Chicago Cubs: Not this year either


Pitcher Calvin Koonce

Cal Koonce signed in 1961 and needed only 22 minor-league games to reach the majors. He won 10 games as a 21-year-old rookie in 1962 and the Cubs expected big things; Koonce never won that many again. Was 6-3 with a 4.99 ERA for the 1969 Miracle Mets, though he didn't appear in the postseason. Career totals: 47-49 with a 3.78 ERA. Died in 1993 at age 52.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: If ex-general manager Jim Hendry had drafted, groomed and built the Cubs around more players like Brett Jackson, he might still have the job. The Cubs’ offense was 29th in walks in 2011, but they wouldn’t have been had Jackson played for them. He has a career .393 on-base percentage in the minors, 101 points greater than his batting average, has power (20 homers in 2011), speed (21 steals), defense, and a high strikeout rate. Jackson looks like a poor man’s version of Grady Sizemore nearly a decade ago; the Cubs can only hope he’s a healthier version. They deigned to recall Jackson last year, even after trading Kosuke Fukodome, because there’s no such thing as too much of Reed Johnson. Unless the Cubs’ new regime wants to alienate fans or doesn’t care about being popular, that won’t be an option this year.

What is this man doing here? In the last 216.1 major-league innings Andy Sonnanstine has pitched, he’s given up 254 hits, 40 home runs, hit 10 batters and compiled a 6.18 ERA. We’re not sure about the Cubs, but where we come from, that constitutes a trend. Sonnanstine is a soft-tossing righty who won 13 games for the Rays’ AL pennant winners in 2008 but hasn’t won that many in the three seasons since. Sonnanstine doesn’t warrant an invitation to camp, let alone a spot on the Cubs’ 40-man roster — which he holds. If he spends much time in Chicago, Cubs fans will be nostalgic for the good old days of Carlos Silva.

What he said: New Cubs manager Dale Sveum on the new expanded playoff system: “The more teams you can get in the playoffs, the better it is.What he meant: “We’re going to need about eight more wild cards before we’re in contention. When it’s us and the Pirates for the last spot, watch us then.”

Outlook: The Cubs lost 91 games in 2011, and they’re worse this year. That seems pretty obvious about a team which will replace Carlos Pena with Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo and Aramis Ramirez with either Ian Stewart or Josh Vitters.

Anybody can have a bad century, as Cubs fans like to say about a franchise which hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, but the new one isn’t starting so well, either.

And yet what’s important about the Cubs now isn’t 2012, but the business plan Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have put into place. And it’s too soon to condemn that.

The Cubs weren’t lured into spending big money on Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder; either of those signings would have won the franchise more attention than it did games. The Cubs’ offseason transactions were mostly about giving up more value now for greater potential in the future. They all may not work, but the Cubs won’t be missing out on a parade in 2017 because they don’t have Sean Marshall.

The Cubs are a bad team in 2012 — the only reason to be optimisic is because they’re in the same division with the Astros and Pirates. The starting pitching tapers off quickly, the bullpen will be overworked and undertalented, and the third basemen will approach 200 strkeouts without Mark Reynolds’ home run total (LaHair might be just fine at first). Shortstop Starlin Castro, the team’s best young player, might start the season with a sexual assault accusation left unresolved.

The Cubs haven’t lost 100 games in 46 years. If they trade pitcher Matt Garza, they might. But the new regime counsels patience, and it’s right. After 103 years, what’s a couple more?

Team song: Chicago: Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

Suggested title: Does Any Cubs Fan Really Know What Year It is?

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