2008 Chicago Cubs

Sunday, March 16 2008 @ 12:20 PM EDT

Contributed by: Alex Obal

After 99 years of futility, the Cubs seem to be getting serious. They've returned the entire core of last year's division champ, and added a handful of fresh bats to improve upon a respectable offense. Their pitching staff, which finished second in the senior circuit in ERA, remains intact. And the NL Central is awful.

The stars have aligned.

Could this finally be the year?

Uh, I guess. Maybe. Don't hold your breath or anything.

Here are your 2008 Chicago Cubs!


The Cubs only scored the eighth-most runs in the NL last year.

I say only because that was news to me, given how strong their lineup looks on paper. Eighth? They didn't seem that bad. Their two pillars of excellence, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, had typically excellent seasons. And they squeezed .370 OBPs out of some unlikely sources: 34-year-old Cliff Floyd as a full-time platoon partner, and career utilityman Mark DeRosa as an everyday second baseman. But that overachievement was offset by five months of jarringly pathetic output from the catcher position (Barrett, Blanco, Bowen, Hill, Kendall...) and a Russ Adams-level offensive performance at short from Aaron Hill's old double play partner at LSU, Ryan Theriot. And when the dust settled, and the bad had canceled out the good, and Alfonso Soriano had single-handedly transformed the offense with his .337 on-base percentage, the final product was the Same Old Cubs: ninth in the NL in OBP.

This offseason, the Cubs got a bit younger, and a bit more Japanese as well. In 2008, Chunichi Dragons superstar Kosuke Fukudome replaces Floyd and Matt Murton in right field, Geovany Soto is the everyday catcher, and 23-year-old Felix Pie will be entrusted with full-time center field duties.

Projected batting order, with 2008 CHONE projections:

LF Alfonso Soriano R 621 20.6 6.8 .283 .338 .534
SS Ryan the Riot R 536 10.1 8.6 .268 .332 .360
1B Derrek Lee R 518 17.6 11.6 .301 .390 .524
3B Aramis Ramirez R 596 11.6 8.1 .297 .361 .541
RF Kosuke Fukudome L 600 18.7 11.5 .283 .373 .465
C Geovany! R 479 20.5 10.0 .275 .351 .464
2B Mark DeRosa R 556 17.4 9.5 .274 .353 .417
CF Felix Pie L 536 20.0 7.1 .272 .326 .433

Lee, Ramirez and Soriano are pretty easy to project. Barring injury, Lee and Ramirez will be very good. Soriano will be very intimidating and powerful but overrated. Baseball Prospectus' #1 PECOTA comp for Soriano is Joe Carter, and it's such an obvious one I can't believe I never thought of it myself. He gets hits, homers, RBIs, steals, doubles, all that good stuff that begets hype - it's just that he strikes out a ton and doesn't walk. It is noteworthy that Soriano was very good as a defensive left fielder last year, a +3 according to Chris Dial. Because of Wrigley Field's weird dimensions you want to make sure you have good range in the corners, and Soriano certainly fits that bill patrolling one corner.

As for the guy in the other corner? Not sure what you can expect him to provide with the glove, but the consensus seems to be that 31-year-old Kosuke Fukudome is going to have little trouble translating his bat to the North American game. The comparison being thrown around is J.D. Drew - lefty outfielder with a good batting eye and a bit of pop.

The numbers support it. Fukudome has posted OBPs north of .430 in each of the last three seasons. Two years ago, Fukudome hit an obscene .351/.438/.653 line with 31 homers. Last year, his season was shortened by a right elbow injury, but he walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career and put up a .443 OBP anyway. Fukudome tends to hit 25 to 30 homers a year when healthy, a tad fewer than Akinori Iwamura did. Iwamura only hit seven longballs last year for the Rays. But I think you can safely pencil Fukudome in for 10 to 15 taters at least, because of his superior batting eye and Wrigley's cozy power alleys.

Last year's rightfield platoon of Floyd and Murton put together a .360 OBP with brutal defense. Fukudome's presence should improve the former, and will improve the latter. He almost certainly represents an upgrade over what should be expected from Floyd and Murton in 2008.

But he's nowhere near as big of an upgrade as the Cubs figure to receive at catcher this season. Last year, Michael Barrett was supposed to be a sure shot above-average catcher. He'd put up an .885 OPS in 2006 and hadn't OPS'd below .800 since 2003. Nope. He bombed. His relationship with ace Carlos Zambrano exploded while his bat imploded, so the Cubs Hillenbranded him in June and fished through retreads looking for a suitable band-aid solution. Sadly, Barrett, backup Henry Blanco, journeymen Rob Bowen and Koyie Hill, and mercenary Jason Kendall combined to hit a whopping .226/.291/.341 out of a position that was widely expected to be a clear strength.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Cubs wound up with the best catcher in minor-league baseball as a result of one of the great prospect spontaneous-combustion stories of the year: Geovany Soto. Soto, at age 24 in his third tour of AAA, hit .353/.424/.652 with 26 homers, earning a September callup. Then he proceeded to hit .389/.433/.667 for the Cubs and slug a homer in the NLDS at Arizona. Soto's AAA line is inflated by a rather unsustainable .408 BABIP, but you don't have to hit .353 every year to be a star catcher. And Lou Piniella is sold: pitchers like throwing to Soto, he's got a good arm, and he hits the ball real hard. And his name is barrels of fun to say. Geovany! The Cubs may have something really special on their hands here.

The third big positional change is in centerfield, where the Cubs appear ready to take the training wheels off speedy Felix Pie and turn him loose as an everyday big-leaguer for reals. He replaces Jacque Jones, who still can't hit lefties and lost a ton of power last year. The Cubs will bat Pie eighth, and they're not asking for much with the bat. But Pie has big offensive potential: he hit .304/.349/.554 in AA three years ago and .362/.410/.563 in AAA last year. If he happens to realize it this year, the Cubs could be a serious offensive juggernaut. Intuitively, I think it'll take him another year to really figure big-league pitching out, but even if he can't hit at all he'll still be an exciting player to watch because of his toolsiness.

Up the middle, Mark DeRosa overachieved for the second consecutive year, hitting .293/.371/.420. Is he really that good? Probably not - he's had BABIPs in the .340s both times and his career mark is .319. However, those are the only two seasons he's actually been a full-time second baseman, his K/BB ratios are improving, and he fields fine. If he regresses at all, it'll probably be offset plenty by Ryan Theriot's .289 BABIP regressing upward toward his career norm, or at least the league average. Call it a wash.

Bench material, with CHONE projections:

C Henry Blanco R 16.1 6.7 .243 .297 .387
RF Matt Murton R 13.1 9.9 .288 .358 .455
PH Daryle Ward L 16.1 11.0 .270 .353 .456
SS Ronny Cedeno R 16.2 6.0 .282 .329 .427
2B Eric Patterson L 17.0 8.1 .264 .326 .402
IF Mike Fontenot L 17.2 8.6 .259 .326 .387
OF Sam Fuld L 12.3 8.5 .254 .324 .358

Blanco, in his fourth season with the Cubs, will serve as Soto's mentor and caddy. Murton figures to spell Pie and Fukudome against lefthanders, and pulverize LOOGYs in close games. Daryle Ward is a pinch-hitting specialist with a pretty good eye, and he'll take over for Lee if the injury bug bites.

The other two spots? One of them has to go to Ronny Cedeno, 'cause he's out of options. For the third straight year, Cedeno looked like a worldbeater at AAA (.359/.420/.537) and flopped with Ginobilian authority in the majors (.203/.231/.392, 80 PA). Cedeno's ceiling is obviously higher than Ryan Theriot's current performance, but he's failed miserably in his last two shots at big-league pitching, and it's reasonable for the Cubs to have reservations about giving him more chances when they're in a pennant race. His best strategy is probably to root for a Brian Roberts trade to send him to Baltimore. Except then he'd be in Baltimore. Gosh, I dunno. Tough spot.

Eric Patterson, Corey's little brother, hit .297/.362/.455 at age 24 in his first full tour of AAA. At the very least, the Cubs have solid insurance if Mark DeRosa goes down. They could use Patterson as a versatile bat off the bench, or they could keep him as an everyday starter in Iowa to give him at-bats and use someone like the similarly versatile but less talented Mike Fontenot or Sam Fuld.

The Cubs' OBP hasn't beat the NL median since 2001, when they finished sixth. Is this the year they break that curse? It says here, emphatically, yes. They'll wind up with 810 runs, about fifth in the NL.


The Cubs' run prevention is what got them into the playoffs last year. They allowed 690 runs, second-fewest in the NL. And the team that allowed the fewest was, of course, the Padres, so there's a pretty good chance the Cubs played better D than anyone else in the NL last year. Before you adjust for strength of schedule, anyway.

Here are the CHONE projections for the seven guys most likely to start games this year. CHONE doesn't project batters faced, so I took batters faced from the most recent full season by each pitcher, divided by IP from that year, and multiplied by IP from CHONE's projection for a decent estimate. Also, Dempster's projection has him as a reliever. Also, last year's groundball percentages are listed, just to give some sense of the pitchers' groundballishness, because it's important.

Carlos Zambrano R 19.8 10.3 46.9 2.4 3.82
Ted Lilly L 19.6 8.0 33.7 3.1 3.91
Rich Hill L 22.8 8.0 36.0 3.1 3.87
Sean Marshall L 15.2 8.9 48.2 3.0 4.43
Jon Lieber R 14.2 6.0 43.8 2.8 4.63
Jason Marquis R 12.7 9.1 49.5 3.0 4.71
Ryan Dempster R 20.3 10.8 47.1 2.0 4.00

The odd thing about the Cubs' rotation is that it really doesn't have a defined ace. OK, Big Z is the face of the staff, and the opening day starter. But his ratios aren't that great. Zambrano's biggest ace quality is his ability to go deep into games despite running up high pitch counts. He's a horse. On the other hand, he gives up a ton of walks for a supposed ace and succeeds primarily by beating the league BABIP benchmarks year in and year out - he has a .277 career BABIP despite not being a groundball or popup machine, which is incredibly rare. I mean, I know it's gotten to the point where it's happened enough that you can call it a trend and predict that it'll continue with a reasonable amount of confidence, but it's not something I'd enjoy betting on. Rich Hill and Ted Lilly, with their superior strikeout rates and natural lefty intangibles, are just as reliable as streak stoppers in my eyes.

None of the Cubs' big three are really top-shelf Aces, but all of them are solidly above-average pitchers who are fully capable of winning 18 games in the NL in any given year. Their ERAs were all in the high 3s last year. Expect more of the same.

Tall lefty Sean Marshall took the #4 slot in the Cubs' rotation by force last year, ending the season with a 3.92 ERA after 19 starts. (Four sub-4 ERAs! What is this, the Jays?!) Marshall's a trashmaster - according to Fangraphs, he only threw 43.6% fastballs last year. He was very successful at getting hitters to beat his trash into the ground. At 48.2%, Marshall had the best groundball rate of any Cubs starter except for Jason Marquis.

The final spot in the rotation appears to be up in the air, with three veteran righties contending for it: the depressing choice (Marquis), the longshot choice (Lieber) and the intriguing choice (Dempster). Apparently, everyone is throwing really well! Marquis probably has the inside track because the Cubs signed him for $21 million over three years last winter. I know the Cubs' farm system is pretty dire on the pitching side but $21 million guaranteed seems like an extremely high price to pay for three years of Carlos Silva with an above-average walk rate. That's just me though. Lieber has battled health problems for four years now, and although he's always had great ratios, he's 38 and it's kind of risky to bank on him making it through the year in one piece. Finally, Dempster, last year's closer, is being stretched out. He probably has the best stuff out of the three choices. He's only started six games in the last four seasons, but the Cubs have the kind of deep middle relief corps that can cover for a pitcher who has trouble going deep. It's not exactly an embarrassment of riches. Given the choices, I'd probably ride Dempster and stick Marquis in middle relief until someone got hurt.

Bullpen, with CHONE projections:

Kerry Wood R 21.5 10.7 33.9 2.7 1.39 4.25
Carlos Marmol R 24.7 12.3 31.3 2.9 1.35 3.85
Michael Wuertz R 24.1 10.4 44.0 2.1 1.30 3.55
Bob Howry R 20.8 6.8 32.4 2.5 1.21 3.46
Jose Ascanio R 17.3 8.9 29.6 2.6 1.43 4.32
Scott Eyre L 19.9 11.5 38.9 2.3 1.47 4.11

I assume that one of the losers in the race for the #5 slot will break camp as the long man.

The Cubs' bullpen had the third-best ERA in the NL last year despite the 4.73 of closer Ryan Dempster. Addition by subtraction. The pen that remains is kind of like the rotation. Who's the closer? Who knows? Who cares? This is a team that could easily pull off the bullpen-by-committee approach this year if it wanted to. Piniella doesn't want that, though, and he says he'll make up his mind this week between Wood, Marmol and Howry. The link insinuates that Piniella might be leaning toward Wood because the workload on middle relievers is heavier, and Wood has health issues that Marmol and Howry don't.

With Wuertz, Howry, Marmol and Wood, this pen is so deep that the Cubs don't figure to pitch too many guys on back-to-back days anyway.

The fifth guy, hard-throwing Jose Ascanio, acquired from the Braves over the offseason for Will Ohman and Omar Infante, might figure into some high-leverage situations himself. He's 23 in May.

Overall, I figure a couple of spots in the rotation will regress a bit, while the bullpen remains roughly as strong as it was last year. The rotation overachieved by a fair margin last year. It's hard to expect a sub-4 ERA from Sean Marshall again, and there's a pretty good chance the #5 hole is an unmitigated disaster or one of the big three gets hurt. I'll say the Cubs' defense takes a few steps back and they allow 740 runs, about fifth in the NL.

Big Picture!

It's going to be a very tight race between the Cubs and Brewers for the NL Central. In the end, I think the Cubs have a slight advantage on the pitching side, and that should be enough for them to hold off Milwaukee for at least one more year. As for the playoffs? Hey, it's a crapshoot, right? Anything can happen. So the Cubs will win the NL pennant this year before falling just short in the World Series.

89-73, first in the NL Central.