Team Preview: Chicago Cubs

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.

Pitching Staff
RHP Ryan Dempster
RHP Carlos Zambrano
RHP Matt Garza
RHP Randy Wells
RHP Carlos Silva

RHP Carlos Marmol
RHP Kerry Wood
LHP Sean Marshall
RHP Andrew Cashner
LHP John Grabow
LHP Scott Maine
RHP Jeff Samardzija

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.

Key Player

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.

Summary

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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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


48 Responses to “Team Preview: Chicago Cubs”

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  1. Chuck says:

    Spot on. I think the Cubs win 80ish games. Probably closer to 80 than to 89, but a decent year, in contention for some time.

    As a Cubs fan, though, I am eagerly waiting for next year (as always). Finally get to remove some of that dead weight blocking some actual MLB prospects. Fukudome gone for Colvin, Silva gone for Cashner, Ramirez gone for Vitters or Smith (unless Ramierz comes all the way back and gets re-upped). The top 4 in the rotation return along with Cashner (who should break camp as the 5th starter anyway). AND they’ll have a TON of money to go after a certain best player in the world. Looking up for 2012, now just need some good things to break the Cubs way to get us through 2011….

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    • Ree says:

      I’ve never gotten all the hate for Fukudome. Yes, his price is definitely higher than it should be, but any player who walks about 15% of the time is going to help a team imho. Is it mainly the contract, sort of like how some Giants fans hate Zito with a passion when he’s been above average/solid, if overpaid?

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      • odbsol says:

        Not sure either. I think it was the 1st prolonged slump he had 2 years ago when it looked like he was spinning out of his at-bats all the time. Maybe the perception was that he didn’t try hard enough to improve or make changes. But it’s definitely a contract that I think Cub fans have come to resent. Which is odd given that Soriano & Zambrano are both paid more and have arguably performed worse. I personally don’t mind him as a top or bottom of the order guy given his OBP.

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      • Jack Weiland says:

        It’s the contract. And the hype he had when he came over. He was basically pimped as a hybrid between Ichiro and Matsui (the good one) when he came across the pond.

        I like the guy just fine, but he’s basically a one-trick OBP pony, has poor power for a corner outfielder, and his defense leaves a bit to be desired. He’s been a disappointment, but not nearly as much of one as the MSM would make you believe.

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      • Dan says:

        As a Cubs fan, part of it is the contract. The main part is he plays great in April, then every month continues to get worse over the course of the season which lowers his expected BA and HR for the season. And it’s been a trend for 3 years now (minus a couple outlier months in 09 and 10). Then on top of that he’s our lead-off hitter because nobody else can do it. If he was 2nd (early in the season) and 8th in the lineup (later in the season), he’d be perfect, no matter his contract since he gets on base.

        To odbsol: Yeah, I hate the Zambrano and Soriano contracts even more, so they really don’t play a part in hating on Fukudome, it’s his trends I personally hate.

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  2. Kyle says:

    I can’t say I agree with the braves being a top tier pitching team. I’d like the marlins and rockies before them.
    “I’m Troy McClure, and I’ll leave you with what we all came here to see: hardcore nudity!”

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  3. Jack Nugent says:

    I actually don’t think 86 wins is outside the realm of possibility at all. The Cubs blogosphere is just so wrapped up in what this team’s record was last year, it seems like some people just can’t look at this team in a different light. They are far, far from favorites, but I don’t think it might only take a little good luck for this team to sneak into the playoffs.

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  4. There seems to be a chance the Cubs FO might not use Wells as their 4th starter — possibly sending him to the ‘pen or minors in favor of a lesser pitcher (such as James Russell, Thomas Diamond, or the soon-to-be-great Andrew Cashner).

    If that happens, expect the saber Cubs fans (i.e. me and my friends) to collectively become White Sox fans for no less than 1 year.

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    • mister_rob says:

      THey wont move Wells for Diamond or Russell

      Most likely it will be wells and cashner for 4 and 5. Maybe wells and silva. Slight possibility of silva and cashner. I would be truly shocked if the 4 and 5 spots arent 2 of silva, wells, and cashner.

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      • Jack Weiland says:

        I’d expect Cashner to start in AAA. Garza-Dempster-Z-Wells-Silva seems like the most likely rotation.

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    • Sign me up for White Sox season tickets if Quade kicks Randy Wells out of the rotation. And if Thomas Diamond winds up getting his spot, I’m becoming a Yankees fan.

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Have any evidence of that? I’ve seen nothing legitimate.

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      • Ace says:

        Repeated suggestions by insiders that the Cubs would “like” Andrew Cashner and James Russell to win rotation spots (and statements echoing the same from Mike Quade), and the continued (if inexplicable) belief that Carlos Silva can be a meaningful back-end option.

        It’s indefensible and unlikely, but Wells being excluded from the rotation is a real possibility.

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  5. Lewie Pollis says:

    Troy McClure is a much better hitter than Aramis Ramirez.

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  6. mister_rob says:

    I really think the writers here are overvaluing superstars a bit. Yes, the Cardinals have two superstars. They also have a 5 hitter who might be done, and 6,7,8,9, and 1 hitters who cant hit the ball 200 feet or get on base regularly. Basically, the Cardinals will have 3 innings a game where they have a chance to score (whenever rasmus, pujols, and holliday are due up). The other 6 innings will be a cakewalk for opposing pitchers
    Jonah pointed out they have a good rotation. And a good bullpen. and they dont have any black holes (ie gomez, betancourt) in the lineup. I dont know how everyone can just dismiss a team constructed as such
    And if they do find themselves in contention come the end of July, they probably have the best combo of payroll/prospects in the division yo make a move. MIL spent all their money and have a horrible system. Same with STL. cincy has prospects but not much money

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      Well put– that’s really the best way to sum up the 2011 Cubs. Health permitting, there really shouldn’t be any holes on this team. Even at 2B where DeWitt figures to get the majority of ABs, he’s got a great caddy in Jeff Baker for when there’s a lefty on the mound.

      If the Pena gamble pays off, the Cubs are gonna be in this thing until the bitter end.

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  7. Jonah Keri says:

    Somewhat agreed, mister_rob. No holes is an awesome approach. That’s ostensibly what the Rays do (though Price and Longoria are stars, to be fair).

    I do think it’s not impossible that this can contend at least into the summer. And then…sure, if another Cliff Lee’s on the market, things could change in a hurry.

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    • mister_rob says:

      THe current Braves (who everyone seems to agree will contend) are also built in much the same way

      Chipper isnt a superstar anymore. Im not sure you can call Heyward one yet. McCann and Uggla are certainly good, but not superstars. They seem to be average plus everywhere though. Same with the pitching staff. No huge household names but some very good pitchers

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  8. This is a solid overview of the 2011 Cubs. The only minor thing I’d quibble with is it really looks like the team is viewing Andrew Cashner as a starter. (Mike Quade said just this week that it would probably be a mistake if the Cubs didn’t give him a legit shot in that role.) So, presumably, we’ll either see Cashner break camp in the rotation or head to Iowa to start the season. Otherwise, that’s exactly how I’d project the 25-man roster at the moment.

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  9. Chris says:

    I’m shocked by how often Cub followers hail Josh Vitters as part of the team’s future. He has now played in 290 career minor league games and put up a very pedestrian 275/317/435 slash line. If those were *major league* numbers you’d say “That guy’s not very good…” But these are *minor league* numbers – how do you think they’ll translate to the big leagues? I don’t see it happening.

    I also just noticed his career fielding percentage at 3B so far is .907. Yeesh…

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      Fair points Chris, although anyone who is counting on VItters to be a part of the Cubs’ future is obviously counting on a breakout from him at some point in the near future. I suppose until that comes it’s fair to be skeptical, but there’s also plenty of reason to believe we’ve yet to see who Vitters really is.

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    • Chuck says:

      Absolutely correct Chris. Vitters hasn’t done a thing yet in the minors. He graduates up a level, struggles incredibly, but then he repeats the level and actually puts up some numbers.
      2nd stint in Peoria:
      .316/.351/.535
      2nd stint in Daytona:
      .291/.350/.445

      If he can put up similiar numbers in his age 21 season at Tennessee (2nd stint), then he can come back on the radar for the Cubs for 2012 (unlikely) or 2013 (more likely if he can put up those numbers above).

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      • odbsol says:

        Key point in there is that he’s 21 at AA so there is still hope.

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      • Rob G. says:

        other key point is that he hasn’t had more than 325 PA’s at one level yet, so saying he’s repeating a level is a distortion.

        but yes, 2012 at the very earliest. He’s still got 4-5years of baseball in him before he has to truly figure it out.

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  10. Sophist says:

    Hey Cubbie fans: lots of room on the South Side bandwagon. We can build common ground on three historic links: Sammy Sosa, Ron Santo, and Harry Caray. Four, if you’ll forgive Steve Stone.

    I’m not sure if the money coming off the books next year is enough to get Pujols, and really not enough to plug other holes if they do. Hard to see Ricketts keeping the salary where it is now. Certainly not going to see Pujols if Ramirez and Zambrano salaries are still on the books in 2012.

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      Umm… actually it’s more than enough to get Pujols. Unless you think Pujols will command $40MM+ in his first year after free agency that is. The Cubs could have an absurd about of money coming off the books– $14MM from Aramis, ~$13MM for Fukudome, ~$10MM from Grabow/Silva….

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      • Sophist says:

        But they also have $5MM deferred going to Pena in 2012, and there’s usually some guys getting increases via arbitration. Yes, that still may leave that $30MM for Pujols, but only if Ricketts is willing to leave the team salary that high and if there’s no other holes to spend money on.

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      • mike says:

        Cubs payroll after arbitration + increases is under 95M without keeping Aramis for 2012 at the moment.

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    • Sox27 says:

      We really don’t want bandwagon jumpers…

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  11. Kenny says:

    Hi, I’m Aramis Ramirez. You may remember me from such All-Star games as 2005 and 2008.

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  12. Dan Szymborski says:

    For what it’s worth, I have ZiPS giving the Cubs 83 wins (81 before the Garza) trade), tied for third with the post-Wainwright Cards and behind the 85-86 win total of the Reds and Brewers.

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    • JayT says:

      This is how I see the division too. I don’t think the Cubs will be great or anything, but I also don’t see any NL Central teams winning 90 games. IN fact I wouldn’t be surprised is 85 wins are enough to win the division. That makes four teams that could easily make it to the playoffs with some luck.

      My money is on the division ending up Reds, Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals.

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  13. daniel says:

    A little sloppy. Geovany Soto is one of the best catchers in the majors and Starlin Castro is, if not a true superstar, definitely an above-average regular in the making. For him to have a high babip is understandable with his excellent contact skills and stroke, and he’ll develop more patience as he grows. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him hit .300 again this year.

    But I agree with your overall prognosis for my Cubbies… we can be in the race if everything goes right and we get a little luck, and once you’re in the race, it’s a whole different ballgame. If we don’t contend, well, for once we’re not severely crippled by bad contracts and there’s plenty of room for the youth movement that should start next year.

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      Yah agreed on both accounts. Geo is one of the most underrated players in professional baseball, no exaggeration, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Castro hit .300 again. He has batting titles in his future– maybe not immediately, but the fact he hit .300 as a 20 year old strikes me as more amazing than it does lucky.

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    • Chuck says:

      Also to touch on the idea if the Cubs don’t contend… They do have some interesting expiring contracts that some other clubs would give up some talent for. I could see Byrd, Aramis, Fukudome, Silva (in that order) drawing interest. That would only continue the youth movement, giving some guys more PT in 2011 and restocking the farm system.

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  14. X says:

    Hi, I’m Troy McClure and I hit better than Aramis Ramirez since 2008. (always love the simpsons referances)

    Not a huge cubs fan by anymeans but the team has some character and I agree that they will end the season in the middle of the pack in the divison. I think to many people are high on the Brew Crew and the I just dont believe in the Reds although they will be exciting to watch. The Cards were my pick to win the divison but with the injury bug in there ears the cant afford another loss their. The race is looking alot closer than people think should be the most exciting divison in baseball. Better even than the AL EAST(not better teams just a more exciting race for the whole year.)

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    • Sox27 says:

      How can you pick a team with so many defensive black-holes to win a division? Even with Wainwright you still had: Berkman in RF, Holliday in LF, Theriot at SS and what Schumaker at 2B. That’s a really bad defense

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  15. Eddie says:

    Fire Jim Hendry.

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  16. Brett W says:

    The only complaint with Fukudome is his dreidel action in the batter’s box. The beef is with his salary. Yes, the hype machine was telling people he was going to hit with Ichiro’s contact and Hideki’s power, but the saber-friendly Cubs blogs had already figured out by the time of the signing that, based on age and Japan-to-ML translation factors, that he was probably going to hit more like Tadahito Iguchi. And he did.

    Fire Jim Hendry indeed.

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  17. Joe says:

    I think the wild card here is the transition from Piniella to Quade. The team looked every bit as lethargic as Sweet Lou last year, and that clearly showed in their record. Now, with some new blood at manager and a few new pieces, maybe they will benefit from some extra energy and motivation. It seems impossible that their energy level and intensity could go down.

    The other unknown is Carlos Pena. This is a legitimate 40+ homer guy, when healthy, and is a quality first baseman. For all of the things that Hendry has done wrong, this was a GREAT, low-risk signing. Pena is a Boras client trying to cash in with a big year; I call that motivation. And for all of the talk about Garza switching stadiums and going to a more “hitter-friendly” park, why have we not focused on Pena switching from a tough hitter’s park to Wrigley? Seems reasonable that he could easily surpass 40 homers, with a .370+ OBP.

    The lineup is pretty solid, especially if Ramirez comes back. A 30-homer year for Ramirez would make this a promising team. Castro needs to up his OBP, but he is a potential difference-maker at SS. I’m not sure that time is yet, but it’s coming. Byrd has been very solid, Fukudome is finally being used correctly at lead-off, and the bottom of the order with Soto and DeWitt is deeper than most NL teams.

    I think the analysis of the pitching staff was pretty spot-on: solid, if unspectacular, starting staff and a potentially dominant bullpen. Having Wood back feels right and makes me happy. Seeing him in Yankee pinstripes nearly made me ill.

    So, I think this team has serious potential to stay in the race. With the Cubs (as we all know), there are no certainties, but this team has the potential to surprise.

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  18. Adam S says:

    With Piniella gone, do you really think the Cubs really stick with the idiotic lineup and roles he had in place. Soto is the best hitter on the team and Lou hit him at the bottom of the order, aside from the 1/3 of the time he was benched. I hope Quade is smarter than that.

    That lineup looks so much better if you slide Castro down to 7th and move everyone up. Swapping Pena and Soto helps too. Yeh, I know batting orders don’t matter much, but you might as well try.

    Ya really think Fukudome beats out Colvin for the RF job?

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  19. Joe says:

    Adam S: Soto’s track record has been so up and down that I’m not sure we can definitively say he’s the best hitter on the team. Castro’s play will determine his spot in the order. The overall problem is the Cubs have overvalued power for so long that they need a complete shift to value OBP more. The Cubs must lead the league in solo HR’s over the last 5 years or so. Anyone have any data on that?

    As for Fukudome and Colvin: Colvin really struggled at the end of last year. Fukudome is nothing great, but he’s relatively consistent and he makes a lot of money. That second part shouldn’t matter but we all know it does. He should play if for no other reason than to raise his trade value.

    The best solution would be a Colvin/Soriano platoon. I think that’s highly unlikely, but they would complement each other well.

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  20. CubsFan says:

    My understanding of the competition for the last 2 rotations spots is that said competition has been conjured up to motivate Wells. There has been quite a bit of chatter about some of his off-field habits and I think the front office and/or field management believes that he will perform better if he is forced to fight for his job. I think the Cubbies will start the season with a rotation of Dempster, Garza, Zambrano, Wells and Silva. After Carlos Silva has experienced his usual early season success and then begins to perform at his true talent level he will be replaced by Cashner. I don’t believe Cashner is ever going to be successful as anything other than a reliever but his potential demands that he be given an opportunity to start.

    I agree with the idea that Fukudome’s contributions have been under appreciated because of his contract. Kosuke is a good, solid ballplayer but he is being paid like a star. If he made (considerably) less money with the same production everyone would love him.

    As for the lineup, I will not be surprised if Darwin Barney ends up taking a lot of the at bats that are being projected to go to Dewitt, Soto should absolutely hit higher in the order and play more consistently and Starlin is a star in the making.

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  21. CubsFan says:

    The question that has been bouncing around in my head all offseason is “Where was Jim Hendry when the Angels decided it was a good idea to give up assets for Vernon Wells AND eat his entire contract in the process?”. I’m pretty sure we could have accommodated their wishes for a fading outfielder with an albatross contract by shipping Soriano to them.

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  22. goyo70 says:

    I don’t follow the Cubs closely, but is Samardzija being looked at as a reliever or starter? It looked as though he had been starting in all his minor league time last season. Is the main problem that he’s wild and therefore behind Cashner in the fight for Silva’s job?

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