disturbingly, with the possible exception of the bullpen, they're also similar to the general conclusions that can be reached of 2006 so far.
first, the bad. this has been another year of waiting for godot. with kerry wood recently relapsing to the disabled list for the tenth time in eight years and with free agency pending, it seems certain he will never again contribute meaningfully to the cub organization -- and that may be a blessing. wade miller was signed when injured and always had very little chance of adding anything to this team during his one-year contract in 2006 -- at last report, he is still some weeks away from chicago, has experienced a few setbacks and may very well never get here. mark prior is easily the most promising of the three for 2007, his last year under the reserve clause -- but of course reliance here continues to be foolish, with prior now averaging south of 25 starts a year. greg maddux has continued his slide into senscence, his era slowly tracking northward since his last great year in 2002, now standing at 4.68. moreover, glendon rusch (7.29 era in 45.2 ip) continued to be the terrible pitcher he has long been and jerome williams (7.30 in just 12.1) has, it seems, tested the patience of the team one too many times.
all this constitutes a near-complete implosion, putting the cubs 14th in nl starting era at 5.05, albeit one that could have been forecast and was.
the cubs needed to add pitching in order to gain competitive depth. they didn't. there will be unpleasant consequences. on the whole, relying on the season-long outputs of rusch and williams -- as well as what will likely be the fogged skills of wood or miller in the pleasure of their returns -- as well as the work of only marginally qualified pitchers in their absence -- as well as the absence of prior for some indeterminate length of time -- will make it very difficult for this staff to improve significantly on their mediocre showing of last season. moreover, lacking any depth early in the year, it would not take much ... for this group to slip into an abyss from which the team could not recover. the margin or error will be razor thin in april and may.
this area represents one of the two core failings of this club in 2006.
the good news, however, is that the blindness of the front office to its weak rotation left the door open for kids -- sean marshall, angel guzman, rich hill, jae-kuk ryu and now carlos marmol -- to gets some starts in at the highest level. however questionably it may have been handled at times, this is a positive development for this team. with wood and maddux entering unrestricted free agency and williams seeming to have run out of rope with the cubs (he is infrequently pitching long relief for iowa at the moment), this team needs to find out what it has going forward. can it build around a core of zambrano and these youngsters? while all of them are certain to struggle this year, the resolution of this question is a large part of the positive purpose that remains in this season.
many considered this area of the team to have been meaningfully upgraded from 2005 with the signings of scott eyre and bob howry -- and indeed they have pitched as well as expected for the cubs. the difficulty, however, that few seemed to recognize was that this was not enough to make the cub bullpen good.
this cub bullpen, even with a rejuvenated williamson, is not of the highest caliber; but without his return to form, prospects are grim for an improvement on last year's placement of 9th in the national league in relief era. ... with the major moves being lateral and the planned dependency on a questionable closer, this page sees little enough reason to think that the cub bullpen will be radically improved upon 2005. should dempster defy a reversion to the mean and williamson both remain with the club and rehabilitate to something like his former glory, some improvement could perhaps be expected. but too large a role remains to be played by marginal actors like wuertz and novoa for expectations to run vastly higher than what was seen last year.
the cub bullpen currently rates 6th in the league in era. both howry and eyre have been somewhat fortunate in their outings -- eyre's 3.88 component era 55% greater than his actual, howry's 2.72 31% greater -- and that has helped exaggerate the quality of the overall performance a bit.
ryan dempster has looked a bit more like the reliever this page expected than the charmed closer of 2005 -- posting a 3.68 era year to date, blowing three of his six save chances in may and nearly blowing another last week. this page may have underestimated dempster to some extent when it speculated that he would eventually be displaced as closer, however. while there seems less doubt now than ever that he simply isn't a shutdown-type closer, a la billy wagner, dempster has certainly pitched reasonably well in relief and far better than he ever did as a starting pitcher. control remains his fatal flaw and that will likely never change -- for that reason, he shouldn't really be pitching in the ninth for any team. but dempster does seem a viable bullpen pitcher at this point, and he hasn't hurt the club to this point in nearly the manner he might have been expected to here.
williamson, however, has not experienced the resurgence that many might have wished for in 2006, posting 21.1 innings of 4.22 era baseball. he has always been a high-walk pitcher, but 14 in that span is just too many to be consistently effective. now on the disabled list with elbow soreness, it seems as though the williamson injury-reclamation experiment -- much as the recent experiments in the starting staff have gone, from jason simontacchi to brian boehringer to wade miller to kerry wood -- is in no hazard of being labeled a success. this was to be expected.
in any case, the bullpen has suffered for a lack of quality depth, with only eyre and howry throwing up eras anywhere near three, and this will again have to be a focal point of remediation if the cubs are to improve.
the bright spot of the 2005 squad has been terribly disappointing this year, and the difference in output is probably the largest change year over year.
derrek lee was injured in the third week, and the collective line at first including his 44 at-bats is 258/351/378 -- a .729 ops. this is the first of several positions where the cubs are clearly underperforming in terms of ops -- ranked 15th in the nl -- and just about every other offensive metric. todd walker has done what he can, but in the end simply isn't an offensive leader of the kind needed from this position. lee's return from injury will be carefully observed here and elsewhere -- but this page would expect little from lee this year as he tries to built strength and coordination back into the wrist joint. more important will be avoiding reinjury and looking forward to next year.
part of walker's move to first has been a revolving door at second, where the team has carried a laughable number of poor actors for the drama. their aggregate output -- 249/300/338 -- is nothing less than disastrous -- even from a position not known for offensive production, a .638 ops puts the cubs aggregate on the bottom of all nl teams at the position and most any list of individual nl second basemen. it is befuddling to this writer as to how ryan theriot could not break into this breathtaking mess. it might also be important to note that, even if walker had played entirely at second this year, his .756 ops would come in only 10th among nl teams.
third base has also been troubling, as aramis ramirez has remained healthy but simply hasn't hit very well most of the year. the resulting team output at third -- 237/300/449 -- has rated 14th in the nl at the postion, down from 4th in 2005. ramirez has suffered greatly, it seems, for the loss of lee in the lineup; as the only real threat, he hasn't been pitched to much, and has forced the issue as often as not by being less selective. the power is still there, and aramis isn't striking out -- just 18 in 217 ab -- this is no regression to his earlier career, as has sometimes been feared hereabouts. but ramirez is showing that he needs to be protected because he hasn't the plate discipline to function in isolation, a la barry bonds, simply by taking walks.
the more we see of ronny cedeno, the more convinced this writer is that he is terrible -- but not terrible enough to force hendry's hand. because of the intrinsically weak nature of the position, the cubs as a team rank 10th in nl shortstop production between cedeno and neifi. if cedeno can go 285/315/360 or better and be cheap, that's maybe enough to earn him 2007. he is certainly not a plus at the position, but neither may he be enough of a minus to cut off his chance in an organization that has no shortstop at any level beneath to pressure him.
the only infield position where the cubs have been better than bad is at catcher, where michael "punchy" barrett has overcome henry blanco to place the cubs fifth in the league with a .766 ops (265/336/430).
this too is the second total disaster for the team, much of it fallout from lee's injury. the rearrangement of the infield and the inability of jim hendry to find a replacement first baseman to both restore walker to second and offer some protection to ramirez helped to catapult a merely mediocre cubs team into the depths of baseball hell, turning an insufficient offensive club into the travesty of the league by a significant margin.
but a big part of the reason why one key injury could completely undo the cubs is their offensive thinness at other positions, particularly in the outfield.
much had been hoped for matt murton, though this page expected less.
if murton produces 265/320/420 with 17 hr and 67 rbi to equal last year's aggregate cub left field, this page would be pleased. that sort of output is quite a lot to ask of a player with only 140 major-league at-bats to his credit, and demanding more seems a bit foolish. many people forget that he hit .380 vs lhp in 2005 -- a small sample which isn't likely to extrapolate over an entire year -- and went 260/330/480 vs rhp despite being in the hottest streak he could ask for, hitting for the kind of power he simply has never hit for over any sizable length of time in the minors. this time through, if allowed to play everyday, murton is going to take three-quarters of his plate appearances vs rhp. while murton is well capable of playing as a major-league-average left fielder, and may be a fine if somewhat powerless hitter in time, one must be prepared for a bit of a letdown.
murton currently projects to finish 280/349/389 with 10 hr and 52 rbi. murton's approach has deteriorated markedly as the year has worn on, and in contextualizing him with other nl leftfielders he's an even greater relative disadvantage than cedeno is relative to other shortstops, again ranking the cubs 14th by ops at the position. rather than marquis grissom, freddie bynum has started to inexplicably eat into murton's playing time. it seems as though murton may not, in the end, be an improvement even upon the monstrosity of last season.
center field had been hoped by this page to be a marked improvement with the signing of juan pierre. even until recently, this page had maintained that pierre would come around with time. but this writer is also interested to note that pierre's babip is still just .262 -- far under his career .320 -- and to read this bit from brew crew ball that clearly outlines the general decline of babip with age. take a good look at pierre's babip trend in the post in which this writer pooh-poohs pierre's struggles -- call 2004 a positive outlier -- and it suggests, ominously, that this page was wrong and that pierre simply isn't likely coming back to a .294 babip, much less .320.
in any case, his reign in center for the cubs has put the cubs the worst team in the national league in that position, much as they were with korey patterson out there. free agent pierre certainly won't be back next year, may not survive the trade deadline, and felix pie will be on the way for better or worse (though it can hardly be worse).
it is a sad thing indeed when the much-maligned mistake of free agency ends up the least bad of the outfield spots -- but jacque jones has claimed that dubious honor for himself. jacque's been the best of many bad options in right, but the cubs rank 6th in the league for ops out of that usually productive spot with an .843 mark. only heaven knows how long this can be kept up -- this is rarified air for jacque -- and jacque's contract remains a terrible mistake for its duration and expenditure. but he has hardly been this team's biggest problem this year, in spite of his many faults. moreover, because of his contract, jacque will almost certainly be in right field on opening day 2007 and there's hardly any point in dwelling on it beyond offering up a small prayer for his abnormal performance to continue -- for only it keeps this from again being the worst outfield in the national league.
it has been shown above that this cub team has gotten better-than-average performances in only two of the eight everyday positions, and in fact ranked 14th or worse at five. that is how a team gets to be the worst offense in baseball. but a team can only fall in danger of mounting a 100-loss campaign by equally failing in pitching -- and this club's disaster year in the rotation has certainly qualified. moreover, this page is hard pressed to identify an unquestionable team strength at any position -- even derrek lee, his future now somewhat clouded by the risks of injury rehabilitation and questions pursuant to the repeatability of his awe-inspiring 2005, isn't safely beyond suspicion.
more will follow on this page regarding what might be done going forward, but the first step must be problem recognition. the cubs can certainly be said to have severe problems in center, left and in the rotation; as well as moderate problems at short and second, this last being aggravated by the lee injury. despite the lack of production at third, ramirez's history would seem to indicate less trouble here than appears at first blush; conversely, this page suspects more is afoot in right than it would sometimes seem.
in any case, much work remains to be done in the next 100 games.