A-Ram'...He had 18 errors (as opposed to 10 last year), his highest total since being acquired from Pittsburgh back in 2003. Also...he virtually disappeared in the playoffs again, and that can't happen from your clean-up guy. Despite that, Ramirez will again be counted on to provide the offensive punch in 2009.
Left Field Grade B
What can you say about Alfonso Soriano...Feast or Famine comes to mind. His numbers certainly were ok for a guy who missed about 50 games in '08 (.280, 29HR, 75RBI, 19SB)...but injuries keep biting this guy ever since he joined the Cubs. In his career prior to joining Chicago, Soriano averaged about 155 games a year, with the Cubs, about 125. Soriano, most will admit, will never earn a Gold Glove either in the outfield, and it seems everytime he does make an error, it ends up being at a critical time and costs the Cubs runs. A healthy Soriano hitting 35+ HR's and 120+ RBI's certainly would negate his fielding liability in '09...so we'll hope and pray that's what we get. More on Soriano later...
Center Field Grade B+
Considering, the Cubs went into 2008 with Felix Pie as the projected starter, and ended up with two guys platooning the position they picked up off the waiver wire, this has to be one of the bright spots of 2008. Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson put together a very solid season as Cubs center fielders. Combined, they hit 25HR and 99RBI's, while adequately fielding the position. Whether the Cubs stay with the platoon in '09, look back at Pie, or go out looking for a free agent remains to be seen...but things could be far worse than having the Edmonds/Johnson platoon return.
Right Field Grade C-
For the first two months of 2008, the Cubs look like they had hit the jackpot with Kosuke Fukudome...The last four months...well...they could have taken K-Dome's bats, and wittled them into wooden nickels, because that's about all they were worth. Maybe expectations were too high after the start he had...a rookie playing a full season in the MLB against tougher competition...adjusting to the different lifestyle of the USA, are all factors that could have contributed to his fall off throughout 2008. At least his fielding prowness in right was as advertised. We'll see this off season if the Cubs look to improve his offensive capabilities, or look for a free agent.
Bench Grade B
Tough to grade, as the Cubs presented the same lineup for much of the season...but give a high grade to Mike Fontenot, who in 243 AB's, hit 9 HR's and drove in 40 RBI's, while only making 1 error at 2B all season. Ronny Cedeno proved to be flexible, filling in as needed all over the field. Daryle Ward's run with the Cubs may be coming to an end. While the Big D had a couple of big pinch hit HR's, he only hit .216 in his main pinch hitter role, and could be replaced by the up and coming big bat of Micah Hoffpauir, who has nothing left to prove at the AAA level, and gives the Cubs some better options for playing 1B or OF when needed.
Starting Pitching Grade A
I thought this unit was the stabilizing force that got the Cubs as far as they did in 2008. Despite Carlos Zambrano's injuries...Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and mid-season acquisition Rich Harden all did better than expected. Dempster (17-6) ended up being the ace of the staff, and even though he tailed off a bit in September...I think you can attribute that to a bit of arm weariness, since this was his first time being a full-time regular starter since 2002. Lilly had a career high 17 wins, and was solid down the stretch drive. Harden showed the stuff to be a potential 18-20 game winner in '09...I'd just like to see him get to at least the 7th inning a little more often. Hopefully, Big Z (14-6) rests that right arm of his completely during the off season (That means no World Baseball Classic!!!). Props even go out to Jason Marquis, who gave a typical "Marquis" like season. He'll give up some runs, eat up some innings, and will usually keep you in games going into the 6th or 7th. By the way...does anyone know the whereabouts of Rich Hill, the projected #2 starter heading into 2008???
Relief Pitching Overall Grade: B-
I made this an "Overall" grade for one reason...There was a distinct difference in the performance of the middle inning relievers (Howry, Cotts, Wuertz, Gaudin) as opposed to the late inning relief performances of Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol. Let's start with the good...Wood and Marmol. Despite some ups and downs...both these guys had pretty good 2008 seasons. Wood, in his first season as a closer, made it through the entire campaign with very few arm problems. He saved 34 of 40 opportunities...not too shabby for a first go around. Marmol showed glimpses of being a future closer as well, starting off great, slumping some in June/July, but recovering the last two months to finish out with a 2.68 ERA, 7 saves and 114 K's in 87 IP. For those two, I'd give them a B+. As far as Howry and Cotts are concerned, neither did much to earn a roster spot in '09. In fact, they became so unreliable...the Cubs had to bring up Sean Marshall and Jeff Smardzjia from AAA to try and bridge the gap competently, to moderate success. Both of those guys should have been allowed to finish the season in Iowa, honing their skills as future starting pitchers, but Howry and Cotts' inability to be reliable middle relievers blew that, and a grade of C- for the group as a whole. I'll leave the book out on Wuertz and Gaudin...each had some injury issues over the course of the season...so we'll see what happens in '09.
Manager Grade: B+
Although the season ended poorly, I'm not sure you can pin that on Pinella, as much as you can blame the lack of performance of key players. Two points to remember...The Cubs did finish the season with the best record in the NL, and made the postseason for the first time ever in back-to-back seasons in 100 years. If you had told me that before the season, the Cubs would do all that with:
- Ryan Dempster & Ted Lilly leading your staff in Wins
- Nothing from Rich Hill
- Soriano missing 50 games
- Kerry Wood making it through the year without significant time on DL
- Derek Lee having a down year
- Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson roaming in CF
- Mark DeRosa being a team MVP
- Geovany Soto being the probable Rookie of the Year
...I'd probably would have called you nuts. Whenever the Brewers got close to the Cubs in the standings, Chicago always managed to pickup their game and pull away to a comfortable margin. So props to Sweet Lou and here's hope he can get the team over the hump in '09. Hopefully, he will put the screws to Soriano, and finally convince him to start hitting in the #3 hole next year, if the roster stays the same, and he's healthy. Move Lee to #5 (which should help him see better pitches) and the Cubs have their own version of Murders' Row.
General Manager Grade B+
For many of the same reasons above, I thought Jim Hendry did a great job filling in the holes as they arised. The Johnson/Edmonds pickups turned out to be genious, he didn't sit on his hands when Milwaukee got Sabathia, by countering with the acquisition of Harden. All this with ownership being a question mark. The next challenge will be what pieces to acquire in the off season that will finally end the century of suffering for all Cubs fans.
2009 Early Outlook
The first issue that has to be resolved is who will be the owner of the Cubs going forward. Hopefully this will be taken care of before the end of the year. With that, comes the hope, that the new owner will want to make an early impression on Cubs nation and sign a big name free agent or two. I'm not talking spending Manny Ramirez money, but possibly Adam Dunn??? Big lefthanded bat, plays right field, NL guy...hmm...seems to be a perfect fit, huh? Not great on the defense, but that's where Fukudome can play a productive role in '09. Add a couple of quality middle relievers, and I see no reason the Cubs cannot repeat as Central champs, and once again, give hope to the faithful, that 2009 will be the year.