Commentary

From zeroes to heroes

GM's deals helped Cubs turn fortunes around for one magical year

Originally Published: September 24, 2009
By David Schoenfield | ESPNChicago.com

On Aug. 2, 1977, the Cubs defeated the Reds 5-2, scoring five runs in the eighth inning after having two outs and no runners on. The Cubs were 62-42 and leading the National League East by 2½ games. But then the Phillies won 19 of their next 20 games, including a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field, and a month later the Cubs were 10½ out of first place. Capping off the collapse, the Cubs couldn't even finish with a winning record: They lost their final five games to end up 81-81.

And then things turned more sour than a Lou Piniella postgame news conference after Kevin Gregg has coughed up a ninth-inning lead.

The Cubs finished the next six seasons with losing records. They finished last or next-to-last in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983. They had two managers in 1979, two in 1980 and two in 1983, including one who told Cubs fans to get jobs and earn a living. Before the 1984 season, the Cubs hadn't finished above .500 since 1972. Truth is, even fans in Chicago didn't care much about the team. They had drawn less than 10,000 fans per game in 1981. In 1983, the Montreal Expos outdrew them by more than 10,000 fans per game.

[+] EnlargeSteve Trout
AP PhotoThe Cubs, including starter Steve Trout, weren't expected to do much in 1984. But they ended up surprising the experts.
It's not exactly surprising to learn then, especially considering the Cubs were entering 1984 with a rotation that included Dick Ruthven, Chuck Rainey and Steve Trout, that preseason prognosticators were not optimistic.

"They are, as usual, good-hit-no-pitch, although the addition of Scott Sanderson, acquired in a deal with Montreal, could help some," wrote Sports Illustrated, picking the Cubs to finish last.

"Not even coaching for the Mets prepared Jim Frey for the trouble he's seeing as manager of the Cubs," wrote The New York Times, which pointed out the Cubs lost 18 of their first 21 spring training games and picked them to finish last.

"Improvement is the ticket here, but please don't mention pennants," wrote The Christian Science Monitor.

So how in the name of Henry Cotto did the 1984 Cubs turn it around, win 96 games and make the postseason for the first time since 1945?

The old-fashioned way: By wheelin' and dealin'.

The 1983 Cubs were a terrible defensive team, second-worst in the majors according to Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency numbers. It's pretty easy to see why: They had a catcher (Keith Moreland) playing right field, a right fielder (Mel Hall) playing center and a first baseman (Leon Durham) playing left. It was, undoubtedly, one of the worst defensive outfields of the past 25 years.

The first move general manager Dallas Green made was trading reliever Craig Lefferts and prospect Carmelo Martinez (yet another lumbering left field/first base type) in a three-team deal that netted Sanderson, who had missed time with injury in 1983, but had a career 3.33 ERA over six seasons.

Late in spring training, Green traded reliever Bill Campbell and outfield prospect Mike Diaz to the Phillies for left fielder Gary Matthews and center fielder Bob Dernier. Green managed to move two parts he didn't need (Campbell was decent but past his prime, and Diaz was another slow-footed corner outfielder) and suddenly had transformed his outfield. Dernier hadn't hit much in two seasons with the Phillies but was a top-notch defensive outfielder, and Matthews, while nearing the end of his career, was still an effective hitter.

The move also allowed the team to move Durham, an All-Star in 1982 and 1983, to first base. The team had shopped Bill Buckner all winter but found no suitors and, for now, the fan favorite was relegated to the bench.

[+] EnlargeDennis Eckersley
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesEven though fans disagreed with it at first, the trade that brought Dennis Eckersley to Chicago was a key component in the Cubs' 1984 season.
The same day, Green dealt two minor leaguers to Oakland for veteran reliever Tim Stoddard, who had been awful with Baltimore in 1983 (6.09 ERA).

The trades turned out even better than anticipated. Dernier hit .278 and won a Gold Glove. Matthews led the NL with a .410 on-base percentage and finished fifth in the MVP voting. Stoddard pitched 92 innings, won 10 games and saved seven others.

Still, nobody expected those deals to turn the Cubs into contenders. But a funny thing happened: The Cubs won eight of nine games in late May and found themselves in first place by two games on May 25. That day, Green bolstered his rotation by finally finding a taker for Buckner.

Dennis Eckersley was a former All-Star who had lost some zip on his fastball. After posting a 5.61 ERA in 1983 and a 5.01 ERA through his first nine starts in 1984, the Red Sox had seen enough. The deal was unpopular in Chicago, as fans figured the team had traded for a washed-up starter.

But Eckersley was excellent after the trade, limiting the home runs that had affected him in recent seasons, and went 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA.

Green wasn't done. The offense was scoring runs and 24-year-old Ryne Sandberg had blossomed into a slick-fielding, power-hitting second baseman, but the rotation still had issues. By June 13, Opening Day starter Ruthven (5.65 ERA), veteran Rick Reuschel (5.07 ERA while trying to come back from shoulder surgery) and Rainey (4.01 ERA) were struggling. With Ruthven possibly out for the year with circulation problems in his arm, another starter was needed. One was available.

Rick Sutcliffe was an impending free agent and Cleveland was eager to deal the right-hander. He wasn't even pitching all that well -- 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA through 15 starts. Green gave up a lot to get Sutcliffe, reliever George Frazier and backup catcher Ron Hassey -- most notably, Joe Carter, the team's top prospect, plus Hall.

Sutcliffe, of course, became perhaps the greatest in-season trade acquisition ever, going 16-1 and winning the NL Cy Young Award. Sandberg would hit .314 with 19 homers, 19 triples and 32 steals (numbers more impressive then than they seem now), win a Gold Glove and be named NL MVP. The Cubs took over first place on Aug. 1 and avoided the August collapses of seasons past, cruising to the division title by 6½ games.

But that magical season turned out to be a blip on the radar. The Cubs fell to 77-84 in 1985 and finished under .500 seven of the next eight seasons (the exception being the 1989 club that captured the NL East crown).

Unlike that '89 team, which won in large part because of career seasons from rookie outfielders Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith, pitcher Mike Bielecki (18 wins) and reliever Les Lancaster (1.36 ERA), the 1984 team was a good team, nothing particularly fluky about its 96 wins.

[+] EnlargeLeon Durham
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesWhile Leon Durham was touted as the Next Cubs Superstar, he wasn't, and his career went into a tailspin in 1988.
But it never won again for five primary reasons:

•The team offense was old. Shortstop Larry Bowa was 38 years old, third baseman Ron Cey was 36 years old, Matthews was 33 years old, Moreland was 30 years old. Of those four, only Moreland was good in 1985 (his last good season), and given the ages of the others, their declines should have been anticipated.

•The team ended up rushing rookie shortstop Shawon Dunston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 draft, to replace Bowa. While Dunston had a rocket arm and became a two-time All-Star, his career on-base percentage with the Cubs was .294. He was a drain on the offense.

•Dernier was unable to repeat the decent offensive numbers he put up in 1984 and was a part-time player by 1986.

•Durham, he of the "Budding Superstar" tag on a Sports Illustrated cover in June, wasn't a budding superstar. His 96 RBIs that season were a career high, and his career went into a tailspin in 1988 due to drug and alcohol abuse. (Durham recovered and has been the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo since 2001.)

•While the four main starters from 1984 all were under 30 years old, all battled injuries in 1985 and the staff allowed 71 more runs than 1984. Trout had a 3.39 ERA in 24 starts in his last good season; Sanderson remained with the Cubs through 1989, but never made 30 starts in a season; Eckersley made 25 starts in 1985 and posted a 3.08 ERA, but after a bad 1986 was traded to Oakland for three minor leaguers; Sutcliffe also battled injuries in 1985 (20 starts) and 1986 (5-14). The Cubs, eighth in the NL in runs allowed in 1984, plummeted to 11th in 1985, 12th in 1986, 11th in 1987 and 10th in 1988. In other words: the same old Cubbies.

In the end, the Cubs did what many playoff teams do: They stood pat. After all, they had won 96 games, right? Green made no major offseason moves other than re-signing free agents Sutcliffe, Eckersley and Trout. Reuschel, the one free-agent starter he didn't re-sign, ended up the best of lot in the short term, going 72-52 with a 3.10 ERA from 1985 to 1989.

One other key factor doomed the franchise -- an amazing streak that is mind-boggling. Baseball began its amateur draft in 1965. The Cubs, often bad, often drafted high. Despite this, the Cubs have NEVER drafted a player in the first round who turned into a longtime star with the franchise. Not a single one. In fact, of the 46 first-round picks made from 1965 through 2006, few even became quality major leaguers.

This is so astounding, so inexplicably astonishing, it's worth reviewing.

The seven "good" first-round choices:

1981: Joe Carter. Traded.

1982: Shawon Dunston. He did have a long (if mediocre) career.

1985: Rafael Palmeiro. Traded before he became a star.

1991: Doug Glanville. Traded for Mickey Morandini.

1995: Kerry Wood. Injured.

1997: Jon Garland. Traded for Matt Karchner.

2001: Mark Prior. Injured.

As for the rest, check out the complete list of first-round picks, from Rick James in 1965 through Tyler Colvin in 2006:

Rick James (not the funk master), Dean Burk*, Terry Hughes, Ralph Rickey*, Roger Metzger (five home runs in 1,219 career games … 1970s baseball, folks!), Gene Hiser, Jeff Wehmeier*, Brian Vernoy*, Jerry Tab, Scot Thompson (an outfielder who played 626 games and hit five home runs), Brian Rosinski*, Herman Segelke, Randy Martz, Bill Hayes, Jon Perlman, Don Schulze, Vance Lovelace, Joe Carter, Stan Boderick*, Tony Woods*, Shawon Dunston, Jackie Davidson* (could have had Roger Clemens), Drew Hall, Dave Masters*, Rafael Palmeiro (who knew he'd develop such power?), Derrick May, Mike Harkey, Ty Griffin*, Earl Cunningham* (prodigious power when he connected, which was rarely; hit .196 one year in Class A with 152 strikeouts and 19 walks), Lance Dickson, Doug Glanville, Derek Wallace, Jon Ratliff, Brooks Kieschnick, Jayson Peterson*, Wood, Todd Noel*, Jon Garland, Corey Patterson (had all the tools except strike-zone judgment), Ben Christensen*, Luis Montanez, Mark Prior, Bobby Brownlie*, Ryan Harvey*, Mark Pawelek*, Tyler Colvin.

* Never appeared in majors.

So the 1984 Cubs proved to be a one-year wonder, a veteran team built around an exciting young player in Sandberg and a pitching staff with a lot of fragile arms. Cubs fans will always remember Sutcliffe's beard, Cey's waddle, Durham's glasses and Lee Smith coming out of the bullpen.

After all, they haven't stopped coming to Wrigley in the years since.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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