Five Questions: Chicago Cubs

When it comes to the word “luck,” Chicagoans tend to see the glass half empty. The word conjures up images of billy goats, Black Sox, Bartmans and Bad News Bears. We did have Bowie go our way, but that hardly replaces the pain felt in 1969, 1984 or 2003.

Cubs fans have undoubtedly taken the brunt of this bad luck, which made 2004 a unique season. Going into the year, expectations were high. I mean, really high. Those expectations led — in true Chicago style — to the Sports Illustrated cover. Of course, something had to happen to make this team fail. Well, that and Dusty Baker, but I’ll save that ranting for the five questions.

One of my friends, a fellow Cubs fan, came back from Germany about a week ago after being devoid of sports news since September. He asked me a few questions to catch up, and I thought that would be the best format to use here.

1. So you’re telling me Sammy Sosa was traded? For Jerry Hairston?

Yes, love him or hate him, the Tribune Company made a bold decision trading the face of this franchise during the winter. While the club normally sells itself, time will tell if Sosa’s exit will effect the bottom line. But more importantly, what impact will it have in the standings?

To answer that properly, we have to consider Sosa’s replacement, Jeromy Burnitz. Last season Burnitz outhit Sosa, topping him in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among others. Of course, this must be taken with a grain of salt, given that Burnitz’s home venue was none other than Coors Field. When simply doubling Jeromy’s road statistics last year, and then averaging his 2002-2004 numbers, he is a .233/.313/.434 hitter.

Sosa, who was about as bad last year as in recent memory, hit .253/.332/.517. This means that the Cubs should expect their right fielders to get on base two percent less often than last year, with a considerable deduction in power. It should be noted that in 2003, when Burnitz hit fairly similar (with more power), he had a total of twelve Win Shares. Last season, Sammy gave the Cubs just fourteen Win Shares.

Then, of course, there is the X-factor. Sammy Sosa was, by no means, a team player. Seldom did he arrive to Spring Training camp on time, and when he did, his blaring boombox was an annoyance. Most recently, problems with Dusty Baker came to light, and his exit from the dugout in September was one of the reasons cited in his trade. Will this team come together more as a result of Sosa’s loss? Time will tell.

As for Hairston, don’t be too down. Jim Hendry was not about to get fair value, and in Hairston he saw a superutility man who would be good atop the lineup. Rather than being upset about this trade, Cubs fans should focus on the fact that despite Hairston’s versatility, the Cubs will still likely carry Jose Macias, and still lead Corey Patterson off. My hope is that Hairston will play about 120 games at about five different positions, leading off in every game he starts. But he does have something working against him when it comes to playing time: Dusty Baker hates walks.

2. And we lost both corner outfielders and Jason Dubois still isn’t starting? Geez, how much worse will this offense be?

Sample sizes. They are a dangerous thing around Dusty Baker, who used the 148 at-bats that Todd Hollandsworth had last year to make up his decision on who would replace Moises Alou. I mean, hey, if he continues to hit .318/.392/.547, then replacing the 122 runs Alou created definitely won’t be a problem, right?

One problem with that reasoning: Todd Hollandsworth isn’t a .939 OPS hitter over the course of 150 games. Nor, for that matter, can he play 150 games without being hurt. What he will do, however, is hit very much along the lines of his career numbers, even though they are boosted by 184 games with the Rockies: .279/.336/.447.

What would Dusty Baker have had behind door number two? That would be Jason Dubois, the 6-5 slugger with a career .929 OPS in the minors. During the offseason, Jim Hendry compared Dubois to NL Rookie of the Year winner Jason Bay. Both were collegiate hitters drafted in 2000, Dubois in the 14th round and Bay in the 22nd. Bay was put on a faster track to the majors, with about 300 fewer at-bats in the minors than Dubois. That and 48 OPS points behind his career minor league average.

             OPS
LVL      BAY     DUBOIS
MID    1.019       .928
FSL     .727       .984
AA      .911       .825
PCL     .951      1.019

Above are the two players’ numbers at various levels in the minors, which basically makes the two out to be similar hitters, with Dubois a bit on top. If we’ve established Hollandsworth to be a .780 OPS player, Dubois would be close to .900 in my opinion. And of course, these are two players trying to replace Alou’s .918 2004 OPS.

The offense won’t be all bad. Nomar Garciaparra, the superstar midseason acquisition last season, will be around the whole season. Due to Nomar’s late arrival and then later his injuries, the Cubs were forced to use someone other than him at shortstop in 121 games. Considering 92 games came from Ramon Martinez and Alex Gonzalez, neither of whom topped the .650 OPS barrier, this season should represent a large improvement in that category. In fact, that difference (assuming a full season of health from Nomar) should make up for the Alou and Sosa to Hollandsworth and Burnitz move.

Will the Cubs’ offense be worse in 2005 than in 2004? Yes, but remember the Cubs won the division scoring just 724 runs in 2003. They will score around 750 this year. Which means it all comes down to the runs allowed column …

3. Should I expect the same thing from the starting rotation as 2004? I mean, will the consequences of Dusty’s abuse just carry over?

Sure looks like it, huh? Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who as I noted last year were both in the top five of the 2003 Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) rankings, have been hurt again this Spring Training. This is not good news for a team that was so held back last year as their two stars gave them just 43 starts with a combined 3.86 ERA. I mean, the two contributed 25 fewer Win Shares than they had in 2003!

So it is safe to say that those two right arms are the key to the Cubs’ 2004 season, as eight wins were given up as a result of Dusty’s pressure. Since neither player was around long enough for Baker to abuse last year, he focused his efforts on another stud right-hander, Carlos Zambrano. While hoisting the rotation on his shoulders for the better part of the year, Zambrano ranked third in Baseball Prospectus’ PAP.

Personally, my guess is that Zambrano is in the same mold of Livan Hernandez, Bartolo Colon and Russ Ortiz: the special group of players blessed with a rubber arm and thick, strong thighs. I will assure Cubs fans to expect more of the same from him in 2005, as there was no sign of him letting up last year. The one good thing you will hear me say about Dusty is that he loved Z from the first time he saw him, and even predicted he might be the best of the three young righties. Bold prediction then, nearly a fact now.

Next, we have Greg Maddux. Maddux defied the prediction I laid out for him last year, with a 4.02 ERA, 32 starts and more than 150 strikeouts. While the likes of Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens make us think that defying age is something that can be done, it is hardly something the Cubs should depend on. My thinking is that Maddux will retire in a Cubs uniform, following the 2006 season. Expect that in the next two years, Maddux takes a step back.

The fifth starter spot is another place where Dusty’s affinity for sample sizes is apparent. Glendon Rusch, who was so influential in the Cubs staying in the hunt last year, will likely not begin the season in the rotation. Because of his poor spring, the Cubs will be left to decide between Ryan Dempster and Sergio Mitre. One thing you can depend on: Rusch will be back before too long. Or better yet, the Cubs will bring up Angel Guzman, giving Dusty Baker another young arm to terrorize.

4. Man, some deja vu at the back end of the bullpen, huh? Joe Borowski and LaTroy Hawkins will be closing games? Oh No!

There were not a lot of good closer options on the market, but I was really hoping for the Cubs to do something. I could also deal with one of the young players, maybe Jon Leicester, but clearly a change had to be made. Just like people have wondered for years the meaning behind the stat that Frank Thomas was always a better hitter while playing the field, the same has happened with LaTroy Hawkins and the set-up role. At this point, we just have to be left assuming that Hawkins doesn’t have the head to close, but is more than capable of being a dominant set-up man. So let him do that, but please don’t let him close! Man, I’d rather have Dempster.

As for Borowski, he is one that I’ll have to see to believe. Jim Hendry said that he looks like he’s in 2003 form, but given the huge struggles that met him last year, I’m not so sure. Instead, expect his ERA to be somewhere in the 3.00s, and for him to be far better suited for the middle relief role. The bullpen is going to be okay this season, actually benefitting from the poor decision for Rusch to relieve. I am also hoping that some of the youngsters get a lot of innings, because they (Leicester, Mike Wuertz, Todd Wellemeyer) might just be the most talented of all down the left field line.

5. Shoot me straight, did Alex Gonzalez really ruin the one playoff opportunity we’re gonna have anytime soon?

Good question. I sure hope not. My expectation is that the Cubs will improve in 2005. I have already pegged their offense around 750 runs. Their pitching should improve around 15-20 runs, again taking the top spot in the Major Leagues. To win the NL Central, they will be forced to simply hope that the Cardinals are not so good. Can a team that lost a third of their starting lineup — the up-the-middle infield players — expect to be any better than they were last year? How will Mark Mulder fare in his switch to the National League, and can Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter stay so successful? As a fan I can tell the Cubs are almost as good as the Cardinals. In reality, that Pujols injury is going to have to get a lot worse for Chicago to win.

In the end, I will predict the Cubs to finish with a 90-72 record, good for the NL Wild Card spot. They will then lose to the Atlanta Braves in the first round. See, I’ve learned from making lofty predictions. Of course, the Chicago luck factor will probably take about 10% off my prediction. In that case, I’ll go with 110 wins.

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