Despite a poor start and a 24-29 record, the Cubs only sit 7 games behind division leaders St. Louis and 5.5 games behind second place Cincinnati. They remain within striking distance if they can put together a strong stretch, but given the amount of talent on the two teams ahead of them, their playoff odds are long, likely around or below 10%. This has to be a disappointing, albeit salvageable, season to date for a team with a $144 million opening day payroll, especially given that $103 million of that payroll will be around for the 2011 season.
Buy Or Sell
The answer right now is likely “hold” – if both St. Louis (7-9) and Cincinnati (6-11) continue playing as poorly as they have in June, selling would be premature. However, the Cubs are too far out of the race to buy at this point, at seven games behind and playing just as poorly as the Cardinals this month. Given that I find the “buy” scenario to be a low probability affair, I will take a look at who the Cubs could be selling soon.
There are two obvious selling chips for the Cubs: Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly, both of whom have $13 million contracts expiring at the end of the season. Lilly would be a perfect “sell high” candidate. His 4.75 xFIP and 4.47 FIP are masked by a shiny 3.42 ERA and .234 BABIP. Lilly’s strikeouts are down and walks are up, which is unsurprising out of a 34 year old starter. Given that the Cubs could easily slide Tom Gorzelanny (2.80 FIP, 3.59 xFIP as a stater) into Lilly’s spot, the Cubs should move Lilly now if they can.
The situation with Lee isn’t quite as simple. He’s been hitting poorly this season, only posting a .327 wOBA, but much of that is based on a .268 BABIP. At 35, there’s no guarantee that this is all luck, and so there will almost certainly be some trepidation among teams looking for help at 1B. It’s likely that he’s still a good fielder, as his +4 UZR to date agrees with his +9.4 combined score from the last two seasons, so there is still some value here. Also, the potential replacements in Xavier Nady, Chad Tracy, and Micah Hoffpauir aren’t exactly desirable for even half of a down season, if it comes to that. Right now, the Cubs should hold their cards and hope that Lee can build up some value before the deadline.
Ryan Theriot’s name has been bandied about in trade rumors recently as well. Theriot is a 30 year old but still has two years of arbitration left. However, his productivity has sharply dove since a solid 2008 season, to the point where his walk rate of 4.9% is less than half that of his 3.2 WAR 2008. His ground balls are way up (56.1% this season), leading to far less power – his ISO of .030 is down 55 points from last season. ZiPS suggests a partial turnaround is possible. Theriot’s value is low right now, but if a desperate team for middle infield help comes calling, the Cubs should deal, as given Theriot’s age, there’s no guarantee that he returns to the form that compiled 5.6 WAR in 2008 and 2009.
On The Farm
The Cubs farm system has vastly improved in recent years, as shown by the graduations of Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner and Starlin Castro this season. Hak-Ju Lee also shows great promise at SS, and should form the middle infield of the future with Castro. Josh Vitters is a 20 year old 3B with talent to burn despite struggling at AA so far this season. Overall, Beyond the Boxscore’s composite farm system rankings has the Cubs 10th, with six top-100 prospects.
If the Cubs do end up buying, they likely won’t be able to add much in the way of salary, particularly in long term deals. The $144 million opening day number was the highest in team history, and the team has two very expensive and likely untradeable contracts on hand until 2012 and 2014 respectively in the forms of Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. On the other hand, selling on Lee and Lilly could give some short term salary relief which could allow the team to be more aggressive next winter.
Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.