2013 Preview: Chicago Cubs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

In terms of rebuilding baseball organizations, the 2012 Cubs had one of the most successful campaigns they could have expected. First, their core of aging, expensive veterans gained another year, resulting in a decidedly short-term outlook for their remaining contracts. Secondly, they executed a trade for a Top 100 prospect and saw that bat impact their club at the big league level; at midseason, another transaction landed another prospect for the organization. Third, they drafted and scouted aggressively, resulting in a revamped farm system that caters to previous organizational needs (especially pitching). That the big league club went 61-101 should be of little concern — even if prideful Cubs fans and fickle Windy City media were miffed at the organization’s attempts to rebuild, the 2012 campaign was not one that required many on the field gains by the club. That the Cubs already received a valuable contribution from Anthony Rizzo, and successfully converted Jeff Samardzija into a productive starter, are benefits they can carry forward.

Intervention: Cubs League Environment
This year, while I preview the division, I want to pay some attention to the progression of the clubs’ park environments and the overall league environment. The basic reason is simple: after five consecutive seasons of spiraling run environments that went from 4.76 RS/G to 4.13 RS/G in the National League, scoring rose during the 2012 season. This is an important development because it raises some question for our outlook in 2013; if we’re expecting pitchers and batters to play in relatively depressed circumstances, we might judge rosters differently than if they’re playing in more robust environments. This might seem like nothing more than mental gymnastics, but understanding these changes is important; it could be as simple as determining whether a 165 IP / 79 R campaign by a pitcher is acceptable or not, or whether a batter with an OBP below .320 can be a serviceable contributor to their club.

2003-2012 NL Batting (R/G):
2003: 4.61 (.262 / .332 / .417; 6.56 K, 3.35 BB, 1.05 HR)
2004: 4.64
2005: 4.45
2006: 4.76
2007: 4.71
2008: 4.54
2009: 4.43
2010: 4.33
2011: 4.13
2012: 4.22 (.254 / .318 / .400; 7.64 K, 3.01 BB, 0.94 HR)

It’s interesting to see a HR/G rate of less than one per game and think of the longball as a less frequent occurrence. However, MLB is still in the middle of one of the strongest home run eras in baseball history. Alongside the steady liveball/small park/”steroids” era of the mid-1990s and turn of the century, the “testing” era still has home run rates that are as strong / stronger than the 1953-1961 stretch. Perhaps more interesting than the home run rates is the increase in strike outs; since the 1960s deadball era knocked the home run down several notches, while pitchers took advantage of the larger strike zone, strike outs continued to rise as scoring declined. While strike outs evened out a bit during the 1970s, they began to creep up in the 1980s, eventually increasing notably in the 1990s. It’s interesting to note that the continual increase in strike outs does not necessarily correspond to more home runs now; in fact, since 2006, strike outs have increased while home runs decreased in three different seasons.

2012 is a notable season in terms of runs scored and strike outs. By my count, since the 1960s deadball era began, there have been 15 seasons during which strike outs and scoring simultaneously increased. Only four of those seasons featured higher strike out increases than the 2012 season; seven featured larger increases in runs scored:

1993: +0.05 K, +0.71 R
1969: +0.14 K, +0.62 R
1977: +0.54 K, +0.42 R
2006: +0.22 K, +0.31 R
1979: +0.01 K, +0.23 R
1982: +0.38 K, +0.18 R
1994: +0.44 K, +0.13 R
1986: +0.61 K, +0.11 R
2012: +0.34 K, +0.09 R
1989: +0.14 K, +0.06 R
1996: +0.09 K, +0.05 R
2004: +0.12 K, +0.03 R
1965: +0.23 K, +0.02 R
1995: +0.29 K, +0.01 R
1983: +0.22 K, +0.01 R

Of course, home runs also increased in every one of these years, except for 1995. So, even while we might not associate general increases in strike outs with more home runs or positive run-scoring outcomes, an increase in home runs can correspond with an increase in strike outs and help to produce more runs during some seasons. Yet, the overall ratio of strike outs is much more extreme now than the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. One wonders if this ratio of strike outs, alongside a relatively low run environment, will convince teams to favor more contact-oriented approaches. The idea of batting the ball in play and seeing what happens is not necessarily a feasible strategy when a team needs to maintain an average OBP around .330; but, when that OBP dips below .320, and even the SLG might be closer to .400 than .420, teams could be rewarded by a change in strategy.

Wrigley Field Three-Year Factors (Batting / Pitching)
2012: 98 B / 99 P (30 night games)
2011: 101 B / 102 P
2010: 104 B / 105 P
2009: 107 B / 106 P
2008: 107 B / 106 P (28 night games)
2007: 105 B / 104 P (28 night games)
2006: 103 B / 103 P
2005: 104 B / 104 P
2004: 102 B / 102 P
2003: 101 B / 101 P (18 night games)

As the NL run environment decreased from the mid-2000s onward, so decreased the general run environment at Wrigley Field. Even if we move beyond the park factors, which are neutralized against the league environment and trends for all teams in the NL, and look at home/road splits for Cubs and their opponents (via Bill James Handbooks), the benefits from both the Cubs and their opponents were less extreme at Wrigley Field from 2010-2012 than in the middle of the 2000s.

Matt Garza
Just as soon as I was planning to preview Matt Garza as an organizational key for the 2013 Cubs, news broke about Garza’s strained lat suffered during his first live batting practice of the spring. Garza will reportedly undergo an MRI to determine the seriousness of this injury, and undoubtedly, the Cubs will be hoping for the best possible news. After all, given the sudden surge in value for right-handed starting pitchers — beginning with the Matt Cain contract, increasing with the Zack Greinke trade and the James Shields/Wade Davis trade, and skyrocketing with the Greinke and Felix Hernandez contracts — the Cubs arguably have one of the best remaining right-handed trading chips. Even within the new CBA, where midseason trades no longer net clubs a chance at a compensatory draft pick for their free agent, the Angels’ willingness to deal Jean Segura-and-then-some for two months of Greinke proved that clubs will continue to deal for top talent if they believe that they can compete.

Despite doubling his HR/9 IP in 2012, Garza maintained a basically average performance during his injury shortened campaign. However, Garza’s 2011 season proves that when he’s healthy, he can provide his club a solid performance, working a sizable number of innings while allowing an average-or-better number of runs. Furthermore, Garza should maintain the reputation of being a better pitcher than Shields, who was lauded as a star when the Royals traded for him. In Tampa Bay, Garza was arguably the better, more consistent pitcher:

Shields (7 years): 1454.7 IP, 1250 K/340 BB/184 HR; 688 R, 107 ERA+
Garza (3 years): 592.3 IP, 467 K/201 BB/72 HR; 270 R, 109 ERA+

Whereas Shields’s performance might fluctuate from average to notably below or above average, depending on the season, Garza has proven to be a steady pitcher that might not boast as strong a ceiling — but, he makes up for that by producing average seasons, even at his worst. For this reason, Garza’s health is crucial to the Cubs’ ability to land more prospects to hasten their rebuilding process. While it’s nice to think about the Cubs surprising some people and competing into the season, Garza is arguably more valuable to the club as a trading chip — especially now that the Brewers, Rays, Dodgers, and Mariners have proven that right-handed pitching talent is worth a strong price.

Nate Schierholtz
After a successful 2012 campaign by Bryan LaHair, the 2013 Cubs’ depth chart features another PCL batter that could get a chance to break out with the Cubs. Nate Schierholtz signed with the Cubs after spending his career as a part-time outfielder in San Francisco (and, briefly, Philadelphia). Schierholtz could arguably get his chance to shine in Chicago, joining veterans Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus.

AAA: 852 PA, 255 H, 54 2B, 17 3B, 34 HR, 113 K/39 BB, .320/.357/.559 (.763 BIP)
MLB: 1389 PA, 344 H, 75 2B, 15 3B, 24 HR, 230 K/85 BB, .270/.319/.409 (.746 BIP)

In his MLB career, Schierholtz followed his Pacific Coast League-driven AAA contact profile. Although he struck out and walked more frequently in the MLB, while also hitting notably fewer home runs, Schierholtz maintained his contact-oriented batting profile. The right-fielder will knock the ball into play, and he increases his value with his ability to knock doubles and triples around the ballpark. Those extra base hits help him improve his power profile, and despite his low home run totals, one third of Schierholtz’s hits result in extra bases.

Darwin Barney
If one focuses on Darwin Barney’s offensive production, one finds a contact-oriented bat that doesn’t hit for a lot of power. Barney isn’t hanging around the MLB due to his bat, but the second-baseman is capable of great things with his glove. More than anything, Barney translates good range into sure-handed plays. While his 2011 defensive value was not spectacular, Barney greatly improved in 2012, suddenly increasing his double plays while decreasing his errors, while also increasing his plays made outside of his zone. These aspects of his performance earned Barney the Fielding Bible award for second basemen, and depending on your view of defense in wins above replacement stats, Barney was as strong as the 15th most valuable player in the 2012 National League (according to Baseball-Reference WAR).

2006 Adam Everett (4.1)*
2005 Jack Wilson (4.1)*
2007 Troy Tulowitzki (3.8)
2010 Alex Gonzalez (3.7)
2012 Darwin Barney (3.6)
2012 Brendan Ryan (3.6)*
2009 Franklin Gutierrez (3.6)
2010 Michael Bourn (3.5)*
2009 Jack Wilson (3.5)*
2008 Chase Utley (3.5)
2011 Austin Jackson (3.4)
2005 Craig Counsell (3.4)
2010 Brett Gardner (3.3)
2005 Adam Everett (3.3)*
2004 Scott Rolen (3.3)
2011 Ben Zobrist (3.2)
2009 Chone Figgins (3.2)
2009 Brendan Ryan (3.2)*
2006 Clint Barmes (3.2)
2005 Rafael Furcal (3.2)
2004 Brian Schneider (3.2)
2008 Adrian Beltre (3.1)
2003 Hank Blalock (3.0)
2010 Alexei Ramirez (3.0)
2012 Michael Bourn (3.0)*
2010 Brendan Ryan (3.0)*

Of course, one might argue that Barney’s strong 2012 does not mean that he will repeat his defensive value in 2013. This is true. However, the list of 3.0 dWAR players in the last decade is full of solid glovesmen; in that regard, saying that Barney might not repeat his 2012 defensive value is not necessarily a dismissal of his defensive value overall. Should Barney produce a dWAR of 3.0 or better once more in his career, he will join a group of solid defenders. In the last 10 seasons, only Michael Bourn, Brendan Ryan, Adam Everett, and Jack Wilson have posted dWAR above 3.0 more than once.

2009 Pitchers:
During his offseason analysis, Joe Posnanski analyzed the free-agency and big-contract culture associated with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He looked at the Dodgers’ roster core, and analyzed the expectations that accompany that club’s astronomical payroll. One thing he noted was that these big money players all had elements of their careers that were backwards-looking in some way; there is some sense in which the Dodgers roster’s best days are behind them. Yet, Posnanski put together the club’s 2009 statistics, and noted that if that high-payroll gang of stars could recapture their magic, they’d be an amazing club.

Buying low was a mantra for the 2013 Cubs’ rotation, as the organization put together their rotation with a few low-risk options recovering from injuries or other ineffectiveness issues. Notably, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman join the former-American League hurlers Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza to solidify the Cubs’ rotation (Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood claim the other spots on the rotational depth chart). There must have been something in the air in 2009; look at Jackson, Baker, Feldman, and Garza in the American League (and Wood as a Reds farmhand in AA and AAA):

Edwin Jackson: 890 BF, 161 K/70 BB/27 HR; 214 IP, 93 R, 125 ERA+
Scott Feldman: 791 BF, 113 K/65 BB/18 HR; 189.7 IP, 87 R, 114 ERA+
Matt Garza: 861 BF, 189 K/79 BB/25 HR; 203 IP, 93 R, 110 ERA+
Scott Baker: 828 BF, 162 K/48 BB/28 HR; 200 IP, 99 R, 100 ERA+
Travis Wood (minors): 658 BF, 135 K/53 BB/6 HR; 167.7 IP, 40 R, 1.77 ERA

I know that previews can’t simply be “what-if” games, but, if we’re going to give a club like the Dodgers the benefit of the doubt when noting that they have a star-studded, veteran roster (which doesn’t necessarily mean much in terms of actual performance trends), we should do the same for the Cubs. The Cubs’ low-risk options have some quality seasons under their respective belts, and so does Matt Garza (also returning from injury), and Edwin Jackson (before he began his extreme run as deadline-trading-piece.

Instead of dependable low-rotation starter Chris Volstad, the Cubs boast several arms that could build on their previous track record and produce some strong seasons for the North Siders. I’m not trying to sell you a bridge in Lakeview, but I do think there is merit to the idea that the Cubs’ rotation could be steady and productive. What if it’s the Cubs’ hurlers that magically step back to 2009, rather than the Dodgers’ arms?

Rizzo / Castro
Anthony Rizzo destroyed the Pacific Coast League during his 2011 and 2012 seasons, and in 2012, he established a strong contact/power profile in the National League. Suddenly, Starlin Castro has another young, potential superstar alongside him in the infield, and the Cubs on the whole have an infield core that could stick together for years to come.

2011 (153 PA): .301 K / .137 BB / .007 HR (.529 BIP)
2012 (368 PA): .168 K / .073 BB / .041 HR (.709 BIP)

2010 (AA; 467 PA): .214 K / .096 BB / .043 HR (.642 BIP)
2011 (AAA; 413 PA): .215 K / .104 BB / .063 HR (.603 BIP)
2012 (AAA; 284 PA): .183 K / .081 BB / .081 HR (.641 BIP)

2010 (506 PA): .140 K / .063 BB / .006 HR (.785 BIP)
2011 (715 PA): .134 K / .049 BB / .014 HR (.800 BIP)
2012 (691 PA): .145 K / .052 BB / .020 HR (.777 BIP)

2010 (AA; 121 PA): .091 K / .074 BB / .008 HR (.818 BIP)

Meanwhile at shortstop, if Castro’s walk rate fell in 2011, in 2012 he improved that area for the price of more home runs and more strike outs, too. While Castro’s overall home run rate looks below average, if he continues to maintain his strong contact profile alongside his power profile, he could become a steady power/speed threat. If it feels like Castro is already a veteran around the NL Central, remember that he turns 23 next month.

Needless to say, one of the Cubs’ goals this year is to keep their 23-year-old infielders healthy, allowing them to work together for an entire season and anchor the Cubs’ batting order.

As always, preparing a best-case scenario for a rebuilding club is difficult. In the Cubs’ case, however, their club is moving along from their 61-win campaign in 2012. The pitching staff will have a different look, and even if there are some new part-timers looking to get their big league chance in the field, there is also more fire power on the field. In a division that largely stayed the same over the offseason, the Cubs used a relatively active offseason to move along their big league club while their prospects stew for another year.

It’s tough to project a winning season for the Cubs; even an 81-win season would require the club to completely revamp their offense. A 70-run swing from their offense would need another 70-run swing from the pitching staff to get the club near 81-wins. Obviously, those numbers look huge, but perhaps the buy-low candidates in the rotation, a contract year from Garza, or a solid season from Jackson, could lead the way for that improvement. Needless to say, simply cutting out the gang of replacements needed to cover injuries in 2012 could improve the pitching staff notably.

On the other hand, it is easy to see that the Cubs have a better club than they did in 2012, which is frightening in a division that suddenly only has five teams. If the NL Central is looking at a stronger basement, even a bottom-feeding club that competes for part of the season and closes with 70-75 wins could make the year much more difficult for the remainder of the division. Beyond that potential for shaking up the division somewhat in 2013, it seems that the entire division could hold their breath to see how the Cubs’ rebuilding moves along in 2013. No one wants to see a club with the Cubs’ economic, farm system, and front office resources receive a strong vote of confidence through the organization’s 2013 building process. For, once the Cubs receive that vote of confidence, they use turn expiring contracts and increasing revenue to unleash one of the NL’s sleeping giant markets.

2012 Preview

BaseballAmerica. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2013.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2013.

John Dewan & Ben Jedlovec. The Fielding Bible III. Chicago: Acta Sports, 2012.
Bill James. The Bill James Handbook. 2010, 2013 consulted. Chicago: Acta Sports; 2009, 2012.

IMAGE (U.S. Presswire): http://chicago.sbnation.com/chicago-cubs/2012/11/13/3640356/cubs-jeff-samardzija-could-be-working-on-extension

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