2011 Chicago Cubs: Too many rebound years are needed for the Cubbies to contend

2010 Record: 75-87, 5th NL Central
2010 Prediction: 78-84, 4th NL Central
Diff: 3
2011 Prediction: 4th NL Central

Impact Player: C Geovany Soto
Impact Pitcher: RHP Ryan Dempster
Best Reliever: RHP Carlos Marmol
Top Prospect: OF Brett Jackson

General Manager: Jim Hendry
Manager: Mike Quade (24-13, .649)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Matt Garza, RHP Kerry Wood, 1B Carlos Pena, OF Fernando Perez, RHP Robert Coello, C Max Ramirez, OF Reed Johnson

Significant Departures:
OF Xavier Nady, OF/1B Micah Hoffpauir, OF Sam Fuld, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, RHP Bob Howry

The Chicago Cubs continue to disappoint their tortured fan base.  Despite one of the higher payrolls in baseball and a seeming eagerness for the new ownership group to spend more money, the Cubs languish among the bottom rung teams.  Last season, they finished with just 75 wins despite a 24-13 record after Lou Piniella’s sudden mid-season retirement.  Interim bench boss Mike Quade was retained after that late season run and looks to get the most out of a team that has several overpaid, underachieving players.

In seeming desperation, the Cubs traded several high quality prospects, including their top prospect Chris Archer, to the Rays for Matt Garza and minor-league outfielder Fernando Perez.  The deal makes their rotation a little better right now, but they had to mortgage an already underachieving farm system to get it done.  GM Jim Hendry has to be on his last legs and if the team continues losing and Garza struggles, he could be fired before too long.

Starting Rotation
The addition of Garza to this group gives the Cubs three quality pitchers at the top of the rotation.  None of them is what you’d consider to be an ace, but they’re all decent.  Garza had a 3.91 ERA last year and has had four straight years of an ERA under 4.00, but has never put up a FIP under 4.14.  His park adjusted FIP is even worse.  Garza is a solid mid-to-back-end starter, but not much more.  His numbers will take a further hit considering he’s moving from pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field to hitter-haven Wrigley.

Canadian Ryan Dempster has resurrected his career since returning to the rotation ahead of the 2008 campaign.  In those three seasons, he has posted a 3.49 ERA and has posted FIPs under 4.00 in each year making for the best stretch of his career.  The soon-to-be 34-year-old could be in for a regression soon, however and even though his numbers have been consistently good, they’ve still gone down slightly in each of those three years.

Carlos Zambrano may be half out of his mind, but he was still solid last year despite being moved to the bullpen at one point (a move I still find completely perplexing).  Despite all his problems, Zambrano still posted a 3.33 ERA and 3.71 FIP which were both the best of any starter.  He’s always walked a few too many and last year he posted his highest walk-rate (4.79 BB/9) since 2006.  If Zambrano can keep his emotions in check, even just a little, he can re-establish himself as a top-two starter.

Beyond those three pitcher, things get a little uneasy.  Randy Wells was just 8-14 last year but posted a not-so-terrible 3.93 FIP that was actually better than Dempster’s.  He’s not the worst pitcher in the world, but on many teams he wouldn’t make the cut.

The final spot will go to Carlos Silva who was acquired from the Mariners in a bad-contract-swap ahead of last season for Milton Bradley.  Silva rebounded somewhat on the North Side posting a 3.75 FIP and still has some of the best command in the game.

Jeff Samardzija is still around, but is out of options, so he’ll likely compete for a bullpen spot and the team also has a couple reclamation projects in Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper in on minor-league deals that could provide some depth should someone get hurt.

Bullpen
Carlos Marmol returns as the closer this season after posting some stupid peripherals in 2010.  Marmol’s FIP was 2.01 mostly because of a 15.99 K/9 (!!) and a 0.12 HR/9.  Neither stat will be repeated this year and Marmol’s walk rate was a scary 6.03 BB/9.  If those numbers regress with that walk-rate, he could be in trouble.

The Cubs re-acquired former ace Kerry Wood this offseason and he`ll be Marmol`s main setup man (and could close if Marmol regresses).  Wood split last year between Cleveland and the Yankees posting a 3.13 ERA and a 9.59 K/9 rate.  His high walk-rate led to an inflated 4.17 FIP, but that number should come back down this year.

Left-hander Sean Marshall finally found a place pitching out of the bullpen for the Cubs last season.  After years failing as a starter, Marshall posted a 2.28 FIP in 80 relief appearances last season although his 10.85 K/9 rate likely won’t be repeated.

The rest of the bullpen spots have some element of competition.  The highly-touted Andrew Cashner will likely be in the bullpen this year even though eventually he’ll probably start.  He was inconsistent last season in his rookie year, but showed flashes of brilliance with his electric fastball and hard, biting slider.

Right-handers Thomas Diamond, Marcos Mateo, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, Robert Coello, Jeff Stevens and Casey Coleman are in the mix along with lefties James Russell, John Grabow, John Gaub, and Scott Maine.

Catchers
After a terrible sophomore season, Geovany Soto lost a bunch of weight and rebounded in 2010.  He  was one of the better all-around catchers in the NL (offensively, at least) posting a ridiculous walk-rate, an .890 OPS and a .385 wOBA.  He may be the best hitter on this team.

The backup job will be competed for by Koyie Hill, Welington Castillo, and Max Ramirez who was claimed off waivers twice this offseason going from Texas to Boston to the Cubs.  Castillo probably has the highest ceiling and the most raw ability.

Infielders
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez had a down year in 2010 seeing his OPS fall to a very average .745 and his WAR rating falling to that of a bench player at 0.9.  Health has been a big problem for him so if he can keep from getting hurt, he may be able to return to his pre-2009 form, however at 33, he may just be in decline.

Shortstop Starlin Castro came up and took the league by storm in 2010 posting a .300/.347/.408 slash line and a 2.0 WAR in just 125 games.  His low walk-rate and wOBA are a concern, but he has posted consistently high BABIPs throughout his pro career which suggests he’ll always hit for a high average.  He’s not even 21-years-old yet so there’s certainly a lot of ceiling to grow into.

At first base, the Cubs signed slugger Carlos Pena to a one-year deal.  Pena hit just .196 in Tampa Bay last year but he still managed a .325 OBP due to his ridiculous walk-rates and hit 28 homeruns.  He also had a terrifically low BABIP which suggests he could bring his average back up to a .230 range which should allow the rest of his ability shine through.  The Cubs may end up with a big bargain here.

At second base, the Cubs return both Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt who will likely split time at the position.  Both are versatile fielders that can also play first and third which means both could be valuable assets off the bench.  DeWitt is younger and has more upside.  The fact that he’s a left-handed hitter will also ensure a few more at-bats than his counterpart.

The extra shortstop will probably be Darwin Barney who’s an excellent fielder whose bat’s not far behind.  The Cubs may want him to get more at-bats, which could land him back in AAA.  With Castro blocking him at short, Barney might be included in a trade sooner than later.

Veterans Scott Moore and Augie Ojeda are also around on minor-league deals and could end up cracking the team.  Both are very versatile defensively.
Outfielders
The corner outfield for the Cubs will make a lot of money considering the production they’ll get out of them.  Leftfielder Alfonso Soriano is a shadow of his former self and although he was still a 2.9 WAR player last year, his contract is a problem.  He’ll make $18-million a year for the next four seasons.  This may be the worst contract in baseball right now.

In rightfield will be Kosuke Fukudome who isn’t as bad as Cubs’ fans would have you believe, but he’s also not worth the $13.5-million he’ll get paid this season.  Thankfully for the Cubs, he’s in the last year of his deal.

In centerfield will be Marlon Byrd who had a terrific 2010 campaign.  He accumulated a 4.1 WAR rating and excellent defensively.  He could start to regress as not many players put up career years at the age of 32.

Tyler Colvin had a solid rookie season with a 1.7 WAR rating and 20 homeruns in just 395 plate appearances.  In a perfect world, Colvin would probably be starting in one of the corner spots, but the guys ahead of him are too highly paid.

The Cubs will likely give the final roster spot to an outfielder who can handle centerfield on occasion which means Fernando Perez who was acquired along with Garza could get a look.  If he fails (which he probably will), the Cubs have brought back Reed Johnson on a minor-league deal and could make the team.

Chart for the Cubs? Yep.
Overview
The Cubs may have added Pena and Garza, but will need huge rebound years from guys like Ramirez and Soriano if they want to have much of a shot.  They play in the super-weak NL Central which helps their cause, but with Milwaukee improving, Cincinnati bringing back their whole team and St. Louis still being in the mix, it’s doubtful that the Cubs finish higher than 4th.
Final Prediction: 75-87, 4th NL Central

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