Yesterday’s trade of Ted Lilly to the Los Angeles Dodgers marked the end of an era. While the past three and a half seasons are hardly going to be primarily remembered for Ted Lilly’s exploits, his time here perfectly encapsulates the Cubs’ latest attempt at winning a World Series. The Cubs’ latest World Series window opened when he arrived in 2007, and officially closed with his departure in 2010 (though I think we all know it unofficially closed earlier than that).
Lilly arrived as part of the Cubs’ massive free agent splash following a last place finish in 2006. Jim Hendry was given a blank check, and used it to bring in Lilly, along with Alfonso Soriano, Jason Marquis, and Mark DeRosa. Lilly’s four year $40 million deal was heavily criticized at the time, because many critics thought he was nothing more than a league average pitcher, but Lilly provided the Cubs with a fantastic return on their investment.
Over the three and two-thirds seasons Lilly was a member of the Cubs he made 113 starts, most on the team. He accumulated 11.2 WAR during his time here, which FanGraphs says is worth $48.5 million, well over the $40 million contract he signed. In his 705.2 innings pitched in a Cubs’ uniform he posted a 3.70 ERA, a 123 ERA+, and accumulated 598 strikeouts.
His 2009 season was perhaps his best ever, despite missing seven starts with shoulder issues. He was the Cubs’ lone All-Star and posted a 3.10 ERA over 177 innings. His 3.7 WAR led a team that had four starting pitches with at least 3 WAR. His 3.65 FIP was second on that team to Carlos Zambrano, and his 36 walks were the lowest of the starting staff.
There will be many fond memories of Ted’s exploits in a Cubs’ uniform. Perhaps his most memorable moment was his home plate collision with Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina in September 2008. Lilly charged home on a ground ball to the shortstop, the throw went to home, and Lilly charged over Molina. The play resulted in an out, but many credit it as the play that helped wake up a slumping team. The fact that he pitched eight innings that night and allowed just one run helped more, but who am I to sully the memory of such a great play.
2008 was actually Lilly’s worst season as a Cub overall (4.41 FIP and 2.7 WAR), but he improved in the final months of the season (3.32 ERA over his last 13 starts), and by the start of the playoffs was arguably the team’s hottest pitchers. Of course we know that he never did get a chance to pitch in those playoffs, because the Cubs got swept in three games by the Dodgers.
Lilly’s second most memorable moment as a Cub was not quite as fun, but it is something that will stick in Cubs’ lore for a long time. Lilly got the start in game 2 of the Cubs’ 2007 playoff series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and came out to pitch the second inning after Geovany Soto had homered to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead. Lilly allowed a three run homer to Chris Young, giving the Diamondbacks a lead they would not relinquish. After the ball left Young’s bat Lilly threw his glove to the ground in frustration, providing a highlight reel clip for the ages.
Lilly’s arrival in Chicago was part of a fresh attempt at breaking a now 103 year old World Series drought. He was instrumental in both the 2007 and 2008 division winning teams, and provided nothing but strong, reliable pitching during an otherwise traumatic 2009 season. With his contract expiring at the end of 2010, and the Cubs out of contention for the second year in a row, it was time to close both Lilly’s Chicago career and the World Series window that his arrival helped open.
Hopefully Ted can help the Dodgers make it back to the playoffs, though that will not be very easy with the Dodgers behind two teams in the standings. Lilly be will a free agent at the end of the season, and both he and the Cubs have expressed mild interest in getting together again. While one would hope Jim Hendry would avoid giving a multi-year deal to a 35 year old starting pitcher with shoulder issues, it is impossible to rule out Hendry bringing back Lilly in another attempt to contend in 2011.
No matter what happens the rest of the season, or this winter, I can do nothing more than thank Ted for his time in Chicago. For 113 starts he helped the Cubs win more often than he helped them lose. He did so with little outside drama and with just a few implosions on the mound. Nobody will confuse him with an all time great Chicago Cubs’ player, but there is no shame in remembering him as an above average starter who helped us make the playoffs twice in as many years.