There is a phenomenon that I hear discussed often on Chicago sports radio often referring to the Bulls. It has to do with the term “NBA Hell.” The term refers to a team that is good enough to make the playoffs in one of the lower seeds but not good enough to win it all. Because they make the playoffs they are also not bad enough to score one of the high picks in the draft and pick a real game changer to build your franchise around. The Bulls “lucked out” last year by landing the first pick and picking Derrick Rose who is hopefully a franchise turn around type guy. However, without that stroke of luck a team can be mired in this territory for years. This is not a fun place to be.
After watching the series’ against the Nationals and Phillies this week I fear that the Cubs are in Major League Baseball Hell. They are good enough to beat bad teams and bad pitching but will struggle against good teams and good pitching. Sometimes they will win series against good teams. Other times they will not. They will be able to play a little above five hundred and hang around in a weak division, but it would seem that they will be no match for the better teams if they make the playoffs.
I know that the stats guys say that it is all up for grabs in the playoffs, and this might be statistically true. However, there is one thing that I feel almost always demonstrates itself in the playoffs. You want to have a shut down ace to pitch games one, four, and seven in a series. You want to have the guy that both teams would pick to start game one for them if they had the choice. This guy might lose a close game and the series might shift on that, but you can be sure that this guy will keep you in the game and give you a chance to win. Is there anyone on the Cubs that you would feel this way about? We know that Big Z is a stud and also nuclear. He seems to have one or two bad innings every game, and if these go real bad you have lost the game. He has that talent that makes you feel like you want him on your side going to war, but a psyche that makes you know that you don’t really know how that will end up. Dempster has been down this year, and who knows what you will get with him. Harden goes seven at the most, but has days where he (in his words) is throwing batting practice. Wells is unproven. Lilly is the ballsiest, guy on the staff. But he has never been seen as a dominant pitcher. Thinking about all of the teams you could see in the playoffs, there probably is not one whose game 1 starter you would not rather have than whoever ours might be (and many game 2 starters that I would prefer over our game 1).
We all know about the holes that we are currently seeing in this team. We hope they will change. But even if they do what makes us think the playoffs will be different than previous years? Will Soriano be able to hit quality starting pitching (Will most of the players for that matter)? They might be good enough to squeak into the playoffs- but then what?
My fear is that this will be the case for many years to come. Of course, over those years, our core guys will be declining as they age. A team that is not scoring runs now will probably score less runs as their run producers get older. This team was built to win now (two years ago) and leave a boatload of bad contracts and aging players and millions of dollars in salary to a new ownership…along with a championship to bask in the glow of. Unfortunately, there is no new owner and continued delays in finding one…and no championship. But the contracts, and dollars, and no trade clauses are piling up.
You can see the terror of the Cubs situation playing out every day. Milton Bradley was overpaid by Jim Hendry (who outbid himself) and has now just seen his third year option become real because he went less than 75 games on the disabled list this year. Which seems like an odd conract clause (but who am I to evaluate that) and seems odder when you consider that there were times this year when he should have been DL’ed but wasn’t. Alfonso Soriano has five years remaining on his contract which will pay him $18 million annually. He also has a full no trade. Which means that barring some team wanting to take that contract off your hands, Soriano will be playing left field for you for five more years- or be the highest paid bench player in the game. Ryan Dempster (he of the one good post-injury year of starting pitching) will make on average $13 million for the next three seasons. Kosuke (slap hitter extraordinaire) is signed through 2011, will average $13 million over that time and also has full no trade protection. Ramirez, Lee, Lilly, and Samardzija also have no trade clauses. And by the way Aaron Miles will make almost $3 million next year.
The scary thing is that this team is your team for a while, especially if there is no money to add in coming years since so much is already eaten up. Consider that for 2010 the team already has $114 million commited to 8 players: Zambrano, Soriano, Ramirez, Lee, Dempster, Bradley, Fukudome, and Lilly. Which means that if the team keeps their current payroll (At a time when most teams are dropping payroll right now…which would seem to be a desire of new ownership) you will have about $20 million dollars to spend on the other 17 players on your roster. To make things worse: Marmol, Soto, Theriot, Marshall, Fontenot, Guzman, Hoffpauir, Wells, and Jake Fox all make around $500,000 on deals that expire this year. Now, I am not sure how MLB contracts and years work but eventually these guys will need to get paid. You have very liitle to pay them.
You can see how dire it is in the Cubs current approach to the trade deadline. They have deep needs and they can do nothing about it. The pop they would have coming from the farm system is blocked by high paid talent that you cannot give up on. While teams like the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Phillies are talking about big names like Halladay, and Holliday the Cubs might not be in the position to even add a guy like Freddie Sanchez who the Pirates will be looking to trade and could make a huge difference to the Cubs lineup.
On paper the team was built to win by now. Probably with 2010 being the last real chance at winning as constructed. It seemed that the team would be sold by now and bad contracts would be the worry of the next ownership. These things are blowing up in their face. Which has tanked faster the ecomony or the talent on this team? The ownership situation is still unresolved. The team has not won and looks weaker than the teams that got bounced from the playoffs without a win the previous two years. Jim Hendry miscalculated on almost every move last off season. And there is no championship for a fan base that finds losing unacceptable now and seems readier to jump ship than ever. Welcome to Hell…MLB style. It seems the old saying is true. After throwing a lot of money around for a couple years, the Cubs have found out that the devil is in the details.