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Cubs top 5 post 1980 teams

Cubs top 5 post 1980 teams

Co-Written by Tom Loxas and John Arguello

The other day a tweet caught my attention about the 2008 Cubs being the best team in a 40-year-old Cub fan’s lifetime. I thought otherwise.

John and I decided to take a break from the 2012 team. We limited the pool of teams to those since 1980 and we came up with our list of top 5 Cubs teams that could have broken the championship drought.

1984

Why they were great: Led by a GM (Dallas Green) with a vision and some guts, Green went after a championship while simultaneously rebuilding the entire organization. He acquired a true #1 pitcher leading an overhauled veteran staff. Rick Sutcliffe was dominant (16-1) and maybe only Mark Prior for the 2003 Cubs could compare. This team had speed and OBP at the top and plenty of run producers in the middle of the lineup. The 84 Cubs had veteran leadership with Ron Cey, Larry Bowa, and Gary Matthews and enough young players in their prime in Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Dernier, Jody Davis and Leon Durham (best Cubs LH power hitter of my lifetime) to give hope for the future.

Why they fell short: Not sure how they won 96 games with suspect defense in both corner outfield positions and the left side of the infield (Cey and Bowa) covered as much ground as your sofa. The bullpen was good but not shutdown quality, though I will take Lee Smith atop all of the closers on the other teams. After getting off to a 2-0 lead, the weight of 76 years of expectations may have been too much.  The Cubs failed to sustain leads in each of the last 3 games and fell just short of the World Series. Manager Jim Frey made some questionable decisions on the NLCS, something Cubs fans became familiar with.

By the numbers: The 84 Cubs were well-balanced, finishing 2nd in the league in HRs and 4th in SBs.  They also did well by more modern day metrics, ranking 2nd in OBP and OPS. On the mound, they gave up the fewest walks in the NL.

1989 

Why they were great: This was one of those years where all the stars seemed to align.  A young pitcher named Greg Maddux was breaking out while veteran Cub great Rick Sutcliffe matched him nearly pitch for pitch. Journeyman Mike Bielecki came out of nowhere to win 18 games. In the bullpen, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams closed the door 35 times despite 52 walks in 81 innings.  The offense was led by Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace, though Andre Dawson had his worst year as a Cub. Role players such as top 2 NL rookies Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith made some key contributions and manager Don Zimmer kept things moving on the bases. The Cubs seemed to get clutch hits from everyone, particularly Luis Salazar and Lloyd McClendon.

Why they fell short: Will Clark.  That and their luck simply ran out. The creative baserunning suddenly seemed to create more outs than runs and the clutch play mysteriously vanished.  An inexperienced Maddux struggled in the postseason while the veteran starters  just seemed to run out of steam.  It was as if the clock struck midnight and the Cubs quickly found themselves right back where they were the year before, a rag-tag team watching the postseason from their living rooms.

By the Numbers: The Cubs didn’t have star power, but the entire roster chipped in and it all added up to some impressive numbers (relative to the era) on offense.  They were 2nd in the NL in OBP  and 1st in OPS while the team finished 6th in ERA.

 2003

Why they were great: Led by the new Cubs “messiah” Dusty Baker, this team had young power arms galore. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement became a formidable bunch. A deadline deal finally brought the Cubs a young slugging third baseman (Aramis Ramirez) and a playoff tested lead off man (Kenny Lofton). Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou could still carry the line up and role players like Mark Grudzielanek were key. This team ultimately came the closest.

Why they fell short: They really didn’t have a left-handed run producer, (Randall Simon doesn’t count) though Jim Hendry tried to acquire Rafael Palmeiro (he used 5/10 rights). The bullpen was extremely thin after journeyman closer Joe Borowski. Dusty Baker made some major blunders in games 6 and 7, notably using Dave Veres in an elimination game while starters Zambrano and Clement were at his disposal, meanwhile Marlins Manager Jack McKeon pulled out all the stops. Once again Cubdom got spooked when an eventful foul ball spelled gloom and doom for the supposed cursed franchise just 5 outs away from the World Series.

By the numbers:

Although this is the team that came closest to the World Series, it is perhaps the biggest overachiever on this list. Bill James' Pythagorean Record suggested this was an 85 win team, which would have missed the playoffs. The team ranked near the bottom of the NL in OBP (13th) and slugging (11th). They weren't particularly powerful (8th in HRs) or fast (10th in SBs). They made it based on their young power pitching which ranked 3rd in ERA, 2nd in hits allowed,complete games, and shutouts while ranking at the very top in strikeouts.

2004

Why they were great: This team had the most young, athletic line-up out of all these teams. Newly acquired Derek Lee and Ramirez gave the Cubs power at the corners. Corey Patterson was an up an coming star in center, and they also had a new offensive catcher in Michael Barrett. Jim Hendry also added former Cub great Greg Maddux to an already stacked starting pitching staff from the previous season. Hendry also added a premier set up man (La Troy Hawkins), valuable bench pieces (Todd Hollandsworth,  Glendon Rusch), and ultimately superstar shortstop Nomar Garicaparra in what was the biggest deadline deal in Cubs history.

 Why they fell short: The pitching staff started to fall apart. Injuries to Prior and Wood kept the Cubs from their potential. The team had too many distractions with a declining superstar (Sosa) worrying about his line up position, and players (Alou and Mercker) and the manager (Baker) fighting with broadcasters. With closer Borowski going down, Baker turned to Hawkins to be his closer. An uncomfortable Hawkins helped choke away a seemingly wrapped up wild card spot. Easily, the most disappointing team on the list.

By the numbers: This is the opposite of the 2003 team. The 2004 squad underachieved relative to the talent it put out on the field.  The Pythagorean Record for this team was 94-68, which would have put them in the wild card spot over the Houston Astros. Despite all of their issues on and off the field, the Cubs had enough talent to make a run had they made the playoffs.

2008

Why they were great: OBP.  Hitting coach Gerald Perry taught a new approach at the plate while newcomer Kosuke Fukudome showed the way early.  It was a rare sight for Cubs fans as their players grinded out ABs, worked the count, drew walks, and ran up pitch counts on opposing starters.  The Cubs didn't have one big masher but had power up and down the lineup as 6 of the 8 regulars (Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Mark DeRosa, Geovany Soto, and Jim Edmonds) hit between 19 and 29 HRs.  The staff and bullpen, led by familiar vets Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and closer Kerry Wood were good, but they lacked a dominant pitcher outside of maybe set up man Carlos Marmol.

Why they fell short: The Cubs were too RH dominant and were exposed by the RH dominant pitching staff of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  They abandoned their plate approach, drawing just 7 walks in the playoffs -- less than the Dodgers drew in the first game alone as the pitching staff was a far cry from the one that ranked 3rd in ERA during the regular season.

By the numbers: Using the Pythagorean Record again, this was the best Cubs team on paper from this list (98-64).  The team ranked first in walks and total bases, first in OBP (.354), first in slugging (.443), first in OPS (.797) which all added up to ranking first in runs scored. The staff in the meantime, allowed the second fewest runs as they led the league in strikeouts and fewest hits allowed.  On paper, this is the team that should have broken the World Series drought.

Filed under: Cubs Nostalgia

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  • I voted 1984, but realistically, if Andy MacPhail would have let Jim Hendry sign Pudge in the winter of 2002/2003, the Curse of the Billy Goat would have been gone...It's like I tell everyone, the Cubs aren't cursed by goats or black cats or Bartman..they've been cursed by ignorant management...Imagine the 1989 Cubs with Lee Smith closing and Palmiero and Moyer still in the fold..2004 may be the biggest disappointment of all cause they did try to win but Dustdick showed his incompetence, like he will for the Reds this year..That infield with Ram, Nomar, Walker and Lee was incredible, no reason to blow a 3.5 game lead with a week left, except for Dusty.

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    I say something similar in that I always say the curse for the Cubs has been the curse of bad ownership. It seems like every Cubs owner has always been better at marketing than anything else, especially the Wrigleys and the Tribune.

    Management hasn't been much better. The trade of Smith was so unnecessary and wound up igniting a series of moves that put the Cubs behind for a decade. Jim Frey was the worst GM of my time.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah Frey, esp with the drafts. However, Himes gives him a run for his money.

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Totally agree with the Pudge non-signing, he would have led that team to a title rather than the Marlins.

    I also fee the same way about Kenny Lofton and the 2004 squad, why they didn't bring him back to platoon with Paterson who was coming back from that knee injury he suffered going into 1st base in 2003 always baffles me. The guy was so clutch in 2003 for them and they just blew him off that off season.

  • The 2008 was a huge disappointment. They were rolling during the season and then all of a sudden the playoffs came and season was quickly over.

  • In reply to cubsfan4life:

    Statistically, they were the best team on this list. They were the best team in the NL, if not all of baseball, all season. Then the playoffs came and they laid a huge egg. The unique thing for me about 2008 is it's the only team where I thought midseason, "forget the division, this team is good enough to win the whole thing". I loved 84 too, but the Tigers were the best team in baseball that year. 08 was the season where the Cubs quite possibly had the best team in baseball.

  • In reply to cubsfan4life:

    Scout told me back then. If you think Soriano is going to see a fastball in the playoffs, think again.

  • I'm showing my age but 1984 was the best Cubs team in my memory. Top to bottom they had a complete team , starting pitching , great relief, power , speed and defense. After the Tigers, the Cubs had the best team in baseball, which makes the choke against the Padres even more painful.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    I'm with you Steve, though the #'s say 08, my eyes say 84.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Even though the 08 club looks better on paper, when you watched the 84 team you KNEW that etam was very good.

  • No Cubs team has ever made me angrier than the 2004 edition. The name "Kent Mercker" still angries up the blood. They were the best collection of talent in the National League and missed the postseason because they were collectively soft in the head.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Eddie, Dusty screwed that team up..That team under a competent manager makes the postseason and goes really far...I rememeber blowing a 3.5 game lead basically against a crappy Mets and even crappier Reds team with a week left...Hendry began a trend that would lead to his demise, he cowered to his manager and basically madehim a lame duck for 2 more years and wasted 3 good arms for Juan Pierre in desperation.Dusty should have been removed from that team the day afte rthe season ended....It's a shame he couldn't keep people accountable..Mercker never would have pulled that shit under Bobby Cox, no doubt in my mind..

  • In reply to Eddie:

    I remember Mike Wilbon telling me that Dusty was doing a "wretched" job with the most talent in the NL that summer.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    The worst year of managing a team in my memory, right down to the last week.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I was in NYC for the Mets series... I almost lost my mind.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Easily the most underachieving team on this list, hands down. When Tom originally approached me with this idea I was looking at teams since 1969 and the only team that may have underachieved worse were the 1970 Cubs. On paper they where better than the more famed 69 team.

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    This is a tough question. I'd say '84 was my favorite of these, but that's maybe because that was the year I really fell for the Cubs (I was 9). But as painful as the collapse to the Padres was, there was no way they were going to beat the Tigers that year. In hindsight, though, a WS appearance sure would've been nice, since it's now been another 27 years...

    I'd have to say the best team was '08. Like you said, that was the team (on paper) that should've been able to make a run. They were solid top to bottom. The one thing that team lacked was a true #1 starter (though Dempster put up ace #'s in his career year).

    I really didn't like the '04 team, as much talent as they had. I don't know what it was (or maybe it's just the memory of the collapse along with all the clubhouse fighting and injuries), but I really couldn't like that team. I was rooting for them until the bitter end though.

    I was living in ATL and attended game 1 of the NLDS in '03. That was WS atmosphere for me. By far the best game I've ever been to. Unfortunately, I couldn't make game 5 cause I had a gig in Greenville.

    Hopefully we'll all get something more exciting than just winning a playoff series very soon!

  • In reply to brober34:

    An argument to be made for all teams here, I think. So many "what ifs"!

    The 08 team was undoubtedly the best one on paper, so there's a strong argument there. I feel the same about 1984 because that was the one team that had those veteran pieces and star power, but man those Tigers were tough that year.

  • That was fun!! Thanks for bringing back some great memories, and I guess some tough ones too, lol. Being in H.S. with that '84 team and full of testosterone, the Cubs just seemed invincible that year.
    I 'm not a Hendry worshipper, but this article shows that he assembled some pretty good teams with a good chance to break the W.S. curse. He filled holes in the offseason and tried to fill others at the deadline. If it wasn't for some injuries, underperforming players, and maybe "bad luck", that guy could have been a legend right now. I suppose that could be said about other GMs and teams too, but it wasn't from a lack of trying, which was the problem in some decades of the past.

  • In reply to Bill:

    Hendry did a remarkable job before the 2004 season. It was a team that should have been right there.

  • In 2004, Jim Callis wrote, "Picking the Athletics to beat the Cubs in the 2004 World Series doesn't require a great leap of faith. Both have formidable pitching staffs and are coming off playoff appearances a year ago."
    After 2003, we made great moves. We were on our way, and then BAM! It all went away in a puff of smoke. I voted for this team, because they were the most talented IMO. I liked the 2008 team but there was something about them that made me think they couldn't do it. Maybe it was 2007, I don't know.
    Great article. I was going to go to therapy, but now I see the answer for all of my troubles is my allegiance to the Cubs. Change is on the horizon though, and the future looks bright!

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    Funny, now I always worried about 08. We had too many free swingers in the playoffs, no real LH hitter (Edmonds had faded) and terrible up the middle d.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    Haha! I'm glad this article was therapeutic for you. 2004 team getting some votes today. No doubt they were among the most talented teams on this list.

  • I lived through all of these teams and the ultimate disappoitment that come with each, as well as the great diappointment of 1969, hence my moniker.

    Although I never cared for Dusty, even when he was the managet in SF (I live in the bay area and have heard many a gripe about his mgmt sytle from angry giant fans), I have always struggled attributing blame to a manager for a teams inability to win. Yes, I realize he bears the responsibility for the crap that happened off the field, but between the lines, the team failed. I realize he made the call to install Hawkins as the closer, but we will never know if he had chsoen another path if the results would have been any diffferent.
    For the record, my favirote team to watch was the 1989 team. Loved the mix of veterans and youth and I really thought we had turned the corner. I have never gotten over the tumble that both Walton and Smith's careers took afte the magic of 1989. I thought both were going to good for a long time, and was wrong on both fronts.
    I always followed both in hopes that the careers coudl be resurrected after leaving Chicago, but both really flamed out as players.

  • In reply to JK1969:

    That 89 team was fun. They were aggressive on the bases, they had a big infusion of youth along with many players still in their prime (Sandberg, Grace). That was a team you thought could keep building except for one thing...Jim Frey as GM. His dismantling of Dallas Green's foundation was perhaps more spectacular than the Green's re-build itself.

  • Frey and Baker, enough said.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Jim Frey is proof that if the people above like you, you'll always have a job. I can't believe the Cubs made Frey a GM.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I thought he managed pretty well in 84 until the playoffs. He should have went with Sut in game 4 and went to Eck and Trout in game 5.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    I'm okay with him as a manager, but he had no business being a GM. That's a whole different set of baseball smarts.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Frey could manage...but like many coaches in the NFL, it often doesn't translate to the front office.

  • In reply to stork:

    Exactly.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    There are no two words in Cubs' history that I have more derision for than "Dusty" and "Baker". That's all I can say. "Larry" and "Himes" are a close second...for letting Greg Maddux walk.

  • In reply to stork:

    Yes and Stanton Cook was also highly responsible for Maddux.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Stanton Cook is still alive and living in Evanston... May he eventually burn is hell.

  • My sense is that Frey was an excellent handler of personalites and could help a guy see how he could be more (Sandberg being the best example, and as Bill James pointed out, Frey is the guy who turned Dan Q into a closer while he managed KC). However, he was the most awful in game manager that I have ever watched don a Cub uniform. He had no business being the GM, but then the history of this franchise is littered with many bad decisions - his hiring as GM is just another footnote in that book.

  • '84 I won't have much insight into because I was 9 and that's the team that brought me to the Cubs. Those guys are like greek gods to me. No idea why we didn't win 1 of those last 3 games. I'd say we got too cocky after beating them 13-0 in game 1, but then game 2 was a squeaker, so that doesn't add up.

    '89 is my team. Love that team. Ballsy, agressive, and one bad ass running game. Plus a 31 game hitting streak and two rookies both battling for rookie of the year? Definitely the most exciting Cubs team. (Mitch Williams alone.) Why'd we lose in the playoffs? Will bleepin' Clark.

    '03 was the little team that could. I love Dusty, he's a winner, and christ if that season isn't his Mona Lisa. A team with that bad a bullpen doesn't usually make the playoffs. Peeps forget how bad the bullpen was when talking about him overusing starting pitchers. (They forget how many innings pitchers used to pitch in the 40's, 50's and 60's too.) Why'd we lose in the playoffs? I can't remember.

    '04 we faced a better division but there were some bad moves in the offseason too that screwed up team chemistry. Michael Barrat was a bad hire. May not show in the numbers, but if we keep Damian Miller, we make the playoffs that year. Getting an over-the-hill Nomar was also a bone-headed move that did nothing for the team chemistry. And LaTroy Hawkins was like a deer in headlights, I don't care how many relatives he had nearby.

    '08 was such a great team during the regular season they started to bore me watching them, especially during the latter part of the season when they were pretty much assured a playoff spot. That was a new experience for this Cubs fan, and one I'll take every year. Why'd they lose in the playoffs? A combination of them choking under the pressure (the Chicago media being their worst enemy), the fact that in a 5 game series anyone can win, and Manny juicing.

    So who's the best? Day in and day out I'd take '08, for the playoffs I'd take '03 because of their starting pitching. But '89 could beat any of them on a good day and they're the team I'll be watching on a loop in heaven, hopefully rubbing Zim's head for luck.

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