Five Questions: Chicago Cubs

There I was, head in pillow, trying to block out Thom Brenneman’s words, “The Florida Marlins are going to the World Series!”

I wondered what happened to the team I saw dominate the Atlanta Braves only weeks earlier. I wondered how a sure-handed shortstop could bobble a ball so easily, and how Mike Mordecai could possibly hit a double into the gap. I was left stunned and disheartened, wondering what happened to my five outs.

Yes, I’m a Cubs fan. I watched the 2003 season closer than any before, living and dying with every touch of home plate. I had seen the reaction to the Dusty Baker signing and the Mark Prior collision. I watched Sammy Sosa‘s cork on the field and agonized over every 120-pitch start. It was an amazing season, and the closest Cubs fans had been to the World Series since World War II.

Cubs GM Jim Hendry had a very good winter, attacking every hole quickly and effectively. He dealt a young, talented first basemen in Hee Seop Choi for a more developed, more complete Derrek Lee. Michael Barrett will replace Damian Miller behind the plate, and Hendry has developed a bench not with players like Lenny Harris, but rather Todd Walker. LaTroy Hawkins was brought in to handle set-up duties, not to spawn a closer controversy like some were led to believe.

Hendry went on to lock up Kerry Wood and Derrek Lee, finishing a foundation that will be around for multiple seasons. And in one final coup, Hendry let the market come to him for future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who will come back to win his 300th game in the Windy City.

All this has had a funny effect on the Cubs. They’ve become favorites. Chicago isn’t used to back-to-back winning seasons, much less World Series predictions. Cubs fans are accustomed to chanting “Wait ‘Til Next Year” in April, not in November. But, I think all Cubs fans can agree, we can get used to this.

Now that’s not to say this team is flawless. Mark Prior‘s Achilles has Cubs fans praying that the injury isn’t an extended metaphor of what’s to come. Players like Sosa, Patterson, Ramirez, Wood, and Prior earned our trust more than ever last year, and now it’s up to them to deliver.

1) How will Greg Maddux fare in his second coming to the Second City?

If you thought watching Lou Brock beat up on the Cubs was bad, the last 11 years must have been torture. Maddux, the best homegrown starter the Cubs ever developed, won 194 games during that span with the Atlanta Braves, a team that made the playoffs each year (save 1994) with Maddux. And now, at 38 years old, Maddux returns home.

$15 million is a lot for any player, especially an aging starting pitcher. Maddux has a strikeout rate on a four-year decline, and his 2003 OPS allowed was his second-worst in the last 15 years. He struggled away from home last season, and has troubles after hitting the 80-pitch mark. Veteran leadership is hardly worth $15 million, neither is the 300th win nostalgia that’s likely to come.

But for Maddux, it’s always been about winning. Sure, it’s an overrated statistic for pitchers, but 16 years with 15 wins speaks for itself. Maddux is part of an elite, 31-pitcher group who have won 250 games since 1900, one of only three active players (Clemens and Glavine) in that regard.

More than anything else, age is the reason to put a red flag on Mad Dog. To see if this was true, I’ve tallied how the 38th birthday has impacted the rate stats of the 28 non-active players in the aforementioned group. Bob Feller and Christy Mathewson were eliminated from the study as well (they weren’t pitching at 38), bringing the total down to 26:

AGE         H/9      K/9     K/BB
Pre 38     8.22     5.32     2.07
Post 38    9.02     4.75     1.73

Many of the players in the study were pitching before 1945, when strikeouts were down, which explains the low strikeout numbers. More important than the actual numbers is the percent to which the players experienced a decrease in. Pitchers in the study saw their H/9 jump about 9.7%, the K/9 fell 10.7%, and the K/BB suffered a 16.4% hit.

During Maddux’s career thus far, he has a H/9 of 8.22 (the exact pre-38 H/9 of the group), a K/9 of 6.27, and a K/BB of 3.30. When applying the percent declines that the group experienced to Maddux’s numbers, he’d have a H/9 of 9.02, a K/9 of 5.60 and a K/BB of 2.76. The fact that his H/9 and K/9 were worse than his projected future numbers is a bad sign, and leads me to believe Maddux might suffer a more severe drop.

With that being said, I tried using the numbers from Maddux’s last three years, as those seem to be a clear barometer of where Greg is currently at. So if Maddux regresses beyond his last three seasons, he’ll have a H/9 of 9.70, a K/9 of 5.13 and a K/BB matching his career 3.30 between now and the end of his career. If you apply those numbers to 180 hypothetical 2004 innings, Greg Maddux will allow 194 hits, strike out 103, and walk 31. Worth the dough? Well, does sentimental value count?

2) What career path is Mark Prior taking?

A damn good one, that’s for sure. Prior, who somehow slipped to the Cubs with the second overall selection in the 2001 draft, has been the most exciting athlete to hit Chicago since Michael Jordan. He’s become an ace at a young age, leaving Cubs fans to pinch themselves, wondering if it’s all a dream. No, Prior is for real, and Achilles worrying aside, stands no threat to flame out anytime soon.

Since the end of World War II, Prior ranks seventh in ERA for starters through the age of 22, sitting in a very close knit group with Frank Tanana, Burt Hooten, Bert Blyleven, and Tom Seaver. Prior ranks first in both K/BB and K/9, holding off second place finishers Blyleven and Rick Ankiel by a good margin. Only six starters have had a K/9 above 9.00 before age-23, while eight have had their K/BB top 3.00. Prior is dominating and dominating without mistakes, a combination of skills that no one else could match.

Roger Clemens seems to be the most accurate comparison to Prior, a good sign seeing as though Clemens won 100 games between the ages 23-27. Prior’s worst comparisons are pitchers like Ramon Martinez and Sid Fernandez, pitchers who started off very well and declined very quickly. Pedro Martinez and Doc Gooden both had very similar numbers to Prior early on, and all three have the Hall of Fame stuff. Gooden’s career was obviously sidetracked by drugs, but Pedro is a lock for Cooperstown.

Prior was amazing in the second half last year, going 10-1, with a 1.52 ERA. He has become one of the top three pitchers in the major leagues, and like LeBron James in basketball, should be atop his sport in a few years. Minor injuries like hurting the Achilles might keep Prior away from Dusty’s wrath long enough to stay away from arm injuries.

3) Will Derrek Lee outslug vaunted home run hitter Sammy Sosa?

Sammy Sosa has hit 539 home runs during his 15-year career. By comparison, new Cubs first basemen Derrek Lee has 130. Sosa has driven in 100 runners for nine straight years, and Lee has never done so. In fact, Derrek Lee has never slugged within .030 in one season to the number Sosa has for his career (.546). Sosa’s three-year home run total surpasses Lee’s career mark. Sosa is one of the best sluggers of this generation, and Derrek Lee is merely an afterthought of today’s first basemen.

With that being said, it’s very possible that Lee will outslug his new teammate in 2004.

While Sosa has posted some amazing numbers in the last three years, he has started to show his age. Consider in each of the last three seasons, Sosa has gotten worse in each of the following statistics: AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, BB, XBH and H. While frightening in itself, the fact that Sosa hit .245/.305/.529 in the second half should have Cubs fans holding their blanket close.

On the other hand, Derrek Lee is quite the opposite. His HR, OBP and SLG are all on the rise. He’s spent the last six years playing in Pro Player Stadium, a field known for huge alleys that promote doubles far more than home runs. In the last three years, 64.6% of Lee’s home runs have been away from home, and his average has jumped 10 points away from South Florida. Wrigley Field, when the wind is right, encourages home runs like Coors Field, which will play right into Lee’s game.

Lee is going to have a big year in 2004, though I think it’s a year premature for him to be outbashing Sosa. But remember, Lee does more than hit. Last year he won a Gold Glove, and his long reach should really help Aramis Ramirez. Finally, Lee is one of only six first basemen ever to have a 30/20 season, showing a power/speed combination that few at his position can match. He might not show a better bat than Sammy Sosa in 2004, but Derrek Lee may be more valuable.

4) How do you sort out that middle infield?

Pudge Rodriguez on first base and a Gold Glove caliber shortstop deep in the hole. Things looked to be good when Miguel Cabrera bounced a ball to the right of Alex Gonzalez. The team had found a way to get out of the inning. But then, in the blink of an eye, the unthinkable happened. We’ll call it Bill Buckner II. Gonzalez had been sensational at shortstop all season, and was the most sure-fire defensive player the Cubs had. The irony was screaming out louder than a Boston fan yelling about a different shortstop.

But that time has long since passed, and as I said earlier, focus is now on this season. Gonzalez has returned this year, as has his 2003 keystone partner Mark Grudzielanek. But there is one holdup preventing Dusty Baker from filling those two names on his lineup card everyday: Todd Walker.

In 2003, Walker had the best slugging percentage of the three middle infielders involved, and his .333 OBP was much higher than Gonzalez’s .295, which translates to 23 more times on-base per 600 PA. Grudzielanek had a great year in 2003, posting a batting average well above .300 and an OBP topping .350. And for the first time in years, Gruzielanek showed no drastic platoon preference, hitting .302 against right-handers.

The same can’t be said about Todd Walker, a left-handed hitting infielder who couldn’t top a .700 OPS against southpaws. Against right-handers though, his OPS was .800, including 41 of his 55 extra-base hits. This seemingly works out well with Alex Gonzalez, who has shown a significant three-year platoon split (.780 OPS vs. LH; .690 OPS vs. RH). But there is a problem, defense.

Walker and Grudzielanek, the two superior sluggers, are both second basemen. Gruzielanek holds his own at the position, good for a +13 UZR there. Todd Walker is known as a terrible second basemen, and his -9 UZR backs up those claims.

Alex Gonzalez has a UZR of +5, and only made 10 errors at the position last season. What surprised me was how low Gonzo rated in UZR, as well as Range Factor, where his 4.48 is just below the league average of 4.52. Grudzi was raised a shortstop, posting Range Factors above normal in each season he played the position.

To me there is an easy solution here. Against right-handers, use Walker at second base, and Grudzielanek can move to shortstop. Gonzalez can be utilized in the late innings as a defensive replacement, taking Walker out once a reliever is brought in. When the team plays southpaws like Andy Pettitte, use the normal Gruzielanek-Gonzalez middle infield, and wait for Dan Miceli to come in before you send Walker out there.

5) Is Dusty Baker as good a manager as the media portrays him?

Dusty Baker’s managerial record speaks for itself: in 11 years of managing, Baker has been out of the top two spots in his division just two times. His winning percentage is a remarkable .540, and he’s topped the .500 mark seven years running. Statistics like this clouded my judgment when the Cubs brought in Baker, but it didn’t take long to see he was a bit overrated.

First of all, Baker has been very lucky to have the teams he’s had. Barry Bonds, not Baker, was the main reason for the Giants‘ success all these years. Sure, it was Baker’s ability to not let the Bonds-Kent feud escalate that really got the team over a bump. By the same token, it was the league’s best pitching staff that brought the Cubs the NL Central crown, as much as Baker tried to hurt them.

To be more clear, let me say that in-game managing is not one of Baker’s strengths. He won’t use statistics, like Earl Weaver did, when plotting the lineup, and he won’t take a pitcher out just because he has reached 100 pitches. Baker operates on feel, and it leaves Cubs fans praying their starters don’t become victim to Baker’s wrath.

But Dusty does things well: he says the right things to both players and the media, he is said to motivate well, and he surrounds himself with good coaches. I greatly attribute the latter strength to the Cubs’ success in 2003, as having two hitting and pitching coaches surely helped. What do I mean? Both Larry Rothschild and Dick Pole worked with pitchers last year, while Gary Mathews and Gene Clines handled the hitting department. It was only Wendell Kim, a man who Cubs fans have come to loathe, that seemed a bad choice last year.

Finally, Dusty Baker must stop worrying Cubs fans about the right arms of our young starters. The Cubs were far and away the leader in Baseball Prospectus’ Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP), a statistic measuring how much stress a pitcher’s arm handles. Kerry Wood ranked first in the system, Mark Prior third, and even Carlos Zambrano finished in the top 20. 130-pitch games with an 8-0 lead just don’t make sense, and Baker must learn from his mistakes.

Don’t buy the hype on Dusty quite yet, he’s still got a long way to go.

In Closing…

As much as it scares Christian Ruzich, the Cubs are legitimately the favorites to win the NL Central this year. No team in professional sports has gone longer without back-to-back winning seasons, a streak the Cubs will snap this year. Houston is coming on strong with a very improved ballclub, but the Cubs remain the better team. Jim Hendry’s ability to plug holes is what will give the Cubs the National League this year.

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