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.

We hoped you liked reading Team Preview: Chicago Cubs by Jonah Keri!

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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.

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Chuck
Guest
Chuck

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….

Ree
Member
Ree

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?

odbsol
Guest
odbsol

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.

Jack Weiland
Guest
Jack Weiland

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.

Dan
Guest
Dan

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.