One of the things I do to break up a long journey is to break up the ride into parts. The amount of travel time and distance needed can seem daunting at times.
I get that feeling when I look at the Cubs 2014 season.
If I'm going to think of the Cubs as a team trying to improve from 66 wins to contention (or at least respectability), it seems insurmountable. There's been no significant offseason moves. Where are those wins supposed to come from?
It's the time of year when we've seen prognosticators predict doom for the Cubs. Most have them as one of the 5 worst teams in baseball. I'm not saying they're wrong. They're probably right. If I had to bet (and thankfully, I don't), I'd bet against the Cubs.
There are always surprise teams in baseball. I think many prognostications tend to be too broad in scope. I think they tend to overestimate the impact of the offseason as well as some of the meaningless wins and losses from the previous season. The offseason is sometimes treated like an accounting ledger of assets gained and lost. Those assets are then translated to net wins gained or lost, then those expected wins in turn are added or subtracted to last years total.
There are so many variables to a season that I think trying to calculate wins this way becomes unwieldy, so I want to break it down just a little bit. In fact, I'm going to break the season down to three numbers: 95, 50, and 7. Consider those to be the Cubs magic numbers for 2014.
- 95: This is the number of games until the All-Star Break, which is just a couple of weeks before the deadline. It's the make or break point in the season. By the time the Cubs get to this point, their fate for the 2014 will already be decided, just as it has been the past two seasons.
- 50: This is the amount of wins the Cubs need to achieve an 85 win pace by the all-star break. You've heard me say many times that the most important wins are those between 85-95. You could say that is especially true of 85-90 wins because adding wins from there could mean the difference between going to the playoffs and staying home.
- 7: The Cubs need to win 7 more games then they did at the same point in 2013, when they were 43-52. That would put them at 50-45 and on a pace to win 85 games at the all-star break. If the Cubs get to this point, then they need to call off the fire sale. In fact, they may need to become buyers because now they are adding wins to an 85 win team -- those extra wins suddenly have much more value. Those wins can be bought from outside the organization, but they can also be added from within.
There are certain areas where the Cubs can add wins and certain areas where they'll just have to hold serve. The team is built only to add wins incrementally early in the season, so they can't afford to lose much ground at any position for the first couple of months.
The Starting Rotation
Assuming the top 3 of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson can maintain their respective 1st half FIPs of 3.61, 3.59, and 3.71 in some way, I'm looking more at the back end of the rotation. Wood is projected to regress a bit, but Jackson should rebound and make up for the loss. Though he is always a candidate to break out, we will assume Samardzija will stay around the same level of production.
The other Cubs starters were Matt Garza, Carlos Villanueva, and Scott Feldman. However you slice them and dice them, they were all remarkably similar as far a first half production. Their FIPs ranged from 3.73 to 3.80. Villanueva is still around, so we'll consider that a wash. The Cubs are going to have to get the same kind of production from Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta as they did from Garza and Feldman. Can they put up FIPs in that 3.75-380 range? We don't know, but it's certainly plausible. Arrieta and Hammel both project to have an FIP in the low 4s, so it's not a huge stretch. And even if they do put an FIP in the low 4s as projected, it's not going to be a significant drop off.
This void needs to be filled by Ryan Sweeney. DeJesus was a slightly above league average offensive player in the first half with a .334 wOBA (108 RC+), so the Cubs aren't expecting miracles from Ryan Sweeney. For what it's worth, his RC+ was 110 in his short time with the Cubs while Steamer projects him to be roughly a league average offensive player at 99 RC+ for 2014.
This is the void that scares people but the truth is that Soriano was a 1 win player during his time with the Cubs. His RC+ was a league average 102 (.326 wOBA). The void must be filled at least in some part by Junior Lake, who actually had a higher WAR (1.2) as a Cub in 2013 than Soriano -- and he did it in less games.
Some do expect Lake to regress from his surprisingly solid debut, but the Cubs should also gain production with the addition of RH power hitter Justin Ruggiano. Technically Ruggiano is replacing a negative in Scott Hairston, so anything on the plus side is gravy.
Where to find the 7 wins
The Cubs relied heavily on Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp, and Michael Bowden early last season and it resulted in quite a few blown leads. The bullpen didn't really get stabilized until the team installed waiver wire pick-up Kevin Gregg at the closer position. On May 5th, the Cubs were 11-20 with at least 4 losses resulting from bullpen implosions. If the Cubs can just get off to a decent start and cut that in half, then that alone will get them on the right track toward making up those wins.
Rizzo was hitting .241/.328/.441 and spiraling downward at the break last year. He had an RC+ of 109 (.335 wOBA), so he was slightly above average -- but not for a 1B. Rizzo needs to step it up and capture the stroke he had in 2012, when he was a 1.7 WAR player in just over a half season's worth of games (87). I actually believe Rizzo will surpass that production and add at least one win to last year's first half total.
Castro's season long nightmare is over. He gets a fresh start after hitting .245/.283/.357 (in the first half) with a utility infielder-like 72 RC+. There is no question Castro has the ability to improve on that by leaps and bounds. He's been a 3 WAR player for most of his career. He was replacement level at the break last year. Even if we assume a simple return to a 3 WAR season, we can call that an extra 1-2 wins over last year at the break.
It seems odd putting Castillo here when he had one of the better season among Cubs regulars. The problem was that most of it came after the season was pretty much in the tank. What the Cubs need Castillo to do is carry more of the load in the 1st half after hitting just .266/.324/.353 (86 RC+) at the break last year. What's the difference if he does it in the first half vs. the second half? The difference is getting to those 50 wins by the break. Those wins are more valuable to the Cubs early in the season. With Castillo, more of that production in the first half could add a win to the total. However, considering backup George Kottaras likely won't outproduce Dioner Navarro's first half as a backup, the Cubs may be content just to hold serve here.
Everyone knows how Barney's season went last year. I probably don't need to spell it out statistically. The truth is the Cubs cannot withstand that lack of offensive production again. He's either going to improve or he's going to step aside at some point. If Barney himself can improve his production from below replacement level to a half season of the 2 WAR player he's been in the past, then that alone will add at least a win.
And if that doesn't happen, the alternative is to replace him with the Luis Valbuena/Donnie Murphy platoon and install Mike Olt at 3B. Assuming the platoon player's numbers are relatively similar, the Cubs would have to hope for a win or two upgrade from Mike Olt's presence in the lineup over Barney's.
Adding and possibly buying on a 50 win (pace of 85 wins) team at the break
This would make the end of the season fun for a change. Even in this optimistic scenario, the Cubs won't be in a position to sell long term assets for short term pieces, so while we won't see the Cubs become big buyers, they will hold on to the players they have and quite possibly add players at key positions for the last 2 months of the season. Potential internal impact additions include...
- Arodys Vizcaino
- Javier Baez
- Arismendy Alcantara
- Kris Bryant
I also like the idea of taking on a salary on someone like Carlos Gonzalez if the prospect cost is low and comes from areas of depth. Gonzalez is still young enough and signed through 2017. He'd add a lefty bat and a veteran presence that will still be in his productive low 30s as the Cubs become contenders.
So don't think of this as a huge 162 game journey for the Cubs to build on. Break it down first to 95 games -- and you can further break those down into 3 one month increments. Can the Cubs add just 2 wins per month? If you can picture that, then you can picture them adding 7 wins by the time they get to the all-star break.
And if they can get there, all bets are off for the 2014 season.
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