Monday, April 02, 2007

Your new and "improved" 2007 Chicago Cubs

One word can describe my feelings about the off-season that the Chicago Cubs put together. To say that it's a "word," though, might be a bit of a stretch. It's more of a sound than a word, and it's something along the lines of "ugh."

A rundown, via Cot's Baseball Contracts, of the new deals that the Cubs gave out this winter:

Lou Piniella, manager: 3 years, $10 million
Alfonso Soriano, centerfielder: 8 years, $136 million
Aramis Ramirez, third baseman: 5 years, $75 million
Ted Lilly, starting pitcher: 4 years, $40 million
Jason Marquis, starting "pitcher": 3 years, $21 million
Mark Derosa, second baseman: 3 years, $13 million
Cliff Floyd, left fielder: 1 year, $3 million

When people say that the Cubs gave out $300 million in the off-season, they're not wrong I guess. This has been an unprecedented spending spree by general manager Jim Hendry, but not all of the $300 million is being paid out in 2007. When the actual opening day payroll figures come out, the number for the Cubs should probably be a little higher than the actual figure because of signing bonuses [for example, Soriano will make $9 million in 2007, but received an $8 million signing bonus]. So, yes, the Cubs did spend monster amounts of money this winter in attempts to improve the team.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to make an argument for the 2007 Chicago Cubs being worse than the 2006 Chicago Cubs, but the fact that the '07 Cubs are better than the '06 Cubs is really just true by default. Alfonso Soriano is an incredible improvement in center field, some of that has to do with just how bad a 2006 season Juan Pierre had. Ted Lilly might actually throw 150 innings this season, something only Carlos Zambrano was able to do last season for the Cubs, and chances are he will be a nice middle of the rotation starter who will benefit from pitching in the National League, especially in the NL Central. A full season of Derrek Lee is better than a platoon of Jon Mabry, Todd Walker and Phil Nevin, even if he doesn't perform up to his monster 2005 season.

So, the Cubs of this year will be better than the Cubs of last year, but how much better? Will the improvements made be enough to push them up into contention for a division title? A better question might be "have the other NL Central teams regressed enough for the Cubs progressions to make any difference?"

Alfonso Soriano was the real prize of this offseason. Even if he's not the ideal baseball player, it's certainly nice on some level to see the Cubs be aggressive and sign the best hitter on the free agent market. He's definitely an improvement over Juan Pierre offensively. However, what are the chances that he reproduces the line he put up with the Nationals last season? His on-base percentage is .013 higher than his previous career high, and .026 higher than his career on-base. His 46 homers over the season and 24 homers at a pitchers park like RFK are impressive numbers, and of all his career highs posted last season this is the one that is the most likely to stick as he moves to a more neutral park [and, according to Park factors, a hitters park last season] like Wrigley Field. Still, his on-base will probably not be much of an improvement over Pierre's .330 mark last season, but his power will make him far more valuable out of the position in the field. Still, he's getting superstar money despite the possibility that he is the third best hitter on this team, and he's playing a defensive position that he'd never played before. There are reasons to not be as optimistic as the normal person here.

In other offensive areas, the Cubs gave Mark Derosa an awful lot of money to do what Todd Walker did in 2004 and 2005, but should at least be able to produce about the same as he did in 2006. Cliff Floyd is a nice platoon guy in the outfield, but he'll get platooned with Matt Murton when I would have much rather brought in a leftie masher to platoon with Jacque Jones, who showed some extreme leftie/rightie splits last season (.886 OPS v. RHP, .667 OPS v. LHP). The tentative lineup:

CF: Soriano
LF: Murton
1B: Lee
3B: Ramirez
RF: Jones
C: Barrett
2B: Derosa
SS: Izturis
P: Zambrano

They should score some runs. Izturis is a black hole and there's a possibility that Derosa could be. Derosa will be bumped up to the 2-hole against most righties when Cliff Floyd plays and bats behind Barrett.

I'll say this about the Jason Marquis signing: I could have gone out there, allowed the most home runs, had the highest ERA and led the league in losses. That's right, me. The only thing that would have stood in my way would have been the team that was stupid enough to let me pitch enough to actually qualify in all of those categories. Somehow Jason Marquis threw 194 innings last year, and for some reason, that was enough to justify the Cubs giving him not only more than a minor league deal, but a multi-year deal. He does get a bonus for winning the Silver Slugger,, whatever. He'll need to hit pretty well this season to make sure the team scores the 8 runs it needs to offset whatever crooked number he allows in the first two innings. At least there might be some consistency in the Cubs rotation. Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Marquis, Miller is probably about league average, maybe better if Marquis doesn't completely suck and if Hill can control his home runs allowed. At least this year there might be more than one pitcher with 150 innings pitched. Quite a bit of money was spent on the bullpen last season, and this year they should have a chance to keep a couple more leads than they did last year, and they have a manager now who won't pitch them on back-to-back days all the time. If Dempster can return to his 2005 form, this could be a dangerous bullpen with Bob Howry, Scott Eyre and Michael Wuertz also working out of it. I'd rather see Angel Guzman in the rotation, but he's in the bullpen already feeling the effects of Jason Marquis and his monster contract. If Kerry Wood ever gets healthy this year, he could be an asset out of a bullpen that should be stronger in 2007 merely because it might be used properly.

Ultimately, the biggest question for the Chicago Cubs in terms of winning a championship before the 100 year mark is: "Can this team win the division?" The 2006 Cardinals taught us that no matter how mediocre you play during the regular season, the playoffs are a crapshoot. The division winner in the NL Central could have a win total in the 84 to 87 win range, but the division winner could be as bad as .500. While I think it's more likely that the Cubs will finish with somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 79 wins, it's fully within the realm of possibility that the team could outperform this completely unscientific projection.

But, just like each of the past two seasons, the rationale behind a potential Cubs division title lies more in the major regression of other teams rather than the immediate progression of the Chicago Cubs. The team took steps forward thanks to free agency and lost very little as far as immediate talent in the process, but it's the Brewers who are looking like the division champs right now.

Reasonable projection: Cubs finish second, but out of wild card contention, with 78 wins. Brewers win the division with the same record as the Cardinals last season.

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