Five questions: Chicago Cubs

So, how are your 2012 Cubs looking, anyway?

That, not this, will be the first year of the rest of their lives.

In 2003, the Cubs came within five outs of their first World Series since—all together now, Nineteen-Forty-Five.

In retrospect, maybe that was a bad thing. With a patch here and patch there, the Cubs have spent the past seven seasons trying to get to that point again, the way a ’60s R&B group changes one member at a time for its oldies concerts. In fact, the strategy has worked to a degree: Three times in the succeeding years they’ve won more regular-season games than they did in ’03, but they haven’t had a sniff at the big prize.

That era is ending. Four members of that 2003 team are in the Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz., this spring training: Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez have been with them all along while Kerry Wood and Augie Ojeda are back from elsewhere. It’s a fair bet that only Zambrano still will be around in 2012—his contract runs through that year—and betting on anything Zambrano is a fool’s errand.

It’s quite likely three-fourths of this year’s infield will be different in 2012: The Cubs certainly won’t pick up their $16 million option on fragile third baseman Ramirez, whose offensive and defensive skills are fading fast. Free agent first baseman Carlos Pena is signed for just this year at $10 million, and no one on this year’s roster looks like a long-term answer at second base. That leaves shortstop Starlin Castro, 21, and the start of a new, younger, Cubs infield of the teens.

Much-maligned outfielder Kosuke Fukudome probably will be back in Japan, investing the $13.5 million he’ll earn in this, the last season of the four-year contract the Cubs wish they hadn’t given him. Pitcher Carlos Silva, whose $11.5 million contract the Cubs absorbed as penance for the Milton Bradley fiasco, won’t be in Asia, but he won’t be in Chicago, either. Reliever John Grabow, whose year and half with the team has produced a total of 50 mostly-ineffective innings, will be gone, along with the $4.8 million the Cubs will pay him this year for throwing with his left arm.

If you’re doing the arithmetic, you’ll see that the Cubs will have some money to spend.

If you’re looking at the prospective post-2011 free agent list, you’ll see a few people who might thrive in Wrigley Field. Need a first baseman/middle-of-the-order hitter? The Cubs will. Free agent-to-be first basemen include Adrian Gonzalez (if he doesn’t sign with Boston beforehand), Prince Fielder and whathisname in St. Louis. A few of baseball’s top second basemen are on the list, too, as are some power-hitting outfielders and a smattering of veteran pitchers.

If you’re exploring what the Cubs might do internally, you get a mixed message. The team has a few youngsters who might perform well in the majors by next year, but only a few. (Matt Hagen of THT ranks the Cubs’ farm system 25th out the 30 major league teams. Outfielder Brett Jackson and pitcher Trey McNutt are top 50 in Baseball America’s much-quoted prospect ranking, but there’s no one else in the top 100.)

Last season saw Castro and outfielder Tyler Colvin assume major roles in their big league debuts, and rookie pitcher Andrew Cashner showed promise. They did well, but not spectacularly. None was a factor in Rookie of the Year voting (Castro finished a distant fifth), but that’s not necessarily predictive.

Geovany Soto was Rookie of the Year in 2008, had a weak 2009, and came back strong last year. A couple of decades ago, Cubs Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith finished one-two as the best rookies in the league, but they went on to become no more than journeyman major leaguers. Looking further afield, shortstops Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki were never rookies of the year; shortstops Angel Berroa and Bobby Crosby were.

Same deal with prospects. A couple of years ago, first-round draft choice Matt Wieters was supposed to be the best offensive catcher since Mike Piazza. Piazza, in his day, was a 62nd-round choice in the amateur draft. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame; Wieters is going to be in the Orioles lineup.

Prediction: 12 months from now we’ll be talking about a revamped Cubs team as the one to beat in the NL Central. As Cubs fans have been saying for 1.03 centuries, wait ’til next year.

Double question: Who’ll bat first? Who’ll play in the outfield?

It’s one of the perennials of Cubs spring training. For several years, fans and the media harangued Lou Piniella about getting Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot. He finally did, and Soriano and his all-or-nothing approach won’t go back.

Trouble is, it’s been easier to say who doesn’t belong there than who does. The Cubs tried nine men in that spot last season, none of them named Soriano. The player who had the most appearances at No. 1 was Ryan Theriot, who is now a Cardinal.

So who will fill the role in 2011?

Leadoff men are supposed to get on base, right? Take a walk now and then, maybe have a little speed, get the inning started with nobody out, leaving the manager lots of options to get him around. (Of course, the leadoff guy is guaranteed to bat first only in the first inning, but in the National League he follows the pitcher, so there’s a better chance than in the AL that he’ll hit with the bases empty his second and third times at bat.) The last real leadoff man to play for the Cubs was Kenny Lofton, in 2003. Does that year ring a bell, fans?

The 2010 Cubs ranked 11th in the National League in on-base percentage, 14th among the 16 teams in bases on balls, dead last in stolen bases. It was not, and is not, a squad full of potential No. 1 hitters. The Cubs have seldom if ever been a Billy-ball team (or a Beane-ball squad), but a good leadoff hitter might balance things a bit. That’s why the last several springs have contained rumors of a trade for Baltimore’s Brian Roberts, and it explains this spring’s brief speculation about Michael Young of Texas.

Barring a trade, though, the Cubs will have to dance with those already in the ballroom:

The team leader in on-base percentage last year was catcher Soto (.393, helped by a 16 percent walk rate). It’s not unprecedented for a catcher to lead off, but Soto strikes out too much (in his only really everyday season, his rookie year, he fanned more times than Soriano) and would clog the bases (one career steal). Anyhow, it isn’t going to happen, so let’s move on.

For reasons not apparent to almost anyone except him, Piniella tried rookie Colvin at the top of the lineup for a couple of dozen games. That experiment ended when Mike Quade took over as manager in August, and there’s no sign it’ll reappear.

Castro may be a leadoff hitter someday, but the bet here is that Quade would rather have him concentrate on picking up ground balls than on the niceties of the leadoff trade. The job could go to one of the light-hitting second base candidates, because…well, because light-hitting second basemen are a traditional fallback position.

Center fielder Marlon Byrd wouldn’t be an illogical choice (.346 OBP in ’10, a modicum of speed), but Quade’s probably going to try to concentrate the players who have some power in the middle of the lineup.

That leaves Kosuke Fukudome.

Ah, you say, but he’s going to platoon with Colvin in right field. But, I ask, why?

Because, you say, he’s so darned inconsistent: Everyone knows he starts like a house afire, then fades as the season wears on. Fact: Fukudome’s pre-All-Star break OBP over his three years in the majors is .368. Fukudome’s OBP after the break over three years is .368.

But, you say, he’s a left-handed batter who can’t hit lefties. He needs to be platooned with Colvin. Fact: His major league lifetime on-base percentage against lefthanders is .340. Colvin, also a lefthanded hitter, had a .302 OBP against southpaws in his 2010 rookie year (albeit with considerably more power, but we’re talking here about getting to first base).

And what of right-handed hitting Soriano? He posted a .298 OBP facing righties in almost 400 plate appearances last season, and he hasn’t hit even the .320 mark against same-handed pitchers since 2007. Fact is, Soriano, at $18 million, and Colvin, at $400,000, were practically the same hitter overall last year. Soriano had a .326 on-base percentage, .825 on-base-plus slugging, 24 homers and six stolen bases. Colvin achieved a .316 OBP, .816 OPS, 20 home runs and six steals. Colvin is 25 years old with potential to get better. Soriano isn’t.

So: What will probably happen is that Fukudome will alternate with Colvin in right field and, when he plays, with whoever’s the second baseman as leadoff man. What should happen is that Colvin and Soriano alternate in left and the Cubs put Fukudome (superior fielder, too, on a team that has few) in the leadoff spot until he shows he can’t handle it.

Somebody get me Mike Quade on the phone.

Back to 2011: Will the team’s offseason moves help?

Yes.

Like everyone else, I wish the Cubs had been able to land Zack Greinke instead of Matt Garza for the package of prospects they surrendered. But Garza’s just 27, and he is what is he is, which is a proven major league pitcher, not just a guy who’s projected to become a major league pitcher. And his presence means that one mediocrity from among Carlos Silva, Randy Wells, Jeff Samardzija, or the since-traded Tom Gorzelanny will not be a regular member of the starting rotation.

The new first baseman, whose batting average last year has come to be part of his name (Carlos Pena-who-hit-just-.196), isn’t a bad stopgap. At 32, there’s no reason to believe he’s done. He’s a guy who’ll take a walk—his lifetime on-base percentage is .351, and THT’s Oliver forecast has him essentially matching that this year. He’ll lead the Cubs in home runs and drive in 100. Plus, he’ll be solid in the field.

And he’ll fit in with what I suspect is something general manager Jim Hendry was trying to do for 2011.

I am not privy to the Cubs clubhouse, but it’s not hard to deduce from what’s been made public that the presence in recent years of personalities like Sammy Sosa, Piniella, Bradley and Zambrano has not added to that old college spirit. I suspect Hendry picked new manager Mike Quade over local hero Ryne Sandberg for reasons other than proficiency at calling the hit-and-run. I suspect that he didn’t bring Wood back because he though he’d strike out 20 Astros in a game again.

You can’t measure such things in charts and graphs, but, by reputation, Quade and Pena and Wood are adults, strong people with some leadership qualities that might rub off on the Castros and Sotos, the young players who might turn into something more than we’ve seen so far, or something less.

So the position players are iffy. What about the pitching?

It looks better, and if the Cubs improve on last year’s 75-win, fifth-place finish, that’ll be the reason.

The Cubs opened last season with a bullpen than included three rookies, almost-rookie Samardzija and soon-to-the-DL Grabow. More rookies showed up almost weekly. This year they have Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol established in eighth- and ninth-inning roles, respectively, positions in which they excelled last year. Additionally, there’s Cashner—if he doesn’t make the rotation—and (cross your fingers) vets Grabow and Wood.

The key to the rotation will be which Zambrano shows up. (Cross your fingers and toes!) Ineffectiveness and generally acting like a horse’s patoot got him banished to the bullpen last season. That didn’t work out, he had the equivalent of Tommy John surgery on his temperament, and he ended the season an apparently new man.

If a rookie does what Zambrano did the last two months of 2010 (8-0 with a 1.56 ERA), you say, “That’s terrific, let’s see what happens next time around the league.” Thing is, Zambrano, not yet 30, always has had the talent. Silly thought, but what if this is the year he keeps it under control?

The other encouraging thing about the pitching is its depth. The contenders for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation aren’t world-beaters, but when—not if, when—someone in the starting corps gets hurt, the Cubs won’t be forced into desperation measures. Remember 2006, when the team trotted out 15 starting pitchers? Whatever happened to Ryan O’Malley, anyway?

Can the Cubs contend this year?

As argued above, not on their merits. But none of the six teams in baseball’s biggest-but-not-best division looks capable of running away with the thing.

The Hardball Times is blessed with a number of fine writers who follow the Cubs with their hearts, but are clear-headed in their analysis. I asked three of them, independently, for their 2011 outlook for the team. The consensus: It looks like fourth place. (This was before Cardinals co-ace Adam Wainwright was hurt, but if you’ve been following St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan all these years, you know he’ll get 15 wins out of some Jake Westbrook or another in Wainwright’s absence.)

Here’s what they said:

Harry Pavlidis: Fourth. They’ll sort out the young pitchers and end up with an above-average staff, but the Cubs haven’t done enough, if anything, about run production and defense.

Jeff Gross: Dark horse NL Central contender in desperate need of an ace pitcher and a healthy core of Pena/Ramirez/Soriano. Is 15 percent chance of making the playoffs too optimistic?

Chris Jaffe: It’s still an aging offensive core for a club that missed its window a few years ago. They might improve a little this year, but they look like a second-division team.

Allow yourself to dream a little. The Cubs somehow sneak into the playoffs. In the first round, they have to play the champ of another division. Zambrano, Garza and Ryan Dempster are matched up against one of last year’s (and probably this year’s) division winners:

Philadelphia, throwing Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels or Roy Oswalt.

Or San Francisco, starting Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner.

It’s a good measure of how far the Cubs have to go.

References & Resources
baseball-reference.com, Cots Baseball Contracts

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Comments

  1. Chuck said...

    Good point on the rotations. You should also mention the front 3 of the Cards, Brewers & Reds to see how high the bar is for the Cubs to clear this year. I am optimistic that the club will be better this year, but I think anything more than a 5-8 win improvement is asking way too much. And 80-83 wins won’t get it done this year.

  2. Paul E said...

    “Allow yourself to dream a little. The Cubs somehow sneak into the playoffs. In the first round, they have to play the champ of another division. Zambrano, Garza and Ryan Dempster are matched up against one of last year’s (and probably this year’s) division winners”

    Soooooo, I guess the Yankees don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, either. Boof Bonser, Slowey, and Liriano – I don’t think so. Dice-K and Beckett have issues, too. Why don’t we just have the Giants-Phillies play a best out of 162 with the winner to get homefield advantage in a best of 21 World Series ?!?!!

    Just kiddin’…….

  3. Kyle said...

    The Cubs are definitely 4th on the pre-season ranking for the Central Devision. I do think they’ll improve this year and, as a Cubs fan, I’m hoping they have one of those “magical” seasons that no one predicts. I won’t hold my breath. They will be able to trim a lot of fat over the next two years and should improve each year.

  4. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Great analysis here, very level headed. I had the Cubs pegged for 3rd before the Waino injury though!

  5. Larry Rublin said...

    “The team leader in on-base percentage last year was catcher Soto (.393, helped by a 16 percent walk rate). It’s not unprecedented for a catcher to lead off, but Soto strikes out too much (in his only really everyday season, his rookie year, he fanned more times than Soriano) and would clog the bases (one career steal).”

    I cannot believe that this paragraph was written by a THT writer.

    1. If there is any batting slot that renders strikeout per se irrelevant, it’s leadoff. With presumably no one else on base, who cares how an out is made? At least you know that he made the pitcher throw at least 3 pitches.

    2. Did he actually use the “clog the bases” line in an article about the Cubs? Is this some sort of Busty Daker spoof?

  6. BillVZ said...

    A very professional critique of the team.From it I can only say the Cubs will duke it out with the Astros for cellar rights. The Pirates leap ahead of both.
    Wait till next year!

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