"This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball."
Broadly, there are only three things a baseball team can try to get better at from year to year: pitching, hitting, and defense.
So how did the Cubs rate at each of those components in 2013? I'll use Fangraphs' WAR estimates to assess.
Team Batting WAR: ranked 21st (hey, not bad!)
Team Defensive Runs Saved: ranked 3rd (what what what?!?)
Team Pitching WAR: ranked 26th (I see.)
(Before I get into talking about pitching, recall that Starlin Castro hit .245/.284/.347 last year. He was essentially a replacement level player, despite posting 8 WAR over the prior three seasons. So even though they haven't added any big free agent bats, the Cubs might hit better in 2014 if just that one guy can turn some things around.)
OK, so pitching. It's sort of nice that this is the thing the Cubs are particularly bad at, because there's an obvious way to get an even closer look at a team's pitching performance: starters vs. relievers.
Cubs starters ranked 20th in WAR last year -- neat! Of the Cubs that started at least one game, not one pitcher ended the season with an ERA above 5 (yes, sort of a high bar there but still noteworthy). And only three Cub starters ended the year with an ERA above 4. So, that's groovy.
Now let's look at the bullpen rank: the Cubs were 29th out of 30 teams there. Oh no!
Do you recall how poor the Cubs' overall record was throughout the season last year in relation to their expected (i.e. Pythagorean) record? When teams underperform their expected Win%, it usually comes down to clutch hitting and relief pitching.
And Cubs relievers were definitely bad last year. They rated 27th in BB/9, 28th in K/BB, 27th in blown saves (with 26), and 25th in ERA. (Interestingly, the Cubs bullpen had the lowest GB% of any unit. Did that lead to too many home runs and doubles, not enough GIDPs?)
It's also interesting to look at some of the WAR totals other teams' bullpens racked up. For example, the Texas Rangers bullpen was worth 7.6 WAR! In all, 13 teams got at least 4 WAR out of their bullpens last year, and more than half of all teams were at least above 3.5. The Cubs bullpen actually had a *negative* WAR last year.
Having said all this, there's an obvious question: will the Cubs bullpen be better in 2014 than in 2013? Let's start by listing the relief corps the Cubs brought to Pittsburgh on Opening Day of last year.
2013: Fujikawa, Bowden, Russell, Takahashi, Camp, Rondon, Marmol
Oh my god that group is so bad!!!!! My jaw is, like, on the floor from having just written that out. Ahhhhh!!!!!
And here are 10 or so guys that might start out this season as Cubs relievers:
Veras, Strop, Russell, Villanueva, Parker, Grimm, Rosscup, Cabrera, Rondon, Vizcaino?!?!?!
Few sure things in that set, but it'll be hard to do worse than last year's crew.
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