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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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