Chicago Cubs 2009 Season Preview
By Matt Motyka in News on Apr 2, 2009 5:00PM
The 2009 baseball season will begin Monday, April 6, which means it's time for our Chicago Cubs season preview. There was a lot to keep track of on the North Side this offseason, so we'll get you up to speed and ready to go for Opening Day. Said Cubs Chairman, Crane Kenney, in reference to the revenue-boosting concerts slated for Wrigley this summer, “this is going to sound odd, but Elton John's going to help us win some ballgames,” Oh, and co-headliner Billy Joel is not? Because the last thing we need is the Curse of the Piano Man, too, Chicagoist is going appease the pop-rock gods and break down the 2009 Cubs Billy-style.
Last of the Big Time Spenders - That would be the Ricketts family, soon-to-be proud owners of the Chicago Cubs. The franchise has been on the auction block for nearly two years, and the Ricketts are the last suitors standing. The $900 million sale is still pending, but it's projected that Sam Zell and the Trib will be out the door by mid-May. The point man for the Ricketts family, Tom Ricketts, is a native Chicagoan and life-long Cubs fan whose stated goal is to “...win a World Series and build the consistent championship tradition that the fans deserve.” Cheers to that, Mr. Ricketts.
Movin' Out - Key departures: Kerry Wood, Mark DeRosa, Jason Marquis, Felix Pie, Ronny Cedeno, Daryle Ward, Henry Blanco, Rich Hill, Michael Wuertz, Bob Howry
- For The Longest Time - Kerry Wood had worn Cubbie blue his entire career, dating back to 1998. That season Wood was awarded Rookie of the Year honors and earned a spot in Cubbie lore with a 20-strikout, one-hitter against the Houston Astros. Wood's subsequent struggle with injury has been well documented, but in 2007 he re-emerged in the Cubs bullpen and went on to become their All-Star closer in 2008. His '08 performance was deserving of a multi-year, high-dollar deal—dollars the Cubs' front office was not prepared to part with for the closer position. Fare thee well, Kerry Wood, we'll still be cheering for you.
- You May Be Right - We may be crazy, but it's hard to imagine that the Cubbies won't miss Mark DeRosa. DeRosa was Mr. Fix-It for the Northsiders last year, playing anywhere and everywhere his team need him, and playing well. He was also a fan favorite and brought chemistry to the clubhouse. We understand this was likely a preemptive strike at his 2010 free agency, but trading a hot hand to set yourself up for next year doesn't sound too appealing when it's been “next year” for, well, over a century. That being said and to the credit of the front office, it looks like the Cubs are well positioned to fill the void with Mike Fontenot and newly added utility man Aaron Miles.
Get It Right the First Time - Key arrivals: Milton Bradley, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman, Aaron Miles, Luis Viscaino, Joey Gathright, David Patton
- Prelude: Angry Young Man - The red hot Milton Bradley was the Cubs biggest offseason acquisition at three years/ $30 million. Bradley will take over in right field, after hitting .321 with an OBP of .437 as DH for the Rangers last season. Bradley, who was hampered by injury in '05, '06 and '07, hasn't played 100 games in the field since 2004. The daily grind of being a position player will likely take its toll so don't expect his numbers to be quite Texas-sized this season; however, the switch-hitter should be a solid producer in the Cubs lineup. The Cubs and their faithful are hoping there won't be too many extra-curricular issues with Bradley, who has flashed a quick temper throughout his career. Manager Lou Pinella—known to kick some dirt himself—will chalk it up to intensity as long as Bradley produces.
- The Stranger - With Wood now in Cleveland, former Florida Marlin Kevin Gregg has shown up and snagged the closer role—a job that most felt was going to last season's set-up man Carlos Marmol. The young Marmol was lights-out in 2008 with a 2.68 ERA and a WHIP of 0.93, recording seven saves in his nine chances. Both hurlers had an excellent Spring, but the staff recently decided to go with the experience of Gregg. Gregg was the Marlins' closer for the last two seasons, posting an ERA of 3.48, holding opponents to a .205 average, and converting 61 of 74 save opportunities during that period.
- New York State of Mind - Dear god let's hope not. The Cubs added former Mets reliever Aaron Heilman to their bullpen for 2009, joining Neal Cotts and Luis Viscaino in middle relief. Heilman, a top prospect out of Notre Dame in 2001, did some decent work for New York since 2005 but never fully materialized. Add to that his role in their epic late-season collapses over the past two seasons, and it's enough to make our knees knock. Heilman and his fellow middle relievers remain the biggest question mark for the Cubs entering Opening Day, with two rosters spot yet to be determined.
Surprises - In 2008 it was Geovany Soto and Ryan Theriot turning heads at the plate, and Ryan Dempster excelling in his new role as starter. This year the Cubs are hoping for some pop from Mike Fontenot and Micah Hoffpauir, and a strong showing from Sean Marshall at the back end of the rotation. Both Fontenot and Hoffpauir shined in their limited appearances last season and had impressive stints at Hohokam this Spring. Fontenot has been tapped to take over for DeRosa at second base, right next to former LSU teammate Theriot (a potential double-play machine), and Hoffpauir will be the primary back-up for Derrek Lee at first base after waging an offensive war in Mesa. Marshall recently claimed the fifth spot in the rotation, besting starter-hopefuls Heilman, Chad Gaudin and Jeff Samardzija.
Big Shot - Carlos Zambrano will be number one in a stacked rotation for 2009, and his shoulder appears to be holding up nicely. Z struggled towards the end of last season, but he is looking to rebound with a vengance after posting a WHIP of 0.95 in 22 innings of Spring ball. Following Zambrano is the gauntlet of Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and the aforementioned Marshall. If Harden can stay healthy, this might play out as best rotation in the Bigs.
C'Était Toi (You Were the One) - Oh, the lamentable tale of Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome thrilled the Cubbie faithful in the first few months of his MLB debut, but steadily declined at the plate as the season wore on. He hit .305 in April, but shed an average of 25 percentage points per month and finished with an unsighly mark of .178 for the month of September. Fukudome can swing a bat, though, and the Japanese veteran has received a vote of confidence from Lou Pinella heading into his sophmore season. Fukudome stands to give the Cubs a big shot in the arm if he regains some of his early '08 swat. Expect Kosuke and Reed Johnson to platoon center field (along with Joey Gathright, a blazing pinch-runner and late-inning defensive sub), and the occasional appearance in right to spell Bradley.
Running on Ice - Alfonso Soriano missed 35 games last year after getting plunked on the hand but finished with some nice numbers. One thing the 'Fons has been missing in recent years is the base-stealing prowess he displayed with the Nationals. Sure he's a few years older and perhaps a few steps slower, but if Soriano can stay healthy, swing the bat like last season, and get the motor running again on the basepaths, the wrecking crew behind him will have plenty of RBI opportunities. That's assuming he stays put in the leadoff spot.
Keeping the Faith - There have been some rumblings among the bleacher bums about the performance of Derrek Lee, but we think the veteran first baseman will do just fine in '09. Despite an undeniable power shortage (20 homeruns as opposed to 46 in 2005) and grounding into 27 double plays last season, Lee finished '08 with a .291 average, plated 90 RBIs and fielded his position well. His OBP and SLG were on the low side by Lee's standards, but still not shabby at .361 and .462, respectively. If the numbers continue to slouch we may see Lee drop to the fifth spot before it's all said and done.
Just the Way You Are - Lastly, the Cubs need third-baseman Aramis Ramirez to simply stay the course. In 2008 he established career-highs in OBP (.380), walks (74) and doubles (44). Add to those figures 27 homeruns and 111 RBIs, and the Cubs would like to see more of the same. The only figure to keep an eye on is Ramirez's 96 strikeouts last season... not an alarming number in itself but it does mark a 50 percent spike above his career average with the Cubs.
In summary, there have been some significant changes to the 2009 Cubs roster, but many of the core pieces remain in place. Milton Bradley should add some welcome muscle to the order and there are high expectations for Fontenot at second. All five of the Cubs' starters can be dominant and the combination of Marmol and Gregg look to be solid in the late innings. The Cubs have decent options for long and middle relief, but it remains to be seen who will join Cotts, Heilman and Viscaino in the 'pen, and whether or not they can perform consistently. A big year from Fukudome or Johnson in center could be a difference-maker. Our prediction: the Cubs will take the N.L. Central with relative ease. After that, we're not going to jinx anything. Let's just hope the season plays out to the tune of Tomorrow is Today as opposed to, say, Two Thousand Years. Play ball, Cubbies!