Thursday July 16th, 2009

Twelve of's 13 baseball experts (myself included) agreed: The Cubs were a lock to win the National League Central this season. After all, the Cubs had the best record in baseball in 2008, and their chief rival in the division, the wild card-winning Brewers, had lost their two best starting pitchers (CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets) to free agency. Coming out of the All-Star break, however, the Cubs are tied for third in their underwhelming division, and their .500 record ranks them ahead of only 12 of the major league's 30 teams.

What has gone wrong? A lot. Some of it was (obviously) unexpected, and some of it has been plain bad luck, but some of it has also been self-inflicted. And nearly all of it has happened to the offense.

The Cubs had by far the most potent offense in the National League last year, scoring 5.31 runs per game to the second-place Phillies' 4.93. Even over in the DH league, only the Rangers managed to outscore the Cubs last year. This year, in a nearly identical run-scoring environment (MLB average 4.62 R/G vs. 4.65 in 2008), the Cubs are scoring nearly a run and a quarter less per game. The second-best offense in baseball a year ago, the Cubs have managed to outscore only four teams (the Reds, Mariners, Royals and Padres) on a per-game basis this year.

Some of the reasons for this have been obvious. Aramis Ramirez, the team's top RBI man in 2008, separated his shoulder while making a diving play at third base in early May and missed two months. That was bad enough, but the fact that '08 team slugging and home run leader Alfonso Soriano stopped hitting around the same time that Ramirez went down was devastating. Soriano was batting .271/.341/.559 with nine home runs when Ramirez got hurt on May 8, but while Ramirez was on the shelf, he hit just .200/.259/.325 with only five more taters. The Cubs were 16-13 (.551) before Ramirez's injury, but just 24-26 (.480) with Ramirez on the disabled list. Things would have been worse had 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto not acted as a counterweight to Soriano, going homerless with a .159 average through May 8, but hitting a solid .262/.353/.490 with eight homers during Ramirez's DL stay.

Ramirez's injury and the struggles of first Soto and then Soriano haven't been the Cubs' only offensive problems, however. The team has had a black hole at second base, with the men assigned to man the keystone combining to hit just .224/.280/.294. The worst production the Cubs got from any single position last year was their right fielders' .250/.350/.381, led by disappointing Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome. Their hole at second base this year is all the more glaring because it was one the Cubs themselves created by trading Mark DeRosa to Cleveland for three minor league pitchers over the winter.

On its own, trading DeRosa made sense. Despite his ability to play multiple positions, DeRosa was a butcher at second and was coming off a career year that was also just his third as a full-time player at the age of 33. The Cubs sold high on DeRosa, who was all but guaranteed to see his production decrease this season, and has. The problem was that, though they properly distrusted DeRosa's 2008 production, they weren't sufficiently suspicious of Mike Fontenot's 2008 numbers. As part of a second-base platoon with DeRosa in 2008, the left-handed-swinging Fontenot hit .305/.395/.514 as a 28-year-old major league sophomore -- but he did so in just 243 at-bats, only 21 of which came against left-handed pitching. The same day that they traded DeRosa, the Cubs signed infielder Aaron Miles, a 32-year-old switch-hitter non-tendered by the Cardinals, to serve as Fontenot's platoon partner. The Cubs gambled that Fontenot and Miles, who was a .284/.352/.352 career hitter against left-handed pitching entering the season, could match DeRosa's production while providing them with far superior defense at a discounted price. What they failed to appreciate was just how valuable DeRosa had been at plugging holes elsewhere on the diamond. DeRosa had started 53 games in the outfield corners for the '08 Cubs, serving as both an injury replacement for Soriano in left field and part of a complex platoon that helped limit the drain on the offense caused by right-fielder Fukudome's awful second half. He also made 10 starts at third base, the position he was asked to man upon arriving in Cleveland. Without DeRosa, the Cubs left themselves exposed in the event of an injury like Ramirez's or an offensive collapse like that experienced by Soriano and the team's second basemen.

Indeed, with DeRosa in Cleveland, the Cubs turned to Fontenot to fill in at third base when Ramirez went down, leaving second base to Miles. Miles didn't hit much against lefties and just .188 against righties then got hurt himself. He was followed by a parade of replacement players, including 31-year-old rookie Bobby Scales, who proved useless after a hot first week, and Andres Blanco, a slick-fielding shortstop with a career .256/.317/.319 minor league batting line. To make matters worse, Fontenot's production also vanished -- his .236/.322/.369 line against right-handed pitching looking good only in contrast to his performance against lefties. With all other options having failed, the Cubs returned Fontenot to second and tried Plan E, putting third-string catcher Jake Fox at the third. That worked, but by the time the Cubs had figured it out, Ramirez was on his rehab assignment.

DeRosa is still a poor defensive infielder, and his .261/.334/.443 line this year is indeed a significant step down from his .285/.376/.481 of a year ago, but even his reduced production would have been a boon to the Cubs at third base during Ramirez's absence, in helping to keep Fontenot's glove propped up at second, and in giving the slumping Soriano some additional rest in left. That's exactly DeRosa's value, keeping a team from falling to replacement level at any given position, something the Cubs have done at multiple positions in his absence. That sort of player is most valuable to a contender, for whom the difference between league-average and replacement-level production at a given position can be the difference between a playoff berth or an October vacation, and most valuable to a contender in the National League, where hitting pitchers force managers to have a greater reliance on their bench and on the defensive diversity of that bench, making the Cubs the perfect team for him. To wit, in the first half of this season, Fontenot, Miles, Blanco and Scales combined were worth 13.7 runs below replacement level, according to Baseball Prospectus' VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), while DeRosa was worth 9.7 runs above replacement. At a conversion rate of roughly 10 runs per win, that 23.4-run or two-win swing has been a large portion of the difference in the NL Central so far this season, as the Cubs trail the Cardinals by just 3.5 games.

Of course, it took the injury to Ramirez and the poor showings from Soriano, Fontenot and Co. for the DeRosa difference to matter. The Cubs figured they had offense to spare given their performance at the plate last year and could hardly have expected to get so little in the first half of the season from two of their top hitters of a year ago. Still, the reasons for the DeRosa trade remain hazy. Despite DeRosa's poor glove work at second, the Cubs still turned balls in play into outs at a higher rate than any other National League team in 2008. Theoretically, the trade was a salary dump (the Cubs received three minor league arms in return, two of whom had never pitched above A-ball), but in signing Miles to a two-year contract worth $4.9 million the same day, the Cubs barely saved at all on the $5.5 million DeRosa is earning this year in the final year of his contract.

That last makes it difficult to blame the outgoing Tribune Co. ownership for the move. The Tribune notably committed $285 million to contracts for free agents DeRosa, Soriano, Ramirez, and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis the winter before putting the team up for sale in April 2007, but it didn't completely shut off the spigot there. That August the Cubs gave staff ace Carlos Zambrano a five-year extension worth $91.5 million. The following winter they came up with the winning bid for Fukudome ($48 million over four years), who had been a superstar in Japan. During the 2008 season, the Tribune took on the contract of midseason rotation acquisition Rich Harden. Last winter the Tribune picked up Harden's $7 million option and complemented it by re-signing All-Star right-hander Ryan Dempster for $52 million over four years and adding right-fielder Milton Bradley at $30 million for three years as a replacement for veteran waiver claim Jim Edmonds via Fukudome's move to center. Given all of that, saving $600,000 over two years on DeRosa doesn't look like a financial decision. Rather, it was a baseball decision, and one that almost immediately blew up in the Cubs' faces. Adding insult to injury, DeRosa has since been dealt by the Indians to the rival first-place Cardinals for struggling relief prospect Chris Perez, increasing the divisional deficit created by DeRosa's production and giving St. Louis the weapon the Cubs have been sorely missing.

Meanwhile, the Cubs are up to Plan F at second base in the person of Jeff Baker, a former Rockies prospect who has hit .292/.347/.539 at Coors Field in his short major league career, but .205/.266/.335 away from it and has so far trended toward the latter as a Cub. They are also continuing to spring leaks, with Soto and Dempster hitting the DL in the past week and unlikely to return until August.

Still, the Cubs are just 3 1/2 games behind in the NL Central, and the two teams ahead of them, the Cardinals and second-place Brewers, have plenty of faults of their own, specifically the Brewers' rotation and the Cardinals' offense around Albert Pujols. Ramirez is back at third. Soriano had a hot, though homerless, week heading into the break. Fox is emerging as something of a DeRosa replacement, able to catch and play the infield and outfield corners, though none particularly well, while providing some right-handed sock at the plate (he has a career .528 slugging percentage in the minors).

There's still room for hope in Wrigleyville, but as much will have to go right for the Cubs in the second half as went wrong for them in the first for the NL Central to be anything but a dogfight the rest of the way. If the Cubs still manage to pull out the division, one might be tempted to argue that it will prove just how much of a lock they were in the first place, but really, the 2009 Cubs are proof that there is no such thing as a lock in major league baseball.

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