As the 2011 Chicago Cubs sit 5 games under 500 in late May, I decided to try and cheer up by focusing on the possibility that the Cubs will put themselves in position to contend (notice I didn’t say win…just get to the playoffs and give it a run) for a World Series within 2 years. Everyone knows about the bad contracts and poor decisions, but the future if the right decisions are made, is bright. Tons of money falls off the books in 2011 and 2012. There are also several homegrown players with a chance to make significant positive impacts on the team without eating up a lot of payroll. The freed up dollars will allow the front office to be an aggressive player in the market for a couple years. In my opinion, it is this combination of cheap youth and more costly (and more reliable) veterans that gives teams the best chance to win it all. The Cubs have increasingly tilted towards a team full of costly veterans, and many of these guys are nearing the twilight of their careers. However, change is coming.
I’m going to highlight where I think the Cubs could/should go over the next year or 2. I’m no expert, and I’m sure many will have better or different ideas. Here’s my shot at how I propose the Cubs go after a World Series in 2013 and beyond:
Marlon Byrd is a hard nosed player that has really over achieved for the Cubs. He is due to make $6.5 million in 2012, his final year under contract. Unless the Cubs quickly turn things around in 2011, it seems very likely Byrd will be traded before July 31. His contract is reasonable and his production is solid. The man of the future in CF is Brett Jackson, and the future could be coming up later this summer. Jackson is a left handed lead off hitter with some pop and an above average fielder. He’s already stolen 13 bases in 32 games in Tennessee, and his OBP is .420. Jackson also has 4 HR and 17 RBI from the lead off spot. You never want to assume that top prospects will always live up to expectations, but it’s hard to imagine Brett Jackson won’t be patrolling CF at Wrigley Field for a while, and doing it well.
I don’t have much nice to say about Alfonso Soriano. He’s a terrible defensive left fielder and a selfish hitter. Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he isn’t in Chicago making $18 million through 2014. Soriano also has a full no trade clause. Maybe an AL team would take him to DH if the Cubs covered a big chunk of the salary and maybe Soriano would go? I doubt it. Through 2014, I expect Soriano to be botching fly balls, striking out with a runner at 3rd and 1 out, and doing some damage with the long ball here and there. Stick him in the 7 hole.
Fukudome ‘s time is done with the Cubs after this Summer (unless someone wants to trade for him at the deadline), and he’s making a whopping $13.5 million in 2011. I still believe Tyler Colvin is going to be a big time hitter for the Cubs, and I think this is Colvin’s spot by late 2011 once he works out of the slump and the Cubs move an outfielder or 2. It’s important to remember the kid hit 20 HR last year before being impaled by a flying bat. If Colvin can become the slugging left handed bat in the middle of the Cubs order that he has the potential to be, and the Cubs are able to start the 2 young/cheap guys in the outfield, it really opens up the possibilities for free agent signings at the corner infield positions.
Soto is going to be due a pay increase from his $3 million in 2011 that he agreed to with the Cubs to avoid arbitration. How much remains to be seen and the biggest question with Geo is how his body holds up. He hasn’t played more than 105 games since 2008. Still, the production is pretty good and the defense is about average. Can Welington Castillo be an adequate backup or even push Soto for playing time? That question remains to be seen but I’d certainly give Castillo the opportunity sooner rather than later over Koyie Hill.
This is where a shot needs to be taken. If the young guys take over in the outfield, I think you spend some money to make sure there’s a legitimately frightening bat in the 3 hole/cleanup. I refuse to believe the Cardinals won’t get a deal done with Pujols. If they don’t, go after him with a reasonable (not $300 million) offer. The more realistic option is Prince Fielder. Fielder is entering the prime of his career at 27 years old and should continue to mash the ball for the next 5 or 6 years. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies all have 1st basemen locked up. The Angels could very well enter the Fielder sweepstakes with the injury problems of Kendry Morales. To me, the Cubs are in the best position to sign Fielder to a deal. Yes, the weight is an issue and he is destined to be a DH some day, but at 27 years old, it’s hard to imagine a sharp decline in production any time soon.
Darwin Barney has really impressed thus far in 2011. Can he maintain this level of production? Probably not, but you have the cheer for this guy. DJ LeMahieu is steadily climbing the ladder in the minors and will be an option in a year or two if Barney comes back down to the level he was projected to reach. LeMahieu is hitting .350 in Tennessee and his 2 HRs in the first 40 games lend support to the organization’s hopes that LeMahieu will develop some power as he matures (he hit 2 all of last year despite standing about 6-4). Either way, the Cubs should have a young and inexpensive option at 2B for some time to come.
Starlin Castro is a superstar in the making. There’s not much else to say about Castro that hasn’t already been said. I would like to see Castro slotted at 2 in the batting order once the transition takes place. He handles the bat extremely well. I’m not sure the power is there to have Castro batting 3rd but I think you’d waste some of his production at lead off (despite a sensational job there in 2011). The sky is the limit for this kid, and he plays for years at a bargain price.
Cubs fans have been treated to some great moments by Aramis Ramirez. It seemed like the Cubs would never find a 3rd baseman that could be a good player and solidify the position for any length of time. I really appreciate everything Aramis did for the Cubs. There is a 2012 team option on Aramis for $16 million ($2 million buy out). It would be ridiculous for the Cubs to pick up that option. So 3rd base is a question mark once more, but there is money to spend. Looking at potential free agents this winter, not much jumps out. Will Josh Vitters improve so drastically that he’s ready for a shot? Can DJ LeMahieu develop enough power to play 3rd (the organization seems to think he’s a better fit defensively at 3rd over 2nd)? I don’t think anyone is willing to bet money on Vitters or DJ being ready and able to play 3rd by 2012 or even 2013. Personally, I’d see what it would take to trade for/sign (free agent following 2012 season) David Wright. Wright has been around a while, but he’s only 28. He has played almost every game every year since 2005, so this recent trip to the DL is unusual for him. Wright has consistently been around 30 HRs and over 100 RBIs throughout his career expect a bizarre 2009 that saw his power numbers dip considerably. Wright would look good batting 3rd behind Castro and in front of Fielder. The price would be similar to Aramis Ramirez, and at this point in their careers with Wright 4.5 years younger and more durable, Wright is the better option to play 3rd base. I’d wait until Wright is a free agent if the Mets asking price is very high, and find a stop gap for 2012 similar to Carlos Pena. Could another team trade for Wright if the Cubs wait? Sure, and that’s a concern. Who needs a 3rd baseman bad enough to trade a bunch of prospects and then pay Wright what it will take to sign him long term? I really don’t know, but the Cubs will have the money if they can put together a deal that isn’t too demanding or wait until Wright hits the market post 2012 season.
It’s tough to map out what the Cubs staff will look like in 2013. One thing is for sure, there’s going to be money to spend on filling it. Ryan Dempster is making $13.5 million in 2011 and $14 million in 2012. He’ll be gone. Carlos Zambrano will make about $18 million this year and next, and assuming he doesn’t meet the requirements needed for a big payday in 2013 (has to be top 2 in Cy Young voting in 2011 or top 4 in 2012), he’ll be gone too. John Grabow makes $4.8 million in 2011, he’s either traded by the deadline or done once the season is over. Those are the big contracts that will be dropped.
I like Matt Garza as a fixture in the Cubs rotation for the next 4-5 years. He is arbitration eligible in 2012 and a free agent in 2014, but the Cubs could sign him up long term before that. Don’t forget Garza was the ALCS MVP in 2008. The 27 year old seems to be really getting it together in 2011. Garza has made 30 starts in each of the last 3 seasons, and his ERA has been below 4 in each of them.
The Cubs will certainly have the money to go after a top of the rotation starter in free agency in 2012 or 2013. CJ Wilson will be a free agent after this season, and I’d strongly consider him. Wilson’s story is similar to Ryan Dempster in that he came up as a starter, converted to the bullpen, and then went back to starting. He was magnificent in 2010 including a brilliant win in the ALDS, 1 good and 1 bad start in the ALCS, and 1 solid outing in the World Series. So far Wilson’s been just as good in 2011. He’s a lefty too. Wilson is a different kind of guy, a devout Taoist, but I don’t see why that would be a problem. I’d try to sign him.
If Wilson doesn’t happen for the 2012 season, Francisco Liriano will be a free agent for the 2013 season. If he can prove over the next 2 years that he can stay healthy and make 30 starts, I’d give him a long look.
Of course the best case scenario is for some of the Cubs young talent to step up and become big time MLB starting pitchers. 2011 and 2012 will go a long way in determining if Randy Wells is a championship calibur 4/5 starter or not. Andrew Cashner will hopefully be a part of the rotation as well, and certainly has the stuff to be a top line starter. We’ll just have to see if he can bounce back in 2012 and prove himself worthy of a spot.
Keep an eye out for Trey McNutt. McNutt has dominated every level of hitting that has been put in front of him so far. The 21 year old right hander is off to a good start in Tennessee, and this guy looks like he has a bright future in the big leagues. There are others coming up that look like contributors, including Chris Carpenter and hopefully Jay Jackson although he is really struggling right now. The point is that I think we can go out and make a big splash in free agency, sign up Garza, and hopefully fill out the rest of the rotation with quality homegrown arms.
The bullpen is impossible to predict, but the good news is the Cubs have a quality closer in Marmol and a quality left hander in Marshall. Those are 2 great pieces to build on.
Well that’s all I got…just needed to spend some time thinking about the future instead of what we’re watching right now. I think with the right moves, the future could be very happy at Wrigley Field.