The remains of the season: Chicago Cubs

Umpire Jeff Kellogg and manager Lou Piniella count the centuries since the Cubs last won the world series. Cubs at Marlins, September 27th 2007 (Icon/SMI)
Introduction

After sweeping the Brewers at Miller Park, the Cubs have opened up some considerable breathing room between them and the rest of the National League. It is pretty clear to me that not only do the Cubs have the best record in the Nation League, they are the best team in the Nation League as well. No matter what method you look at ,it is pretty clear that it would take a pretty big collapse for the Cubs to miss the playoffs. It still is possible that either the Brewers or the Cardinals could catch them for the division, but it is very unlikely they would then miss out on the wild card. So, in the beginning of August, the Cubs management should start looking ahead to the postseason. But before we look ahead, let’s look back at how the Cubs got to this point.

A look back

The Cubs have used a balanced attack and truly a team effort so far this season. They are scoring well over five runs per game and have over a quarter run lead over the second-place Phillies, who play half their games in a real bandbox. They have allowed just a hair over four runs a game, second in the league to the Dodgers. That combination is is how you win baseball games. It isn’t just the starters either; the bench and bullpen for the Cubs have been extremely strong as well. All phases of the team have contributed greatly and that is shown in their WPA breakdown.

Position players

Much has been made this year of the Cubs leading the league in walks and how Kosuke Fukudome brought this with him from Japan.

While Fukudome certainly has shown great patience at the plate, much of the credit for this team makeover belongs with the front office. Gone are players like Jacque Jones, Cesar Izturis, and Michael Barrett and they have been replaced by Fukudome, Ryan Theriot, and Geovany Soto. Free-swinging Felix Pie lost his job to Jim Edmonds early in the year as well. Clearly, this is a front office that understands how important getting on base is and it isn’t a surprise that what once was a very free-swinging Cubs team a few years ago has been completely transformed.

Their lineup is now filled one through eight with players who can do serious damage with the bat (one though nine if Zambrano or Lilly is on the mound). Without a sinkhole in their lineup, the Cubs are less likely to go though prolonged offensive slumps, though they did have a bit of a lull just after the All Star Break. Other teams have some individual players who are better (Ryan Braun, Albert Pujols, and Chase Utley for example), but the Cubs are by far the most complete lineup top to bottom.

They even offer the best bench in the NL with strong substitutes like Reed Johnson, Mike Fontenot, and Dayle Ward. Lou Piniella has done an excellent job of keeping his regulars fresh and keeping his bench sharp. With all the mixing and matching he can do, he often gains the upper hand in late-game situations with the batter he wants at the plate.

They might be a tad over their heads with a team BABIP of .324 and a batting average with RiSP of .278, but they are a good hitting team so you would expect them to be doing better than league average in these categories. In any case, the walks are for real. The team also has a decent amount of power that is spread through the lineup. That should carry them even if not as many timely hits come the rest of the year.

Starting pitching

The Cubs had a very strong starting staff and then they made the Rich Harden trade and got even better. Harden is a ace when healthy, which is something I’ll talk about more later. He joins Carlos Zambrano at the top of the Cubs rotation and gives them a very formidable one two punch.

Zambrano has really reinvented himself this year, greatly reducing his walks but also reducing his strikeouts to a very close to league average 6.4 K/G. This means he is throwing many fewer pitches than he has in the past and is going deeper in games, which is a very handy thing for the Cubs. His FIP is nearly a run higher than his current 2.80 ERA, but a FIP of 3.68 is nothing to sneeze at.

The middle of the rotation is held down by Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly, who both could be front-line starters on many teams. Dempster’s transition from the rotation to the bullpen to the rotation has been well documented and he has flourished in his original role. His FIP is also nearly a run higher than his ERA, so he probably is a little over his head right now but even his FIP is well under four.

Lilly, the left hander in the group, is an extremely bold pitcher with a lollipop curve. He is a flyball pitcher and has given up more than his share of home runs this year, but he is pretty stingy with the walks so that hasn’t cost him too badly. A lot has been made of the poor pitching of fifth starter Jason Marquis this year, but really for a fifth starter he is one of the best in the league. He keeps the Cubs in games and gives the offense a chance, which is really all you should ask of your fifth starter. In a playoff series, this will all become moot anyway as he will either be relegated to the bullpen or be off the playoff roster.

Bullpen

The Cubs bullpen this year has been anchored by Kerry Wood, who has been able to concentrate on mainly just throwing his fastball and curveball this year. He is getting his fastball up over 96 mph on average and his hook has some major bite to it. Wood is currently still on the DL with blister open wound problems. The Cubs would be advised to be careful with Wood as the bullpen has hardly missed a beat with Carlos Marol slipping into the closers role and the call up of Jeff Samardzija.

Marmol still isn’t quite back to where he was in the beginning of the year, but when I profiled him recently I mentioned that he is still the most likely reliever the Cubs have to put up a zero on the board. However, when he slips, he is likely to explode for a big inning. Recently Marmol has been doing just that with five straight appearances with no runs allowed though he has walked at least one batter in his last four appearances and had a bases-loaded jam he created by walking three. He has the stuff to pitch out of situations like that, but if some hits start dropping crooked numbers will be put up on the board.

Also, the addition of Chad Gaudin has really stabilized the Cub bullpen. Gaudin is a sinker/slider pitcher who has been a starter and can pitch multiple innings for Piniella. We have been high on Gaudin for a while here at THT and quested his addition in the deal with the A’s. Gaudin gives the Cubs another right hander while Bob Howry works though his current problems and could be a very valuable setup man for the Cubs as the season winds down.

Defense

One of the underrated parts to the Cubs team this year is the solid defense they have played. They are tied for the lead in the NL in DER and near the top in plus/minus and RZR. While their infield defense is merely average, their outfield defense is one of the best and they usually are playing three outfielders who all can run. They are throwing out 30 percent on stolen base attempts to boot. If they do have an issue defensively it is on the left side of the infield, where Ramirez hasn’t been able to keep up his great play at third from last year and Theriot is about an average shortstop. Overall though, this isn’t a team that is going to beat itself.

Down the stretch

With two months to go in the season, the Cubs are in great shape. While they end the season with a ton of road games and have a harder schedule than some of their competitors, they have a comfortable lead in the division and even if they were to lose the NL Central crown it is unlikely they would miss the playoffs completely. As I said earlier, management would be well advised to start peaking ahead at the postseason. Here are some adjustments I would expect to see as the season draws to a close.

Players like Soriano and Ramirez who have a history of niggling injuries will probably be given some more rest down the stretch. I would expect Soriano to be less aggressive on the base paths as there isn’t a need to stretch a double in to a triple and risk hurting his hamstring again. It would be wise to save that for the postseason, when they really need it. Also expect to see a little more of Henry Blanco behind the plate. This is Geovany Soto’s first full year with the club and it looks like he might be wearing down a tad behind the plate.

On the pitching side, Piniella has already backed off using Marmol as much as he did in the early part of the season and he would be wise to continue that as the season draws to a close. Getting guys like Gaudin or Neil Cotts some high-leverage innings heading into the playoffs will only help them once they get there.

Wood should be completely healed before returning to the mound. There is no need to rush him back and make this a lingering thing. Wood has reported that it is affecting his fastball more than his off speed pitches, which is strange and a little worrisome. Watch when he comes back to see what kind of velocity he is getting with his fastball because if this slows him down to the 92-93 mph range, that could have a big impact.

And that brings up to Rich Harden, who is the biggest injury risk of all. Harden barely pitched over 200 innings in 2005-2007 combined, so saying he is fragile is kind of a compliment. The Cubs don’t need Harden to make the playoffs, but they would be a much better team with him in October than without him. But it isn’t like they can put him in a deep freeze and wake him up when the playoffs begin; they need to keep him sharp.

Obviously monitoring his pitch counts is very important, but if I were the Cubs I would go one step further. I would be monitoring his release point with every pitch he threw in real time with the PITCHf/x technology. While the data is released with the ball 50 feet from home plate, it isn’t hard to move that back to 55 feet or wherever they feel comfortable that the ball has left his hand. This would be no cost to them and if it spots something they might be able to find the problem early and keep him off the DL.

Maybe you are reading this and thinking that I am taking too much for granted and I shouldn’t be looking ahead so much, but the numbers don’t lie. The Cubs are going to be a playoff team and they should begin to prepare for that now. I am not saying that the players should all stop playing or Piniella should be drinking margaritas on the bench, but they have this opportunity to fully prepare themselves for the playoffs and the management should be thinking in that direction right now.

Short series are a crap shoot, as the Cubs learned last year. If the playoffs started tomorrow, they would get the Diamondbacks again in what would be an interesting match up. The more prepared they are, the better. Winning 100 games isn’t going to make much of a difference; winning 95 games will likely be just as good and, if that means players are fully rested and everyone is healthy, probably much preferred.

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