The Lee-Ramirez-Zambrano Cubs
Reader dcf (he of the Ron Santo for the Hall pieces from a few years back) stops by with a guest column on the Lee-Ramirez-Zambrano years
The August 18th trade of Derrek Lee to the Braves for three minor league pitching prospects represents not only the end of an era, but also the end (and to some extent the failure) of a long term strategy. For some time, the Cubs have built their team around three core players, Lee, Zambranoand Ramirez, allocating a large percentage of their available salary dollars to these players in long term contracts. This strategy has not yielded the results anyone would have hoped for.
On November 23, 2003, the Cubs acquired Lee from the Florida Marlins, that year’s World Series champion, for Mike Nannini and Hee-Seop Choi. Earlier that year, on July 23, 2003, the Cubs had acquired Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and cash from the Pirates for Matt Bruback, Jose Hernandez and a player to be named later (who turned out to be Bobby Hill). These were sound trades. At the time, Lee was 28 years old and Ramirez was 25. They joined a team which included a then-22-year-old Carlos Zambrano, who had been promoted from the Cubs’ farm system.
At the beginning of the 2006 season, the Cubs signed Lee, then 30 years old and coming off a monster year in 2005 (with a batting title and 99 extra-base hits), to a five year, $65 million contract; that contract replaced a three year $22.5 million contract signed in January, 2004. After the 2006 season, the Cubs signed Ramirez, then 28 years old, to a five year, $75 million contract (which includes a club option for a sixth year); that contract replaced a four year $42 million contract signed at the beginning of the 2005 season. After the 2007 season, the Cubs signed Zambrano, then 26 years old, to a five year, $91.5M contract (which includes a 2013 player vesting option).
The Cubs’ opening day payroll for the current year was $144.359 million. That amount represented the third highest team payroll in the majors, exceeded only by those of the Yankees and Red Sox, and the highest in the National League. The Cubs were committed to pay almost 54% of that amount ($77.625 million) to five players: Lee ($13 million), Ramirez ($15.75 million), Zambrano ($17.875 million), in addition to Alfonso Soriano ($18 million), signed after the 2006 season, and Kosuke Fukodome ($13 million), signed after the 2007 season, each of whom was added arguably to augment the existing Lee-Ramirez-Zambrano core. To put this figure in context, the amount the Cubs were committed to pay those five players was greater than the total opening day team payrolls of 12 major league clubs, including those of the Reds, Padres and Marlins. Approximately a third of their total 2010 opening day salary was committed to Lee, Ramirez and Zambrano.
So how well did this work? Over the last five years, when the decisions were made to extend long term contracts to these players, the results were mixed at best. On the one hand, the Cubs won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. On the other hand, the Cubs did not win a playoff game in either year, 2006 was a disaster, 2009 a disappointment, and 2010 a catastrophe. On the whole, however, I am of the view that the strategy was a decent one that, for various reasons, just did not work out, rather than being a poor strategy from its inception.
Some general observations:
1) Injuries have made a big difference. Lee and Ramirez have battled injuries this year which, despite Lee’s attempts not to use them as an excuse, seem to have negatively affected their performance. Lee’s severe wrist injury in 2006 cost him a lot of time that season and may have contributed to his relatively poor years in 2007 and 2008. Ramirez has not been a terribly durable player for the Cubs: he has missed extensive time this year, lost half the season in 2009 to a dislocated shoulder, and only played in 123 games in 2005 and 132 games in 2007. In fact, Ramirez has played in 150 games or more just three times since 2001 and just once with the Cubs. Zambranohas not had any one significant injury, but in 2008 and 2009 had his lowest number of games started, and lowest numbers of innings pitched, since his rookie year. He had rotator cuff tendinitis in 2008, and a pulled hamstring and lower back pain (and an epidural) at separate times in 2009. His disciplinary (and anger management) issues this year do not fall within the category of “injury” but have caused significant time off.
2) The Level of Performance has fallen short of expectations. I would argue that none of these players has consistently performed at a level that the Cubs would have expected given the amount of their salaries, even if you discount the poor years that all of them are having in 2010. None of them has been among the best players in the league or in baseball at his position since signing their large contracts. Lee was an MVP candidate in 2005. He has not been one since. Even in 2009, which was his best year since 2006, he ranked behind Pujols, Gonzalez and Fielder in WAR and behind Pujols, Fielder and Votto in OPS. In 2007, he was behind Pujols, Fielder, Cabrera, Dunn, Helton and Howard in OPS. In 2008, he was 10th among NL first basemen in OPS.
During the five years prior to his big contract following the 2007 season, Zambrano went 77-45 with an ERA of 3.30 and an ERA+ of 136. Over that period, he threw 1077 innings, averaged 33 starts a year and had a WAR of 22.2. Since his 2007 contract, he’s gone 27-19 with a 4.08 ERA and an ERA+ of 111. He started 30 games in 2008, 28 in 2009 and only has 13 starts this year. His aggregate WAR over that period is 5.9.
In the four years prior to Ramirez’s 2006 deal, he had an aggregate WAR of 11.8. Since then, his aggregate WAR is 9. Ramirez had good years in both 2007 and 2008, but David Wright and Chipper Jones were both better at the plate in each of those years.
So what did the Cubs expect? Well, Zambrano is the fourth highest paid starting pitcher in baseball by average annual value, behind only Sabathia, Santana and Halladay. Ramirez is the second highest paid third baseman in baseball by average annual value, behind only A-Rod. Lee is the eighth highest paid first baseman. (For all salary rankings, see http://mlbcontracts.blogspot.com/2000/05/most-lucrative-contracts.html; I disregarded Cabrera’s ranking as third baseman and listed him at first). In all of these instances, there are players at the same position well below these three in terms of salary that have out-performed them. Ramirez has been a good player, and a relatively consistent performer when he has been in the line-up, but has not been consistently one of the best at his position, which is what the Cubs are paying him to be. Lee and Zambrano have done worse than Ramirez has against their position peers.
3) Was the Strategy Sound? Hindsight is 20-20, but I believe that the strategy of building a team around Lee, Ramirez and Zambranowas a decent decision that has gone horribly awry due to circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable. If you had the chance to build your team around two power-hitting corner infielders and a number one starter, would you do it? The Cubs went for it.
At the time these contracts were signed, all were under 30 years of age. While injury is to some extent an occupational hazard of all athletes, Lee’s severe injury in 2006 was simply unlucky. Zambrano was a horse with perhaps high mileage on him, but was a true number one starter that had consistently taken the ball and won. It is true that Ramirez had a somewhat checkered injury history at the time he signed his last contract, but he had been a consistent power hitter.
I would argue that it was not reasonably foreseeable that all three players would have simultaneously played as badly as they have in 2010.
4) The Downside. To some extent, the performance of Lee, Ramirez and Zambrano illustrate a risk inherent in a strategy like the Cubs’. When you commit guaranteed high-dollar contracts to people that don’t perform, particularly a number of people that don’t perform, you have severely limited options. Lee, Ramirez and Zambrano have been essentially replacement level (or slightly above) all year long and the Cubs have not been able to replace the lost production. As noted above, over half of the Cubs’ payroll was allocated to these three players plus Fukudome and Soriano, who also have not set the world ablaze this year.
5) What to do next? A lot may depend on whether Ramirez and Zambrano can rebound and have decent years. That’s a lot to hope for. Their contracts are such that it may be difficult to move them without the Cubs agreeing to defray salary.
The other thing that the Cubs could do is look to add players through free agency using the salary flexibility that they have obtained by moving the Lee and Lilly contracts off their books. The committed dollars for 2011 look like this: Soriano $19 million; Zambrano $18.875 million; Ramirez, $14.6 million; Fukudome $14.5 million; Dempster $14.5 million; Silva $12.75 million (with Seattle paying $5.5 million); Byrd $5.5 million; Samardzija $3.5 million; and Grabow $4.8 million. That’s $102.525 million. Of the remaining players, the contracts of the following arbitration-eligible players are up: Marmol (currently at $2.125 million), Marshall ($950G), Soto ($575G), Baker ($975G), Gorzelanny($800G), Guzman ($825G) and Hill ($700). Colvin ($401G), Wells ($427G) and DeWitt $410G) have contracts expiring but are not arbitration-eligible. It depends on what the Cubs’ appetite is, but they could add players. Whether they can add the right ones remains to be seen.