Cubs manager Lou Piniella tried to put an optimistic spin on the season in his final words after being swept out of the playoffs last weekend. "This is just a start, fellas. We're gonna get better," he told reporters in the Wrigley Field media interview room after the third game. "We'll reconvene next spring and take this thing further." The Cubs went from worst to first in the National League Central Division in Uncle Lou's first year, true enough, but is there just cause to believe that upswing will continue, and not be just a one-year mirage, the way it was in 2003 -- and 1998 and 1989 and 1984?
The Cubs are not a young team. On the pitching staff we can expect continued improvement for Rich Hill and Sean Marshall, and perhaps Carlos Marmol will move up to closer after looking overworked as a middle reliever at the end of the season. One can expect more consistency from "ace" Carlos Zambrano, and perhaps, just maybe, a full season for Kerry Wood. But this season Ted Lilly was as good as he's ever likely to be (up to his implosion in the playoffs), and Jason Marquis will never be reliable. On the offensive side, Geovany Soto looks ready to be the starting catcher after being named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific Coast League, but otherwise Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano are all at or near peak levels with little room for improvement, which can also be said of Mark DeRosa, Jacque Jones, and, should he return, Cliff Floyd. Felix Pie has a hole in his swing and may never be ready for the majors, and even Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, the little players who could and did this year, might have maxed out. Most painfully, the Arizona Diamondbacks revealed in the playoffs how easy it was to attack overaggresssive hitters like Soriano and Ramirez, and even Piniella admitted before that third game he couldn't change a leopard's spots on that count.
Even worse, the Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies are both showing in the National League Championship Series what true, homegrown talent looks like (even if Chris Young isn't homegrown but was spirited away from the White Sox in the trade for Javier Vazquez). In the Cubs' own division, the Milwaukee Brewers still have the best young talent core in the majors, and having come so close this year they figure to shore up their pitching staff beyond Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo. Even the lowly Cincinnati Reds are restocking on the quick, with Jay Bruce and Joey Votto and pitcher Homer Bailey set to join a team that already includes the fearsome Adam Dunn, Brandon Phillips, and, yes, Ken Griffey Jr., just as the Cubs' discarded Dusty Baker is being mentioned as a managerial candidate. At this point, they look like the Brewers of next season.
The Cubs aren't just going to have to get better next year, they're going to have to get a lot better just to get to the playoffs, much less advance. Will whoever eventually buys the Cubs be ready to throw another $300 million to general manager Jim Hendry to improve the team again over the off-season?