The Cincinnati Reds are the defending NL Central champs. The Milwaukee Brewers are this year’s darlings after adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to a team already flush with big bats and young bullpen arms. The St. Louis Cardinals should still contend even with Adam Wainwright gone, given the presence of Chris Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and the best player in the world.
Where does leave the Chicago Cubs? Middle of the pack, most likely.
Projected Starting Lineup
1 RF Kosuke Fukudome*
2 SS Starlin Castro
3 CF Marlon Byrd
4 3B Aramis Ramirez
5 1B Carlos Peña*
6 LF Alfonso Soriano
7 C Geovany Soto
8 2B Blake DeWitt*
*indicates left-handed batter
There’s some upside there.
The Cubs finished 10th in the NL last season in runs scored, as a lot went wrong with the offense. After six straight seasons with a wOBA of .380 or better, Aramis Ramirez‘s production plummeted (to .321) thanks to injuries; some progression would seem likely. Geovanny Soto, one of the top offensive catchers in the game, played just 105 games last year; better health and a new manager who hopefully won’t overbench him will help. Carlos Peña couldn’t crack the Mendoza Line last year, but away from the AL East, you have to like his chances of beating Derrek Lee‘s punchless .251/.335/.416 line from last year. Blake DeWitt‘s nothing special, but the score to beat is Ryan Theriot‘s .647 OPS last year with the Cubs.
There are plenty of weaknesses and question marks, of course. There’s no superstar in this lineup, even in the most optimistic scenario. Starlin Castro‘s .300 average (and .346 BABIP) will be tough to replicate. Five of the eight starters are well over 30 and thus probably done growing as players.
Still, there’s enough here to project average or slightly above-average offense. Finding at-bats for Tyler Colvin could help too.
That’s… not bad at all, actually.
Much of the rotation’s success could depend on Matt Garza, one of several protagonists in the best book ever written, The Extra 2%. There are plenty of sabermetric reasons to wonder if the Cubs really got a front-line pitcher when they traded four intriguing prospects for Garza this off-season. First, there’s Garza’s fly-ball tendencies (GB% just 35.8% last year) and corresponding home-run woes (1.23 HR/9 IP). Despite wielding highly regarded stuff, he’s a so-so misser of bats who’s had just one season where he’s struck out more than 7.27 batter per nine innings. Garza’s also only managed one season with an xFIP better than 4.48. Oh, and he’s leaving the ballpark rated friendliest in baseball last year according to ESPN’s park factors for Wrigley Field, the third-toughest pitcher’s park in 2010. On the other hand, Garza’s a durable pitcher leaving the horrors of the AL East for the cushier NL Central. He’ll be an upgrade.
Beyond Garza’s arrival, you’ve got Ryan Dempster coming off three straight seasons of three and a half wins or more, Randy Wells above 3 WAR in each of the past two seasons, an increasingly fragile but still effective Carlos Zambrano, and Carlos Silva deploying enough walk-limiting mojo to be one of the better No. 5 starters in the game. Again, no superstar, but some solid contributors. The rotation projects better than the lineup actually, and could rank solidly in that second tier behind the Phillies, Braves, Giants, and Brewers.
The bullpen looks good too. Kerry Wood‘s back and still striking out more than a batter per inning, making him an intriguing potential set-up man for Nintendo-numbers closer Carlos Marmol. Sean Marshall emerged as one of the best lefty relievers in the game last year with a sparkling 2.59 xFIP. There’s enough youth and upside among the rest of the relief corps to suggest some potential depth, too.
Ramirez. He went from hitting like Troy Tulowitzki to hitting like Troy McClure last year. He’s played in just 212 games over the past two seasons, and last year his injuries killed his production as well as his attendance record. If he can manage 125 games at somewhere near his career .356 wOBA, that’s a big lift for a lineup that’s not bad, but still the weak link on the ballclub. There probably aren’t enough breakout candidates to expect the Cubs to surprise and leapfrog their more dynamic NL Central rivals. But a healthy and productive Ramirez could at least make things interesting for a while.
So where does all this leave the Cubs? Redleg Nation tallied up every team’s ZiPS projections, added playing time, and came up with a surprisingly bullish projection of 86 wins. PECOTA wasn’t as generous, forecasting 80 wins. In both cases, the Cubbies trailed the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals in some order. It’s not impossible that a pennant race could take shape on the North Side. But we wouldn’t bet on it.
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