At the beginning of the season, I made a list of things that I felt had to happen for the Cubs to be a good team (i.e., win 90+ games); since the Cubs are assuredly a good team—bordering, perhaps, on greatness—let’s go through that list and see how many of my preconditions have been met.

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.

Well, Ramirez and Lee have been healthy, but the Cubs have lost Soriano twice now, and Zambrano will now miss at least two starts.  Still, there have been no season-ending injuries.  I’m willing to call this condition half-met.

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.

Fukudome’s power hasn’t shown up (and might not at all), but the OBP is right where PECOTA pegged it to be.  Soto has, of course, exceeded all expectations, while Pie struggled and is currently out of the picture.  I think Soto and Fukudome have lived up to expectations, on aggregate, and so I call this condition met.

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.

My point here, which I’m not really sure I made very clearly, was that at least one of the two lefties had to be almost as good this year as last year.  Hill, of course, fell off the face of the earth and appears to be suffering from either an injury or (more likely) a severe lack of confidence, while Lilly has been mediocre on the whole, though much better since his bad start.  Even if we remove Lilly’s bad start (his first four starts of the year) from consideration, he’s allowing more homers and walks than last year—that increase on control he showed last year appears to have been a fluke.  I expect that Lilly will probably finish the season with an ERA in the low 4’s and a VORP lower (though not significantly lower) than last year, and that this condition will have been met.  Right now, however, I’m afraid I have to say that it hasn’t.

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.


So clearly the Cubs are exceeding expectations even while failing to fulfill all my criteria.  How do I explain this?  Well, I have one name for you: Ryan Dempster.  This is the person that I (and a lot of other Cubs fans) have been wrong about the most.  I fully expected the “Dempster as a starter” experiment to fail miserably, but thus far he has been the Cubs’ best starter in terms of WPA (win probability added) and ERA, and second best in terms of VORP.  Now let’s not kid ourselves: Dempster’s BAbip is 80 points lower than his career average, and he ranks first in the NL in FIP-ERA (a measure of luck).  Still, even if he were to post a 3.90 ERA (3.90 is his FIP), he would be one of the better starters in the NL and a good bit better than most of us imagined he would be.  In short, then: yes, Dempster’s been lucky, and yes, a regression to the mean is imminent, but there’s good evidence that that mean might not be so bad.