Presuming the Cubs open the season with something close to their current roster, which includes Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol, Matt Garza, and other players who were at one time or another rumored to be on the market, can they actually field a competitive team in 2013?
Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs calculates that with the signing of Scott Hairston, the Cubs stand to win between 77-79 games and believes they could be in the playoff hunt.
Dmick89 of Obstructed View is even more optimistic. He projects the Cubs regulars to be about 37 wins above replacement in total. When added to the 48-49 wins that would be expected of a team made up strictly with replacement players, those extra wins add up to 85-86 wins.
Now let me say that if you've read these guys before, you know they're analytical writers who try to be as objective as possible. They're Cubs fans, but they also go by the numbers. To see both of them project the Cubs as competitive enough to be in the playoff hunt is encouraging.
I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here as my methodology for projecting wins would be similar to theirs. That is, I would use a replacement level win percentage as a baseline and then add wins above replacement based on 2013 statistical projections. Suffice to say that I agree with the somewhat optimistic win range of between 77-86 wins. Though I lean toward the lower end of that scale, there are reasons to think the Cubs could surprise in 2013.
For me, the Cubs biggest improvements figure to come in 4 areas.
- Starting rotation
- Bullpen depth
- Maximizing offensive production through platoon splits.
The Starting Rotation
Despite trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm, this area once again figures to be a strength of the Cubs and there is room for improvement here. Matt Garza suffered an unlucky year in terms of flyballs leaving the yard and figures to be closer to the 2011 version in 2013. Jeff Samardzija continued to improve as the season wore on. The stuff was there all year long, but what impressed me most about Samardzija as the season wore on was his pitchability. He's tough when he's on, but he learned to adapt when he didn't have everything going. In short, he is evolving from a harrd thrower to a pitcher who happens to throw very hard. I look for Edwin Jackson to replace Ryan Dempster's normal level of production, which is that of a solid #3 innings eating starter and I think Scott Baker can be this year's Paul Maholm -- and perhaps better if he's healthy. The Cubs then have 3 SP candidates to compete for that 5th spot with Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva. I think Wood will win that spot but it does give the Cubs the best depth they've had in years if Wood struggles and/or if Scott Baker isn't ready to start the season.
The biggest addition from the outside is Kyuji Fujikawa, who will set-up for the nearly traded Carlos Marmol. If Marmol can build on the adjustments he made last year, in which he used his fastball to set-up his slider, the Cubs could have a strong back end of the bullpen. It also puts two very effective pitchers, Shawn Camp and James Russell, in more appropriate 7th inning roles. The hope is that the Cubs can shorten games a bit with a steady, consistent bullpen. What's more is that the Cubs won't be as reliant on Camp and Russell as they were last year. This year there is depth, starting with the two SPs who will be moved to the bullpen. Both Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva have shown to be very good out of the bullpen and will be able to take some of the innings load off the late inning guys. The Cubs have unusual depth in this area as well. Michael Bowden likely holds down one spot after pitching well late in the season. He's also out of options so it's make or break for him. No longer will the Cubs have to rely on unproven pitchers like Rafael Dolis and Lendy Castillo for big innings. They can work in guys like Hector Rondon, Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley, Dolis, Castillo, Trey McNutt, etc. slowly and as they are ready -- not force them into spots out of desperation. If the Cubs do need emergency help, they could also opt for veterans like Corey Wade and LHP Hisanori Takahashi. There are options here and that alone makes this bullpen miles ahead of where it was last year.
Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro worked themselves hard to become average defenders last year. Castro, in particular, played well above average for a great chunk of the year and at 22, still has room to get better. The right side of the IF is among the best in the game defensively with 2 superior gloves in Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo while 3B defense will be in good hands whether the the Cub decide to go with Ian Stewart or Luis Valbuena. The strength of this defense will be the infield and the Cubs will try to tailor that to a pitching staff that will keep the ball low in the strike zone.
The outfield defense should be adequate. The best fielder may be RF Nate Schierholtz, who has a strong arm and good athleticism. As mentioned earlier, Alfonso Soriano has made himself adequate and David DeJesus is a steady, reliable defender, though he's a bit stretched out in CF. Reserve Dave Sappelt is a good corner OF'er who has the athleticism, but not the instincts to play CF at this time. Perhaps that's something we'll see him work on this spring. If he could play an adequate CF, that would be a big boost as he could give DeJesus some time off against some LHP. The latest addition Scott Hairston rates as a slightly above average outfielder in his career per UZR (2.9), though he's best suited for the corners at this stage in his career. He can play CF in a pinch, however. If there is a weakness in this defense it's that it lacks a true CF, so the Cubs will have to mix and match a little until Brett Jackson is ready to take over.
Catching is a big question mark but the Cubs are very pleased with how far Welington Castillo has come defensively. The tools were always there. He's athletic and mobile behind the plate and possesses a canon for an arm, but it's been the mental side of the game where Castillo has made the biggest strides. Where once he was thought of as a raw physical standout behind the dish, the Cubs now believe he'll also develop into a leader who can manage a pitching staff.
Maximizing offensive production with platoons
The signing of Scott Hairston makes for a potential productive R/L platoon with Nate Schierholtz.
In what is an admittedly quick and crude projection/calculation, I used each players last year's splits and then extrapolated them over (600 ABs) where I give 2/3 of the ABs to Schierholtz (vs. RHP) and 1/3 to Hairston in RF (vs. LHP), I come up with the following combination...
Slash line: .287/.346/.499 with 23 HRs. I can live with that in RF.
Furthermore, I think the Cubs can maximize DeJesus value by giving him more days off vs. LHP, against whom he hit .137 last year with no extra base hits. Perhaps Sappelt is the answer if he can learn to play CF better. If not, the Cubs can play Hairston there and move Sappelt to RF against some lefties to give Schierholtz and DeJesus a break vs. those tough LHPs. DeJesus hit hit .289/.364/.437 vs. RHP last year and he rated as an above average offensive player (116 RC+) when facing RHP. If Sappelt can hit LHP the way he has in AAA and his short time in the majors (.345 career average), perhaps the Cubs can field a combined player who hits above the league average in CF.
If they can play this right (and everything works out, which as we know, it rarely does), it's possible that the Cubs can get above offensive production from all 3 OF positions despite having only one player, Alfonso Soriano, who is currently considered a full-time MLB starter. They can do that by maximizing the individual strengths of the other 4 players by putting them in positions where they can succeed consistently.
The one position that's still a question mark to me is 3B. Ian Stewart has struggled vs. LHP. Luis Valbuena is an option and he has hit LHP a little better, but his ceiling is a little low to make a true impact offensively at that position. It'd be ideal if the Cubs could mix and match at 3B like they can in the OF but they don't currently have the personnel to do that. The Cubs have minor league invitees Edwin Maysonet, Alberto Gonzalez, and Brent Lillibridge to compete for that 2nd utility IF spot. All can play 3B and all hit RH, but none figure to give the Cubs league average offensive production -- even in a limited role.
The wildcards here are Josh Vitters and Junior Lake. The Cubs would like both to get more minor league seasoning, particularly Lake, who has yet to play above AA, but perhaps a big spring may change their minds. The fact that both are already on the 40 man roster makes it easier as well as they wouldn't have to worry about removing players from the 40 man, as they would with non-roster spring training invites such as Lillibridge. Vitters in particular hit lefties well at AAA last season and could be an option to platoon with Stewart. It could be a way to break in Vitters slowly as he tends to take time to adjust to each level. Lake, however, is the more versatile, athletic player and may be easier to carry on a 25 man roster. The issue with Lake is experience but perhaps his great play this winter against more advanced pitching (.312/.382/.474) may ease some of those concerns.
Conclusion and Poll
The Cubs have quietly built some value to their team with their additions to the pitching staff, improvements on defense, and finding players to mix and match to try and dig up starter level production from a combination of role players. The more I examine this roster, the more I believe the Cubs are not treating this season as a throw-away year. They intend to try and compete, even if it's not with big name players and sexy signings.
How about all of you? How optimistic are you about the Cubs chances?