2013 Cubs: This isn’t the year either, but you knew that


George Altman

There was a time in the early 1960s when George Altman was the best outfielder the Cubs had, better even than Billy Williams, who was the 1961 Rookie of the Year. Like Cubs’ fans’ hopes, Altman’s advantage over Williams didn’t last. But Altman hit .303, slugged .560, led the NL in triples with 12 and had a .913 OPS in 1961 (Williams hit .278 and slugged .484). Altman hit two homers in a game off Sandy Koufax, and his 96 RBIs led the Cubs — the only player other than Hall of Famers Williams, Ernie Banks or Ron Santo to lead the team in that category from 1955-73. Altman then hit .318 and slugged .511 in ’62 and the Cubs rewarded Altman by trading him. Altman never hit more than .274 or slugged more than .401 again. He ended his MLB career back with the Cubs in 1967, but played several years thereafter in Japan; he hit 205 home runs there in eight seasons. Altman was 26 when he debuted — he played in college at Tennessee State and in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs — and he was 42 when he retired in Japan. His nine-year career totals: a .269 average, 101 career home runs — 83 with the Cubs — a .761 OPS and a 12.9 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Javier Baez must be in a hurry to get the majors. It might explain why he swings at so many pitches. Baez is a 20-year shortstop who was the Cubs’ first pick in the 2011 draft, a native of Puerto Rico who prepped in Florida. He’s walked 14 times in 343 plate appearances, and his lack of patience is the only thing that could hinder his obvious skills: he slugged .543 in 2012, batted .294 and stole 24 bases in 29 attempts. But he fanned five times for every walk last year, and that was in two Class A leagues. Tom Glavine would never throw Baez a strike, and never walk him.

What is this man doing here? The Cubs are carrying three catchers, and since one of them is Dioner Navarro, that’s one more than they need. (The Cubs have room for Navarro but not Henry Blanco?) Navarro’s problem is simple: he can’t hit. Since 2008, when he hit .295 with a .757 OPS for the pennant-winning Rays, he hasn’t even been able to fake it. He batted .218 for the Rays in 2009 and couldn’t reach .200 in part-time duty the next two years. The Reds wisely limited him to 69 at-bats last year (in which Navarro had 2008 numbers). Navarro is in his 10th season, and in his first nine, he accumlated a 2.9 WAR. Total. He won’t add much to it this year.

What he said: Cubs manager Dale Sveum on struggling closer Carlos Marmol: “He’s still the closer. I’m not making any changes or anything like that . . .” What he meant: “You’re in a fantasy league where saves count? This might be a good time to pick up Kyuji Fujikawa.”

Outlook: The city of Chicago and the Cubs are reportedly near agreement on a half-billion dollar deal to rehab Wrigley Field. If only fixing the Cubs was so easy. Or so cheap.

Owners of the rooftops in nearby Wrigleyville aren’t happy with the deal, claiming it will block their view of the field. They have a point. And a contract.

Too bad their view wasn’t obstructed when they had to watch Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million). Or Milton Bradley (three years, $30 million). Or Kosuke Fukodome (four years, $48 million). Or Jeff Blauser (two years, $8-plus million). If Al Capone was around, he’d realize he was in the wrong racket in the wrong time.

The Cubs lost 101 games in 2012. They won’t lose too many less this year. But as bad as at seems, Cubs fans have seen worse: from 1947-62 they never saw a winning season, and the Cubs lost 90 games at least nine times (and 89, in a 154-game season, twice).

As those Cubs fans know, if “hope” is the thing with feathers, it’s good to remember that feathers often shed.

The Cubs of 2013 don’t inspire much of the former. They’re bad, last-place, 100-loss bad. The pitching is ordinary — they won’t look as good against teams other than the Pirates — and their saver needs saving. Good thing is, Marmol won’t hurt them too much because there won’t be much to save.

Half the infield (second and third) is AAAA level or below and the outfield is a collection of half-parts.

Braves general manager Frank Wren actually yelled at the Cubs Friday because they were on the field when the Braves wanted to practice. Any thinking GM knows the best thing you can do with the Cubs is keep them on the field as opponents.

The more important issue is whether, and when, the Cubs might actually improve. The answer is someday, even if John Fogerty thinks it may never come.

It will. The farm system is ranked 11th by minorleagueball.com and that’s with just one draft by Theo Epstein. Most of the longtime remnants of Jim Hendry’s organization are floundering: outfielder Brett Jackson couldn’t beat out Nate Schierholtz or Dave Sappelt and is back at AAA; outfielder Matt Szczur is back at AA.

But the low levels of the system have plenty of feathers. Thirty-million dollars spent on outfielder Jorge Soler looks like a far better investment than anything spent on David DeJesus; last year’s No. 1 pick Albert Almora hit .321 at age 18 in two short-season leagues (he’s sidelined by a broken bone); and Dan Vogelbach, the second-round pick in Hendry’s last draft, hit .322 and slugged .641 in the 2012 short season. He’s only 20. And maybe, just maybe, someone can encourage Baez to take a pitch.

There’s not nearly as much pitching, but Epstein has only had one draft. It’s going to take more than that to fix a 105-year-old problem.

Team song: Creedence Clearwater Revival: Someday Never Comes

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