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2003 Cubs Historical Heroes and Goats: Epilogue

Cumulative H&G standings and closing thoughts.

Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

For all of you who followed me along through my look back at the 2003 Cubs, I want to thank you. I hope there were things to be learned, things to be remembered and some enjoyment to be had. The 2003 season had one of the more painful endings in Cubs history, for some the most painful. But it was a season that was a step forward for the franchise. This was a season that saw the Cubs win a postseason series for the first time since the World Series win of 1908. It saw the Cubs swipe a division title out from under someone else down the stretch rather than having it stolen away.

For me, the saddest part was that the 2003 team was not the beginning of an era of competitiveness. That team was lead by a trio of young starters in 22-year-old Mark Prior, 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano and 26-year-old Kerry Wood. It had promising young center fielder Corey Patterson (23). They added Aramis Ramirez (25) in season to the core. Juan Cruz (24) and Kyle Farnsworth (27) looked like a potential starter and closer. Alas, the team wouldn’t get back to the postseason until 2007. Oddly, the 2004 Cubs actually won one more game than the 2003 Cubs, but they finished in third place, 16 games out of first.

That 2007 team saw only Ramirez, Zambrano and Wood (who was a reliever by then) remain. Injuries derailed the career of Prior and limited Wood to relief. Patterson was never really realized the promise of that 2003 season after the injury that ended his season. Zambrano had a good career, but never quite evolved into the dominant starter it appeared he might become.

Let’s take a final look at the 2003 season through the eyes of WPA and Heroes and Goats. Here are the final standings.

2003 Cubs Final Heroes and Goats Standings:

  • Mark Prior 35.5
  • Kerry Wood 30
  • Carlos Zambrano 25
  • Sammy Sosa 20
  • Joe Borowski 16.5
  • Matt Clement 14
  • Hee-Seop Choi 8
  • Tom Goodwin 8
  • Eric Karros 7
  • Mike Remlinger 4.5
  • Trenidad Hubbard 4
  • Dave Veres 3.5
  • Aramis Ramirez 3
  • Lenny Harris 3
  • Mark Grudzielanek 1
  • Randall Simon .5
  • Paul Bako .5
  • Mark Bellhorn 0
  • Sergio Mitre 0
  • Alan Benes -1
  • Troy O’Leary -1.5
  • David Kelton -2
  • Bobbie Hill -2
  • Kyle Farnsworth -2
  • Antonio Alfonseca -2.5
  • Phil Norton -3
  • Felix Sanchez -3
  • Josh Paul -3
  • Doug Glanville -4
  • Tony Womack -5
  • Juan Curz -6
  • Todd Wellemeyer -7
  • Moises Alou -7.5
  • Corey Patterson -7.5
  • Augie Ojeda -8
  • Ramon Martinez -8
  • Jose Hernandez -8
  • Kenny Lofton -10
  • Mark Guthrie -10.5
  • Shawn Estes -26
  • Alex Gonzalez -26.5
  • Damian Miller -30

Heroes and Goats properly reflects my memory of the 2003 Cubs. They were lead by a trio of starting pitchers. Sammy Sosa occupied the third spot in the order most of the year and unsurprisingly lands in the top five of the standings. His season was subpar by his own standards, but was very good. Joe Borowski rounds out the top five. Joe was a steady, dependable closer for the 2003 Cubs.

At the bottom, we have Damian Miller and Alex Gonzalez who I always remember as guys who were valued because they supplied slightly above average power for their respective positions. I’ll talk more about Estes, but he rounds out the three significantly negative players. Kenny Lofton and Mark Guthrie round out the top 5. Lofton is a bit of a surprise. Kenny had an .852 OPS (120 OPS+) in his time with the Cubs. WPA recognizes the player driving in the runs more than the one setting the table. Guthrie had an odd year with a 2.75 ERA but a 5.49 FIP. I looked to see if maybe he lands here because of inherited runners allowed, but at 28% (14 of 50), his rate wasn’t particularly exceptional. It took me a while to find the culprit. Guthrie had 41 games noted as Low leverage. He held opposition to a .617 OPS in those spots. He had 18 games labelled as Medium (1.389 OPS) and 28 as High (.925). [Note that Guthrie did not pitch in 87 games, some appearances move between the levels if the score changes during an appearance.]

One of the things I’ve always thought about the 2003 Cubs was that Dusty Baker ran them into the ground. Of course, I’ve only looked at the 2003 season and not his other years as Cubs manager, but I didn’t particularly see that here. Zambrano lead the team with 214 innings pitched, Prior had 211⅓ and Wood 211. They made 32, 30 and 32 starts. Roy Halladay lead the majors with 266 innings that year. Livan Hernandez lead the NL with 233⅓.

The trio of Cubs ranked eighth, tenth and 11th in the NL. That’s high, but certainly not egregious. Those three ended where they did for a few reasons. One, they were quite good. Good pitchers should get a large number of innings. Of course Ben Sheets had a 4.45 ERA for the Brewers and threw 220⅔ innings at age 24 on a team that was out of contention very early. Which brings me to the second point about the usage of the Cubs trio. The Cubs were involved in a pennant race that didn’t resolve until the second to last day of the season. The Cubs had to go full go down to the wire.

I do think the Cubs starters wore down a bit in late September and certainly by the end of the playoffs. For Zambrano, the 2003 season was almost a 100% increase in his workload from 2002 to 2003. But, he was the one that didn’t struggle with injuries in his career. He was always viewed as a workhorse type because of his larger frame. For Wood, he actually threw more innings in 2002 than in 2003. Wood’s progression post-injury wasn’t horrible either. He threw 137 innings in 2000, 174⅓ in 2001 and 213⅔ in 2002. Wood’s arm was always a ticking time bomb. Prior threw 167⅔ innings across multiple levels in 2002. The Cubs certainly didn’t ease him into things. But his problems had their origin in traumatic injuries and then coming back to quickly and occurred after 2003.

A third reason for the usage of the Cubs pitchers, particularly by the time the playoffs rolled around was that Joe Borowski was really the only reliever who inspired any real confidence. Even the infamous Game 6 of the NLCS, I had recalled the Cubs having and losing a large lead. But of course, my memory has warped that game. Three runs did feel like a huge lead when Prior of 2003 was on the mound. But there were no dependable options to bridge the game from Prior to Borowski.

So here I am apologizing to Baker for all negative thoughts arising out of pitcher over-usage during the 2003 season. With only a few exceptions here and there, I’d have probably used the core three starters as aggressively or more aggressively than they were used.

I’m left, then, with two criticisms of Baker. One will always be Game 6. I’ll never believe how long Prior was left out there and that no one went to the mound to try to break the momentum. To calm the troops. I will always believe that Alou’s losing his cool and Baker’s being too cool left two of the most veteran people in uniform not providing leadership when it was needed most.

The other, more tangible gripe I have with Baker is Shawn Estes getting 28 starts and 152⅓ innings with a 5.73 ERA. Juan Cruz finished the 2003 season with a 2-7 record and a 6.05 ERA. But I still refuse to believe that he wouldn’t have been as good or better than Estes was. Alan Benes, Todd Wellemeyer, and Sergio Mitre were all stretched out as starters. The Cubs were 12-17 in games started by Estes. If they could have even nudged that to a .500 record, it would have taken a ton of strain off of the team down the stretch. Surely easier said than done.

Lesser issues were typical veteran manager stuff. Mark Bellhorn was essentially discarded after a 27-homer season with much of that time going to Ramon Martinez, a Dusty guy. Of course Martinez had a decent season, though he was a terrible defensive third baseman. Hee-Seop Choi and Bobby Hill had trouble getting on the field. But even there, they were ultimately traded for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez who would be the core of the Cubs for years.

All in all, I think Dusty did a very good job with the 2003 Cubs. Of course it was a colossal failure to not get across the finish line after being up three games to one in the NLCS. But, really the team didn’t make enough upgrades from 2002 to 2003 to go from a 95 loss team to a World Series team, so they were fortunate to be there. So essentially the criticism is that despite doing wildly better than reasonable expectations wasn’t good enough. I’ll forever remember the crushing disappointment of the end of that season, but in totality, I remember those 2003 Cubs fondly. They captured the hearts and minds of many Chicago fans and for the first time in decades, they established the Cubs as more than an afterthought once the playoffs began.

That’s all I have to say about that. Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting. Please join me the morning after every game in the 2019 season for more Heroes and Goats.