How will $300 million help the Chicago Cubs?

By Se Young Lee

The Chicago Cubs’ spending spree this offseason was noteworthy not only for the sheer amount of dollars committed, but also because of the statement that the signings make: They are crossing the Rubicon.

The NL Central was arguably the worst division in baseball last year. The Cardinals won it and advanced to the playoffs with 83 wins, least of all teams that competed in the playoffs. While the Cardinals deserve all the credit for winning the World Series, nothing they did improved their chances to contend this year. Once again, there is no clear favorite in the division. Anybody could win it this year – except for the Pirates.

So why not the Cubs? They have an ace in Carlos Zambrano, a candidate for the Cy Young, a dangerous lineup with a healthy Derrek Lee, the $136 million-man Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. That core of players is as good as any other team’s in the Central. I would not be surprised if the Cubs managed to win the division and advance to the playoffs.

But they still don’t have enough, as of now, to do what Cubs fans have been waiting for the past 99 years. The not-so-distant future is not very promising, either. Throughout the history of the game, there has been one constant element that has always enabled a team to succeed: good starting pitching. This is also something the Cubs, as of right now, don’t have.

The Cubs tried, like everybody else, to upgrade their rotation before spring training. But the market for starters, as with any other year in recent memory, was devoid of much quality. The Cubs missed out on Jason Schmidt (three years for $47 million) and Barry Zito (nine years, $127 million), the best and most proven starters. So they settled for Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, not exactly names that strike fear into opposing hitters, awarding them contracts collectively worth $61 million.

Lilly has great stuff but has not put it all together, as evidenced by his 59-58 record and 4.60 career ERA. As for Jason Marquis, the fact that he won 14 games last season with a 6.02 ERA is a testament to the Cardinals’ ability to score runs. They only got that money because they happened to be part of a market that awarded the likes of Vicente Padilla more than $10 million per year. As the poorest of the teams enabled by the windfall from the league’s recent prosperity to lock up their young pitchers to long-term deals, prices for these unremarkable arms will only increase.

Given the way games go in the playoffs, when runs are scarce, a team needs at least three reliable starters as well as a good defense that can back up those starters in order to give itself a chance to scratch out enough runs for a win. Not even the great Johan Santana could carry the Minnesota Twins past the Oakland Athletics in the 2006 Division Series. Even if the Cubs make the playoffs, their roster as of now has neither the arms nor the gloves to get far. And with the annual circus that is the health of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and the lack of solid young starters waiting to break through from the farm system, aside from Rich Hill, it’s hard to see how they would get radically better.

The $300 million spent was a desperate attempt by Jim Hendry, a general manager fighting for his job, to placate the unhappy legion of Cubs fans. But, barring a complete reversal of fortune for Mark Prior, who appeared headed toward a legendary career, all that will come of the splash will be an early playoff exit and more years of mediocrity, due in large part to the albatrosses of contracts Marquis, Lilly and Soriano will turn out to be in a few years.

Until they figure out a way to draft and cultivate a new crop of pitchers who will be able to develop into reliable major leaguers, the best Cubs appear capable of is emulating this century’s version of the New York Yankees for a few years: plenty of fireworks in the regular season, only to go out with a whimper into the cold October night.

Se Young Lee is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]