Friday, December 18, 2009

2010 Team Analysis: Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs:

2009 Record: 83-78

General Manager: Jim Hendry

Manager: Lou Pinella

Organizational Philosophy: In October 2009, Ameritrade founder Jim Ricketts became the majority of owner of both the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field along with a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.  Shortly after the purchase, Ricketts vowed not to be too hands on during the 2010 season but he did lay out plans praising the organizational structure of teams like the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.  He also promised to build a team focused on player development as well as signing players to a dollar amount dictated more towards a player's predicted value rather than current market value.

It's a philosophy more and more teams are headed towards and one current Cubs Gm Jim Hendry needs to embrace if he wants to direct this team after next season.  Hendry has been the GM since 2002 and despite a few post-season appearances the results have been mixed, at best.  Their payroll has slowly risen towards one of the highest among all MLB clubs and only one of their projected starters will be under 30 and their farm system is at least a few years from producing anyone to get excited about.  I'm expecting another ho-hum performance from the Cubs as players will be signed or retained slightly above value before a new regime comes in and tries to figure out the best ways to salvage this franchise as many expensive contracts are set to expire in 2011 and 2012.
2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Carlos Zambrano ($18.8M)
Ted Lilly ($13M)
Ryan Dempster ($13.5M)
Carlos Silva ($11.5M)
Randy Wells ($400K)
Tom Gorzelanny ($430K)

After watching his K/9 drop for the past two seasons to alarming levels, Carlos Zambrano redeemed himself by registering a K/9 of 8.08 (his previous two seasons came in at 7.36 and 6.20). Some have speculated that Zambrano's reduced K's came at the expense of him trying to harness his control.

Zambrano will be 28 at the start of next season and has consistently struggled to keep his BB/9 below 4.  In 2008 Zambrano had a BB/9 of 3.43; last season his BB/9 came in higher at 4.15.  At the end of 2008, Driveline Mechanics analyzed Zambrano's reduced K and BB rates and how it strangely didn't effect his pitches per inning and GB% (even with more sinkers thrown).  It's a fascinating read and one worth building upon especially with a pitcher some are expecting to show dimishing returns over the next few seasons.  Looking over pitchers most similar to him by the age of 28 does give one pause; most of the pitchers on the top ten were either out of baseball or mere shadows of their former selves by the time they were 30.

Since his escape from the AL East, Ted Lilly has gotten his command under control and has quietly pitched like a bonafide #2 starter.  His fastball does average at a pedestrian 87 mph but coupled with his slider it has been an effective offering towards missing a fair number of bats.  In 2009, Lilly induced a flyball rate of 50% but was lucky by posting a low HR/FB rate of 8.7%.  One has to expect Lilly to give up more HR's next season but his ability to keep his BB's low should keep him out of any real trouble in 2010.

Ryan Dempster is another pitcher that has harnessed his high BB rate over the past few seasons.  Since 2007, Dempster has produced a career highs in his K/BB with 2.46 and 2.65 and pitching in consecutive 200+ innings (something he hasn't done since his disasterous season with the Reds in 2003).  Dempster works with an above average slider and has abandoned his changeup (which was decent) for a split-finger fastball.  He will be 33 next season and has three more seasons remaining on his contract, if he can pitch at levels similar to the ones he has over the past two seasons then this contract should prove beneficial.

In the Cubs haste to trade disgruntled OF Milton Bradley, the team found their best option to come in the form of soon to be 31 year old Carlos Silva.  By dumping Bradley and the $23.6 million owed to him they took on a pitcher with an atrocious 2009 K/BB ratio of 0.91 and is owed $24.5 million over the next two seasons.  Of course this is a classic case of mutual salary dumping (although the Mariners did agree to send over $9 million dollars to lessen the blow for what is essentially a replacement-level pitcher). 

The Cubs found their backs against the wall in dealing with Bradley and after finding little to no value in trying to replace him they are now hoping that Silva can find his old approach and get his command back down to the 1.60-1.88 BB/9 he posted from 2006-08.  Silva is a contact pitcher and he does induce his fair share of groundballs; don't expect him to strikeout anyone but with a decent defense and a little luck (he has been hounded by low strand rates and high BABIP's pretty much his entire career) he could be a serviceable backend starter (could being the key word).

Randy Wells did struggle a bit down the stretch in his rookie season but his efforts did solidify his place in the rotation.  He is an above average starter who keeps the ball on the ground (47% groundball ratio in 2009) and couples his fastball with an excellent slider.  Right handers had trouble against him and even though he is a bit old for a rookie at 27 (he was drafted as a catcher in 2002 and made the transistion to pitching full-time in 2004) he does have a relatively "fresh" arm but it will be interesting to see how he bounces back after throwing a career high 165 innings in '09.

With the announcement that Carlos Silva will be a starter, Tom Gorzelanny seems to be the odd man out in this rotation.  Before being traded last season, Gorzelanny struggled with the Pirates but redeemed himself by dominating AAA hitters.  As a Cub, he has been used as a spot starter and bullpen addition.  Gorzelanny did have some promising starts and with a slight improvement in control he could be a very useful starting pitcher.

The Cubs have a few intriguing arms that are near MLB ready.  The first is top prospect Andrew Cashner, a tall lanky Texan who was pretty much lights out a few months ago in the Arizona Fall League.  Cashner did struggle a bit with his command in AA last season so it's expected that the team will ship this 23 year old to AAA before assesing his place in this rotation.

The other is Jay Jackson, a 22 year old who has shot through the low minors and finished last season in AAA.  Jackson is still raw in terms of control but his stuff does have the makings of power pitcher.  Like Cashner, Jackson is expected to begin 2010 in AAA.


Carlos Marmol ($575K)
John Grabow ($3.75M)
Angel Guzman ($420K)
Jeff Samardzija ($1M)
David Patton ($400K)
Sean Marshall ($450K)
Mitch Atkins ($400K)
Justin Berg ($400K)

Carlos Marmol did struggle with his control posting 65 BB's in 74 IP.  Last season the team traded for Kevin Gregg but with his struggles to nail down the closer role.  The team is hoping Marmol can get his command back to his previous "manageable" levels.  What keeps Marmol effective is the difficulty opposing batters have in hitting him.  Marmol's delivery and ability to hide the ball well makes his 95 mph fastball and sweeping slider tough pitches too handle but with his history of averaging close to one walk per appearance could spell disaster if his high flyball numbers ever even out in the HR/FB department.  Last season, Marmol was very lucky by allowing 48.5% of contact to be flyballs and only registering a HR/FB ratio of 2.6%.  That statistic will be very hard to duplicate next season, be warned Cub fans.

After losing out to the Nationals in their bid to sign Matt Capps, the Cubs settled by resigning John Grabow instead.  Over the past few seasons, Grabow has posted a decent ERA leading many to believe that he is a high quality LH reliever but he isn't fooling Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs who thinks this another bad Jim Hendry signing.  Looking at his numbers, Grabow was definitely another lucky recipient of what low HR/FB ratios can do when they meet pitchers with high BB totals.  Of course it helps that Grabow doesn't allow as many flyballs as Marmol does but if these numbers ever even out the 8th and 9th innings could get very ugly next season.

28 year old Angel Guzman is another beneficiary of a different kind of luck, last season Guzman pitched 61 innings of relief and posted a respectable K/9 of 6.93 and a decent BB/9 of 3.39.  His HR/FB were a bit high at 12.3% after only allowing 38.9% (expect his HR totals to come down a bit next season) but his ERA was a very good 2.95.  Looking at his ERA, one would have to qualify Guzman's season as a success but looking at his incredibly low BABIP (.203) and high strand rate (83.6%) should tell us that something definitely stinks here and we may be in for another statistical correction soon.

There was some talk this offseason about making Jeff Samardzija a full-time starter but given the Cubs history and current rotational depth I would expect him to back in the bullpen in 2010.  Samardzija was always considered a raw project after making his name as an elite WR for Notre Dame and based on his below average secondary pitches and the Cubs insistance in keeping him at the MLB level, the bullpen may be the only logical option.  Between AAA and the MLB, he did make some strides in improving his command but being hit hard and hit often was another major problem for Samardzija as a Cub.

David Patton was a Rule 5 pickup a year ago and despite the impressive strikeout totals he posted in the low minors, his command was very shaky last season.  Patton will return to pitch in some low leverage situations but his strikeouts numbers do make him worth watching.

Sean Marshall's days as a starter are just about over.  After failing to make this tall junkball artist a full-time starter, expect Marshall to be relegated to situational lefty and spot starter next season. 

Mitch Atkins and Justin Berg are a couple of frustrating failed starters who seem haunted by perpetual control problems.  Last season, both got a look at the MLB level and since I'm predicting the Cubs bullpen to pretty much implode in 2010 don't be surprised to find these two pitching in more games than they should.

On the field:

C: Geovany Soto ($575K)
C: Koyie Hill ($475K)
1B: Derrek Lee ($13M)
2B: Mike Fontenot ($430K)
2B: Jeff Baker ($415K)
SS: Ryan Theriot ($500K; arb eligible)
3B: Aramis Ramirez ($16.75M)
LF: Alfonso Soriano ($19M)
CF: Tyler Colvin ($400K)
CF: Sam Fuld ($400K)
RF: Kosuke Fukudome ($14M)

Last season a lot was made about Geovany Soto's "sophomore slump" after ligting up opposing pitchers in 2008 to the tune of .285/.364/.505 in 494 AB's.  In 2009, Soto's production drastically fell to .218/.321/.381 in 331 AB's.  Soto began the season hampered by a sore shoulder that pretty much sapped his power and kept him homerless in the first month and a half of the season.  He later was diagnosed with a sore oblique, followed by a hand injury later in the season. 

Despite the anemic numbers, Soto did show signs that he could bounce back if healthy.  He improved in terms of BB and K% (last season he posted a 13.1% in BB's and 23.3% in K's; an improvement from his '08 numbers of 11.2% and 24.5%.  He also maintained the same number of flyballs hit last season as he did in 2008 (41.4% in '08; 41.3% in '09).  All this, I believe, points to Soto having a rebound season if he can stay healthy in 2010.

Derrek Lee had one of the best age 34 seasons last year by hitting .306/.393/.579 with 35 HR's in 532 AB's.  The batting average seems to be in line since his K and BB ratio has stayed relatively the same and he has always been the beneficiary of a high BABIP since 2000.  One trend that drastically changed in 2009 was his number of flyballs hit.  Traditionally, Lee hits more groundballs (he averages about 1.10 on the GB/FB scale) than flyballs but last season he hit a career high 45.7% of them into the outfield area.  He also registered a very high HR/FB ratio of 17.9%, a number that is expected to regress next season.

Lee is an interesting player.  He will be 35 years old next season and according to speed scores, his legs do seem to be aging since he scored the lowest total of his career (2.5).  However, an increase in flyball trends coupled with his steady increase in BB% could keep Lee as a very valuable middle of the order hitter for the next few seasons.  After 2010, Lee becomes a free agent and in this current market players entering their age 36 season will find it hard to get anything more than a one year deal with an option.  I would watch how Lee does in sustaining his flyball trends; if these numbers are for real and his ISO still looks good he may be worth taking on for 2 to 3 years as a 1B/DH.

What a difference a BABIP makes! In 2008, Mike Fontenot dazzled Cub fans in 119 games with a batting line of .305/.395/.514; however, last season he was a sophomore disappointment in Geovany Soto-Proportions with a putrid line of .236/.301/.377 in 135 games and 377 AB's.  Like Soto, Fontenot saw a major dip in his BABIP as it went from .355 in '08 to .251 last season.  This (like the problems plaguing Soto) can be corrected - however, declines in his BB% (from 12.3 to 8.5%) along with many of his line drives hit in 2008 turning into groundballs last season doesn't look too promising in terms of slugging and ISO scores.  Of course, Fontenot could have found himself pressing last season and feeling the need to swing at more pitches (his data concerning pitches swung outside of the strikezone as well as overall did go up drastically from 2008 to last season) and he would benefit in finding a more patient approach.  My guess is that next season we'll see a hitter that falls somewhere between his '08 and '09 seasons; nothing spectatcular but serviceable overall.

At SS Ryan Theriot displays excellent defense and gives good speed (71 stolen bases over the past three seasons) but last season was a bit of a step back in terms of plate discipline.  In 2009, Theriot saw a decrease in BB% (from 11.2% to 7.85%) as he swung at more pitches outside the strikezone (19.4% in '08 to 22% last season).  Another disappointing trend was his heavy increase in K's, in 2007 and 2008 Theriot posted 537 and 580 AB's and found himself around 50 strikeouts in both seasons.  In 2009, Theriot clocked in 602 AB's and saw his total strikeouts balloon to 93. He will be 30 years old at the start of next season and it's obvious he will never hit for much power but getting on base and utilizing his speed is where his true value is at and finding his previous patient approach is vital for next season.

Getting Aramis Ramirez healthy for a full season has always been chore.  Ramirez suffered from a dislocated shoulder early last season which limited him to 306 AB's.  He isn't expected to need surgery this offseason.

Overall, Ramirez's peripheral stats have remained the same; for being a power hitter, Ramirez doesn't strike out too often and his BB% remained close to his career average.  He will be 32 at the end of June and does have two more seasons remaining on his contract.  Will he ever hit 30 HR's again in a season?  We have seen a drop in ISO over the past three seasons (.239; .229; to .199 last season) and when Ramirez did hit 30 homeruns in a season an argument can be made it was assisted by a high HR/FB percentage (2004 36 HR's 16.9% HR/FB; 2005 31 HR's 18.7%; 2006 38 HR's 15.1%) but Ramirez still hits a fair share of flyballs and has seen an increase in LD% over the past three seasons.  I would expect Ramirez to bounce back a bit next season but his high BABIP and low BB% could point to major disappointing season in his horizon; healthy or not.

To say the outfield has been a disappointment in Chicago is an understatement.  A lot of money has been spent here and according to rumors it looks like Hendry isn't done spending. 

Since Alfonso Soriano signed his massive contract before the 2007 season he has seen his production drop in every major category. During his first three seasons, Soriano has been hit with nagging injuries and has seen less fastballs thrown his way and last season had one of his worst lines to date (.241/.303/.423).  Soriano was 31 when he signed his 8 years/136 million dollar contract, next season he will be 34 years old and with a pattern of developing leg injuries things could become much worse before 2014 season is in the books.

So far, the Cubs have a couple of left-handed hitters patrolling CF in Sam Fuld and Tyler Colvin.  Fuld will 28 years old and has pretty much been a stalwart in the Cubs minor leagues.  Last season Fuld held his own in terms pinch-hitting (he raely strikes out and is excellent in putting the ball in play).  He doesn't have much in terms of power and he did struggle defensively in CF.

Colvin will be 24 years old next season but if the Cubs make a move to add another outfielder then I would expect Colvin to start the season in AAA.  In the minors, Colvin has shown some excellent speed/power combos but his ability to strikeout often (his brief spell with the Cubs last season saw him swinging at pitches outside of the strikezone at an astounding 41.9%!) suggests another season of refining his approach.  He'll be 25 in September, so time is running out.

Kosuke Fukudome made a big splash when he announced his bid to become a free agent before the 2008 season.  Fukudome was seen as an on-base machine who provided excellent defense and adequate power.  Last season saw him in Pinella's doghouse but a nagging injury from a 2007 surgery to his right elbow was to blame for his lack of power.

Last season saw an increase to his slugging and ISO after adjustments were made to extend his arms.  Fukudome still hits far too many balls on the ground to exhibit anything more than 10-12 HR's a season and his increase in doubles hit were attributed to his surge in LD% (24% in 2009).  His on-base skills are definitely there although he could benefit from fewer strikeouts (22.4% K rate last season).  Moving him back to RF full-time next season should help solidify there OF defense next season (assuming they sign a CFer with average to above average defense).

Next Season's Forecast: The major pressing need is for this team to find a full-time CF for the next few seasons.  One option mentioned is Marlon Byrd whose career high totals in flyballs hit last season could net him a sweet deal even if last year's power numbers were aided (a bit) by his home park in Arlington. 

Besides questions about Carlos Zambrano, I do think the Cubs are smart in courting offers for the big right hander.  One rumor had the Yankees interested but officials from the Bronx claim nothing was serious.  I do, however, expect bad things to befall next year's bullpen since it shouldn't really surprise no one if Marmol, Grabow, and Guzman all synchronize in their expected collapse.  This could be a case of a very good rotation being victimized by a bad bullpen.  I'm sure the Cubs will be in the market for a quality reliever this mid-season; however, if Jay Jackson and Andrew Cashner are lighting up the AAA then bringing one or both on board to come out of the bullpen may not be the worst idea.  It's a stretch but a part of me can see Jackson pulling it off.

On the opposite end of regression I do see the offense bouncing back a bit with Soto, Fontenot, and Ramirez producing a bit more.  If Soriano can pull off one more quality season before his legs completely give out and Derek Lee can sustain his flyball trends from 2009 then the Cubs should be contenders.

Just consider yourself warned come the 7th, 8th and 9th inning.

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