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Getting to Know the Enemy: Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs vs Houston Astros

Every Monday until the start of the season, I’ll preview one of the Brewers’ division rivals.  In addition to recapping the last season, we’ve tried to get bloggers to answer a few questions about their team, because really, who knows what’s going on better than the team’s own fans?  Last week we took a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This week?  The Cubs.

2009 Finish: 83-78, 2nd NL Central

Last Season in a Nutshell: It’s probably safe to say 2009 was a letdown.  After winning 97 games in 2008, Chicago was barely able to finish above .500.  Injuries and age caught up to them, as Aramis Ramirez missed significant time, while Alfonso Soriano had a genuinely horrible season.  The Milton Bradley soap opera was on full display by the end of the season, and unfortunately for rival fans, there won’t be a second act. 

2010 Prediction: Like most of the teams in the division, they have some glaring weaknesses that will probably keep them from contending for a playoff spot.  I’ll peg them for 2nd place, though, just a shade ahead of the Brewers.

Q&A: David Mick of Another Cubs Blog

On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you to get rid of Milton Bradley? Did he deserve to get run out of town or did he get a raw deal?

I won’t put a number by it, but I’m neither happy nor unhappy.  It’s a topic that we’ve beaten to death on ACB, but Bradley had to go.  He’s a really good ballplayer who had a down year and was still actually OK.  A few of us talked before the 2009 season started about how bad it was going to be for Bradley if he didn’t get off to a good start and unfortunately it was even worse than we thought.  The media never gave him a chance.  The fans never did either.  The Cubs weren’t prepared to handle the situation.  Milton made things worse by opening his mouth and being antagonistic.  Don’t get me wrong, I actually think the fans kind of deserved that after the things they said and did to Milton, but you’re better off keeping your mouth shut.  In the end it was just a terrible situation that had only one way to fix itself.  They had to trade him.  They get enough money back in the deal and signed Byrd so they’re no worse, but no better.

Despite there not being many drastic differences between the talent on the 2008 and 2009 clubs, the results at the end of the season were drastically different.  Which season do you think was more indicative of the Cubs’ talent?

The 2008 team’s true talent level (including the trade for Harden and Gaudin) was about 92-93 wins.  They overperformed a bit in 2008.  They somehow took that team, including the natural age regressions, and made them just a bit better in 2009, but things just fell apart.  The Cubs average projected win total was around 91 or 92 games and only the Yankees were higher.  In fact, only the Cubs and Yankees were 90 wins or above.  The 2009 team was a better all around team, but some bad luck, some injuries, and some really poor play resulted in them being a much worse team.  It’s baseball and that stuff happens. 

Is shortstop prospect Starlin Castro really as good as Keith Law says he is, or is he just getting caught up in what he could grow into? Taking a quick glance at his stats in the minors so far, they’re good for a shortstop, but Law seems to think he’ll be an offensive force (I believe the word “special” was thrown around a couple times).

Keith Law isn’t the only guy who is high on Castro.  Baseball America rates him higher than Alcides Escobar and was a pretty easy number 1 prospect choice for the Cubs system by BA.  Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus is really the only one I’ve seen who isn’t that high on him and he even rated him as a 5-star prospect.  Projecting how someone’s body is going to age is very difficult, but these scouts are pretty good at it.  It’s not a science so there will be a lot of errors in their estimations.  

Shortstops at Castro’s age who have had even a little success in AA are hard to find.  That position and catcher develop a little later so I do think there’s a chance Castro is for real.  He needs another year in the minors, but very well could be the Cubs starting SS by late 2010.

So yeah, Starlin Castro is more than deserving of the praise he’s gotten over the last year, but we all have to remember that prospects do one thing really, really well: fail.  More prospect fail than succeed.  That’s the life of a minor league player whether he’s super talented or some roster filler.  Odds are Castro does not amount to much at the big league level, but those are the same odds for any prospect in my opinion.  As long as you understand that, there’s nothing wrong with hyping a prospect.  Felix Pie had all the tools to be a good big league player.  It just didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet I should say.

There were some Carlos Zambrano trade rumors this offseason. Assuming Z is ever ready to waive his no-trade clause, what would you have to get in return to not feel bad about losing him?  Brewers fans have been doing this with Prince Fielder for the better part of 2 years now.

Zambrano has been my favorite player since 2002 and I actually don’t get attached like that to ballplayers.  I love watching the guy play and part of the reason why I love it is because I know he irritates other teams and their fans.  He gives it 100% all the time and I respect that.  He does have a large contract and the Cubs probably wouldn’t get much if they traded him now.  They probably wouldn’t get anything except salary relief.  They might be able to get more next offseason if the economy has improved and free agent salaries increase. 

I don’t know that the Cubs would have to get anything other than a fair deal for me to be happy.  I guess I care more about what’s good for the team than my own personal likes and/or dislikes.  Right now Zambrano isn’t worth much because of his contract, but that could change in a year.  I’d hate to see Zambrano go elsewhere, but I’d still watch him pitch for whatever team he played for.  I think he really likes Chicago and does have a no-trade clause so there are few teams he’d probably waive that for.  He likes to hit so I’m guessing it would have to be an NL team.  And really, with new ownership taking over, there’s no reason the Cubs can’t, shouldn’t or won’t out-spend the rest of the NL Central making it very likely they are going to be seeing the playoffs frequently.  I’ll expand on this in the next question.

For those of us outside the loop, what does the Cubs’ budget situation look like with new owner Tom Ricketts in place?  Is the team going to be able to go out and throw money around anytime soon, or are they bound by the contracts of Soriano, Zambrano, etc. for the time being?

It’s a question mark.  Nobody really knows except Ricketts.  It’s been reported the opening day payroll would be a few percentage points above where it was in 2009, but that’s not going to be the case unless they add another $7 million this offseason.  It was also reported that the payroll will never be below $120 million under Ricketts, but I’m not sure what that even means.  Payrolls go up each and every year for the most part so will it be $120 million in 50 years?  If so, the Cubs are in trouble. 

The contract situation for the Cubs is overstated in my opinion.  They have $40-50 million coming off the books after the 2010 season, but those are some good players in Lee, Ramirez and Lilly.  Ramirez has an opt-out clause that he’ll surely exercise while the other 2 are free agents.  They have even more money coming off the books after 2011.  There’s not much the team can do about the Soriano contract.  Zambrano will have only 3 years left on his contract after 2010 so that’s not really a big deal in my opinion.  This offseason was the one we all knew the Cubs would struggle to find some money because they just didn’t have much payroll flexibility, but they do after the next season and after that again. 

The Cubs are locked into WGN and CSN for the next decade, but after that they’ll start their own network like YES.  Ricketts has initially said no jumbotron, but early rumors were that it was in the plans.  It’s hard to imagine him turning down $30 million a year in advertising from a jumbotron.  The Cubs already sell tickets at a higher rate than any team in the division, they currently have the best farm system in the division according to several of the list-makers, and they have far and away more money to spend than the rest of the division. 

The question is whether or not they will and we just don’t know.  The money is there for the Cubs to turn the NL Central into something that looks even worse than the AL East in terms of the team payrolls.  They can outspend any team in the division by at least $40 million and when they get their own network, a jumbotron, and who knows what else they may add to generate revenue, it brings me great joy to say that there should never again be a season at that point in which the Cubs aren’t the favorites to win the NL Central.  That’s what should happen, but this is the Cubs we’re talking about so it probably won’t.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about as a Cubs fan right now.  It just happens that much of the optimism is centered around the possibility of the owner actually spending as much money as he should and as he has claimed he will do.  The Cardinals are the best team in the NL Central right now and I think the Cubs and Brewers are fairly evenly matched.