2012 Previews: The Chicago Cubs

2011 Record: 71-91, 5th NL Central
2011 Prediction
: 75-87, 4th NL Central

Impact Player: SS Starlin Castro
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Matt Garza
Best Reliever:
RHP Carlos Marmol
Top Prospect:
OF Brett Jackson

Last Year
The Chicago Cubs provide baseball’s example of why money doesn’t always buy championships. Despite playing in one of baseball’s biggest and most forgiving markets and having a payroll in excess of $134-million for each of the past three seasons, the Cubs have put together a .472 winning percentage over that span. Last year, big-money busts ruled the roost with Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano combining to make just under $50-million while providing just 5.0 fWAR between them.

The Cubs’ new ownership group, led by Tom Ricketts, decided a different direction was required in order for the North-Siders to reawaken from the dead and so they fired longtime GM Jim Hendry last August. In October, the Cubs anointed Red Sox GM Theo Epstein the new President of Baseball Operations and he then hired Padres front office czar Jed Hoyer to be the Cubs new GM.

The big story of the offseason for Chicago was what exactly would be given back to the Red Sox in terms of compensation for Epstein’s services. After months of speculation and indecision, Major League Baseball eventually decided middling prospect Chris Carpenter would head to Boston. And fans of the anti-climax everywhere rejoiced.

Pitching
Only the Astros and Rockies gave up more runs in 2011 than the Cubs despite the fact that they were sixth in the NL in strikeouts. The real problem for Chicago was their pitchers’ inability to hit the strike zone on a consistent basis; they walked more batters than any team in baseball. They’ll bring back at least three-fifths of their starting rotation for 2012 with Matt Garza, Dempster and Randy Wells returning. Gone is Carlos Zambrano, who they are now paying quite generously to pitch for the Miami Marlins.

Garza was talked about in trade rumours all winter, but it appears as though the Cubs will hang on to him, at least to start the year. He was tremendous in his first season on the North Side pitching to a 3.19 xFIP and a 3.13 K/BB ratio in 198 innings of work. His increased strikeout rate and consistently solid walk rates suggest he took a step forward in 2011, as does his increased groundball percentage. If those numbers are sustainable (along with his career-best 7.7% HR/FB ratio), he might be the number one pitcher the Cubs front office says he is. He’s under team control until after 2013 as well, but the Cubs will likely deal him at the deadline if they’re out of contention.

Dempster has seen his fWAR drop consistently since 2008, but his xFIP and SIERA have stayed in line with his established norms suggesting that he might rebound in 2012. Either way, he’s thrown four straight 200-inning seasons and will be a free agent at season’s end. He’s another tradable asset for the new regime.

Wells had two solid seasons in 2009 and 2010, but fell off dramatically in 2011 barely reaching replacement-level. If he can keep the home runs under control (he gave up 1.53 HR/9 last season), he should rebound slightly. He’s no better than a back-end option, even at his best.

The Cubs signed lefthander Paul Maholm to a team-friendly $4.75-million with a 2013 club option this winter and it could turn out to be a huge bargain. He won’t blow anybody away, but strong groundball numbers and decent control give him value. He pitched to a 4.03 xFIP and 2.1 fWAR last season in Pittsburgh. If he even comes close to replicating that, he’ll be well worth his contract and the option.

The fifth spot will probably go to Chris Volstad, who was acquired from Miami for Zambrano. Volstad pitched 165.2 innings in South Florida last year and wasn’t horrible. He managed to improve his groundball rate and had passable peripherals, but he continues to give up home runs at an alarming rate. A move to Wrigley Field probably won’t help in that regard. Jeff Samardzija, Casey Coleman, Andy Sonnanstine and Travis Wood will provide depth in the rotation if someone gets hurt or Volstad and/or Wells struggle.

Carlos Marmol will strike out everyone you care about, but he’ll also walk most of those same people. He’s back as the closer and although he’s volatile, he can be downright dominant. He tends to pitch well to both righties and lefties and has a knack for keeping the ball in the park despite a high number of flyballs. He’ll make $16.8-million over the next two seasons and could also be a trade commodity at the deadline if he has a solid first half.

35-year-old Kerry Wood is back as Marmol’s setup man. He pitched well last season and still strikes out a high number of batters. He’ll be joined in the late innings by Samardzija providing he’s not in the rotation. Samardzija walked too many batters last season and unless he corrects that, he’s in for significant regression.

Lefthander James Russell pitched in 67.2 innings last year and outpitched his peripherals. He doesn’t walk many, but he also doesn’t strike out enough to be terribly successful in the bullpen. His struggles against righthanded hitters temper his overall value.

The rest of the bullpen will consist of some combination of Rule V pickup Lendy Castillo, Marcos Mateo, Chris Rusin, Rafael Dolis, Manny Corpas, and lefties Scott Maine and Trever Miller.

Lineup
The Cubs certainly weren’t the worst offensive team in the NL last season, but they might have a hard time replicating their eighth-place finish in the NL in runs scored with the loss of corner infielders Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena to free agency. A lot more pressure will be placed on the likes of shortstop Starlin Castro and catcher Geovany Soto. Castro is a budding superstar who at just 22 is probably the best player on the team. Last season, he had a 109 wRC+ and increased his power significantly. If he can improve his defense enough to stick at the position long term, he could be one of the more valuable shortstops in the NL. Soto, meanwhile, has never found the form of his rookie campaign, but he’s still at least an average starting catcher.

To replace Ramirez and Pena, the Cubs brought in Ian Stewart via trade with Colorado to play third base and plan to give Bryan LaHair a long overdue look as the everyday first baseman. Stewart has shown power in the past, hitting 43 homeruns in 2009 and 2010, but was still nothing to write home about thanks to a terrible hit tool. Last year, he was an unmitigated disaster, posting a 13 wRC+ in 48 big league games. LaHair, meanwhile, is already entering his age 29 season, but put up great numbers in AAA and during a short Major League cameo last season. If he ends up confirming his status as a Quad-A player, prospect Anthony Rizzo was acquired from San Diego and could end up surpassing him as the starter. The remaining infielder will likely be Darwin Barney at second. Barney fared well according to defensive metrics last season (at least according to UZR), but was nothing special at the plate. He’s merely a stopgap until something better comes along or the team has to move Castro off of short.

The outfield will consist of the only three projected starters on the team over the age of 30. Incumbents Soriano and Marlon Byrd will play left and centerfield respectively. Byrd has some upside, but he struggled with injuries last season. At 34, he can still play in center, but his bat needs to rebound. He is only one year removed from a 4.4 fWAR season. Soriano, meanwhile, has become perhaps the starkest example of bad free agent spending. He’s still owed $54-million over the next three seasons and his on-base percentage fell below .300 for the first time last year. His contract might be the most untradeable, this side of Anaheim. In rightfield will be David DeJesus, who was signed to a two-year free agent deal this winter. DeJesus is an underrated outfielder who should benefit significantly from a move out of the Coliseum in Oakland to Wrigley. If he can stay healthy, he’ll put up much better offensive numbers than he did last season.

Bench
For all the problems the Cubs have, their bench doesn’t appear to be one of them. Welington Castillo and Jason Jaramillo will battle for the backup catcher job although Castillo was so good in AAA-Iowa last year that it’s hard to see him being sent back there. If he hits like that at the Major League level, he could put pressure on Soto for the starting job. Jeff Baker can provide positional depth at second, third, first and in leftfield and also makes for a decent platoon partner for either Stewart or Barney; last year he had a 119 wRC+ against lefties while struggling mightily against righties. Adrian Cardenas can play just about anywhere on the diamond and the extra outfielders should be speedster Tony Campana and veteran Reed Johnson. Johnson had an impressive .309/.348/.467 slash line last season.

For a more detailed look at the Cubs’ roster, click here.

Outlook
It’s difficult to imagine the Cubs being better than they were in 2011 with the loss of Ramirez, Pena and Zambrano, but the good news is, they shouldn’t be a lot worse either. With a progressive front office regime in place for the first time in years, the Cubs are in a great position going forward. They play in a weak division and have all kinds of money to spend when the time is right to do so. Once Epstein and Hoyer have a chance to put their stamp on the franchise, the Cubs will quickly become a sleeping giant in the NL; just don’t expect much for a couple seasons.

2012 Prediction: 66-96, 5th NL Central