And from the mouths of the sage baseball interpreters, the answer to all of these standards will come:
Why No? Because the Cubs are much less likely to win it all than they are to not win it all, and this is the time of year baseball writers get paid to show off that fish-shooting trick they’ve been practicing all winter. So you will see exogenous upgrades belittled and endogenous improvements ignored. You will hear how the Cubs only added a free-swinging defensive liability (in whom they only invested $136 million), an inconsistent #3 starter who punches managers, a guy with a 6 ERA, a career utility infielder coming off a career year, other assorted marginalia and Lou Piniella. You will learn that it’s insane to even insinuate that these so-called upgrades might get the Cubs to the playoffs, let alone the promised land.
What you probably won’t see anywhere is what you really need to fairly assess a 96-loss team’s chances at October baseball: an overly long, humorless comparison of the production the Cubs received in 2006 and what they can expect in 2007. Where exactly are the Cubs going to find 25 extra wins?
Last year's Cubs finished 66-96. That was good for dead last in the NL. What went wrong? Mostly they didn’t score or stop people from scoring, ’cause Derrek Lee got hurt and their starting pitching was atrocious. They got 716 runs and allowed a league-worst 834 for a 69-93 Pythagorean, second-worst in the NL. If they can turn the -118 run differential into a +118, they will be in a very strong position to make the playoffs. It's an incredibly tall order, but there is plenty of talent returning from injury and coming from other organizations. Is it enough? Let's take it one position at a time.
My predictions are based on Marcel the Monkey’s, with adjustments made for the AL-NL exchange rate, my trusty baseball gut and injury reports. Marcel has generously made his projections available at Fangraphs.
Major strength (4th out of 16 NL teams in GPA)
2007: More of the same
Bats PA BA OBP SLG
HR K% BB%
Michael Barrett R 405 .314 .375 .523 15 10.1 9.1
Henry Blanco R 236 .250 .293 .398 5 14.8 5.9
Other 25 .208 .240 .375 1 20.0 4.0
Total 666 .287 .341 .473 21 12.2 7.8
NL Averages .267 .325 .415 17
Cubs Rank 6 4 3
sounds crazy now, given how steady Michael Barrett has been over the last three
years, but three years ago he was an arbitration hot potato. Once upon a time,
he played for the Montreal Expos. In those days he pretty much sucked. He never
got on base much and his defense wasn’t amazing, though he did have a fair bit
of pop. He lasted six years in Montreal
but fell out of favor after a calamitous 2003 season. Beset by hip flexor and
finger injuries and ravaged by awful hit luck, he limped to a .208/.280/.398
line in 252 plate appearances.
So disappointed were the Expos in the 26-year-old, arbitration-eligible Barrett that the wise Omar Minaya happily traded him to Oakland for a player to be named later, handing Brian Schneider a starting job. Then the wise bluffsmith Billy Beane flipped Barrett to the Cubs for the real object of his desire, the rather expensive Damian Miller. The Cubs promptly non-tendered Barrett. But a few days later, Hendry reversed course and signed him to a one-year, $1.55-million contract, and suddenly a smattering of alarm bells went off across the baseball universe: A power-hitting catcher coming off a .207 BABIP nightmare heading into his age-27 season? How could this end badly?
And sure enough, Barrett took a leap forward. He dented his strikeout rate and had average hit luck. The result was a breakthrough .287/.337/.489 season that entrenched Barrett as the everyday catcher on the North Side, earning him a three-year, $12-million contract. Since signing that deal, Barrett has continued to slash his strikeout rate while keeping above-average power and good walk totals. This has made him easily one of the best hitting catchers in the majors. He actually spent more time in the Cubs’ 3-hole last year than anywhere else.
Henry Blanco, the Cubs’ 35-year-old backup catcher, isn’t here for his bat. However, he’s thrown out more than 40% of basestealers over his career and received praise from Cubs pitchers for his game-calling intellect, and he has a decent amount of power himself. He slugged six homers and 15 doubles last year. This offseason, he signed a two-year deal with the Cubs with a mutual option for 2009.
What’s a reasonable expectation for Barrett? He’s hit exactly 16 homers three years straight, while batting about .290/.350/.490. He’s 30 this year, and it’s a contract year. He’s likely to fall back to those 2004-06 averages from his awesome 2006 numbers, but not far beyond that. Blanco, meanwhile, should continue to chug along with mediocre average and on-base, pretty good isolated power, and good enough defense to keep Barrett well-rested all year.
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Michael Barrett R 450 .285 .350 .490 16
Henry Blanco R 230 .260 .300 .380 3
2007 prediction .277 .333 .453 19
Overwhelming weakness (15th of 16)
BA OBP SLG HR K% BB%
Derrek Lee R 196 .286 .372 .482 8 19.9 12.8
John Mabry L 157 .171 .248 .300 4 24.2 8.9
Todd Walker L 147 .291 .362 .362 1 5.6 8.7
Phil Nevin R 135 .279 .331 .521 9 24.4 8.1
Other 46 .370 .383 1.154 3 25.9 3.7
Total 681 .266 .337 .437 25
NL Averages .290 .371 .507 30
Cubs Rank 15 14 13
Lee was hitting .448/.614/1.062 on April 19 when a wrist injury wrecked his
season and torpedoed any playoff hopes the Cubs might have had. They were 19-40
in his first stint on the DL. Lee sat out two more significant stretches of the
year and was only active for about a third of it. When he was healthy, he did
some damage. His power wasn’t up to its usual standards, but he made contact
and walked at respectable rates. He is primed for a big rebound.
Of Lee’s hapless replacements, John Mabry was very bad, Todd Walker hit for no power, and Phil Nevin’s best efforts were below-average by first baseman standards. The only team with a weaker first-base position was the Giants, with their intense and gritty trio of Shea Hillenbrand, Lance Niekro and Mark Sweeney. In the “Other” category, Henry Blanco and 23-year-old fresh-out-of-AA rookie Scott Moore combined for three homers in limited playing time.
It’s absolutely critical that Derrek Lee stays healthy, for two reasons. One, he avoids a way-too-obvious nickname. And two, his presence replaces an embarrassing void in the lineup with one of the best bats in the NL. A big portion of the Cubs' offensive improvement will come from Lee. It’s safe to say he will have a very good OBP; the question is whether his power will return. If Lee bats in front of longball specialist Aramis Ramirez, 40 homers is a distinct possibility. Lee did plant 46 bombs two years ago. I’m not going quite that high, but I am calling D-Lee above-average in 2007.
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Derrek Lee R 700 .295 .385 .540 34
2007 prediction .295 .385 .540 34
2006: Super-mediocre (10th of 16)
2007: Almost certainly the same
Bats PA BA OBP SLG
HR K% BB%
Todd Walker R 179 .270 .348 .440 5 7.8 11.1
Neifi Perez S 145 .266 .272 .357 1 6.9 1.4
Ryan Theriot R 138 .353 .417 .563 3 10.9 8.7
Other 220 .238 .286 .340 4
Total 682 .274 .326 .411 13
NL Averages .272 .335 .422 17
Cubs Rank 7 11 9
In his tenth season in the majors, Mark DeRosa finally gets a shot at holding down an everyday position. The Cubs gave him a three-year, $13-million deal on the heels of a career year in Texas, where he hit .296/.357/.456 with 13 homers in 520 plate appearances as a super utilityman. That was his first full season as a regular. He’s 32. For what it’s worth, his second-most-similar player on Baseball Reference is a guy who also logged career-high playing time in his age-31 season before swiftly rendering his name unspeakable the next two years. The AL-NL exchange rate works in DeRosa’s favor, but he’ll be playing a demanding position that’s probably above him with very few days of rest. I figure he will put up roughly average offensive numbers for a second baseman, but his value to the team will almost certainly hinge on whether he can handle five days of second base a week. He’s only played 335 innings at second in the last three years. In that small sample Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA has him ever-so-slightly above average. I don’t buy it. His bat should, however, be good enough for his starting job to go unchallenged. At least until next winter.
Organizational soldier “Gauge Classique” Ryan Theriot made the most of a late-season callup last year with a blistering .328/.412/.522 line in 134 PA. He’s had very good walk rates throughout his minor-league career, though he’s been old for his league at every stop thus far. Like DeRosa, he can passably field short, third and the outfield; this makes him a valuable weapon in the late innings in the NL. His quotability has already made him a fan favorite, and he’ll probably weasel his way into 250 or 300 PA this year. Theriot’s role is the kind of gig Russ Adams should aspire to.
Cubs fans who really hate both of these options should keep an eye on 23-going-on-24 speed demon Eric Patterson. This is only his third season in pro ball – he was drafted out of Georgia Tech, where he put up a career OBP in the .430s and had outstanding stolen base percentages – but he’s shown a clear ability to walk and hit with decent power. He tore up AAA in 67 PA toward the end of the year, going .358/.395/.493. The fact that he’s a lefty hitter is very much in his favor given how far the Cubs’ lineup leans to the right. If he can strike out a bit less while still working pitchers and maintaining his walk rate, he might be a factor in the second half.
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Mark DeRosa R 550 .270 .335 .420 12
Ryan Theriot R 130 .275 .345 .400 4
2007 prediction .271 .337 .417 16
2006: Homerrific but hit-unlucky (6th of 16)
2007: 40 bombs: you heard it here first
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Aramis Ramirez R 658 .289 .350 .559 38 10.6 7.6
Other 35 .171 .171 .286 1
Total 693 .282 .340 .544 39
Although he’s coming off a .352 OBP season, I thought the Cubs’ five-year extension to Aramis Ramirez was a shrewd move. Believe it or not, this is not because I have a fetish for leadfooted power hitters who don’t get on base, regardless of what my Marcus Thames fan club badge may suggest. Rather, I think Ramirez’s track record suggests he will be a very good hitter for at least five more years.
Like Michael Barrett, Aramis had his big breakthrough season in 2004. He clubbed his way to a .318/.373/.578 line with 36 jacks, largely on the strength of a career-high 8.2% walks, a career-low 11.3% strikeouts and a spike in homers that can be attributed to increases in his park factor and man-strength. After a modest step back in 2005, partially caused by a nagging quad injury in the second half, Ramirez’s peripheral stats were perfectly in line with his ’04 numbers last year. Hence I am very bullish about his bat for this year. He had a below-average BABIP (.274) and his lowest homers-per-flyball rate (15.1) since 2003, when he played about 60% of his home games in the righty hitters’ hell known only as PNC Park. Both of those should even out this year. Also, hitting behind Derrek Lee and in front of Michael Barrett, he figures to come up with runners in scoring position frequently this year and be handled with extreme care in those at-bats. I don’t think a 10% walk rate is at all out of the question if he goes injury-free, though I certainly wouldn’t bank on it.
His defense... later.
A step back from Ramirez would hurt, obviously. The Cubs are going to need as many runs as they can get from the heart of their order, particularly via the longball. But I think A-Ram has a couple more 2004s in him. This year will be one of them, as he breaks the 40-homer mark for the first time in his career.
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Aramis Ramirez R 650 .295 .370 .555 40
2007 prediction .290 .365 .545 41
Sub-Izturean (16th of 16)
2007: Sub-Izturean no longer
“Bats” PA BA OBP SLG HR
Ronny Cedeno R 513 .246 .272 .336 4 19.5 3.1
Cesar Izturis S 74 .262 .286 .311 0 10.8 5.4
Other 70 .242 .286 .288 0
Total 657 .246 .275 .324 4
NL Averages .271 .329 .404 13
Cubs Rank 13 15 16
Yes, that is Cedeno’s real strikeout rate. Yes, that is Cedeno’s real walk rate. Yes, he really, actually got 513 PA. Actually, he really got 572 PA once you factor in his time at second base and pinch-hitting.
At the deadline last year, the Cubs reached for the obvious remedy: Cesar Izturis. Cesar Izturis played poorly last year due to injury, but he represents a clear offensive upgrade.
pause for a second, just to make sure that sinks in:
If the Cubs had Cesar Izturis and he stayed healthy and they played him every day last year, they probably would have scored more runs.
This is why the Cubs think they can contend this year. They’re systematically replacing all the black holes that killed them last year with all-stars.
But seriously, folks, how many other teams can say that? (Two.) Uh, that was a rhetorical question, stupid. (Shutup. Let me finish. Last year’s Rockies got a .225/.274/.326 line from Clint Barmes and friends. The Royals received a .229/.261/.314 from Angel Berroa et al. Izturis was hurt last year, but his career line is .259/.295/.336, and he’s better at everything than Cedeno was last year.) Thanks. Anyway, there is absolutely no help on the near portion of the horizon unless Patterson suddenly starts playing short well everyday in AAA – Miguel Tejada trade, anybody? The Cubs are swimming in mediocre NL relievers… – but Izturis is probably average-to-above-average with the glove, and he’s experienced, so you can do worse. The Cubs are acutely aware of this fact. And given the absurd offensive strength the Cubs have stockpiled elsewhere, “not too embarrassing” is probably good enough for them at short. If Izturis realizes Marcel the Monkey’s rather optimistic projection of .276/.324/.372 and has a career defensive year, this position might even be a strength. However, in 74 PA with the Cubs he sort of hit .243/.284/.271, so …
“Bats” PA BA OBP SLG HR
Cesar Izturis S 500 .270 .320 .360 2
Ronny Cedeno R 100 .260 .285 .330 1
Ryan Theriot R 60 .275 .350 .400 1
2007 prediction .269 .317 .359 4
2006: Batting-average wonders (LF 14th of 16, CF 11th(?!), RF 6th)
2007: Same deal… except Juan Pierre increases his homer total thirteenfold
Bats PA BA OBP SLG
HR K% BB%
Juan Pierre L 750 .292 .330 .388 3 5.3 5.6
Jacque Jones L 578 .285 .334 .499 27 20.0 6.1
Matt Murton R 508 .297 .365 .444 13 12.2 10.0
Angel Pagan S 187 .247 .306 .394 5 15.0 8.0
Freddie Bynum L 148 .257 .308 .456 4 29.7 6.1
Left Field (Murton) .280 .346 .428 17
NL Averages .276 .359 .477 27
Cubs Rank 7 9 14
Center Field (Pierre) .294 .333 .393 3
NL Averages .264 .334 .417 18
Cubs Rank 1 9 11
Right Field (Jones) .288 .337 .498 31
NL Averages .268 .344 .452 17
Cubs Rank 2 10 2
(Cameos: Phil Nevin, John Mabry, Jerry Hairston Jr., Michael Restovich, Buck Coats)
Look at those batting averages. Forget .500 – how did these guys miss the playoffs?
Juan Pierre is always a threat to lead the league in hits and outs while steadfastly maintaining a below-average OBP; he will do his thing in Chavez Ravine after signing a five-year deal with the Dodgers.
His replacement is that guy from Washington who won himself a ginormous contract with his .277/.351/.560 and eye-popping 46 homers in the unfriendly confines of RFK. Can he possibly sustain that production? He was more patient at the plate than ever, and it paid immediate dividends. Soriano’s BB% by year starting from 2001: 4.8, 3.2, 5.3, 5.1, 4.9, 9.4. That last one kind of sticks out, so it should come as no surprise that last year’s .351 OBP was an easy career high. If the Cubs get the .351 OBP, 40-homer Soriano hitting in front of Lee, Ramirez and Barrett, they can steamroll their division. The problem is that regression to mean is a cruel mistress. Soriano made big leaps in his patience, flyballishness and power last year. The odds say one of those turns out to be a fluke. Which one? Good question. I have no idea. For the Cubs’ sake, hopefully not patience, given that they’re deadset on using Soriano as their leadoff man.
Blue Jay killer Jacque Jones, the only true lefty in the lineup every day, is pretty consistent from year to year. But he’s a weird case. He has preposterously huge reserves of power for a 5’10” guy – 25.5% of his flyballs left the yard last year – but he never hits the ball in the air, as his 55.9% career groundball rate and 21.2% strikeout rate will be delighted to tell you. A nasty side effect of these figures is that Jones’ line drive rate is perennially bad, which coupled with his perennially high K totals makes it pretty hard for him to put up a good OBP. I’m having enough trouble figuring out how he has a .280 career batting average. That doesn’t compute. But man, when he gets a hold of one…
Left field: 25-year-old righty Matt Murton slugged his way to a full-time job in 2005 with 160 plate appearances full of what Jones has been doing since 1999. His power took a bit of a hit last year and was clearly below-average for a left fielder, but Baseball Reference’s most similar batter to Murton through age 24 is some guy named Kirk Gibson, so underestimate Murton at your own risk. He will likely split time in left this year with hometown hero and lefty bat Cliff Floyd. Floyd struggled to a .244/.324/.407 line with the Mets last year, but he’s patient and wily. I’d bet on a respectable contribution off the bench this year. He’s only 34 (I could’ve sworn he was at least 38 before looking it up; shows what I know), but last year his power numbers took a serious nosedive. If nothing else, he’ll be one more smiling face in the dugout for whom the fans have no trouble rooting. The fifth outfielder will probably be Daryle Ward, who comes from Atlanta to the north side. He’s a slow lefty slugger. I thought the Cubs would have been well-served to stick with their awesomely-named defensive specialist, Angel Pagan, who switch-hits, runs well and plays all three outfield positions. They purchased him from the Mets last January. He is good at certain things that certain Cubs are not good at. However, Ward is quite clearly a better hitter.
If someone gets injured, the Cubs’ top outfield prospect, Felix Pie, probably gets the call.
Bats PA BA OBP SLG HR
Matt Murton R 450 .295 .370 .455 14
Jacque Jones L 550 .260 .330 .455 22
Alfonso Soriano R 650 .275 .340 .550 38
Cliff Floyd L 300 .260 .340 .450 10
Daryle Ward L 200 .260 .325 .440 6
2006: Injury-riddled and horrifically bad (15th of 16 in ERA, 16th in IP)
2007: To hedge against an over-reliance on high-upside question marks, say hello to more high-upside question marks
(Note: These stats exclude anything the pitchers listed did out of the bullpen.)
Throws IP IP/GS K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA W-L
Carlos Zambrano R 214.0 6.5 8.83 4.84 46.9 3.41 16-7
Greg Maddux R 136.1 6.2 5.35 1.51 50.7 4.69 9-11
Sean Marshall L 125.2 5.2 5.51 4.23 46.8 5.59 6-9
Rich Hill L 97.1 6.1 8.04 3.61 30.0 4.25 5-7
Carlos Marmol R 67.2 5.2 6.11 7.32 28.9 5.99 5-6
Mark Prior R 43.2 4.9 7.83 5.77 36.6 7.21 1-6
Angel Guzman R 42.2 4.2 9.70 6.12 32.1 9.28 0-6
Wade Miller R 21.2 4.3 8.31 7.48 32.3 4.57 0-2
Kerry Wood R 19.2 4.9 5.95 3.66 39.3 4.12 1-2
Other 108.1 4.2 6.56 4.82 7.14 5-13
Total 877.0 5.4 7.15 4.43 5.19 48-69
NL Averages 941.2 5.8 4.66
Cubs Rank 16 1 16 15 14 15
No joke. They led the league in strikeouts per inning, and they led the league in walks per inning. This is a bit of a white lie – those stats are skewed in the Cubs’ favor since their innings were substantially longer than most NL teams’ – but it’s a good place to start dissecting a truly weird rotation.
Mark Prior, as usual, spent loads of time on the DL. This year’s explanation was his stubborn shoulder injury, which cost him the first two months. In mid-July, a strained oblique took away another month. A month later, bouts of tendonitis shut him down for the year. What was unusual about Prior’s season was that he was really bad when he was healthy, surrendering unusually large quantities of walks and homers while not coming anywhere close to the absurd K rates he had early in his career. Opposing hitters had a .392 OBP against Prior last year. Although this can probably be chalked up to sample size issues and nagging injuries, it’s still hard to be particularly optimistic about Prior in 2007. In January, Will Carroll set the over-under for Prior’s starts this year at 14 and said he thought Prior wasn’t throwing with confidence. Marcel expects 99 mediocre (4.55 ERA) innings from Prior. Personally, I’m a bit more optimistic about the quality of Prior's actual starts than the simian simulator is, but I agree that expecting 150 or more innings is unrealistic.
Prior’s partner in perpetual pain, Kerry Wood, pitched the grand total of 19.2 innings. The Cubs want to use him out of the bullpen this year. Since Wood is basically a two-pitch pitcher, this seems reasonable. We’ll get to him in the next section.
Although Prior and Wood were disappointments, one of the Cubs’ young studs did step up and become one of the NL’s top aces: Carlos Zambrano. Big Z has crazy stamina. He eats tons of innings in spite of himself. He threw 4 pitches per PA last year but still plowed through 214 innings in 33 starts. Because of his tendency to run deep counts, Z will hand out some walks, but he’s proven his ability to maintain a low hit rate throughout his career. Marcel is calling a 3.48 ERA. I’m not quite that convinced – I’m always wary of pitchers who succeed by avoiding hits – but I do expect lots of really good innings from the Cubs’ ace in his contract year.
What other positives were there? Rich Hill had a fantastic rookie season. The 26-year-old lefty out of Michigan had easily the second-best ERA of any Cubs starter with at least five starts. Hill throws in the low 90s and makes hitters look stupid with his Zitoesque curveball. He was particularly dominant in the second half – he had a 3.38 ERA in August and 1.93 in September, throwing 78 strikeouts to 21 walks and going 6-3. He also threw two complete-game shutouts. Hill is an extreme flyball pitcher who will probably always have homer issues, and he has a habit of working deep counts – two common refrains in any preview of the Cubs’ rotation – but as long as he’s striking out twice as many guys as he walks, he’ll be just fine.
Other than that? The following pitchers did poorly: Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman (who managed to outsuck Josh Towers, but at least has promising K rates), Glendon Rusch. Marshall is the Cubs’ 7th starter, which means he’ll make about 33 starts this year. (Zing!)
The Cubs made two big free-agent splashes in the pitching market, bringing in a pair of 31-year-olds to shore up their rotation. We all know Ted Lilly. I think he’ll do very well for himself as the Cubs’ #2; bringing in successful AL power pitchers is never a bad idea. They also signed righty Jason Marquis, who’s put up ERAs of 3.71, 4.13 and 6.02 in the last three years. Spot the outlier. Marquis’ strikeout numbers have plummeted into the danger zone recently, so he has to keep the ball in the park to be successful, but an ERA around 5 is a reasonable expectation. They also re-signed Wade Miller, the injury-riddled righty who had some stellar years in Houston in the early ‘00s. Miller will make $1.5 million with lots of potential incentives. He is notable for being the only pitcher in the history of EA Sports’ MVP Baseball to throw the gyroball. (Don’t believe me? Try facing him in MVP 2005. His stupid 91-mph “slider” makes him easily the most annoying pitcher on the Red Sox.)
So what’s the opening day rotation? Probably Zambrano, Lilly, Marquis, Hill and Miller, with Marshall, Guzman and a slew of marginal AAA pitchers next in line. If Prior is healthy, Miller probably gets bumped to the bullpen. The addition of Marquis gives this rotation a nice balance between righties and lefties, strikeout artists and groundballers. This represents a massive improvement over last year’s motley crew. Zambrano is an ace; Lilly is a very good #2; one of Marquis and Hill is very likely to have an ERA in the low 4s (though both is a stretch), and whatever Prior, Miller and Angel Guzman contribute is gravy. If the offense performs up to expectations, this rotation is more than adequate.
(The total prediction is nudged upward from the straight weighted average of all the individual predictions, to allow for injuries and such. An average rotation that goes injury-free is going to be well above-average, right?)
Throws IP ERA W-L
Carlos Zambrano R 225.0 3.55 18-9
Ted Lilly L 195.0 3.90 14-9
Jason Marquis R 200.0 5.00 13-12
Rich Hill L 180.0 4.00 14-9
Mark Prior R 100.0 3.80 8-5
Wade Miller R 95.0 4.90 4-6
Sean Marshall L 60.0 5.00 4-5
2007 prediction 4.40
2006: Surprisingly good if unclutch (6th of 16 in ERA)
2007: Everything but the closer
Throws IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA
Bob Howry R 76.2 8.33 2.00 44.2 3.17
Roberto Novoa R 76.0 6.28 3.79 42.6 4.26
Ryan Dempster R 75.0 8.04 4.32 51.3 4.80
Will Ohman L 65.1 10.19 4.68 33.5 4.13
Scott Eyre L 61.1 10.71 4.40 41.8 3.38
David Aardsma R 53.0 8.32 4.75 37.0 4.08
Michael Wuertz R 40.2 9.30 3.54 53.6 2.66
Other 114.0 9.78 4.89 4.73
Total 562.0 8.86 4.08 4.04
NL Averages 4.19
Cubs Rank 1 6
The Cubs actually threw together a pretty decent bullpen last year. They led the league in strikeouts per inning by a mile – the Dodgers’ 8.12 finished second. Unfortunately, Ryan Dempster had an awful year closing games out, racking up a dazzling -340 WPA and helping the Cubs fall short of their Pythagorean record.
Dempster wasn’t catastrophically bad – he had a 4.80 ERA in 75 innings with a good K rate and a decent walk rate while keeping the ball in the park – he was just unclutch. He is a groundball pitcher, but he probably gives up too many walks to be a particularly good closer. Nonetheless, the Cubs’ official site depth chart lists him as the nominal closer heading into spring training. If I were Lou Piniella, I’d probably go with one of three other righties as my closer:
Kerry Wood, if healthy, simply blows hitters away. He would be an even more powerful version of the Brewers’ Francisco Cordero in the closer’s spot. The Cubs are, rightly, not in a huge rush to hand Wood such an important job. But if he impresses early on, he has more potential than anyone else in the Cubs’ bullpen, and he has to get some consideration.
Bobby Howry is a 33-year-old with a career 3.52 ERA and 2.5 K/BB. He could be effective as the kind of veteran closer who doesn’t beat himself, kind of like Todd Jones. He has good enough stuff to get by, and his walk rate is the best in the pen.
A potential dark horse is fourth-year righty Mike Wuertz, who only made the majors at age 25 after being drafted in 1997. He boasts all kinds of breaking stuff. His K/9 has been on the happy side of 9 two years in a row, and he had a 53.6% groundball rate last year in 40 innings. If those peripheral stats are for real, he will be slamming the door at Wrigley in 2008 at the latest.
If Dempster does in fact succeed as the closer, Wood, Howry and Wuertz will be a formidable three-headed setup monster. They’ll be joined by lefties Will Ohman and Scott Eyre. Eyre gave up a .273/.350/.511 line to lefties last year. The German-born Ohman was substantially more effective (.158/.277/.257 vs LH).
Who else? The long man in the pen will probably be Roberto Novoa, who’s yet another flyball pitcher but was very effective in 76 innings last year. When Prior’s in the rotation, Miller will likely bump Novoa.
This bullpen isn’t flashy, but what NL bullpen is? (The Mets.) Please shut up. It’s deep enough to compensate for the lack of a sure-thing closer. The Cubs’ relievers’ stats may regress a bit, but that will be offset by fewer and better-located bad days from whoever their closer is. Put the Cubs down for another slightly-above-average pen in ’07. I don’t see much of a point in projecting individual pitchers’ outputs, but I’ll put the whole unit down for a 4.05 ERA.
Defense is hard to judge, especially for a team you don’t watch every day. I won’t pretend to do so, but a quick survey of the metrics available on the web reveals the following: Derrek Lee is really good at first. Aramis Ramirez is consistently bad at third. Michael Barrett isn’t good at catcher. Cesar Izturis is average-ish, no small feat when you’re a shortstop. Jacque Jones and Matt Murton are about average in the outfield.
This leaves two big question marks, and they both concern players who are moving to new positions this year. Mark DeRosa hasn’t exactly played much second base recently, and Alfonso Soriano, who was above-average in left last year, gets to take on the most challenging outfield position. I will simply leave all of this up in the air. I have no idea how this is going to turn out. Soriano has the speed to handle center, and DeRosa has the veteran utilityman know-how to handle second. I don’t expect anything more or less than simply serviceable play.
Can we improve on this?
It’s tricky. There is no right answer. The Murton-Floyd tandem is probably the best bet to bat leadoff, with good OBP and limited power. You want to get Soriano as many at-bats as possible, but putting him right in front of Lee and Ramirez means that his breakeven SB% is really high, and batting him leadoff means he hits 50 homers with 75 RBIs driving in Izturis and the pitcher. I’d put Soriano in the 3-hole, with Lee second and Ramirez fourth. As for the next two, Jones and Barrett are roughly equal double play threats, Jones because he’s a groundball hitter and Barrett because he’s a catcher, so which order they bat in isn’t a huge issue so long as Barrett hits fifth against lefties. DeRosa and Izturis in the 7 and 8 holes sounds reasonable. Again, though, there’s no right answer.
This division is a crapshoot. 86 wins could be enough. The Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros all look really close, and the Cubs are particularly hard to evaluate because of how awful they were last year.
The Cubs get a head start: they were underefficient last year. Their second-order record, according to Baseball Prospectus, was 72-90 (a run differential of -90 instead of -118).
On the scoring side of the ledger, the Cubs are replacing the second-worst first base output in the NL with Derrek Lee. They’re replacing the worst shortstop output with Cesar Izturis. They’re replacing Juan Pierre with Alfonso Soriano, and they’ve given Matt Murton a possible platoon partner. They’re asking Aramis Ramirez, Michael Barrett and Jacque Jones to not regress, and they’re banking on Mark DeRosa to adequately replace a second-base output that had Neifi Perez’s fingerprints all over it.
On the run prevention side, the Cubs are replacing Greg Maddux’s 4.69 and Carlos Marmol’s 5.99 with Ted Lilly. Jason Marquis wipes out Glendon Rusch’s 8.36, Angel Guzman’s 9.28 and Mark Prior’s 7.21. Marquis may not be great, but he’s established, and his stuff is pretty good. Nobody expects another 6.02 ERA from him, which is more than can be said about the parade of minor-leaguers who made brief appearances in Wrigley last year. If Rich Hill pitches the whole year, that’s 16 more starts for an established major-leaguer. Nobody expects anything from Wade Miller, who is at the very least qualified to be a #5 starter in the NL Central. And in Prior, the Cubs have the biggest wild card in the division. If he really gets back to full strength, the Cubs’ rotation might be better than the Brewers’.
But man, the Cubs were bad last year. So is all this enough?
I think it is. On paper, this team should coast to the playoffs, but injuries are a concern – its strength is so concentrated in a few star players that two injuries could derail the whole deal. I do think the Cubs’ pitching and offense are deep enough to withstand one major injury to a Lee, Soriano or Ramirez.
The Cubs bash their way to 830 runs, surrender 745, and head to the playoffs as your NL Central champs at 89-73.