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Old Joke: What does CUBS stand for? Completely Useless By September.
What a difference a year can make. Only in the case of the 2005 edition of the Chicago Cubs, the differences were not for the better. After finishing five outs away from a World Series berth in 2003, the 2004 Cubs finished three games out of the playoffs while winning one more game than they did the year before. In 2005, they decided not to let the drama last into late September. The 2005 Cubs finished this season a disappointing 79-83, ten games out of wild card contention and 21 games behind Central division winner St. Louis. After playing mediocre baseball throughout the first two thirds of the season, the Cubs went 10-18 in Augustonly Arizona and Kansas City had worse records that monthto seal their fate. The Cubs ended September watching the Cardinals (100-62) take the division and the Astros (89-73) take the wild card for the second straight season while finishing fourth in their own division behind the Brewers (81-81).
As usual, the Cubs only have themselves to blame. Through a combination of injuries, questionable fundamentals, poor execution, and a remarkable inconsistency, the Cubs regressed in 2005 from contenders to pretenders. The club had an eight-game losing streak and two seven-game losing streaks during the season; the Cubs had never had such long stretches of futility under Dusty Baker. The result was their first losing season since Baker came to Chicago. This past baseball season leaves more questions going into 2006 than there were at the beginning of the campaign, although three questionsleft field, setup reliever, and leadoff manare leftovers from the end of the 2004 season.
Simply put, Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry, and Dusty Baker have a bit of work to do sorting through the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2005 to put a better team on the field in 2006.
The Cubs knew going into spring training that they were losing 74 HR and 186 RBI out of the middle of the lineup when they bade farewell to Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa in the offseason. One of the main players the Cubs expected to pick up some of that lost production was Derrek Lee. By the end of April, it looked like Lee might pick up that slack all by himself.
Building on an April in which he bat .419 with 28 RBI, Lee had the season of his career, finishing with a .335 average, 50 doubles, 46 home runs, and 107 RBI. Oh, and he led the team in OBP at .421 and tied for the team lead in stolen bases (15). One got the feeling that Lee could have taken the mound and pitched a no-hitter at times. Lee was the NL starter at first base in the All-Star game and won the NL batting title, becoming the first Cub to do so since Bill Buckner in 1980.
While Derrek Lee was the main highlight of the Cubs season, he wasn't the only one, even in a down year. Aramis Ramirez, after battling through a slow start to the season, put up All-Star numbers (.302/31/92) despite missing the last month with a quadriceps injury. Starter Ryan Dempster moved into the bullpen on May 11 as the team's closer. All Dempster did was earn 33 saves in 35 opportunities, going 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA in the process. Minor-league callups Matt Murton (.321/7/14) and Ronny Cedeno (.300/1/6) both made the most of their opportunities in 2005 and should get legitimate shots at starting jobs with the Cubs in 2006. Jeromy Burnitz provided better offense and defense in right field than the departed Sammy Sosa. Neifi Perez, signed to be a utility player, ended up as a capable replacement for Nomar Garciaparra (see below). Michael Barret had a good year in front of and behind the plate, and Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.26 ERA, 223.1 IP, 202 K) earned his nickname "El Caballo" for the second straight year.
However, baseball is not decided on individual achievements at the end of the day. The Cubs led the National League in hits while ranking second in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, and total bases. On the mound, the Cubs staff led the majors in strikeouts for the fifth season in a row and were second in the league in opponent batting average. The team as a whole showed more resiliency than many thought possible, even though the results at times were less impressive than fans desired.
Major League Baseball teams began applying Red Cross stickers to their batting helmets in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. For the Cubs, the Red Cross should have replaced the Cubs logo by July. The 2005 Cubs resembled a MASH unit as much as they did a baseball team.
T. S. Eliot had it right when he wrote, "April is the cruelest month." Before April had ended, the Cubs had lost their starting infield of Todd Walker (knee) and Nomar Garciaparra (groin) to the disabled list, a starting pitcher in Kerry Wood (shoulder), and a closer in Chad Fox (elbow). The injury bug was voracious throughout the season, also claiming Mark Prior, Aramis Ramirez, and Jerry Hairston for extended periods.
That being said, the game doesn't stop for injuries. And some of the statistics say that the Cubs had real problems between the lines. At the plate, the Cubs continued to struggle with plate discipline, ranking 11th in on base percentage, 15th in pitches per plate attempt, and dead last at 16th in walks. They also didn't help themselves with stolen bases or sacrifices (ranking 13th in both categories). The lack of discipline led to fundamental breakdowns in clutch situations:
|Situation||BA||NL Rank||R||NL Rank||RBI||NL Rank|
|Runners in scoring position||.257||10||495||15||466||15|
|Runners in scoring position, 2 outs||.227||13||196||13||182||14|
Meanwhile, the Cubs scuffled on the mound, particularly in the bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins earned himself an early trade to San Francisco as a result of his ongoing struggles. Chad Fox blew out his elbow after eight innings of work. Joe Borowski returned from the DL only to be traded after 11 appearances with a 6.55 ERA. Mike Remlinger earned designation for assignment after becoming as ineffective against righties as he was against lefties. Scott Williamson pitched like you would expect of a man recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. The Cubs shuffled pitchers in and out of the bullpen all season; beyond Dempster and (maybe) Will Ohman, none particularly distinguished themselves.
Part of the problem, however, lies in the fact that the bullpen was overexposed for a variety of reasons. Wood made only 10 starts in 2005 due to a recurring shoulder problem. Prior started the season on the DL with inflammation of his elbow, came back strong, and then missed a month when Colorado Rockie Brad Hawpe lined a sharp drive off of Prior's pitching elbow. Maddux had his first losing season (13-15) since 1987, leading the team in innings pitched and home runs given up. The replacements for Wood and Prior ranged from serviceable (Glendon Rusch, Jerome Williams) to brutal (Sergio Mitre, John Koronka). The starting rotation as a whole struggled at times to go deep in games, which didn't do the bullpen any favors. And, of course, fickle run support let the pitchers down as often as the pitchers let the team down themselves.
Corey Patterson. A five-tool player in everyone's estimation coming into the league. Unfortunately for Corey, it looks like he's at a significant crossroads in his careerdefinitely in Chicago, perhaps in Major League Baseball.
After a decent April and May, Patterson slid horribly; his numbers over the last four months (.167/3/15, 14 BB, 75 K) are a testament to how screwed up talent can get when it succumbs to impatience and obstinance. As his strike zone quickly expanded to cover most of the 773 area code, Patterson flailed away amidst the boos from the Wrigley faithful. It got so bad that the Cubs sent Patterson down to Triple-A Iowa in July. When he returned in August, he fell right back into his old habits. It leaves the Cubs in a real quandry regarding what to do with center field next year; the next young phenom, Felix Pie, isn't believed ready to take the position yet. Patterson, however, remains a man without a defined spot in the batting order. One thing that remains clear, however, is that the Corey Patterson leadoff experiment has failed miserably to this point.
Patterson isn't solely to blame, however. The top two spots in the batting order were primarily a black hole for the Cubs through much of the season. Leadoff hitters batted .245 overall for the season with a paltry .299 on base percentage. The two-hole position batted a little better, mostly due to Todd Walker, with a .277 batting average and .317 on base percentage. Unfortunately, that's a lot of emty bases with Derrek Lee coming up to bat in the third spot. Combined with Baker's reluctance to move Ramirez into the cleanup spot in favor of a much streakier Burnitz, and it's not hard to see why the Cubs had problems in the clutch for most of the season.
The Cubs entered 2005 counting on Todd Hollandsworth to be their starter in left field. While Hollandsworth is a good man and able batter, he is not a starter. The Cubs burned through Hollandsworth, Jason Dubois, Jody Gerut, and Matt Lawton (all traded during the season) before hitting upon Matt Murton seemingly by accident. The comparison? Take away Murton's numbers, and left fielders batted .245 with 10 HR and 54 RBI on the season. Left field was another black hole for the Cubs that needs to be addressed.
The Cubs can now add center field to the list of offseason questions, thanks to a miserable performance by Corey Patterson. The entire outfield could be different by opening day 2006. Walker and Garciaparra are question marks to return to the Cubs next season; the Cubs also have to ask if they'll get 200 innings between Wood and Prior next season, much less apiece. Maddux doesn't seem quite ready to retire, nor should he when he's been the most consistent pitcher for the Cubs over the past two seasons, even on the downside of his career. The only three positions that seem settled at the end of 2005 are first base (Lee), third base (Ramirez), and catcher (Barrett).
That being said, there is some reason to hold out hope for the Cubs in 2006. Prior and Zambrano still make for a formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation, and Maddux will be dependable once again. Whether or not Wood can come back and deliver the type of pitching that the Cubs need is in question, and like every other Major League club, the Cubs need to find a reliable fifth starter in the rotation. The corners with Lee and Ramirez are set for a few years to come, and Murton and Cedeno look poised to compete for starting roles with the team next year. The team held its own against both the Cardinals (10-6) and the Astros (9-6), and greatly improved its results in one-run games at 26-20 (versus 19-30 in 2004). If the Cubs find someone to grab the brass ring in the leadoff spot and someone to get the ball dependably to Ryan Dempster in the ninth, the Cubs have a chance to compete. Fortunately, they don't have the albatross of Sammy Sosa (or his contract legacy) hanging around their neck going into this offseason.
Oh, and for the second season running, it would behoove both players and management alike to put more stock in on base percentage than in slugging percentage. Taking a walk might not seem sexy, but the results sure can be. As the man once said, patience is a virtue.
J. M. Pressley Home