Let me take you back to the end of the 2004 season...
The Cubs are two games out of the wild card. They finish playing Atlanta in the final game of the season, and the headlines across Chicago declare:
CUBS DEFEAT BRAVES
C.U.B. Sweep Indicated in Georgia; Chicago Leads in Wildcard
Actually, it didnít turn out that way. Blame my reporting staff. While Chicago did win one game -- the last -- in the season-ending series with Atlanta, they lost the previous five, and seven of their last nine games went the other way.
2004: Old Days
The Cubs lost seven of their last nine, including five in a row, to fall out of the playoff race, but their Pythagorean Win-Loss record says they should have finished ahead of Houston and San Francisco and won the Wild Card. They went 19-30 in one-run games, but posted a .500 record or better in every month. I suppose it all came down to the final week and a half, when they lost those seven games. Also, five of them were one-run losses, making the end of the season even more painful.
Oh, and they traded Sammy Sosa.
(Donít) Take Me Back to Chicago
The words clubhouse, chemistry and boombox have been brought up and knocked around more often than Sergio Mitre. As Mark Prior reported to Spring Training, he said both sides are better off this way and the trade had to be made. (Kerry Wood, who allegedly smashed said boombox, could not be reached for comment.) Sosa never apologized to Dusty Baker for walking out on the team, either.
Sosa needed to go. Fans can accept that. To them, he used to be the happy player who sprinted out to right field in the top of the first. At the end of last season, he became the grumpy player who sprinted to the airport in the bottom of the third.
Chicago 25: Live In Wrigley
With the 2004 stuff covered, itís time to look at the team in the upcoming season.
The outfield is complicated here, since there are four or five players and any three of them could be starting on any given day. However, Corey Patterson is a Baker favourite, so it makes things easier to predict.
Leading off, Corey Patterson (CF). He has shown some power the last two years, but he hasn't got on base very well. Dusty Baker feels he needs some speed at the top of his lineup, so Patterson is the man. When asked about Patterson's pitch selection, Baker responded, "He'll get it. He's a smart kid." Smart or not, a .303 career OBP isnít what I would want in a leadoff hitter.
Todd Walker (2B) has a poor defensive reputation, but heís an offensive improvement over Mark Grudzielanek, despite the latterís .314 and .307 batting averages the previous two years. Jerry Hairston will backup Walker here and spell some of the outfielders. Hairston is a better fielder and a better match for second base, but if heís in the lineup every day, Walker has no place to play and Todd wonít be happy with that. Also, Walker's bat is below average at first base or in left field, the only other positions he has played in the last three years. He worked on his defense over the winter Ė- specifically, turning double plays Ė- but everyone says their defense is better when they report to Spring Training, so take from that what you will.
Nomar Garciaparra (SS) is a little-known infielder from the Georgia Institute of Technology, who used to play for the Red Sox, I think. Anyway, he fell out of favour in Boston this past year and was traded to Chicago in a four-team deal that saw Alex Gonzalez leave Wrigley. This was an improvement for the Cubs, to say the least. Nomarís predicted ZiPS line is .288/.339/.487, which seems quite low. I donít think heíll post career lows in batting average and on-base percentage, but he wonít be as good as his career .322/.370/.549 line, either. He's playing for his next contract, opting for the eight million dollars for this season instead of the long-term deals we saw.
Aramis Ramirez (3B) struggled in 2002 after a great 2001 with the Pirates. He was traded to the Cubs in 2003, and had a terrific 2004. He wonít turn 27 until June, and thereís no reason to believe he wonít improve on .318/.373/.578. Ramirez apparently wants a four-year contract worth anywhere from 40 to 52 million dollars before camp ends, because, as he says, "I like everything about Chicago, so I'd like to be here for a while." Seems pretty good to me.
Derrek Lee (1B) had a fine season coming over from Florida, with a .356 on-base percentage and 32 homeruns. Heís put up an OPS in the 860-890 range four of the last five seasons. Most likely, heíll do it again. Heís not bad with the mitt, either. He also played 161 games last year, and has missed no fewer than seven games six years in a row. For what itís worth, heís the only Cub (who I have found) to have told the press he misses Sosa.
Jeromy Burnitz (RF) joined the Cubs as a free agent, and heís simply okay. I have a better chance of putting up a .559 slugging percentage in 2005 than he does. Dan Szymborski at BTFís Transaction Oracle mentioned that the Cubs are, for all intents and purposes, spending $15 million so Burnitz can play right field -- with some of Sosaís contract still on the books. If you ignore the dollars, Burnitz will be just fine in right field, but thatís it Ė just fine. As in mediocre.
Todd Hollandsworth (LF) will be the starting left fielder for Chicago now that Alou (and Sosa) have moved on, and heís a streaky hitter. If he can repeat his 2004 performance, heíll be fine in left field, but the two previous years were below average (OPS+ 96, 97). Of course, he wonít make up for the departure of Moises Alou. You can toss Hairston in the mix here, too.
Michael Barrett (C) earned a three-year, $12 million contract this off-season with the best season of his career at age 27. His unexpected power (.489 slugging percentage) seems like a fluke, since his previous high was .436, back in 1999. Look for Barrett to put up worse numbers than last year, mostly less power. As for his defense, both Mark Prior and Greg Maddux used Paul Bako as their personal catcher as the season went on, indicating their preference for a non-Barrett catcher. In fact, Henry Blanco was signed by the Cubs this year and he was Maddux's personal catcher in Atlanta Ė- take a wild guess at who will be behind the plate when Maddux takes the mound.
I would have given Jason Dubois the job in either corner outfield spot. Dubois might sound familiar to you, if you remember the Blue Jaysí Rule 5 picks from December 2002. He was returned to the Cubs before Opening Day, and they must be glad to have him back. He tore up AAA last year with a .316 average, 31 homeruns, and an OPS over 1000. He didnít thrill anyone with his 2004 debut, hitting only .217, but if he's wasted on the bench, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, it's a mistake.
He'll turn 26 very soon, and even if he got a boost from the PCL last year, he shouldnít be on the bench, pinch-hitting for the pitcher. Dusty Baker isnít very high on him. "You don't even know he's around half the time," Baker said. "He's extremely quiet...Dubois has options and Kelton doesn't, so we have a decision to make at the end of spring training."
At any rate, Hollandsworth-Patterson-Burnitz will be the regular outfield, but even the starting left fielder mentions some others will get playing time. "We got a lot of interchangeable parts," said Hollandsworth. "It's not a situation where you can't make adjustments."
The bench will consist of Blanco, middle infielders Jose Macias and Neifi Perez, Hairston and Dubois. Macias and Perez had sub-.300 on-base-percentages in 2004 and both of them have a career OBP of .301.
Somehow, Perez went .371/.400/.548 in 62 Chicago at bats last year. This probably means heíll get more playing time than he deserves. Anyone here who isnít familiar with Neifi? Good, we can move on.
Blanco is your typical backup catcher and Macias is your typical backup infielder, though I question the latterís role on the roster, with Hairston being the superior player at each position. Even Burnitz (and perhaps Dubois) can play CF, so Macias is redundant. Hairston has even taken some grounders at third.
Dave Kelton, 25, has spent most of the last two years in Triple-A and doesnít project well as a big-leaguer. Dave Hansen might make the team as a pinch-hitter and backup outfielder, but with five bench players already ticketed for the big club, thatís 13. The Cubs will probably carry twelve pitchers, so the Daves are out of luck for now, unless Kelton takes Duboisí backup outfield spot.
Kerry Wood is the Opening Day starter. I think we all know who he is, so I can skip to the next guy.
Mark Prior is fairly well-known as well, but here's something I didnít know before previewing the team. He will regularly throw to Barrett for the first time this year, having missed Spring Training and a couple of months in the 2004 season. They still are not entirely on the same page.
After ranking first and third overall in 2003 in Pitcher Abuse Points, Prior and Wood were injured and missed about 10 starts each due to injuries in 2004. I just thought I would point that out.
Greg Maddux is still an above-average pitcher, but his strikeout rate is lower than his rotation mates and his last two seasons indicate heís nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career. I donít think heíll pitch very well in 2005, but heíll be happy with Blanco.
Carlos Zambrano took over the title of "Most Abused Cubs Pitcher," ranking third in the majors in PAP last year. He is yet another good young pitcher in the Cubs' rotation, but his workload at the age of 24 is cause for concern.
All three of these young pitchers, if they each make 30 starts or more, will be in the top 6 among most abused pitchers.
For more on Zambrano, I suggest you read this article at John Sickels' Minor League Ball site.
In other news, Glendon Rusch made 16 starts last year and will probably replace Matt Clement in the rotation. Heís a pretty average pitcher, 3.47 ERA or no 3.47 ERA.
I predict Renyel Pinto, a lefty who struck out 179 batters in 142 Double-A innings, will cut back on his walks in Iowa, get called up and step into the rotation before his 23rd birthday in July. He will pitch better than Maddux for the rest of the season, and be the fourth best starter.
Overall, the starting rotation. will be the best part of the 2005 Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs will have Joe Borowski for a full season this year. Borowski pitched very well in 2003, but was injured last year after 20 innings of 8.02 ERA. LaTroy Hawkins had a nice 2004, with 69 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 82 innings. Read on for more about him. Mike Remlinger is back as the nominal lefthanded setup man after pitching only 37 innings last year.
So, do you need to know who the closer will be so you donít get stuck with Kevin Gregg as the saves leader on your fantasy team? It was Hawkins last year, but there have been rumblings that Ryan Dempster will close games for the Cubs this year. (If he saves 31 games, he will jump from 24th to 3rd on the all-time saves list of Canadian Players Not Born in Quťbec. I will award 30 million points to anyone who can name the current top 3.)
However, Baker told the Chicago Tribune everyone "wants Dempster there because LaTroy had some down games last year, but LaTroy has the stuff. He has to not be in a hurry to close out a game. If you're 0-2 or 1-2, you don't have to throw a strike. Sometimes he's a victim of throwing almost too many strikes." Hawkins has pitched five years in relief and the two best years came when he was setting up Eddie Guardado in Minnesota. Cubs fans have noted his Terry Adams-like closing ability and he was second in the majors in blown saves in 2004, one behind Esteban Yan of the Tigers. He should be a very good setup man, though Ė setting things up for Dempster or Borowski. If you ask me, I would give Borowski the closer's job.
Thatís five relievers, so two of the following pitchers will fill out the rest of the staff:
Chad Fox is a non-roster invitee and the team likes what they have seen so far from the 34 year old. Fox has struck out more than a batter per inning in every season except 2002, when he pitched only five innings, but he gives up too many hits to be a dependable member of the bullpen. Jon Leicester had a nice debut last year in relief and heís 26 Ė a perfect age to step into a big-league role. Mike Wuertz is remarkably similar to Leicester, so whatever you know about Jon, apply to Mike. Todd Wellemeyer will get a look, but he's probably ticketed for Des Moines.
Also, you'll most likely see Will Ohman and Stephen Randolph pitching some innings.
What Else Can I Say?
Interestingly, in the last eight years, the Cubs have had a pattern to their seasons. If itís a winning season, they win 88, 89 or 90 games. Otherwise, they win 65, 67 or 68 games.
Using this scientific method, I predict Chicago will win 88 games and make the playoffs as the Wild Card team, finishing very close behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Houston will drop off and finish under .500, making Michael Barrett very happy.
However, in the division series, a Tim Hudson-Carlos Zambrano showdown in Game 5 goes Atlantaís way and the Cubs go home yet again.