The following players have become free agents:
The Cubs have until midnight Wednesday to sign these guys (if they want to) before they’re able to negotiate with other teams. Of these, the only really tough decision for the Cubs to make is going to be Carlos Pena. Signed on a one-year deal this past offseason, Pena was the Cubs’ second-best offensive player behind Aramis Ramirez despite his ugly .225 batting average. He walked one out of every six times he came to the plate, giving him a respectable OBP despite his hideous batting average, and he actually led the team with 28 homers. Additionally, he gave the Cubs a decent glove at first base. All in all, he wasn’t terribly exciting and could be frustrating at times, but he was a perfectly adequate first baseman, and there’s not much reason to think he can’t deliver about the same thing next season.
However, he’s not a long-term solution, and in a year in which Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are up for free agency, “adequate” might be a tough sell to the fanbase. Certainly the opportunity exists for the Cubs to sign a major upgrade at fist base. Both of those guys figure to be hugely expensive, though, and Pujols especially will probably command a contract length that takes him into the twilight of his career. That’s a risky proposition given the extraordinary salaries they figure to be paying him during that time.
And even if the Cubs aggressively pursue these guys, they may fall short, and risk losing Pena to someone who isn’t in on the Pujols/Fielder bidding in the process. Do the Cubs have faith in Bryan LaHair, who dominated AAA pitching last year but will be 29 already in 2012? What other options are there at 1B if none of the above pan out? Whatever happens, the first base situation is one of the most pressing issues facing the new regime this offseason … and they have a lot of pressing issues.
Among the other free agents to be, I don’t see much reason for the Cubs to pursue resigning any of them except for possibly Wood. Woody has been vocal about his desire to end his career in Chicago, and while he’s a shell of his former self – even his 34-save former self from 2008 – he still struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings last season and still hasn’t averaged giving up a hit per inning during any season in his entire career. He signed with the Cubs on a one-year deal last year at a greatly discounted rate, and while he can still be a part of a good bullpen, I imagine the Cubs’ willingness to resign him this season depends on his willingness to do something similar.
Finally, as for the others:
Johnson had a good season in 2011, in fact his best since he was still a full-time starter for the Blue Jays in 2006. The Cubs certainly shouldn’t expect that from him again, though, and at his usual level of production he’s easily replaceable.
Grabow has struggled with his control over his entire career and has given up a lot of homeruns with the Cubs, not a combination that warrants a new contract.
Lopez and Ortiz were both only with the club in the first place because the team was desperate for pitching depth after injuries, and while Lopez wasn’t as bad as I worried he would be, neither of them have a place on a team that isn’t similarly desperate.
Dempster had a rough year in 2011, with an ERA almost a full run higher than any other season he’s been starting for the Cubs, but a closer look at the stats may indicate that he wasn’t pitching much worse than he ever has. He didn’t give up homeruns at a higher rate than the previous two years, and his K/BB rate was down a little bit, but not much. He did give up more fly balls than usual, which may explain why he was somewhat more prone to giving up extra base hits than he had been in previous years; specifically, he was allowing many more line drives than in years past. But what really stands out to me is that he was simply giving up more hits when batters put the ball in play, which is usually an indication of bad luck.
Batting average on balls in play (BAbip), Ryan Dempster:
That explains a lot. Aside from Casey Coleman, that was the highest BAbip for any pitcher on the Cubs last year for any pitcher that threw at least 60 innings, and it was much higher than the team’s .307 average and 35 points higher than the league average. In other words, because BAbip is highly variable and not really something pitchers have control over, it’s likely that Dempster simply wasn’t as bad of a pitcher last year as his ugly 4.80 ERA would indicate.
And, let’s be realistic. Even with his poor year, he still lead the Cubs with 202.1 innings pitched, and even though the team was 20 games under .500 overall, they actually had a winning record (18-16) when Dempster started. As bad years go, they get a lot worse than this, and there’s no reason to think that he’s washed up or anything so dire as that.
That said, it’s always been generous to think of Dempster as a true #1 starter. Aside from 2008 (and see the BAbip numbers above for some insight into that season), he’s never really been good enough to warrant that status. But he has been good, and even more importantly, he’s been durable, having now put up four straight seasons with 200 IP. That’s a valuable guy to have, even if the $14 million salary that he’ll be paid in 2012 sounds awfully high; for reference, Randy Wolf has made $18 million combined the last two years to provide the Brewers with pretty much the same thing.
That’s a problem for the Ricketts family, though, and even if it is expensive, it’s only for one year and thus not so cumbersome. While the club might not be thrilled at the price tag, Dempster ought to give the team a lot of innings of decent-but-not-great quality. If he’s still the #1 starter next year, it’s a sign that the team is unlikely to go anywhere, but he’d be right at home in the middle of a rotation on a good staff. The bottom line is that if the Cubs didn’t have Ryan Dempster, they’d have to go find someone like him.
The Cubs have named Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer as General Manager
It’s hard to know how responsible Jim Hendry was for some of the Cubs’ biggest misfires during his time as GM. For example, it’s been widely postulated that the Alfonso Soriano deal was mandated by the Tribune Company. But the one thing that I think was obvious was that the Cubs rarely seemed to have a long-term plan. Needs were rarely addressed before they became agonizingly obvious, and since the minor league system was constantly inadeqaute, this usually meant an ill-advised free agent signing or a hastily considered trade. As a result, the team had sporadic success – more than we Cubs fans are accustomed to seeing, to be sure – but by the time this past summer rolled around, the team had gotten old, expensive, and not very good. Worse, the minor league system, especially in the upper levels, was barren. In short, this team was not very good, with not much of an apparent future aside from Starlin Castro, their young shortstop.
Additionally, Hendry was the kind of proud old-school baseball guy who simply had become obsolete in today’s game. It’s still not hard to find strident opposition to what’s known as “the Moneyball philosophy,” but the plain truth is that major league front offices operate much differently than they did 10 years ago. Objective analysis is now a vital part of the game, and while I doubt that Hendry was as old school as the caricature I have of him in my head, it seemed clear enough that he wasn’t in his element in today’s game. The Cubs needed to catch up.
Enter Theo Epstein, the Boston whiz kid who had built two World Series champions as General Manager of the Red Sox. He moves to Chicago with a promotion, hired not as GM but as President of Baseball Operations. He’s tasked with creating and implementing a long-term vision for the Cubs, and it seems to me like it’s hard to overstate the importance of this hiring. Hendry’s firing represented the end of an era that dated back to the hiring of Andy MacPhail in 1994, but Epstein’s hiring represents a change in culture that dates back longer than that. For as long as I remember, the Cubs’ basic strategy has seemed to be to aspire to being average or maybe a little better than average, and then hope that they get lucky enough in any given year to sneak into the playoffs. Hence, we’ve had occasional and mostly isolated playoff appearances bookended by years of mediocrity. Despite dominating the NL Central in financial resources and (lately anyway) payroll, the team hasn’t been able to put together a sustained run of success since before color television.
So if nothing else, Epstein brings with him a much more accomplished resume than Hendry’s. The Red Sox have won 90 games in all but 2 of Epstein’s 9 years in Boston despite playing in the AL East; Hendry’s Cubs did so only once, despite playing in a division widely regarded for most of that period as one of the weakest in baseball. Epstein will undoubtedly aspire to building a team that contends year-in and year-out. While it’s impossible to know what the future holds, that aspiration alone represents a welcome change, and his resume indicates that he’s far more likely to be successful at that task than Hendry could have been.
However, he will not be the GM, and to that end he’s hired Jed Hoyer, who worked with Epstein in Boston – and was actually briefly named co-GM there during Epstein’s contract squabbles in late 2005 – before leaving for San Diego. There he’s been the GM of the Padres for the last two years. I’ll confess that I’m not all that familiar with his work in San Diego, except that the team was surprisingly successful in 2010 but somewhat disappointing this season. Obviously that’s not enough knowledge to make much of an evaluation, and as such I’m fairly agnostic on the merits of hiring him. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to wait and see. His assistant in San Diego, Jason McLeod, has also been hired by the Cubs as head of scouting and player development.
Because Epstein and Hoyer were both still under contract with their respective teams, the Cubs will owe compensation to both teams in exchange for hiring them away. It remains to be seen which players the Cubs will have to give up, but unless the names are much bigger than anticipated, it hardly seems to matter. What’s important is that the Cubs have made an unprecedented effort (for them) to make themselves seriously matter, and to realize their natural advantage as a large-market team with a nationwide fanbase. Again, I don’t know what the future holds, but these hirings are an amazing accomplishment by the Ricketts family. This is what dedication by the ownership looks like, and as a fan, I can’t really ask for much more than that. Go Cubs go!
Hello, and welcome to the Cubs Transaction Report, now awakened after nearly eight years of slumber. The reason for restarting this blog, of course, is that the Cubs have fired Jim Hendry and hired an all-new front office – it is truly a new era for Cubs fans.
My name is Brian, and I’ll be keeping up with Cubs transactions big and small. My former co-writer, Christian, has moved on. I’ll have more on the hiring of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer this weekend, and of course if more happens I’ll have my thoughts on whatever else as well. Thanks for reading.