March 2008


The Cubs’ roster is almost set:

C: Soto/Blanco

1B: Lee/Ward

2B: DeRosa/Fontenot

SS: Theriot/Cedeño

3B: Ramirez

LF: Soriano

CF: Pie/Johnson

RF: Fukudome

SP: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Dempster, Marquis

RP: Lieber, Wuertz, Hart, Howry, Marmol, Wood, (Marshall or Pignatiello)

That, ladies and gents, is a solid team. It is not a great team, and it may not even be a good team, but it has the potential to be a good team. What needs to happen for the Cubs to be a good (i.e., 90 wins or more) team in 2008?

1) Ramirez, Lee, Soriano, and Zambrano need to stay healthy. This should be pretty obvious. The Cubs’ offense is largely built around Ramirez, Lee, and Soriano, and the Cubs can ill afford to lose any of them for any extended period. Zambrano is even more important.

2) Two of Soto, Fukudome, and Pie need to live up to their projections. PECOTA has Soto at .273/.352/.470, Pie at .291/.344/.479, and Fukudome at .281/.401/.504 for 2008. If all three of those guys meet or exceed those numbers and stay healthy (and #1 happens), the Brewers may as well pack it up—the Cubs will cruise to the division title. However, I think that even if only two of those three live up to their projections the Cubs are in good shape.

3) Lilly and Hill can’t backslide too much. A large part of the Cubs’ success last year was built on having three solidly above average starters in Zambrano, Hill, and Lilly make 100 starts. None of the three had a great year—in fact, it was the worst year of Zambrano’s career since 2002—but it’s amazing how useful 100 starts worth of merely good pitching is. Now, like a lot of people, I fully expect Zambrano to have a better year this year than last, but what about Hill and Lilly? Lilly had the best year of his career last year, and, while a lot of that was the result of coming to a weaker division/league, some was probably not. I think we should expect Lilly to have a worse year this year—not a lot worse, but worse. Hill, I think, should be better than he was last year, but his spring performance hasn’t really made me feel so confident. If Lilly and Hill combine for the kind of year they had collectively last year, the Cubs will be fine. Even if they backslide a little, things will probably be OK. But if both take a step back, the Cubs’ rotation suddenly looks…crappy.

4) Two of Wood, Marmol, and Howry need to have good years. The Cubs’ bullpen is built around these three power arms, and they need at least two of them to live up to expectations. The rest of the Cubs’ bullpen is solid but unremarkable, but these three have the potential to be one of the best late inning trios since Piniella’s Nasty Boys in the early 90s. Given Wood’s injury history and Marmol’s youth and tendency towards wildness, I think it’s pretty unlikely that all three have good years.

That’s it. I’m fully expecting Theriot to suck and DeRosa to be slightly above average, and I know Marquis/Dempster/Lieber will be frustrating and terrible and maddening, just like most #4 and #5 starters. The Cubs’ bench is pretty good, but it’s not going to change them from an 85-win team to a 95-win team. If all four of the things above happen, the Cubs could win 95 games easily. They won’t, though; someone will get hurt, and someone else will underperform, and someone else will get hurt, etc., etc. etc.

I predicted earlier that the Cubs would win 88 games this year, and I’m sticking to that. Unlike last year, though, when I picked them to win 86 but knew they had no chance of winning many more, I fully acknowledge that I may be off by quite a few games on the low side this year. This year’s team has tremendous potential: will they realize it?

Via LOHO, a fine Cubs blog if ever there was one, comes news from the Tribune that Lou is considering using a sensible regular lineup this year:

With Kosuke Fukudome batting second, where does that leave Ryan Theriot?

Probably in the No. 7 slot, according to manager Lou Piniella.

“I don’t think we have many choices in that regard, so if we were to hit Fukudome second, [Mark] DeRosa would hit fifth and [Geovany] Soto sixth,” he said. “You can see why I’ve been trying to stretch the lineup a little.”

Hooray!  Now, of course Soriano should not be leading off, but apparently that’s impossible.  Given that constraint, I think this is about as good a lineup as you could make.  I might switch DeRosa and Soto and maybe even Pie and Theriot, but those would be minor changes; the key is that everyone is in their correct “half” of the lineup.  I realize lineups don’t matter, for the most part, but at the very least it will be nice not to have to fume at Lou for batting Theriot second every time I sit down to watch a game.

A quick back-of-the-envelope assessment of the 2008 Cubs:

Hitting:

Should be better.  Slight age-related attrition for Lee, Soriano (maybe), but significant improvements at C and (probably) at RF.  No one had a “career year” last year, so there’s no reason to expect anyone to fall back a lot from their performance last year.

Pitching:

The Cubs certainly got a little lucky in the BAbip department last year (especially Lilly), and I don’t expect them to put up the league’s 2nd best ERA this year like they did last year.  Still, they have a solid core of starters and a large pool of mediocre guys to plug into the 4 and 5 slots, a bullpen with some excellent power arms, and a few AAA-level guys to plug holes if needed.

What is the Baseline?

Were the Cubs “for real” last year?  Certainly: their Pythagorean record was 87-75, and their “third-order” W-L record according to Baseball Prospectus was 84-78.  So, to use a phrase coined to describe another Chicago sports franchise, “they are who we thought they were.”  Thus, in assessing what impact the additions/improvements to the team will have, we can go ahead and start by using 85 wins as our baseline.

This year:

My method will be very rough, as befits a “quick-and-dirty” back-of-the-envelope style calculation: I will ignore the differences between last year’s WARPs and this year’s mean projected WARPs for all positions except catcher, center field, and right field, then add the differences for those positions to 85.  It’s so simple and dumb it might work.  Here are the relevant numbers:

C: last year’s total WARP1=3.3; this year’s projection=4.8 (assuming backups are at replacement level)

CF: last year’s total WARP1≈4.0 (this is approximate); this year’s projection=3.7 (assuming Pie starts and backups are at replacement level)

RF: last year’s total WARP1≈4.9 (this is approximate); this year’s projection=4.4 (assuming backups are at replacement level)

The net change in WARP is then +.7.  But wait!  There’s a bad assumption here, namely that the backups will be at replacement level.  Last year, the “backups” actually contributed a large chunk to the WARP position totals at both CF and RF (DeRosa, Murton, Pagan, and Ward to RF, Pie and Pagan to CF), and that should be the case this year as well.  PECOTA predicts Fukudome will only play in 110 games, so let’s give the remaining 52 to Murton and use 1.7 of his projected 2.3 WARP for RF.  In CF, PECOTA projects Pie to play in 102 games, so let’s give 30 of the remaining games to Fuld and the other 30 to some replacement level guy.  This gives us a total WARP1 of 6.1 for RF and 4.3 for CF, giving us a net gain in WARP of 3.0 over last year.  So I therefore fearlessly predict that the Cubs will win 88 games!

This exercise has been extremely rough, but I think the end result—namely, that the Cubs should win a handful of games more than last year—sounds about right in that it jives with both my intuition and the the results of various simulations and projection systems.  This is still not a great team, but it is a good one that plays in a bad division, so I expect them to be up in the high 80s/low 90s in wins this year.

Here’s my 25-man roster:

C: Soto, Blanco

IF: Lee, DeRosa, Theriot, Ramirez, Fontenot, Cedeño

OF: Soriano, Pie, Fukudome, Murton

Fat PH: Ward

SP: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Marquis, Leiber

RP: Wood, Marmol, Howry, Eyre, Wuertz, Marshall, Dempster

OK, let me explain the bullpen: the way I see it, the Cubs have three power arms (Marmol, Howry, Wood) that should be used in high-leverage situations and two “pretty good” guys (Wuertz, Eyre) who can be used in medium-leverage situations.  But when Marquis and Leiber are two of your starters, you’re going to have a significant amount of low-leverage—that is, mop-up—situations, and there’s no need to give those innings to one of your better relievers.  Hence, Marshall is your “long man A” and Dempster is your “long man B” who can also be used in higher-leverage situations if needed.  I like Gallagher, but I think he needs a little more seasoning.  He and Kevin Hart and Carmen Pignatiello should start the year in AAA, ready to be called up when someone gets hurt.