October 2007


At the beginning of the season, I picked the Cubs to win 86 games and miss the playoffs. They won 85 and made the playoffs, thanks in large part to a massive Brewers collapse (thanks, Ben Sheets’ fragile body!) and some good luck. It was, in many respects, a weird year: Carlos Zambrano see-sawed back and forth between excellence and incompetence, the entire pitching staff experienced periods of unbelievable good luck, Derrek Lee hit like two homers the first half of the year, and Jason Marquis threw the team’s only shutout. And yet, when you look at the final numbers for the Cubs’ important players, they’re not too far off from what you would have predicted at the beginning of the season if you were, say, a computer projection system like ZiPS:

Rich Hill projected: 3.65 ERA, 9.77 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9

Rich Hill actual: 3.92 ERA, 8.45 K/9, 2.91, 1.25 HR/9

Not bad, ZiPS. Of course, Hill looked like he was gonna go 25-0 after his first few brilliant starts, but he ended up being pretty much the pitcher a smart projection system thought he would be (a little worse, actually). What about, say, Aramis Ramirez?

Aramis Ramirez projected: .296/.355/.559, 35 HR, 538 AB (15.37 AB/HR)

Aramis Ramirez actual: .310/.366/.549, 26 HR, 506 AB (19.46 AB/HR)

ZiPS overestimated the playing time (Ramirez, of course, got injured a couple times) and the power, but got everything else pretty much exactly right.

I could go on, but I won’t. The point I want to make is simply this: the Cubs, despite the weird way in which they did it, pretty much performed as you would have expected them to perform this year. I truly believe that this IS, at its core, a mid-80s win team. If everyone stays healthy and has a good year (that means luck, of course, would need to be on their side), maybe they reach 90 wins. This is NOT a juggernaut that underperformed, but neither is it a sub-.500 team that got lucky. It is a slightly above average team with good starting pitching, a very nice top of the lineup, a mediocre bullpen, and an unbelievably sucky bottom of the lineup.

The nice thing about performing “as expected” is that Hendry and the rest of the Cubs’ brass know the team needs to improve. Had a bunch of guys had career years at the same time and the Cubs won 90 games, they might have been tempted to stand pat (2006 White Sox, anyone?), but the need for improvement is now evident. Let’s go through the team and see what needs to be done. First, the position players:

C: This position was an offensive black hole for the Cubs for most of the season, and the defense wasn’t so great, either. The solution, in my mind, is simple: put Geovany Soto there, and let him play. No, he won’t be Mike Piazza, despite what some eternally optimistic Cubs fans might think, but he will almost undoubtedly be better and cheaper than what the Cubs had this year.

1B: Derrek Lee had a weird year, but he still put up a solid .317/.400/.513 line. Granted, much of that was due to an unbelievable first half BAbip of .397, but he regained his power in the second half, belting 16 homers after the All-Star break after hitting only six before. There are better first basemen out there, but Derrek is better than average and under contract—he’s not going anywhere. I expect that next year he’ll probably post better power numbers and worse on-base numbers than this year.

2B: Mark DeRosa was actually good; it appears that his 2006 season was not an aberration. DeRosa has solid on-base skills, something that the Cubs lack at many other positions. I’m sure we’ll see a bit of a regression next year, but I expect he’ll still be a useful player.

SS: Ryan Theriot: nice guy, hard worker, mediocre (at best) baseball player. His defense is solid, if unspectacular, but his bat is so weak that he is, overall, a drain on the team as a starter. The Cubs need to get better at this position, and the answer probably lies outside the organization.

3B: If you honestly want Ramirez gone because you think he’s “lazy” or “doesn’t care,” go fuck yourself. He’s one of the best third basemen in the league.

LF: Soriano will be here for a long, long time.

CF: Another offensive black hole for the Cubs. True, Jacque Jones showed some life in the second half, but he’s still not really an acceptable answer at CF. The Cubs need to put Felix Pie there, or get a good free agent like Torii Hunter or (preferably) Andruw Jones.

RF: Yuck. I like Cliff Floyd, but I won’t be too sad to see him go. A 35-year-old with bad legs is not the guy I want as my starting RF. Given the Cubs’ needs at CF and SS, I think it’s best to save some money here and try an in-house solution: platoon Murton and Jones. It won’t be a spectacular, but it should get the job done, and it will allow the Cubs to focus their money on upgrading two positions that were even more problematic from an offensive standpoint in 2007.

What to do? Assuming the Cubs do the “right thing” and let Soto have the catching job, there are three positions to be filled: SS, CF, and RF. The Cubs probably don’t have the financial flexibility to go after free agents or trade for veterans at all three positions, so I suggest a Jones/Murton platoon at right. That leaves SS and CF. The best option, I think, is to let Pie have the CF job and try to trade for a decent/good shortstop (Renteria?—just signed with Detroit) This would cost the Cubs money for one veteran and some prospects. The next best option is to sign Andruw Jones/Torii Hunter/Aaron Rowand and then use Pie in a trade for a decent/good shortstop. This would cost more money than the first option and the Cubs would lose their best position player prospect. Now let’s look at pitching:

SP1: Carlos is staying.

SP2: Ted Lilly is staying.

SP3: Rich Hill was good this year, and I don’t think he’s hit his ceiling. He needs to improve on the non-pitching parts of his game (fielding, holding runners on, etc.), but he’s a very, very good #3 starter. I think it would be a huge mistake to trade him, even if it did net someone like Renteria.

SP4: Jason Marquis is fine if he’s your fifth starter, but the thought of someone worse than Marquis consistently starting games in the fifth slot is scary. The Cubs need to go into next season with a starter in their rotation better than Marquis to hold down the fourth slot. Who is that? Sean Marshall/Gallagher? Maybe, but as much as I like the “let the kids play” philosophy in general, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this Cubs team, which is built to win now (or at least soon).

SP5: Jason Marquis is your #5, ladies and gents. I, for one, am OK with that.

Pen: Ryan Dempster should not be closing, but I think he’s an OK reliever. Howry should be moved to the closer role, Marmol should be kept in his “fireman” role, and Wood should be resigned to be a middle reliever. Eyre will still be under contract next year, so he stays. The final two bullpen spots should be for “in-house” youngsters like Hart and Gallagher; signing a free agent reliever is very, very stupid, unless he’s a stud like Joe Nathan (who may be on the market next year).

So the Cubs could use a starter. To sum up, then:

Needs: CF, RF, SS, C, SP

Proposal 1: Platoon Murton and Jones in RF, put Soto at C, give the CF job to Pie, and go to free agent market/trade for good SS, better-than-average SP.

Proposal 2: Platoon Murton and Jones in RF, put Soto at C, go to free agent market/trade for good CF, SS, SP, using Pie as a trade piece.

Brandon Webb is good at baseball.  Sometimes people who are good at baseball beat you, and there’s not much you can do about it.  Yes, Carlos Marmol gave up two runs; that wasn’t the problem.  The Cubs hitters simply couldn’t get it done against Mr. Webb, and that’s not really an indictment of them so much as a compliment of Mr. Webb.

Doug Davis is mediocre at baseball.  Ted Lilly has actually been very similar to Davis in his career, except this year he’s been significantly better.  The Cubs should win tonight, what with their “better hitting,” and if they do, this series goes back to Chicago tied, and the Cubs have a great chance to win it.  However, if they lose, it’s almost certainly over.  So, no pressure!  But seriously, let’s get some runs early and put Davis to bed, then feast on the bad half of the D’Backs’ bullpen.  I don’t want a close game tonight.

This game–not last night’s game–is the crucial one in this series.

I don’t have much to say since other sites have done good series previews, but let me give you a few facts about matchups:

Game 1: Webb vs. Zambrano

As you might expect, most Cubs hitters have struggled against Webb in their careers, but the sample sizes are pretty small.  Only Aramis Ramirez has more than 20 plate appearances against Webb, and his line is .238/.292/.381.  We’ve just gotta hope that some ground balls find holes.  As for Zambrano, he’s faced very few of the current Diamondbacks hitters, and he’s pretty much dominated them (.500 OPS against).  If he can keep himself under control tonight, then he should be very good; there are no matchup problems.

Game 2: Davis vs. Lilly

Doug Davis has been quite effective against most of the Cubs, but there are a couple notable exceptions: Soriano is 5 for 14 with a homer off Davis, Theriot is 4 for 6, and Matt Murton is 4 for 10 with a double and two walks.  Lee has struck out 12 times in 22 at-bats against Davis, but he’s still posted a .500 SLG.  Lilly has done OK against the Diamondbacks hitters, though he has allowed a composite .455 SLG.  Tony Clark, Jeff Cirillo, and Eric Byrnes have faced Lilly more than 10 times; everyone else has only seen him in the game earlier this year.  Are we really going to worry about Jeff Cirillo?

Game 3: Hill vs. Hernandez

Like most of the matchups in this series, the Hill vs. D’Backs hitters numbers are based on a very small sample size.  That said, the numbers favor Hill, who has allowed only one homer to the current crop of Snakes while striking out 12.  Eric Byrnes has faced Hill 10 times and sports a line if .333/.400/.778 off  him, so those at-bats will be crucial.  Livan Hernandez actually has faced some of the Cubs a significant number of times, and he has not fared well: DeRosa, Floyd, and Ramirez (.962 SLG!) have all hit him really hard.

Game 4 would most likely be Z (on three days’ rest) vs. Owings.  Game 5 would be Webb vs. Lilly.  The Game 1 matchup favors the D’Backs, but not by as much as everyone seems to think.  If Zambrano is calm and on his game, he can match zeros with Webb.  Games 2 and 3 favor the Cubs.  If the Cubs can pull out a victory tonight, there’s no doubt in my mind they win this series.  If they lose, it gets a little dicier, but they still have a great chance.  Of course, they are the Cubs, so they’ll probably get swept.

The rosters were announced, and Kevin Hart made the cut!  I think this is a good move.  Marquis will be coming out of the bullpen, and Ronny Cedeño will unfortunately be on the bench.