Point—Counterpoint: Next year still nowhere in sight for the North Side

By Alec Brandon

The Cubs are only five games into the Cactus League season, and the annual meltdown has already begun. In the preliminary stages of their 2007 campaign, the Cubs are batting .230 and have a team ERA of 9.32. Even though it is early, the fact that Piniella is already complaining, Mark Prior is already breaking down, and Kerry Wood is already injuring himself in new and exciting ways does not bode well.

The Cubs are well known for showing unequaled potential at the start of every season and then falling apart. This year is different. For once, the Cubs were proactive. They spent money to bolster the team, and hopes are high on the North Side. They shouldn’t be.

First of all, they don’t have much reliable pitching depth. Carlos Zambrano is going to be a lights-out pitcher this year and will likely be in the running for the NL Cy Young, but after him, there just isn’t much there. Free agent signing Ted Lilly has only really proven one thing over his career: that he is reliably mediocre. On top of that, the Cubs’ other free agent signing Jason Marquis is coming off of a Rick Ankiel-esque meltdown at the end of last season. Of course, you can’t forget Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who with all the hype have only really accomplished being the biggest cock teases ever—expecting anything from these two is like hoping Jessica Simpson will put out.

The one bright spot for Cubs fans is Rich Hill, a lefty who posted some of the sickest numbers in the league after the All Star break, but Baseball Prospectus’s Nate Silver (A.B. ’00) is wary of the 27-year-old, worrying about how “a pitcher who doesn’t place the ball very well and relies so heavily on his curve will fare the second time around the league.” Not exactly what Cubs fans want to hear, but it is probably good to temper expectations of Hill turning into this year’s Scott Kazmir.

On the offensive side the Cubs seem stacked. Nearly every position has a stud, but that belies a huge weakness: on-base percentage. That is the stat that the Oakland A’s have ridden to success at prices that ought to make the Cubs cry. Last year, the Cubs had the second-worst OBP in the league, and there isn’t much reason to expect that to improve. Granted, the return of Derek Lee is likely to help some, but the addition of free-swinging Alfonso Soriano certainly isn’t.

Yet again, it looks like the Cubs offense will live and die by the long bomb. That certainly hasn’t been a recipe for success over the past five years, when the Cubs were consistently at the top of the league in home runs, and it isn’t likely to become one now.

And that isn’t even looking at how the team is likely to look down the road. This offseason the Cubs made a deal with the devil. They paid up the wazoo to get the top players on the market to win this year, but at the expense of the future. They took on big contracts that span a lot of time (Soriano will be 38 at the end of his), and all of the team’s major signings this offseason will tie the general manager’s hands behind his back for years to come.

If you doubt that this spending will actually hurt the Cubs, just look at the progress the team has made by extending the contract of ace Carlos Zambrano—the first decent prospect to make it out of the Cubs farm system and consistently contribute to the club since Mark Grace. They have gotten nowhere in negotiations, and things have gotten so bad that Zambrano is threatening to walk. This is likely just a taste of the pain that is yet to come for Cubs fans.

Of course, I’d say that we should enjoy the Cubs’ success while we can, but given that the team spent so much money on such average talent…