Team Preview: Chicago Cubs
So in the spirit of Spring Training, it's time to start up with team previews. Teams will be previewed in approximately the same order as we like them. We try not to accord too much favor or bias around here, but...we like some teams more than others. This will only be reflected in the order of the previews. We promise. Sort of. Anyway, the general idea is that we'll talk a bit about the team to preface it all, mention how they did last year and what they've done to address the situation this year. We'll guess at what they will look like on the diamond, and who will log significant innings and/or saves in Around the Horn and From the Bump, respectively. Furthermore, we'll use PECOTA to help us predict what they'll each do this year. Should be great fun. Let's get going.
Last year was supposed to be next year for the perennial bridesmaids from the North Side. With a powerful offense (at 5.32 runs per game, the 2nd most prolific in MLB) and outstanding pitching (4.17 RA per game, 4th in MLB), they appeared poised to make a deep playoff run, especially after knocking out 97 regular season wins, second only to the Angels. But a lackadaisical showing in the field cost them dearly against the Dodgers in the NLDS, as the Manny-led Blue Bombers swept the Cubbies out of the playoffs. This year, GM Jim Hendry has made several changes that he hopes can vanquish the ghost of the goat and finally bring a World Series trophy back to Wrigley.
To this end, Hendry inked mercurial OF Milton Bradley to a 3 year, $30 million deal, hoping Bradley's powerful bat will be in the lineup often enough in the coming seasons to justify his millions. He, much moreso than fellow FA signee Joey Gathright, will help to offset the loss of once-reviled Jim Edmonds, whose 23.0 VORP placed him 9th on the team. Also departing this offseason: little-reviled utility man Mark DeRosa. Posting a 35.4 VORP (3rd on the team) and wielding a handy glove at just about every position that doesn't require a mask made him a very valuable member of the team...so Hendry decided to trade him for the bag of baseballs that is the collection of minor league pitchers Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer, and John Gaub. Replacing him is Aaron Miles, who is not especially gifted at putting his bat on a baseball. But just between us and you, we hear he's a force at shuffleboard.
As for notable moves in the pitching department, longtime Cub Kerry Wood, whose rookie year 20 K, 1 "H" (it was an error), performance is the best pitching performance that we can think of. Unfortunately, we're pretty sure that he left more of an impression on the training table than on the mound (seriously, you can tour the clubhouse and lay in his body outline), so the Cubs didn't want to commit too much money over the next couple of years. They traded for RHP Kevin Gregg, a deal we pan because RHP prospect Jose Ceda is probably as good of a pitcher as Gregg right now, and will almost certainly be better in the next couple of seasons. But, Gregg comes with that all-important closer label and has a bucket of saves to his name, and profiles as the setup man to punchout savant Carlos Marmol, forming a fairly formidable back end of the bullpen. Cubs fans have also got to be excited about a full season (ha ha) from RHP Rich Harden (a Canadian), who made quite an impression in his blue pinstripes last season.
PECOTA projected record: 94-68, 1st in NL Central
KCDS projected record: 90-72, 1st in NL Central
We're not as bullish as PECOTA on their chances. A weaker outfield and the loss of DeRosa, plus what we think will be a subpar pitching performance, leaves lots of questions to be answered. But there's not much else to like in the Central.
Around the Horn
C Geovany Soto: .294/.379/.533. A rookie sensation last year, Soto really made an impression after not being particularly well-regarded as a prospect. A plus defender with an impact bat, Soto should have the backstop locked down for the Cubbies for years to come.
1B Derrek Lee: .287/.369/.454, 15 HR. A bit of a down year for D-Lee in 2008, who posted his lowest slugging percentage since 1999, and was below his career average in OBP. The 33-year old is likely in his decline phase, but his excellent glove and still above-average bat continue to provide value at first base.
2B Mike Fontenot: .278/.356/.440, 11 HR. We don't particularly care for Fontenot, but there's no denying that he's a serviceable player. There's no reason he can't put up DeRosa-like numbers up the middle, and he's going to help more than hurt.
3B Aramis Ramirez: .288/.363/.529, 30 HR. A rock at the hot corner since the 2003 heist that brought him and Kenny Lofton over from the Pirates, Ramirez, at 31, is still capable of putting up the big offensive numbers that he always has, and has added a good glove to go with it.
SS Ryan Theriot: .282/.359/.350, 22 SB. Ryan "Therallykiller" Theriot has a devoted fan following which belies his utter lack of power and marginal usefulness. He can be the SS on a championship team...we'd just rather that teams we like didn't try to have it that way.
LF Alfonso Soriano: .281/.348/.538, 38 HR, 25 SB. Soriano should continue to be worth his 8/$136 million deal, as his leg issues from last season should be fully healed, allowing him to put in a full season in front of the left field ivy. We just hope Sweet Lou has the head to move him down in the order, putting his estimable power to more efficient use.
CF Reed Johnson/Kosuke Fukudome: .280/.355/.419, 10 HR, 10 SB. Rosuke Fukuson (or whatever other amalgamation you prefer) projects as the two-headed monster in CF this year; I approximately weighted their numbers to reflect a 60-40 split in ABs. Fukudome was excellent in April last year, then tailed off badly; Johnson was about league-average in his 330 ABs. The two of them together won't be studly, and on a contender like the Cubs, may be something of a liability.
RF Milton Bradley: .310/.418/.540, 25 HR, 500 AB. Bradley, on the other hand, should be studly. We love his bat coming over to the National League, but whether his body can hold up while playing the outfield every day is going to be a huge issue for him. We're confident he can finally put it all together and be a huge part of what should be a strong Cubs lineup.
From the Bump: Starters
RHP Carlos Zambrano: 195 IP, 3.99 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 145 K, 80 BB. Zambrano's numbers have been trending the wrong way in the last couple of years, and it looks like heavy use in his younger days may be catching up with him. We like him to rebound a bit this year, since he's going to be 27 (we're surprised, too), and we like to ignore last season's arm problems. If they're fixed, and don't portend future trouble, Zambrano is still nearly ace-caliber.
RHP Ryan Dempster: 180 IP, 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 160 K, 70 BB. Dempster's return to the rotation was a smashing success last year, and it earned him a big payday. We don't think his numbers will be as great as last year's, but what we project him for is certainly serviceable for a number 2 guy. His age (32) isn't a huge concern for us since he spent the last couple of years in the bullpen; we think he has more tread on the tires to wear through yet.
RHP Rich Harden: 150 IP, 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 189 K, 62 BB. Harden is flat out dominating when he's capable of actually throwing a baseball. Unfortunately, it looks like his body is flat-out incapable of allowing him to do that over a full season. Just now 27, if he stays healthy, he would easily be the best pitcher on this team, and one of the best in baseball.
LHP Ted Lilly: 190 IP, 4.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 169 K, 53 BB. Lilly has, we think, always been somewhat underrated despite posting consistently above-average numbers, which stand out in today's age that lauds mediocrity on the mound. The lefty turns 33 this year, but having topped 200 IP in the last 2 seasons, seems well-poised to continue his excellent-for-the-back-end pitching for 2009.
LHP Sean Marshall: 140 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 102 K, 58 BB. Marshall finally has the opportunity to win a rotation spot outright after being fed some spot starts in the last few seasons. Competing with Aaron "Better in the bullpen" Heilman and Angel "Former top prospect" Guzman shouldn't be too difficult for the talented lefty; we see him taking the job.
From the Bump: Relievers
Closer Carlos Marmol: 60 IP, 2.35 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 85 K, 35 BB, 40 SV. Marmol has absolutely filthy stuff and the numbers to back it up, but as someone who's spent plenty of time watching him, he has stretches where his slider flattens out or he loses command of his heater...and when that happens, he can be prone to the long ball. He is the nominal closer, so he'll probably be relegated to not much more than 1 inning stints, but if we had our way, he'd be throwing 100 innings out of the pen to really maximize the value of his phenomenal right arm.
Setup man Kevin Gregg: 75 IP, 3.98 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 70 K, 35 BB. Gregg has been underwhelming in terms of how well he's actually pitched relative to the saves he's accumulated (62), but that's a function of the overvaluing of the save in today's game. A short-arm delivery and average offerings don't hold much promise for the future for this 31 year old, but with the plethora of bullpen arms the Cubs have, he doesn't need to be great for them to succeed.