Since their consecutive division championships in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs featured what one might call a “skeleton” roster. Their roster was full of expensive, sometimes useful parts that nevertheless failed to meet their expectations. Sure, there were ballplayers there, but there wasn’t any meat. Those rosters produced slightly competitive, somewhat respectable seasons between 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the bottom dropped out.
In 2011 the Cubs’ organization started taking steps in the right direction — at least somewhat — by using a few new, young faces here and there, and working on short-term, low risk contracts (like Carlos Pena). Unfortunately, their season proved to be riddled with injuries, and young players that might not have been spectacular lost their chance to work in the big leagues for an entire season. Some might argue that losing pitchers like Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells is no big deal, but one of the most important parts of building a competitive club is finding serviceable, cost-controlled pitching. The Cubs’ success hinged on the chances these youngsters had to work on some things, and it didn’t work.
One of the benefits of the Cubs’ 2011 difficulties is that it spurred an immediate shift to trying out more young players. By the end of the season, the Cubs had a bunch of new faces in the big leagues, foreshadowing the impending rebuilding process.
In an offseason that marked large on-the-field changes for the NL Central’s two playoff clubs, and a couple of big trades, the largest transition may have occurred in the Cubs’ front office. Chicago cleaned house, and landed Theo Epstein as their President of Baseball Operations. Epstein picked up Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from the Padres organization, forming a collaboration of bigtime executive superstars and prospects alike.
Perhaps this move explains the 2012 Cubs’ roster more than anything else; the Cubs’ roster might not have meat on it (yet), but the roster is also full of young, low-risk acquisitions, additions by subtraction, and more short-term, low-risk deals. Forgive me if I’m frightened that the NL Central’s largest wallet just got a gang of prudent, forward-thinking minds to spend that loot.
The Cubs’ 2011 campaign started going downhill as soon as it opened. Innings eater Randy Wells strained his right forearm, landing on the 15-Day disabled list just as soon as his season opened. Wells was looking to recapture his 2009 success, but even without regaining that ace status, he was certainly poised to be one of the Cubs’ most serviceable starters. This is the link between competition and futility, in a lot of cases, and the Cubs immediately opened the doors to replacement madness as Wells and Andrew Cashner hit the disabled list.
Wells’ overall 2011 performance does not look very impressive, but there are some bright spots from his season. The righty worked 71 innings between August and September, and allowed only 31 runs (even though he yielded 12 HR and 18 BB). His 40 K/18 BB ratio brought him closer to regaining his “limit-the-damage” potential that he exhibited between 2009 and 2010.
No one is going to pick Wells for their FIP-superstars team, but that’s more because the guy flies under the radar of FIP. Wells is one of those pitchers that gets by without striking out a boatload of batters because he limits the damage elsewhere. Given that Wrigley Field is his homebase, his HR% under 2.3 and BB% at 7 (between 2009 and 2010) looks rather strong.
Wells is baby steps away from regaining his strong HR and BB performances, and that means that Cubs are bay steps away from regaining one of their most important links to a competitive ballclub. You might not shiver every time you see Randy Wells’ name in the “Probable Starters” column, and your kids might not be yanking your wallet to snag some tickets for his starts, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t be thrilled to see a healthy Wells anchoring their middle rotation in 2012.
LIMITING THE DAMAGE / SECRET ACES
The Chicago Cubs traded Carlos Zambrano and cash to the Miami Marlins to give the righty a fresh start. What they lost in their passionate ace, they gained in clubhouse serenity (is there a breaking point for chemistry? What makes volatile clubs like the 1970s Oakland Athletics win championships, while others ship off their players? Is it simply losing that spurs those moves?). The club also made a slightly less-publicized deal, landing a few arms from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for ace set-up man Sean Marshall.
Here is an indication of where the Cubs’ front office shined brightest during the 2011 offseason. To accompany their other middle rotation arms (such as Matt Garza and the aforementioned Wells), the Cubs landed Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and signed Paul Maholm. Wood was a serviceable starter for the Reds, Maholm a secret ace for the Pirates (two strong seasons in his last four), and Volstad is the Cubs’ reward that coincides with fewer retirement threats and dugout fights.
Not unlike Wells, each of these pitchers has something in common: they will limit the damage by not allowing free passes. There you go scoffing again — yes, Volstad has a FIPratio near 1.40 for his career (translating to a runs average around 4.75+), and yes, Maholm and Wood do not have strike out ratios to make your jaw drop. Yet, each of these pitchers has the distinct possibility of working well over 100 innings, they typically won’t beat themselves, and Maholm and Wood also have the added potential to limit home runs allowed in the Cubs rotation.
You might also find it interesting that each of these pitchers has allowed more runs than one might expect, given their FIP. For his career, Volstad allowed approximately 10-15 more runs than expected; Wood between 9 and 11; Maholm stands at more than 20 (and maybe even close to 30) extra runs allowed over the last four years.
Are these guys unlucky, or is this just an outgrowth of how they approach the game? There’s going to be bunches of batted balls in play during their starts, and they have to do everything else right to keep things working. However, this group of starters, as an aggregate, provides the Cubs with a clear opportunity to steer clear of replacement madness. One could argue whether the organization is paying dearly for little more than rotational stability; what would you pay for the potential to use fewer than 10 starters in a season?
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR?
Nobody on the planet thinks the Cubs got a good deal for Alfonso Soriano. In fact, most baseball labor fans would argue that Soriano is the organization’s poster boy for their 2009-2011 spiral. However, the left fielder quietly put together two consecutive seasons that were slightly above average, which begs the question of his original worth in the first place.
Soriano had the ultimate contract season during his 2006 season in Washington. He slugged more than 40 doubles and 40 home runs (each), while stealing more than 40 bases and (even) increasing his walk ratio (yes, I subtracted the IBB). What MLB team wouldn’t pay through the nose for that type of season?
Of course, Soriano was not anywhere near that type of value throughout his career, and no one truly believed that he would suddenly match that type of season (or come close to it) after turning 30.
2002-2006: 3543 PA, 540 R, 483 RBI, 693 K/194 BB/187 HR (165 SB); 120 OPS+ (510 RRBI)
Still, considering his OPS+, and taking the harmonic mean between his R and RBI, Soriano was a rather productive player during the five seasons prior to his free agency deal.
2007-2011: 2698 PA, 354 R, 367 RBI, 587 K/186 BB/132 HR (54 SB); 109 OPS+ (360 RRBI)
Although many think that his time with the Cubs has been nothing short of a disaster, the on-field equivalent of throwing money into a public ballpark project, Soriano’s production in Chicago is not far from his overall production prior to residing in Lakeview’s ballyard. Translating his 2002-2006 runs production into his 2007-2011 plate appearances, Soriano is worth more than 92% of his original value during the five years preceding his big contract.
I asked a similar question about Carlos Lee‘s contract during my Astros preview: what would you pay a relatively productive player to man 500 PA a season at 92%+ of his previous value? I’m starting to think that these stars really do get paid for relieving the hassle of looking for multiple replacements during the course of a season. Soriano is no different; he boasts one notably below average season in Chicago, but otherwise, he maintained production in Chicago that is at a level everyone should have expected (or dare I say it, hoped for).
BREAKOUT: LA WHO?
I don’t know about you, but I’m rooting for Blake DeWitt to win a job on the Cubs this year. That would provide for the distinct possibility that DeWitt, David DeJesus, and Bryan LaHair start in at least one game together.
You can call me crazy, but I think the conditions are perfect for Bryan LaHair to take the National League by storm. (a) He’s not yet 30, (b) he’s playing for a club that doesn’t have a true replacement for him, (c) he’s working in favorable hitting environments, and (d) he doesn’t have more than 300 career MLB PA. I mean this in the nicest possible way: Bryan LaHair is poised to be the Cubs’ Scott Podsednik, the hero from nowhere that comes along and whips the ball around the ballpark for a rebuilding ballclub.
I say this in the nicest possible way, of course, because LaHair has approximately 120 more home runs in the Pacific Coast League than I do, and, on a serious note, the left-handed batter has been begging for an excuse to slug MLB pitching for two or three years now.
PCL (2006-2011): 2709 PA, 583 K / 273 BB / 123 HR / 9 HBP / 3 SH; 1719 BIP; 714 H, .344 BABIP (.900 aggregate OPS / .780 league)
In just over 2700 PCL PA, LaHair’s aggregate OPS of .900 looks strong, even in a league that allows more than 4.80 R/G in a low-scoring year. Obviously, one wouldn’t expect him to maintain his .344 BABIP against NL fielders (although facing defenses from the Pirates, Astros, and to a lesser extent, the Cardinals and Brewers, no one can make any safe bets), but his power profile is strong. Furthermore, LaHair maintains a good walk rate, even if he strikes out a bunch, and on the whole, he boasts a batting profile that suggests a whole lot of true outcomes.
It might only be a year of glory, but I’d bet a boutique LP of your choice that LaHair (a) Outslugs 2011 Carlos Pena, and (b) Leads the Cubs in home runs. (By the way, I didn’t write about Starlin Castro as a breakout candidate because, frankly, a player as good as he is at his age will be poised for a great career if he can keep healthy and hone the strengths of his game. Will Castro breakout in 2012? I have no idea, but how good do you think he’ll be by the time he’s 25?)
DEJESUS / STEWART
David DeJesus and Ian Stewart offer two contrasting parts to the Cubs’ batting order in 2012. Stewart is one of the Cubs’ low-risk acquisitions, looking to build on his early career successes and move past his injury-laden and ineffective 2011 campaign. DeJesus is a consummate contact bat in the outfield, offering the Cubs a strong professional background and a low-cost contribution to the club’s offense. Together, DeJesus and Stewart are going to add bats to both extremes of the Cubs’ contact profile.
2009: .281 K / .114 BB / .051 HR
2010: .249 K / .102 BB / .041 HR
2011: .272 K / .103 BB / .000 HR
2009: .139 K / .081 BB / .021 HR
2010: .119 K / .086 BB / .013 HR
2011: .170 K / .089 BB / .020 HR
The Cubs’ youngsters Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney both feature rather extreme contact profiles, batting the ball in play at strong clips without walking or hitting a ton of home runs. Veteran Marlon Byrd also sits at that end of the contact spectrum, which makes Ian Stewart a welcome contrast to the Cubs’ batting order. Stewart’s home run potential will not be diminished at Wrigley Field, and his high strike out and walk rates will add a different focus to the Cubs’ generally contact-happy batting core (Stewart joins Soriano, LaHair, and Geovany Soto at that end of the spectrum).
DeJesus’ contact bat fits right in with Castro, Barney, and Byrd, although DeJesus adds improved home run and walk potential with his measured approach.
Together, Stewart and DeJesus offer the Cubs’ batting order potential improvements along with their new faces. Together, they are part of the new-look, low-risk Cubs.
The Cubs are not yet to the point of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are moving out of rebuilding with their strong young core, and their 2012 success is not necessarily going to be judged by their on-field success. Much like the Astros, the Cubs’ 2012 season will be judged by their front office’s ability to avoid organizational setbacks. However, unlike the Astros, the Cubs’ MLB roster features more low-risk veterans and more tried-and-true MLB players, which gives the Cubs a chance to compete for a strong portion of the season.
One might not expect to see the Cubs at the top of the division when all is said and done, but that doesn’t mean the club won’t be a thorn in the side of contenders from time to time. Not unlike the 2011 Pirates, the Cubs have a roster that can put together a strong stretch of 90 games. The question marks about the health of their rotation, the ability of their middle rotation to limit the damage, and the ability of veterans like Soriano, Byrd, DeJesus, and Soto to lead along the batting order will determine whether the Cubs can grab a winning season, beyond maintaining a respectable, competitive ballclub.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
MLB.com. MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2012.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2012.