Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Cubs season preview

Opening Day is now just days away. Not weeks, not months, but days. Four of them, to be exact.

So it's time to ask: What can we expect of the Cubs this season? They finished 83-78 last year, good for second place in the NL Central with 7.5 games separating them from the Cardinals. This year's team will return many of the veterans from last year, but we'll see a fair amount of young blood as well.

The Opening Day roster has 12 new faces compared to last year's starting squad. I said in last year's preview that the Cubs were in "win now" mode. If that was true, then they're in WINRIGHTNOW mode this year. They could potentially bid adieu to Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and manager Lou Piniella this coming offseason. But while the Cubs will be desperate to make a deep playoff run this year, they are far from the division favorites heading into the season.

Since it's impossible for anyone to truly predict what's going to happen, I'm going to share the optimistic and pessimistic views of the various aspects of the Cubs' roster; you can decide which argument you favor in each case.

Starting rotation
The Cubs let Rich Harden head to Texas, but return their top four starters from a year ago. Zambrano's 3.77 ERA was solid last year, and one would think he has almost no choice but to improve on his nine wins. Ted Lilly, who in many ways has been the true ace of the staff in his three years in Chicago, will hopefully have another solid campaign after he returns from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in mid- or late April.

Randy Wells is a HUGE X factor. After shocking the North Side by going 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA after being called up from the minors, one has to wonder if he will be able to repeat that success. He can look to someone like Kevin Tapani (12-8 with a 4.07 ERA in his rookie year; 16-9 with a 2.99 ERA the next year) for optimism. On the other hand, the number of surprising rookies who have struggled in the years following is high; Rick Sutcliffe is just one example.

Perhaps Ryan Dempster was a "contract year" case when he went 17-6 in 2008. Or, maybe his daughter's terrible illness truly affected his performance last season. It's impossible to know for sure. Still, his 200 IP and 3.64 ERA last year were solid.

And then there's the fifth starter. Having to type "Carlos Silva" and "Tom Gorzelanny" as the two players who are most likely to hold down the fifth spot (fourth and fifth spot until Lilly returns) doesn't exactly thrill me. But you'll recall that the Cubs began 2009 with Marshall as the fifth starter, and then Randy Wells came out of nowhere to become one of the Cubs' most consistent pitchers.

The optimist: The Cubs return their top four starters and can reasonably expect improvement from both Zambrano and Dempster. Their starters were fifth in the league in ERA last year, and there's no obvious reason that can't be repeated.

The pessimist: Lilly's out for a few weeks to start the year, meaning both Silva and Gorzelanny will get starts. Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter in the long-term. Zambrano never seems to live up to his lofty potential. Can Lilly really continue to surpass his statistics with Toronto (he's had more wins every year with the Cubs than he had in any of his three years with the Blue Jays)? Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter. And lastly, Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter. (Okay, I have to be honest with you: I've been sucked into having a tiny little glimmer of hope about a Silva resurgence. He's had three double-digit win seasons in his career, he's changed his position in relation to the rubber, and his mom recently got a 10-year visa to come to the U.S. from Venezuela. What's being a Cubs fan without a bit of unjustified hope?)

Offense
Ugh. Sorry, that's just one final "ugh" from the offense's dismal performance last year. They went from 855 runs in 2008 (5.27 per game) to 707 in 2009 (4.39 per game). That's a 17 percent decrease! But the biggest change this year will be that it's finally out with the Soriano, in with the Theriot. That's right: the Cubs' offense will actually look like a standard major league offense for once (except that they have no speed at the top ... or anywhere, for that matter).

No wait, check that. The biggest change will hopefully be a healthy Ramirez for a full season. He missed half the season in 2009, which the rest of the offense clearly could not make up for.

Baseball Musings has the team's best potential performance at 5.03 runs per game (good) and their worst at 4.48 (below average). Rudy Jaramillo should help, though his past teams have not typically been huge into on-base percentage.

The optimist: It's essentially impossible for this universe to allow Soriano and Soto to have crap-ass performances like that again. And Marlon Byrd over Milton Bradley? Yes please. Plus a real leadoff man? This could be fun to watch.

The pessimist: Could the Cubs' core be any older? They might as well have Jamie Moyer batting cleanup. Don't expect a whole lot of stolen bases, and is Mike Fontenot really starting at second base again? Really?

Bullpen
The pessimist: The Cubs have several relievers who not only wouldn't be recognized at a bar, they probably wouldn't be recognized at a baseball convention. Justin Berg? Esmailin Caridad? James Russell? That sounds as unfamiliar to me as the cast of a 1940s movie.

And I would literally rather watch Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector on a loop for six straight months than watch Carlos Marmol close games for an entire season if he pitches anything like the first half of 2009. I fear that the Marmol as Closer Plan is going to be a complete and utter disaster. I sure hope I'm wrong, but can you name a solid closer in baseball who is as likely to hit or walk a batter as Marmol?

The optimist: Can the bullpen really be any worse than last year? They were 20th in the league in ERA and they blew 18 saves. No more Kevin Gregg. Oh, and no more Aaron Heilman!

And as far as all those no-names: the world champion Yankees had David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and Brian Bruney as key parts of their 'pen last year.

Bench
Only Koyie Hill returns from last year. In place of Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright, we have Xavier Nady and Tyler Colvin (L). And instead of Aaron Miles and Micah Hoffpauir, the Cubs will have Jeff Baker and Chad Tracy (L). There would seem to be little doubt that this year's bench is an improvement over last year's, given that Miles was a Grade A suckball and Joey Gathright brought nothing to the table.

The optimist: Nady is just two years removed from a 20 HR, 72 RBI season with the Pirates. Tyler Colvin didn't come out of nowhere--he was the 13th overall pick in 2006. My point is, he's supposed to be good. Tracy can backup both Lee and Ramirez and had a .308 average with 27 HR and 72 RBI in 2005 with Arizona. Hill's a switch hitter, meaning the Cubs have nice lefty/righty balance off the bench.

The pessimist: Colvin had a torrid spring, but is it the Hoffpauir syndrome? Can he actually hit in the majors, especially off the bench? Despite his amazing spring stats, he has not walked once. Nady's coming off of two Tommy John surgeries, and can't even throw it to home plate from the outfield. There's a reason the Diamondbacks let Tracy go. Could it beeeeee ... the fact that he hit fewer home runs the last three seasons combined than he did in 2005? (Isn't that special.) And is Fontenot really the only backup for Theriot at short?

Defense
The optimist: Soriano should be better given the health of his knee. Byrd is better than Fukudome in center, and Fukudome is better than Bradley in right. The Cubs also have Gold Glove-level players at both corner infield positions.

The pessimist: Who are we kidding, Soriano's a big ball of awful in left. Byrd and Fukudome are solid, but nothing special. Nady played a minor league game recently and was not allowed to throw past the cutoff man. Theriot needs a cutoff man to throw from short to first.

Prediction
You already saw my prediction of 86 wins yesterday, but here's why: I think the offense has to be better than last year. Unfortunately, I think the bullpen could be just as bad if not worse. And with Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster and Wells, I think the Cubs should have a formidable rotation that will give them a chance to win on most days. But it's hard for me to envision them being at the top of the NL Central, let alone the National League. I think they can be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, but in the end, I see them falling short. (For those who know me well, you know that a) it was nearly impossible for me to bring myself to predict that the Cubs will not finish first, and b) I want nothing more than to be wrong.)

But predictions mean nothing--it's time to play the games!

3 comments:

  1. Great post today...very comprehensive. Although I'm pretty sure you’re going to owe Carlos Marmol an apology in a few weeks. And I think it’s a toss-up for the Wild Card given the lack of great teams in the NL.

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  2. I agree with Trevor. Kudos. I now know more about the 2010 Cubs than I ever wanted to know. One thing: your mention of Silva's mother getting a visa as a reason he might do better this year is why you're the eternal Cubs fan. Hope knows no reason.

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  3. Great Preview!!

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