A while back we looked at some breakout and bounce back candidates on the mound. Now it's time to look at some of the position players. This isn't as easy. The Cubs don't have a lot of breakout candidates right now as far as position players. Most of those type of players are in the minors, but for now we're sticking with the major league squad.
Here's a couple of the statistics I'll use in this analysis
BABIP: Stands for Batting Average of Balls In Play. To some degree, this stat measures "luck" on batted balls. If your BABIP is high, it means a lot of batted balls fell for hits. In other words, more seeing eye groundballs and bloop hits and less line drives right at ‘em. In Yogi Berra’s words, more “hitting them where they ain’t”. A higher number can mean less luck for a pitcher (and more luck for a hitter). The league average for this statistic is about .300. Note that it isn't all luck and BABIP varies from player to player. Faster players tend to have higher BABIPs because they'll beat out a few extra ground balls. Some players make hard contact more consistently and that can certainly have an effect on how many balls get past the defense.
WAR: Stands for Wins Above Replacement. It's an all-encompassing number for statistics that a player can control. For position players that includes hitting, defense, and baserunning. It attempts to measure how much wins that player provides over some every day joe AAA guy. That player is considered to be "replacement level". As an example, Blake DeWitt qualified as a replacement level player last year and not surprisingly has been replaced by an average AAA player (Adrian Cardenas) on the roster. To give you an example of how WAR numbers break down, here's a quick reference chart...
Below 0: This is Koyie Hill level. It's a substandard MLB player who should be replaced. He costs your team runs, and ultimately wins.
0: A replacement player such as the Blake DeWitt example above. Neither hurts nor helps your team.
1: A solid reserve level player. Reed Johnson is a good example.
2: The minimum of what you want out of your starter. Marlon Byrd and Darwin Barney were around this level, largely on the strength of their defense. Most of the Cubs starters fell into the 2-3 range in 2011. Others include Carlos Pena and Geovanny Soto. Remember that position is important. Pena was much more productive than Barney, but the league average production level at 1B is a lot higher than it is at 2B.
3: A good starter. Castro was at 3.4 last season which makes him a pretty good player, but not a star. With better defense, he would have easily been a 4 level player. Sean Marshall was at 2.8, which is amazing for a relief pitcher.
4: A very good starter: Cubs didn't have a player at this level. Aramis Ramirez at 3.6 was the closest and that was due purely to his offensive production. Had he been even an average defensive player, he would have been at 4 or above
5: A great player. The Cubs didn't have a position player at this level. The Cubs only player in this category was SP Matt Garza.
6+: A superstar. The Cubs, obviously, had nobody at this level.
Castro is already the Cubs best position player, so calling him a breakout player seems odd. Castro really got by on his tools and instincts last year. He had a good, but error prone season. Now it's time for the kid to grow up. Castro was an all-star player in 2011, but he was by no means a great player. Not yet. He showed improvement in two big areas late last season, defense and plate discipline (8.5% walk rate in Sept/Oct). If Castro can turn up the defense up a notch and increase the walk level from about 35 to 50 (which would be a very obtainable 7% walk rate) and hit just a few more HRs, he becomes a 5 WAR player -- that would make him a great player. He's on the cusp of stardom. He just has to keep working hard and making progress. For Castro it isn't a matter of skills or instinct, it's a matter of focus and maturity. This is his 3rd year and he'll have a new manager who'll expect him to focus on the mental aspects of the game to go with his tremendous physical skills.
Bounce Back Candidates:
Soto is the Cubs box of chocolates. You just never know what you're going to get from one year to the next. Conditioning often plays a role in how well Soto performs. He has some talent, but he's not gifted enough to come into camp out of shape and get away with it. He has to work at it -- constantly. The word is that Soto has come into shape this offseason and that bodes well for him. Soto was a combination of bad with some bad luck last season. He was still patient, but not as much as he'd been in previous years. His walk rate dropped below 10% for the first time in his career. His BABIP dropped to .280 from .324 the previous season, so Soto had a little bad luck as far as a few extra balls in play not falling for hits. If he can even find just middle ground on that number, it'll bump his average back around into the .250 range or better. Combined with his usual walk rate, which is in the 12% range, it'll bring his OBP back up around a very respectable .350. Factor in his above average power and that makes for a solid, if not spectacular season.
DeJesus struggled with the bat a bit playing in Oakland's cavernous stadium. His BABIP was even lower than Soto's at .274, down from .355 the previous season. Perhaps we're not expecting his BABIP to be as high as .355, but it should at least be around his career average of .316, perhaps even a bit better than that playing at Wrigley. That would mean an average of around .280 or so with all other things being equal. Like Soto, DeJesus has a good eye at the plate and with a bit more hits falling and finding holes next year, he could be back in the .350 OBP range or better. His defense is always good and he's become a pretty good baserunner over the years, even if he doesn't steal bases. Put it all together and DeJesus would be an above league average RF'er and a respectable leadoff man -- both are qualities that Cubs fans haven't seen too often over the years.
Stewart can qualify under both categories. His numbers were awful last year. Part of that can be attributed to a wrist problem, but it doesn't meant you can ignore Stewart's contact issues over his career. He has struck out in an incredible 28% of his plate appearances in his career. That simply has to improve for Stewart to be a more effective offensive player. He has many positive traits, such as good power (25 HRs in just 491 PAs in 2009) and good patience ( a nice career walk rate of 10.3%). The key for him is simply making more contact. We're not expecting miracles but if Stewart can get his K rate down a few percentage points to say, 24% or so and maintain a league average .300 BABIP, it's not out of the realm of possibility he can hit .250 and have an OBP in a respectable range of .330-.340. Combined with his above average power and defense, that would give the Cubs a pretty good 3B overall. Stewart has a chance to not just bounce back, but have a career year if things fall into place.