2007 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs

2006 W-L: 66-96

2006 Pythag W-L: 70-92

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:
Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Neal Cotts, Mark DeRosa, Daryle Ward, Lou Piniella

Going:
Juan Pierre, John Mabry, Freddie Bynum, David Aardsma, Dusty Baker

The Cubs In a Nutshell

Nearly $300 million later, is this team ready to compete? Even to get into the wildcard hunt, their record would need to improve 20 games. That's a tall order, even after adding a bona fide MVP candidate and a solid mid-rotation starter. While the Cubs respectability doesn't hinge on the health of fragile pitchers such as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Wade Miller as it has in recent years, having at least one of those guys turn in a solid full season could be the difference becoming a .500 team and a contending one.

Offense

A few years from now, it will be tough to grasp just how bad the Cubs offense was in 2006. The only very strong performance over the whole season came from Aramis Ramirez, though Michael Barrett was above average for a catcher, and both Matt Murton and Jacque Jones provided decent production from the outfield corners.

Everywhere else, it was just plain bad. Derrek Lee was passable for a first baseman, but in only 175 ABs; his replacements--John Mabry, Todd Walker, and Phil Nevin--could only provide quality first-base production in Triple-A. The middle infield was also awful: particularly the shortstops, whose aggregate line was 246/276/325. (For reference, Carlos Marmol out-OPS'd that group. Carlos Zambrano came close, as well.)

While Cesar Izturis and Mark DeRosa may improve somewhat upon their predecessors, the big differences should be at first base and center field. If Alfonso Soriano moves to center, he'll be directly replacing the "production" of Juan Pierre, and there may be no bigger difference in baseball between 2006 and 2007. If Lee stays healthy, he wouldn't even have to return to his 2005 level to make a big difference.

First, let's look at Soriano. Whatever you might think of his monster contract, the guy had a phenomenal year in 2006, worth almost five wins with his bat alone. PECOTA projects a mild dropoff, doubtless because '04 and '05 were so much weaker, especially after adjusting for Ameriquest. Still, it suggests he'll be worth over four wins with the bat. For the back of our proverbial envelope, let's give him five wins above replacement for '07.

It's unclear how to measure the impact of his glove in center, both because he's never played center, and because his track record in the outfield is so limited. Some defensive metrics liked him in left field last year, but even still, it's hard to believe he'll be above average at his new position. In this article, I concluded that an average center fielder would be 10-12 runs above average in a corner; as a corollary, an average corner guy would be 10-12 runs below average in center. If we take the most optimistic read on Sori's left field defense, that makes him an average center fielder. A less optimistic one makes him a big step down from Pierre. But given how little outfield he's played, this is the sort of thing that's very difficult to forecast with numbers.

While it's reasonable to expect a big performance from Chicago's new $136 million man, Derrek Lee is a bigger question mark. PECOTA's weighted mean projection for the first baseman is 283/362/512, about two and a half wins above replacement. That's partly due to PECOTA's modest playing time expectations--only 429 PAs for that projection. If you want to assume that he stays healthy and racks up 600, his bat is worth more like four wins.

Those are two big improvements: ignoring glovework for a moment, that's an extra three wins in the outfield, and perhaps another three at first base. Let's assume that Barrett will take a step back from his career year, which will cancel out slight improvements from DeRosa and Izturis. It also seems reasonable to expect that Ramirez and Jones will stay at about the same level.

That leaves left field. Murton had a fine year in his first shot at regular playing time, putting up a 297/365/444 line. For that, he's being rewarded with a platoon partner in Cliff Floyd. His OPS against righties was nearly 100 points lower than his OPS against lefties, and properly deployed, a Floyd/Murton platoon could be fearsome, perhaps topping a 900 OPS between them. I'm not sure I'd trust Piniella to handle that properly, but if he does, he has an opportunity to tack another win or so on to that total.

The Cubs bench looks a little stronger now that Ronny Cedeno is a utilityman and there's one more MLB-quality corner guy than absolutely necessary, but that probably won't have much effect on the bottom line. What could come in handy is the emergence of Felix Pie or Eric Patterson, two prospects who don't figure on having a shot at the starting lineup until '08, but who could be ready to contribute right now.

PECOTA projects Pie, who will only be 22 next year, to hit 288/342/480 at the major league level. While that wouldn't be a huge improvement over Jones, it does suggest that if the Cubs need a spare part come July and they can trade Jacque for it, they have an in-house replacement who may well be superior right now.

Patterson is the bigger surprise. He's older, and not as highly-touted as a prospect, but PECOTA likes him even more, predicting he'll produce at a 293/358/479 clip. Compared to DeRosa's projection of 278/338/427, it makes one wonder why Jim Hendry made DeRosa such a wealthy man. Even Ryan Theriot, who PECOTA doesn't like much (272/331/360), is projected to be worth nearly as much with the bat.

The Cubs may not reap the benefit of Patterson's under-the-radar skills, but their new acquisitions, plus Derrek Lee's return to the land of the healthy, make it reasonable to think the Cubs offense could tack 7 or 8 wins on to their 2006 totals. And unless Soriano is working out with Ken Griffey Jr. this offseason, they probably won't give any of that back on defense.

Starting Rotation

The rotation's story is similar to that of the offense. Zambrano, like Ramirez, was great. Rich Hill, like Barrett, outperformed expectations. After that, well, it was like the rest of the offense.

Nine pitchers started more than five games for the Cubs last year: Zambrano, Hill, Sean Marshall, Greg Maddux, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, Juan Mateo, Glendon Rusch, and Mark Prior. Of those, only Zambrano's and Hill's ERA were better than league average. (In fairness, Maddux's was just a hair above.) In this article, I found that the worst 96 starts made by Cubs pitchers (generally, everything not Zambrano, Maddux, or Hill) averaged an ERA of over six. The worst 32--I'm conspicuously pointing at Guzman, Prior, and Rusch--came out at 7.40.

Even Jason Marquis is an improvement over that.

While this year's rotation could be a huge improvement over last year's, it probably won't catapult the Cubs into contention. Here are the top eight starters, by PECOTA projected ERA:

  • Zambrano, 3.70
  • Hill, 4.24
  • Ted Lilly, 4.64
  • Marquis, 4.76
  • Prior, 4.93
  • Sean Gallagher, 5.04
  • Guzman, 5.08
  • Marshall, 5.34
It's probably inaccurate to include Gallagher on this list; he probably wouldn't be the first replacement up from Iowa. But even ignoring him, the biggest advantage of this group isn't that it looks so impressive, but that it's so much deeper than last year's equivalent. Nobody's going to get excited about a 5.08 ERA from anybody, but if that's your 7th-best option for the rotation, you're not going to hemmorhage wins like some teams (*cough* 2006 Cubs *cough*) have been known to do.

The wildcard here, as always, is Prior. That 4.93 ERA is a weighted mean; going by gut, I'd say there's no pitcher in baseball less likely to match their average projection. I don't know whether he's going to implode and throw 44 horrible innings like he did last year, or whether he'll put it back together and contend for the Cy Young, but I think it's a safe bet that he'll be closer to one of those extremes than to the typical 4th or 5th starter mediocrity.

Given Prior's volatility and the general variable that is pitcher health (especially for the Cubs), it's tough to put a number on those improvements. Given the improved depth, meaning the Cubs shouldn't be blown out too often, nor should they need to resort to 15 different starters, I'm willing to give them an extra five wins due to the rotation. If the old Prior resurfaces, that could go as high as ten.

Bullpen

One of the dangers of writing team previews in January is that bullpen projections are largely useless; the Cubs may still do some tweaking, and even if they don't, it would be foolish to confidently predict which six or seven relievers will start the year in Chicago.

That said, I'm going to do it anyway.

The pen was one of the few bright spots of the '06 Cubs; of the eight relievers who appeared in 30 or more games, only Ryan Dempster and Scott Williamson registered worse-than-average ERAs. Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, and Mike Wuertz were particularly outstanding.

Reliever performance, of course, is volatile, but Hendry has assembled a group of arms that are consistent by bullpen standards; both Eyre and Howry have put together several consecutive good seasons. Wuertz has also been reliable in his limited MLB experience. New addition Neal Cotts isn't up to that level, but has never been horrible and had a particularly great season in 2005.

If there's going to be much of a difference between the '06 and '07 pens, it'll come from Dempster. As measured by WXRL, he was worth 5.5 wins above replacement in '05 (for the statistically uninclined, that's really good), but was 1.3 wins below replacement last year. (Bad.) It would be foolish to count on him to bounce back to that '05 level--even PECOTA's best projection for him tops out at 3.2--but it would equally foolish to expect that he (or whoever Piniella installs in his place) would keep performing below replacement in the 9th inning.

And it would be remiss of me to ignore the spectre of Kerry Wood. I'll be honest: I didn't bother looking up Kerry's current injury status; I figure if I did, it would still probably change between now and opening day. If he's healthy and throwing at his best, of course, the Cubs will have yet another great late-inning guy. More likely, a lot of ink will be spilled in Chicago papers, but he won't make an serious impact.

On the optimistic side, the bullpen could be better: that relies on Eyre, Howry, and Wuertz staying strong, while Dempster rebounds at least to decency. On the flip side, the Cubs don't have as much quality insurance as they do for the rotation, and they'll be depending on three 30-somethings in the back of the pen. Upside: +2 wins. Downside: -3.

All Together Now

As you might have figured out by now, I want to know whether the Cubs have a legitimate shot at contending. While I'm a Brewers fan and this is hurting me a great deal, I'm trying to be optimistic--in other words, I don't want to know whether they will contend, but whether they've got a decent chance.

Using my most positive summaries (with the exception of those for a Prior resurgence):

  • Offense: +8
  • Defense: +1 (I just made this one up. Who knows?)
  • Rotation: +5
  • Bullpen: +2

  • Total: +16
If we use the 2006 Pythagorean record of 70-92 as a baseline, that gives the Cubs 86 wins next year. In the super-mega-happy, Al-Yellon-dancing-in-the-streets-of-Wrigleyville version, we could possibly push that as high as 90.

(If we had some LSD.)

But let's ignore the super-happy version, and focus on those 86 wins. Each one of the improvements I suggested seemed doable; Soriano and Lee will give the Cubs major boosts at positions where they didn't have them last year; the rotation depth will keep Glendon Rusch from pitching an important inning ever again; Ryan Dempster probably won't be flukishly unclutch for another full season.

On the other hand, I was optimistic. As recently as 2004, Soriano was worth only three wins with the bat. Aramis could take a step back now that he's not playing for a contract. Jones's batting average could fall back to the .250 zone. Anybody--as Cubs fans well know, anybody--could get hurt.

Jim Hendry's spending spree does seem to have given the Cubs a very good shot at .500 this year. It could even keep them in the race into September. But unless most everything breaks right (or the NL Central goes to an 83-game winner again), Chicago isn't headed to the postseason. The Cubbies will have to settle for mere respectability.

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