by Kent Sterling
Scanning newspapers from around the country this morning, I saw one phrase that was troubling. Gordon Wittenmyer writes in a piece about the potential for the potential for current first baseman Xavier Nady returning to the Cubs, “It’s the only every-day position the Cubs don’t have locked in for next season.” Really? Yikes!
Sure, the Cubs have been pitching well and thumping the mediocre of the National League since Lou Piniella’s sudden return to Tampa, but the offense and defense are certainly nothing to get excited about looking ahead to next year. It takes balls for a general manager to stand in front of reporters, as Hendry must have done or why would Wittenmyer suggest the Cubs are locked in, minus first base.
If Hendry believes his work is done in building the next Cubs team that will try to end the skid that has lasted a century-long lap, he could teach poker champion Phil Ivey a few things about slow-playing a hand. The Cubs need great players if they are going to be a great team. They have two potential great players, and none who are great right now. How many hall of famers do the Phillies & Yankees have? How many play for the Cubs? Let’s take a look at the starting position players Wittenmyer believes the Cubs will open with in 2011 (assuming they spend whatever cash is available to bolster starting pitching that was very suspect until the last month):
Catcher – Geovany Soto (.280, 17 HRs, 53 RBI, 0 SBs, 61 Ks, 53 BBs)
Hard to complain about the 2008 or 2010 version of one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, and a guy who has developed nicely as a handler of pitchers. A lighter and assumedly hookah-less Soto was excellent, leading the Cubs in OPS with an .890 mark. Not only is an upgrade unnecessary behind the plate, it’s not possible.
Soto is as good a backstop as there is – as long as he is dedicated to being that. Stay away from the pizza and ganja.
First Base – Xavier Nady (.264, 6 HRs, 33 RBI, 0 SBs, 74 Ks, 16 BBs)
That he hit 25 home runs in 2008 during a season split between the Pirates and the Yankees is irrelevant in judging Nady’s value. In over 300 at-bats in 2010, Nady has a paltry six dingers. Minus speed and an average glove at first with a mostly silent bat, Nady is not a piece that should return. He’s 31, so maybe he returns to form as a power hitter. He’s typical of many of the hitters Hendry has accumulated – lots of strikeouts, few walks, no speed.
If Nady is the starting first baseman for the Cubs in 2011, fans should take the year off from liver-testing weekends at Wrigley.
Second Base – Blake DeWitt (.235, 4 HRs, 19 RBI, 1 SB, 33 Ks, 14 BBs)
DeWitt just turned 25, so his best days are ahead of him, but how much better will those best days be. The former Dodgers second baseman from Sikeston, MO, the home of Boom Town – the most horrifying giant retain outlet in in world because of its selection of fireworks, tobacco, alcohol, and the little quarter pushing machines that are nothing more than low tech slots for the toothless – was a first round pick, but so far has shown no power or speed. Nice glove though.
Hendry’s confidence in DeWitt might be well placed, but if Nady is at first, power needs to come from somewhere. It isn’t likely to come from DeWitt.
Starlin Castro (.305, 3 HRs, 41 RBI, 9 SBs, 65 Ks, 27 BBs)
This is the kid. If he works hard and develops, the ceiling on Castro is hard to see. Plus everything – but brain. Great speed, and will develop pop. He needs to learn fundamentals – like tagging baserunners. Castro could be the Derek Jeter of what the Cubs become.
Aramis Ramirez (.241, 23 HRs, 76 RBIs, 0 SBs, 84 Ks, 32 BBs)
The slow-starting oft-injured, quick-aging Ramirez will cash checks totaling $14.6 million next year, unless he has a stroke and exercises his player-option to escape it and earn one-third that total playing for someone else. No doubt he is on the downside of a solid career. Ramirez is paid like a potential hall of famer, but has no chance to finish his career as one of the few third basemen to make that grade. Not only has his offense been abysmal when it mattered in 2010, his defense has become a joke. I hear my Dad’s voice as he hit me hundreds of ground balls every time a grounder is hit toward Ramirez, “Move your feet! Get in front of the ball!
Tyler Colvin (.254, 20 HRs, 56 RBI, 6 SBs, 100 Ks, 30 BBs)
As he recovers from his near-death encounter with a maple bat, it’s time to ponder whether Colvin is going to continue to evolve into a breakthrough talent or whether he is as good as he’ll get. If Colvin can cut down on strikeouts, he’s a keeper in right field. Not a great arm or great speed, but by swinging at strikes, Colvin can hit 25+ home runs and drive in 90. If he’s pleased with himself as a starter for the Cubs – as Soto was in 2009 – he will be a disappointment. The Cubs need a player – other than Soto – who is the -est at something. Pennants aren’t one by a collection of moderately talented players. Some need to be excellent, and Colvin appears to have that kind of ability.
Colvin reminds me a little bit of Rafael Palmeiro during his rookie year, except that Palmeiro rarely swung and missed early in his career. Who knew that the left-handed power hitter the Cubs needed was Tyler Colvin?
Marlon Byrd (.294, 12 HRs, 63 RBI, 5 SBs, 88 Ks, 29 BBs)
While we bust Hendry’s balls for his missteps in piecing together pieces into an awkward looking and performing team, signing Byrd to a modest three-year deal that actually reflects his value to the Cubs was damn smart. Byrd has played almost every game, been enthusiastic, and produced the kind of stat line that fans expected, and has exceeded expectations in center field. Seems to be the kind of chemistry guy that the Cubs had in Mark DeRosa. Byrd, the Cubs must keep.
Alfonso Soriano (.254, 22 HRs, 75 RBI, 5 SBs, 115 Ks, 39 BBs)
This guy seems to make the least productive outs of any Cub I can remember. What happened to the Soriano that led the American League in hits, runs, and steals in 2002? It doesn’t matter because he isn’t coming back. Soriano strikes out too much, walks and runs too little, and goes deep just enough to tease you into believing that he might do something good today. 2010 was a good year for Soriano, who stopped the year-to-year decline in production that frustrated fans who expected the former Yankee, Ranger, and Senator to show up after Hendry signed him to one of baseball’s all-time worst contracts.
Kosuke Fukudome (.272, 12 HRs, 40 RBI, 6 SBs, 61 Ks, 59 BBs)
While Fukudome isn’t good enough at anything to be a guy that’s counted as a starter, because of his knowledge of the strike zone, he is second on the team in both OPS (.825) and OBP (.379). He always hits the cutoff man, and has made one error this season. In no way is Fukudome going to be the engine that drive the Cubs to the postseason, nor earn even a fraction of his bloated contract ($14 mil this year; $13.5 mil in 2011), but he is a solid back-up and defensive replacement
Jeff Baker (.272, 4 HRs, 21 RBI, 1 SB, 50 Ks, 14 BBs)
Occasional power and a glove that neither helps nor hurts, make Baker another valuable guy off the bench. Baker is another of the types of guys that Hendry takes chances on – good bat speed, but hasn’t broken through yet. Nothing wrong with keeping a guy like Baker around (a recurring theme with these guys).
To do the same thing again and again expecting a different result is craziness. If the Cubs finish the balance of the season 7-5 for a season record of 75-87, as I predicted before the season started, but open 2011 with seven of the same eight starters and expect to contend, they are not thinking clearly. Nothing wrong with standing pat in an effort to build for 2012, but at least be honest about it. ”The Biggest Bar in Chicago Has a Quaint Tradition of Losing. Come Enjoy Mediocrity and a Beer!” should be the marketing campaign for 2011.