Historically I'm a huge fan of the Hot Stove season. It's nice to cultivate ridiculous fantasies, such as the Cubs rebuilding in a swift series of moves centering around the acquisition of talented young players for Chicago's crappy crop of minor leaguers who might develop into the next Luis Montanez if they're lucky.
In this case, not only am I an extremely premature fantasizer* but I get to tack on the added unrealism based on the fact that the Cubs don't even have a General Manager to execute these incredibly bold, unrealistic moves. Nevertheless, once the Cubs finalize the acquisition of Theo Epstein**, I'm sure he'll scour the blogs and stumble across this incredibly useful, insightful post.*** On the off chance that his celebratory drunkeness**** leaves him vulnerable to suggestion, I will commence with my shortlist now.
(*which in and of itself is a very awkward situation whenever I imagine what it'd be like to go on a date with Scarlett Johansson
**may not happen
***may be a sarcastic, self-hating remark
****and/or his moment of remorse/clarity/despair upon realizing on what he has actually embarked)
A (somewhat lengthy) Shortlist for Improvement - Part 1: Hitting
1. It's the hitting, stupid
Or, more appropriately, the walking. Scratch that - it's the whole damned process. Like many of the teams constructed by Jim Hendry, the 2011 Cubs lacked one essential component - a successful hitting strategy. Any good strategy also includes a ridiculous amount of plate discipline. Take a pitch. Hell, take 4. Walk to first. Cause havoc for the opposition.
All of these things are done exceedingly well by teams that regularly win the World Series. Jim Hendry, though, was always a tools guy. He wanted fast, gifted hitters who, uh, hit the ball and ran around a lot. Jim's moment of clarity never occurred - even now, the Cubs minor league system is littered with talented hitters who never actually learned how to have a successful major league at bat. (This is why I will later in this article advocate for the brutal firing of every Chicago Cubs minor league scout and coach.)
In any case, the 2011 Cubs seemed to forget how to take walks. Even players who have historically shown remarkable discipline at the plate decided that this was the year to change it up and swing at every close pitch. Consequently, the Cubs had 1 guy with more than 46 walks on the team this year - Carlos Pena, who apparently plugged his ears and chanted "la la la" anytime Mike Quade tried to give him batting advice. Nobody else showed any amount of discipline. Aramis Ramirez walked 43 times. Starlin Castro - y'know, the leadoff guy - walked 35 times. The unfortunately-named Darwin Barney walked 22 times.
By trade or free agency, the Cubs need to fix that. They also need to consider reassessing what they teach their hitters at all levels. Personally, I'd just post a chart in every minor league clubhouse. On this chart would be the statistics of the top money earners in the game, with their seasonal walks average in bold. (Although I'd omit any Cub from that list. It doesn't count if you don't draw walks and make a ton of money if the guy who signed you is apparently functionally brain dead.)
Of course, walks by and of themselves mean nothing. But take a gander at the Cubs 2011 line, and their opponents. In this season, Chicago had a team batting average of .256 and a team OBP of .314. That's a net difference of 58 points. Their opponents had a team batting average of .262 and a team OBP of .335. This is a net difference of 73 points. So with a batting average that was 6 points better, the Cubs were outscored 708 to 610 - by nearly 100 runs. Sure, there are other factors to look at, but we are literally talking about 98 more runs for the opposition on 16 more hits.
Thus, Mr. Epstein, and/or whatever poor sap agrees to run the Chicago Cubs, I am begging you, please, whatever you do, for the love of gawd, focus on hitters who can both take or crush a pitch. It's hardly rocket surgery. Let this be the first focus of your attempt to build a competitive 2012 Cubs.
And once you have that taken care of, let's talk about ...the bullpen.