Thursday, February 15, 2007

A "Glass is Half Empty" Look at the 2007 Cubs

Spring Training is finally underway. Pitchers and catchers reported this week and position players report next week. The off-season was very busy and very exciting for the Cubs. The prayers of millions of Cubs fans were answered when the Tribune Company opened up their wallet big time. It reminds me of the time I went to a restaurant for lunch and found out they offered a 25-foot all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet. I was so excited I couldn’t stop smiling.

But there’s something about this off-season that is unsettling to me. Just like my AYCE ice cream binge, a nasty headache followed the sugar overload. And although I’m normally a “glass is half full” kind of guy, especially when it comes to the Cubs, I have to admit that the sugar rush of the off-season is wearing off and I’m starting to feel the crash coming on.

During the past off-season, the Cubs spent like drunken sailors. They signed Aramis Ramiez, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa, Daryle Ward, and Cliff Floyd. When all is said and done (including Zambrano’s new contract), the Cubs will have a payroll pushing $130 million. Trust me, that’s not a complaint. I’ve opined for some time that an organization like the Cubs (big market and wealthy corporate owner) should be spending around $125 million per year.

I’m not upset about the dollars spent. What I’m concerned about is what the Cubs got for all of that money. First, let me tell you what they should have gotten: total domination.

In a division like the NL Central (i.e. weaker teams with no really big spenders), $130 million should buy more than a competitive team. It should buy a sure thing, or at least as much of a sure thing as you can get with any endeavor that involves humans.

The payroll numbers for each of the teams have not been finalized yet, but in round numbers, here’s how much the other NL Central teams will be spending in 2007:

Houston Astros $90 million
St. Louis Cardinals $90 million
Cincinnati Reds $65 million
Milwaukee Brewers $60 million
Pittsburgh Pirates $50 million

The Cubs are spending more than 40% more than their next closet rivals, and yet they are by no means the prohibitive favorite to win the division. They are spending more than twice as much as Milwaukee and many pundits are predicting that the Brewers will be the team to beat in 2007.

Obviously, money alone does not buy championships (just ask George Steinbrenner), but spending so much more money than the other teams in the division should at least give the Cubs a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, at least at this point, it doesn’t look like that is going to be the case.

I’m not sure who is to blame for this. I guess it starts with the hole that was the 2006 team. Entering the off-season, the Cubs had to improve quite a bit just to get back to being a .500 team.

The market also contributed to the Cubs having to spend a lot more than they should have had to spend just to be competitive. The price of pitching in particular went through the roof, and the Cubs needed pitching.

Finally, Jim Hendry has to accept part of the blame, not just for building the ineffective 2006 team, but also for not spending money in the off-season as effectively as he could have (although it’s easier to say that than to actually point to the specific deals he should have or could have made).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready to go into panic mode or write the season off. In fact, just the opposite. I’m stoked about the season and I’m optimistic about the Cubs chances. And I’m sure I’ll go back to my positive, optimistic, homerish self very soon. But in the back of my mind, I will remain concerned that it’s all going to fall apart and a team that spent half as much as the Cubs will win the NL Central.


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