Imagine for a moment that you're watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Indy and his crew have made it past the natives and returned the Crystal Skull to it's lair. They carefully place it where it belongs... and nothing happens.
Just like an Indiana Jones movie needs fireworks to come to its proper conclusion, so too does a baseball season.
In early July, hours after the Brewers traded for C.C. Sabathia, Jim Hendry acquired the final key to the greatest Cubs team since the inception of radio. Hendry sent Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, and Josh Donaldson to Oakland in return for Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden.
My initial Harden trade evaluation was that the Cubs had probably gotten the better of the deal, but the health risk that Harden presented was seismic.
Fortunately, Harden stayed healthy and started 12 games down the stretch, racking up a nasty 1.77 ERA, a .97 WHIP, and winning 5 games. He was everything we expected in the regular season, but his only post-season start was a poor one. He recorded only 13 outs while allowing 5 hits, 3 walks, and 3 earned runs.
Still, despite a lack of control, Harden kept the Cubs in the game, a habit we saw consistently during the late summer stretch. The playoff start was unfortunate, but I'm of the opinion that it just increases the likelihood that his next one will be better. (For a player of his caliber to perform poorly in one start would indicate a better start later on.)
So, after the season, I think the initial assessment is still valid. Harden's a high-ceiling starter who can and will contribute tremendously to the Cubs success going forward, provided that he stays healthy. The future looks bright with him in the rotation, and if the Cubs can some how add Peavy, we're talking a 1-2-3 of Zambrano, Peavy, and Harden.
Rich Harden delivers a pitch against the Florida Marlins.
Image courtesy of The Cubdom Photo Gallery
Lilly made a big leap this year. Not one time did he throw his glove to the ground in exasperation. Not one time was he given a playoff opportunity that was subsequently wasted.
So yeah, that's a plus. The down side, of course, is that the reason he didn't blow a chance is that he wasn't given a chance. The Cubs were too interested in ruining lives to give him a turn on the mound during the Division Series. And yes, this is the first time I've written about the Cubs since the playoff disaster. And not, I'm totally not bitter. Or frustrated. Still.
So anyway, Ted Lilly actually ended up having quite a nice season. He got off to a terrible, terrible start, ending April with a nifty 6.46 ERA and four losses. But just as showers give way to flowers, April horrendous pitching gave way to May almost-but-not-quite decent pitching. And as the weather improved, Lilly started to become the third ace on the Cubs' staff. Starting in June, he posted monthly ERAs of 3.02, 4.23, 3.35, and 3.30, resulting a 3.32 second half ERA. The main cause of this drop in ERA? During the second half, Lilly allowed about half as many homers and walks while maintaining a solid strikeout rate. While I'd love to say that it was a tale of two pitchers, I'm afraid that I'm just about maxed out on cliches and there's lots of off-season still to go. So no go.
One of the best examples of how much Lilly has improved as a pitcher while with the Cubs is the confidence Cub Fan Nation possessed that, had Harden been able to get the ball to Lilly, the series would have come back to Chicago. Lilly's been an excellent clutch pitcher during his Cub career - especially last year - and 4 years at 40 million is starting to look like a solid bargain.
For the second half of 2008, Ted Lilly was the best 4th starter in baseball, reminiscent of the Braves teams of yore (yore?). So, whatdya all say to just grabbing up Peavy and re-signing Dempster and turning Lilly into the best fifth starter in baseball history.
Personally, I think it sounds like a hell of an idea. Do it, Jimbo.
Oh yeah, and Ted Lilly is a serial killer. That is all.
At various points over the past two years, I've been a strong advocate for both Rich Hill and Sean Gallagher. At the tail end of the '06 season, I was convinced that Hill would be for real - he threw a ball-busting curve and seemed poised to dominate. And, in '07, he was certainly about as good as advertised - he threw 195 innings of work, he went 11-8, he had a 3.92 ERA, and he struck out 183 batters. Then, he crapped his pants in the playoffs and became trade speculation.
The funny thing about Hill was that he was always hit or miss - there rarely seemed to be an in between. Either he'd go out and pitch a solid game, or he'd go out and get rocked by the opponents. There was no steady pitching until the 5th when he gave up 4. If he had 4 to give up in a game, he'd do it early. This led me to joke that there were two Hill's - Rich and Mitch. Rich Hill was the good pitcher, the reliable lefty with tremendous talent. Mitch was the jealous, evil twin brother of Rich who would occasionally kidnap his good brother and take his place in the rotation. Although they were twins, it was easy to tell them apart - Mitch had one of those evil, curling mustaches and he would pitch while wearing a villanous top hat:
There were basically two camps on Hill before the start of the '08 season. Camp Untouchable argued that Hill did well in his first full season and, because the Cubs controlled his contract for essentially the next half decade, his greatest value was to the team. Camp Trade, however - and I was a member of this group - argued that Hill was effective and reliable, but he was not a #2 pitcher, he had no ace-like qualities, and he would best serve the Cubs by being traded in order to upgrade the rotation. But, just to prove to you that I don't always think I'm right, I had stumped for Erik Bedard to be the pitcher the Cubs should have pursued.
It actually turned out that we were all wrong. Hill was neither reliable nor effective in 2008. In fact, he only pitched in 19.2 innings at the Major League level, and he walked 18 batters to 15 strikeouts in that time frame. Concerned for him, the Cubs sent him back to Arizona to work out his kinks, which he never really did. He got roughed up in Iowa, was sent to work out the kinks in Mesa, and was briefly shut down on July 1st after only going 1/3 of an inning. Hill pitched once more on July 8th and did well enough to warrant continued work, but he failed to "get right" this past season. His final figures - 9.1 IP in Arizona ball, 5 walks. 12.1 IP in A+ ball, 11 walks, an 8.03 ERA. 26 IP in AAA ball, 28 walks, a 5.88 ERA.
The Hill saga continues even now. The Tribune has reported that Rich Hill has been pitching in Venezuela for winter ball, where he's seen moderate success. But what is certain is that in 2008 Hill went from wonder to horror, and while the Cubs certainly didn't seem to miss him in the long-run, it's too bad that they failed to get anything of value from Hill.
When Hill went down, Gallagher found his chance to shine. At the age of 22, Gallagher is a pitcher with a lot of promise - he has 3 above average pitches and has succeeded at every level he's pitched. I had a feeling that he probably would be erratic at best in '08, but he appears to have a long future ahead of him which should include success at the major league level.
Then, after 10 starts and 3 wins, the Cubs traded Gallagher to the A's for an older pitcher with a history of arm problems and a contract that expires in one more season, and I rejoiced. After all, as much as I like Gallagher, Harden is a phenom.
Therefore, I would argue that Gallagher's season was very successful for the Cubs. He pitched effectively for a third of the season and then landed Chicago the best stuff starter they've had in 5 years. Thanks, Sean, and good luck.
He is perhaps the most concerning player on the team. At the age of 27, Carlos Zambrano has now logged 1,382 innings of work - and he's averaged 211 a year since he became a full-time starter for the Cubs in 2003 at the age of 22. He consistently throws 100+ pitches a game. He signed a massive contract extension late in the 2007 season, guaranteeing him $91.5 million for 5 seasons. He spent the first year of that contract battling bizarre maladies, he threw a no-hitter in early September, and he's the craziest, fiercest Cubs pitcher I've ever seen.
It's hard to say if the 2008 season was a success for The Big Moose. Yes, he won 14 games to only 6 losses. Yes, he cut down on walks, from 101 last season to 72 in '08. Yes, he reduced his ERA from 3.95 to 3.91. But on the negatory side, Zambrano threw the fewest innings since he became a starter - 188.2 in 30 starts. He left more than one game early due to arm bizarreness, he was diagnosed with having rotator cuff tendinitis, and he only struck out 130 guys - down from 170 in 2007 and 210 in 2006.
Basically, the question has to be not if Carlos will eventually lose a lot of time due to arm problems, but when. His shoulder and elbow seem to be ticking time bombs and we have seen games where Zambrano battled through seriously decreased velocity, although there seems to be some argument that his problems may mostly be mechanical. But just ask Kerry Wood - if your mechanics are bad enough for long enough, sooner or later, your body will fall apart.
Don't get me wrong. I remain a tremendous Zambrano fan, and as I have joked for a very long time, Carlos may never suffer from a serious arm injury because his shoulder and elbow might be too afraid of him to get hurt. More to the point, the Moose is one player who will not hesitate to pitch hurt, and I believe that he could have a knife sticking out of his right forearm and he'd still go out there and work 5 innings if he had to. Carlos Zambrano is just that tough.
All told, the biggest problem with Carlos's season was that, when the wheels came off in August and September - two of his worst months ever - Lou* came to the conclusion that he wasn't reliable enough to start Game One of the NLDS. Consequently, the Cubs turned to Ryan Dempster who pitched with his balls shriveled up into his cavity against the Dodgers. When Zambrano pitched the following night, it was already too late, and he gave a good-but-not-good-enough performance. Had he pitched that effectively in Game One, then the Cubs very well might have seized the momentum. (But probably not.)
(*Okay, fine, I sided with Lou on the decision, as did probably almost all of us)
One thing we cannot criticize, however, was his hitting in '08. Carlos has been a fantastic hitter throughouth is career - at least, for a pitcher - and he really rose the bar this past season. In 83 at bats, the Moose batted .337 with 4 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers, 14 RBI, and an OPS of .891. In other words, he was perhaps the best pinch hitter on the team when not pitching. He had hitting and RBI streaks that went into the double digits, something most regular hitters fail to accomplish. Oh, and in his career, the Moose now has 16 homeruns and 47 RBI in 494 at bats. It's easy to imagine that, as an every day hitter, Carlos might actually be able to carry his weight in the batter's box.
I don't know what the future will bring for Zambrano. Perhaps it will be a healthy 2009, perhaps not. But he has been the cornerstone of the Chicago Cubs starting rotation for six years now, and he's still a few seasons from turning 30. Maybe he's as tough as we think he is, and maybe he'll get over the tendinitis and other various arm ailments that have impeded his path to Cy Young Glory. Or maybe the 1,200+ innings of work in 6 seasons will finally take their toll. But ultimately, the 2008 season was a successful one for Zambrano, although I can't help but believe that, had he stayed healthy, the Cubs would have won 100 and perhaps they would have won even more than that.
In the 2008 season, our fifth starter won more games than he lost. He went 11-9, in fact, a year after he went 12-9 for us. He made 28 starts, pitched 167 innings. He ended up with an era of 4.53, which places him in the top 2 or 3 fifth starters in all of baseball. The Cubs won 16 of his 28 starts. Ask the White Sox, for example, if that would work for them?
His high "game score" for the year was 73 on July 11th. In that game, which was won in the late innings 3-1, our fifth starter went seven innings against the Giants, gave up only three lousy singles, and struck out four. He also gave up only 3 hits on June 8 to the Dodgers in 6 1/3 innings. Although our fifth starter has been maligned over the years for his poor second-half showings, in 2008, he managed to win five of his last eight starts.
He did enjoy the fruits of our outstanding regular season run support, but he has managed to offset his somewhat suspect control with his ability to generate groundball outs, which makes him a likely candidate to succeed not only at the Friendly Confines, but in many of the new, smaller retro-parks throughout the NL. His comparables, courtesy of Baseball Reference, are Gil Meche, Cory Lidle, Joel Pinerio, Kyle Lohse, and Mark Clark (?!?!?)
Our fifth starter earned seven million dollars in 2008, and is set to earn eight million more in 2009.
/sound of needle being dragged across phonograph
Good Morning, Americans, and Those Who Want To BE Americans!!! Let me take a second to let you all know how proud I am, prouder than I have been in many years, to live in a place like this. Now I don't have to go live in Carolyn's parents' basement. I can stay right here, with heaping new scoopfuls of hope in my heart, and write about the Marquis duuuuuuuuuuuu Suc!!
He is quite the luxury we "enjoy" on our roster. Most team's fifth starters are either has-beens or never-will-bes. If they're lucky, it will be some young kid from AA who simply has a lot to learn before he is solid in a major league rotation. We, the Cubs, can trot out a guy who has won nearly 80 games in his career, is still on the good side of 30, and very rarely lets games get out of hand early, which is death to bullpens. Some days, he even pitches quite well. He has a tendency to start involuntary twitching, whereas he experiences elevated temperature under his collar, and his head starts turning towards the bullpen, when things get tough after the fifth inning. It is a gruesome, deabilitating disease that I am currently in the process of documenting for a well-respected medical journal (named, oddly enough, "Well Respected Journal of Medicine") that I have tentatively named "Marquis Disjunction". But he eats innings, and wins as least as many as he loses.
In other words, he's a great fifth starter. But we pay him like a #2 starter, and he is nigh untradeable. Perhaps, if he had crafted an 11-9, 4.53 after the 2003 Season of High Steroids, with one year left on his contract, we could have maybe found a taker for him. But, in these kinder, gentler steroid-and-greenie free times, Jason Marquis is a #4 starter making #2 money, and thus he is the proud holder of a Bad Contract. As such, we aren't going to get anything of any worth in return for him unless we, in turn, accept someone else's Bad Contract.
For example, to the young and naive, it might seem logical to include him in a trade for Jake Peavy. Certainly the Padres would not mind receiving a solid starter in return, a quite durable young man with an expiring contract who would take up some of the slack the loss of Peavy would leave behind. But although his contribution might be considered to be a slight plus, the eight million is more than a slight minus, and we would have to take back someone else's momentary folly. In this particular case, it would probably require our welcoming in a fine field, declining hit shortstop with a strange-ass New Age name and a surfer hairdo who in my humble opinion would go over as well in Wrigley Field as a fish taco with a mediocre Chardonnay served out of a box into a plastic cup.
I say folly because my one and only e-mail exchange with David Kaplan, the WGN Radio sports host happened in the fall of 2006, two years ago. I don't even know how or why Dave even decided to write me, but he indicated that Jim Hendry loved Jason Marquis and would end up with him, one way or another. So I was totally unsurprised a few weeks later, when we did end up with him, and at the price he signed for. Please recall that this was coming off of the Cardinals' 2006 championship season (which some here claim never happened), and Marquis was infamously left off of the playoff roster due to his completely atrocious second half, where his ERA approached asymptotic infinity. Hendry felt that Mr. Rothschild (don't begrudge him his silent 'S') could straighten him out, and I dare say to a certain extent, he has.
Marquis was quite consistent in 2008. He was consistently mediocre all year. His first half was kind of meh, and so was his second. We made great fun of him here, outlining in graphic detail how nervous we all were whenever the morning paper listed him as the probable starter. Sure, he kind of sucks. But if you strictly think of him as the fifth starter, he is a far superior option to, say, Angel Guzman.
There is one name I haven't mentioned until now, one Sean Marshall.
Is he a better fifth starter than Jason Marquis? Looking at a strictly dollar value proposition, it is obviously preferable, if possible, to run Marshall out there every fifth day, and spend Marquis' $7MM elsewhere. But Uncle Lou pledged to run out the 25 best guys out there, and that the best five guys would pitch. As much as many of us would prefer the lefthander, and the guy who at least still has his best baseball ahead of him, the 2008 Marshall was not set up to start well, due to his 27 bullpen appearences to go along with his seven starts, none of which were outstanding and a couple were truly bad.
Marquis gave us the better chance at a quality start in 2008 than Marshall did. How about this year? The future of both of these guys depends on what happens with both Ryan Dempster and on whether we are able to bring in an alternative starting option, ala Peavy or Sabathia. I honestly believe that both will start the season with us, and unless we lose out on Dempster AND on all outside help, we still only need one. Jeff Samardjia also figures into the mix (unless we trade him for Brian Roberts, which is what I believe is going to happen). But since this is Jason Marquis' post, my prediction is that he will in fact remain our fifth pitcher, as Hendry tries to wring every last ounce of value out of his late 2006 Momentary Folly.
If you believe in quick-n-dirty trends, as I do, since:
- 2007 - 12-9, 4.66 ERA, 1.39 WHIP
- 2008 - 11-9, 4.53 ERA, 1.45 WHIP
- 2009 - 10-9, 4.40 ERA, 1.51 WHIP
The journey Ryan Dempster has taken as a Cub has been, at the very least, unlikely. He's been on the team since the tail end of the 2004 season, when Jim Hendry plucked him off the scrap heap while he was still recovering from Tommy John Disease. He had moderate success that season for the Cubs, pitching 20.2 innings in relief.
Even then, I'd clamored for him to be elevated to the role of closer, although my reasoning was nothing beyond "hey, it worked with Smoltz!" I actually had the chance to meet him during the 2005 Cubs Convention, at which point I said to him "I think you'd be a great closer." He agreed with me, explaining how much he loved winning and how competitive he was, and he was then promoted to that role for the next 3 seasons to moderate success.
And by moderate, I mean he pretty well sucked, especially the last two years he was doing it. In fact, at one point he prompted this photoshop:
But it turns out that Lou had other ideas for Ryan. After it was decided that Kerry Wood might be better suited to close for the Cubs, Dempster was given another shot at the starting rotation - something he'd done previously in 2005 for the Cubs. That season, Dempster had gone 1-3 with a 5.35 ERA in 6 starts before being returned to the bullpen. And, because of his past failures as a starting pitcher, I expected to see a similar performance in 2008. Man, was I wrong.
Instead of flopping by the end of May, Dempster took control of the rotation and provided a steady hand, even as pretty much every other pitcher in the Cubs rotation battled difficulties. Dempster started off 4-0 in the month of April, and he never pitched a month in which he lost more than he won.
Consequently, in what may be his final season as a Cub, Ryan Dempster inarguably had a career year. The numbers don't lie - 206.2 innings pitched, 17 wins, only 6 losses, and a sub-3 ERA.
What worked best for Dempster was his clear confidence in his stuff. He knew he had the ability to work his way into and out of situations, and for that reason he was able to use the occasional base on ball advantageously. He forced 19 double play balls this year, 11 more than Ted Lilly and 17 more than Rich Harden.
But regardless of that, Dempster did not have it in October. In his one start against the Dodgers, Dempster came unglued, reverting to his old self, and walked way too many guys while getting pummeled by a strong offense. It was just one game, making it a far too small sample size, but I would probably feel uncomfortable with Dempster starting another Game One in a short series.
The Debate About His Free Agency
The great Earl Weaver was known to say that if he had a team of 25 players who were pending free agents, then he would win the World Series. I don't know if there is any real statistical correlation between this concept and reality, but perhaps it is not coincidental that Dempster had a career year at 31 as a pending free agent.
Consequently, he is likely to land a very hefty payday - if not with the Cubs, then elsewhere. I think most pundits would agree that Dempster will likely earn an average of 12 million a year or more, and he will likely be looking for a 4 year deal or longer. While it would not be easy for the Cubs to make up for the 17 games he directly won last season, there is no guarantee that he'll come anywhere close to his '08 performance ever again - in fact, I'd wager it's unlikely.
For those reasons, I'd argue that Dempster will probably not be worth whatever kind of contract he signs in the coming weeks, although he very well might be a reliable, above-average starting pitcher next year and beyond. It's just that such a pitcher is probably not worth ace money. But if Jason Marquis is worth 8 million a year, then surely Dempster is worth 10 to 12, and the Cubs will hopefully succeed in signing him to a deal that does not overpay.
Regardless of what happens next, Ryan Dempster has been a valuable addition to the Cubs. He is apparently well-liked by his teammates, he pitched his ass off in 2008, and the Cubs clearly would not have reached the playoffs without his consistency. If he in fact has thrown his final pitch in a Cubs uniform he will be hard to replace. However, letting him go and allowing somebody like Samardzija to have an opportunity to start may be the best chance the Cubs have to assemble the money to upgrade in other important areas. It's a difficult situation for Jim Hendry to be in, but considering the success of Dempster and of the '08 Cubs, I'm grateful that he has put the team in this position.
And, of course, I'm anxious to find out what happens next. But rather than end this article on that thought, I'll spell out the likely scenarios for you...
1. Dempster re-signs with the Cubs, freeing up Hendry to deal Marquis (saving 8 million) and promote Samardzija (or Marshall, or Gaudin) to the rotation. A fair contract would be 3 years for $36 million with a 4th year that is a) guaranteed to kick in if Dempster averages 200 innings pitched or b) a mutual option should Dempster fall short of the 200 IP average, for $15 million.
2. Dempster goes elsewhere. The Cubs choose to retain Marquis and allow Samardzija, Marshall, Gaudin, and perhaps even Rich Hill to compete for Dempster's spot in the rotation.
3. Dempster goes elsewhere, the Cubs use the money they were going to offer him to pick up one of the free agent pitchers on the market. In this scenario, Marquis returns to the trading block.
4. Dempster goes elsewhere, and by including everything and the kitchen sink, the Cubs replace him with Jake Peavy in a big trade. Marquis remains in the rotation as the players who were dealt away would probably have included the guys most likely to compete for a free spot in the rotation.
Probably the first 2 scenarios are the most likely, and I suspect that Scenario 2 is the most possible. Look for me to write an "I told you so" a month from now if I turned out to be right, which is bound to happen since I pretty well covered all the bases here... for whatever that is worth.