2010 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 83 – 78 (2nd – NL East)
2008: 97 – 74
2007: 85 – 77
2006: 66 – 96
2005: 79 – 83

Runs Scored: 707 (9th – NL)
Runs Allowed: 672 (5th – NL)

For what it’s worth, the Cubs and their opponents scored 732 runs in Wrigley Field and just 647 on the road last year…

Season Recap:

Picked by a ton of people to win the NL Central, the Cubs hung around the race for four months before throwing in the towel down the stretch.

Every time the Cubs would get rolling, they found a losing streak.  Two weeks in, Chicago rolled out to an 8 – 4 record, only to lose four in a row.  Recovering, they won 8 of 12 only to lose a couple more.  Into May, the Cubbies took off – rattling five in a row to get to 21 – 14.  Thinking that this win streak might put them out in front for good, Chicago lost EIGHT straight…

Hanging around .500 for the next several weeks, the Cubs entered the All-Star break at 43 – 42.  Sensing a need to get going, the Cubs rolled out to 57 – 48 and actually sneaked into the top spot for a day in late July.  That’s when the bullpen suddenly lost it.  The Marlins came back to beat former closer Kevin Gregg and the Cubs hit a tailspin that knocked them out of the NL Central race just as St. Louis was adding Holliday, DeRosa, and Lopez for the stretch run.  The Cubs fell back to a game over .500, made a small fuss for the wild card race, and then disappeared.

Injuries hurt the Cubs as much as many other teams – losing Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley (injuries to his body as well as his attitude), Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano – but poor performances were equally to blame.  Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal and proceeded to hit .257 with middling power.  Soriano’s season was worse – knee injuries and age contributing to a horrific .241 batting average.  And Geovany Soto, such a huge part of the 2008 NL Central Champs, fell off to .218, with just 11 homers.  Throw in the decline of a portly Carlos Zambrano, who failed to win ten games and missed at least six starts, and you can see why the Cubs fell back 13.5 games from 2008.

2010 Goals:

Lessee…  The Cubs need an attitude adjustment.  Bringing Milton Bradley was a BAD idea – no matter how good his upside might have been, there’s no excuse for that deal.  Just as importantly, the big horses need to find the old mojo and get healthy.  Soto and Zambrano need to return to form and it would be nice to get 140 healthy games out of Ramirez and Soriano – both of whom are running out of youth.  Finding a dependable closer would help, too.

Pitchers:

On paper, the Cubs have a fantastic rotation.  Carlos Zambrano should be an innings eater, and if his off-season fitness plan works out (no pun intended), he could return to form.  He pitched okay in the 160 innings he logged in 2009, but he needs to pitch 220 or more.  Ted Lilly will be back, but might miss a few starts early on as he recovers from minor surgery to clean up his elbow.  Ryan Dempster returns, as well as last year’s top newcomer, Randy Wells.  The fifth starter is former Pirate star (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny – who a couple of years ago was the ace of the Pirates staff.  Last year, the Cubs front five (the top four plus Rich Harden) were about 68 runs better than average and threw  852 innings.  That’s going to be hard to BEAT, but is something that the Cubs should be able to hold steady for 2010.

The bullpen wasn’t horrible – as a group about 16 runs better than average – but it lacked a big time stopper.  Kevin Gregg saved 23 games, but was really only decent for three months and scary the rest of the way.  He’s gone…  Carlos Marmol assumed the closer role – nearly impossible to hit stuff but walks a batter an inning which makes him Mitch Williams with a better chance to field grounders.  Angel Guzman and John Grabow return to set the table, and Jeff Samardzija, Justin Berg, Sean Marshall will get long relief or spot starts.  Samardzija is likely the one guy who could surprise as a fifth starter, but I’ll be honest.  I don’t see him as anything special.  Still – he throws hard and has as good a chance as anyone to have a good year facing 200 batters…  The Cubs added Carlos Silva in a trade with Seattle – ridding themselves of one headache (Milton Bradley) while acquiring organizational depth in terms of a guy to toss BP.

So, as a staff, the pitching – already good – will remain good in 2010.

Catchers:

Geovany Soto returns, with his backup Koyie Hill intact.  As a unit, they aren’t horrible – but if there is a room for improvement, it’s here.  If Soto splits the difference between his awesome 2008 numbers and his horrific 2009 numbers, the Cubs could get 20 more runs on the scoreboard.

Infield:

Derrek Lee had a quietly amazing year with the stick – 35 – 111 – .306, generating about 115 runs of offense.  On top of that, Lee also had 36 doubles…  The problems with his neck and back, however, affected his defensive range.  Usually Lee is among the top two or three defenders at his position, but in 2009 he was below average in terms of range.  Going forward, I see a 20 run slip in his offense, but he could at least return to league average defense if his back feels better.  In terms of net production, it’s a wash…

At second base, Jeff Baker arrived from Colorado and had a career half season, batting over .300 and fielding everything in site.  That made up for the poor performance of Mike Fontenot, who appears to still have the job.  I don’t think Baker can do this over 500 at bats, and neither do the Cubs who have Fontenot penciled in as the regular.  Fontenot was below average in both offense and defense – and I don’t see this improving in 2010.  If anything whatever bounce back Fontenot has will be covered by the slide in Jeff Baker’s performance.

At short, Ryan Theriot returns – a decent enough glove man and someone who batted a lot near the top of the order, though – to be fair – he’s really a GREAT number eight hitter.  Andres Blanco returns – a capable infielder.

Finally, you have Aramis Ramirez – as good a hitter as you can find if he’s playing 150 games at third base.  Last year, playing just 82 games, he was as good as expected.  Here’s what makes me nervous – Ramirez turns 32 in June – so he might get back to 140 games, but it could be at a lesser scale.  Chad Tracy is in camp to challenge Bobby Scales for a backup role – else Jeff Baker will be the other option here.  Assuming Ramirez takes up the innings given to others last year, even if Ramirez slips in production by 20 runs, the team will still be better offensively by 10 runs at this position.

As a unit, I see this team declining in offense by ten runs and declining by ten runs defensively.

Outfield:

This is where the Cubs had the biggest failures.  Alfonso Soriano led the group in homers with 20.  Kosuke Fukudome was out of position in center but sensational in right – so to make things better, he needs to stay in right.  But to bring in Marlon Byrd?

Last year, Sam Fuld got a small chance and played well defensively while getting on base at a .400 clip in just 100 at bats or so.  Fuld is NOT going to do that in a full season, but it’s taken the Cubs a long time to get Fuld to the majors after drafting him in the fifth round out of Stanford six years ago.  He’s quick, will bat about .275 to .290, and draw enough walks to be a scary leadoff hitter in front of Lee and Ramirez.  Instead, the Cubs chose to spend money on Marlon Byrd.  Byrd is about four years older, coming off a career year in Texas, and is a liability in centerfield.

If his knees are steady, Soriano could be a pleasant surprise – especially if he agrees to hit sixth and drive in runs rather than pretend to be a leadoff hitter who gets in the way of rallies.  Healthy, he hits .270 with 30 homers.  Another off season, and the Cubs will have an expensive problem for three more years.

Fukudome gets on base and surprises with power.  He’s a good #2 hitter, and his current backup, Xavier Nady – who signed an incentive laden deal on the heels of his multiple shoulder surgeries – would also make for a productive #2 hitter.

Any gains in Soriano’s health and Fukudome’s moving to right full time will be negated by the addition of Marlon Byrd.  This group will likely improve by 20 runs offensively but decline by 20 runs defensively.

Bench:

Kevin Millar will be battling for a pinch hitting role, joining Nady, Baker, Fuld, and Hill in providing one of the deeper and more productive supporting casts in baseball.

Prospects:

If the Cubs have any for 2010, there aren’t many on the 40 man roster – that’s for sure.  This is a veteran club.  On the whole, the prospects are mostly a few years away and only a couple really stand out…

Nobody stood out as a hitter in AAA Iowa (other than Blanco and Fuld), the top pitchers weren’t impressive, though reliever John Gaub had 31.1 solid innings, striking out 40, but walking 16.  Gaub had similar stats (28.2 innings, 40 Ks, 17 walks) in AA.  He’ll get a shot in 2010 – I just don’t know how many innings he’ll get.  Expect Gaub to start in Iowa, though.

Casey Coleman was 14 – 6 with a 3.68 ERA for the AA Tennessee Smokies, but struck out just 84 in 149 innings, so he’s not a long term option.  He is, however, just 21, so if he can find a strikeout pitch, he’ll be on the roster by the end of 2011.  Starlin Castro might be the next big thing, though.  A Dominican shortstop, Castro will turn 20 in spring training, but because the Cubs have options he’ll likely start the year in AA or AAA.  He wasn’t overmatched in 31 AA games last season and had hit .300 or better in rookie ball and in Daytona.  Castro would be my pick as the top prospect in the system.

Daytona had more than just Starlin Castro.  Brandon Guyer hit .347 in half a season in the Florida State League, earning a trip to Tennessee, but he struggled in AA – if he’s going to make it, he has to get it in gear quickly.  Tony Campana is a burner – 55 steals – but it would be nice if he got his OBP a bit higher.  Craig Muschko appeared to turn the corner at Daytona – 19 walks in 103 innings and an improving K rate.  And, Jay Jackson could be the other top prospect – cruising through Daytona with 46 Ks and just 4 walks, moving up to Tennessee where he went 5 – 5 with a decent K rate, and even getting a start at Iowa and winning his only appearance.  A Furman alum, Jackson will make the Cubs in 2010 if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee in September.  I like him.

2008 #1 draft pick Andrew Cashner made it to Daytona and didn’t disappoint.  Look for him in AA Tennessee, maybe even Iowa for parts of 2010.  Ryan Flaherty, the 1A pick in 2008, will see if he can’t handle more after a 20 homer season at Peoria.  A shortstop with power would look good in Wrigley – but Flaherty is a few years away.  Others in Peoria that may stand out in 2010 will be 2008 draft picks Aaron Shafer and Christopher Carpenter, but the guy with the most stuff might be 2009 Chief Chris Archer, who blew away 119 batters in 109 innings and only allowed 78 hits – with NO homers allowed.

Josh Vitters, the first round pick in 2007, struggled at Daytona after a solid half season in Peoria.  He’ll get a second chance at A+ ball this year – but he’s just 20 and has time to get rolling.  Tyler Colvin, once a first round pick out of Clemson in 2006, got to the majors after shuffling out of the prospect picture.  At 25, he’s running out of time – and as an outfielder, the Cubs seem to like older players…

I should note that the other minor league prospect moving up through the ranks is manager Ryne Sandberg.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  After a year in Peoria, he moved up to Tennessee and will start 2010 as the Iowa manager.  If the Cubs get off to a slow start, he’s being groomed to replace Lou Piniella.

Outlook:

The Cubs certainly have the star power to compete, but the cracks that showed up in 2010 weren’t necessarily filled by young new help.  Instead, the Cubs have essentially the same team with one difference – Marlon Byrd instead of Milton Bradley.

I see the Cubs scoring a few more runs than last year – as many as 740, but allowing a few more, too – 700.  That works out to 85 or 86 wins (85.5, but if you carry out another decimal point, you’d round down).  With an improving Milwaukee and a still very good St. Louis, that’s probably good for third place – and at some point, the end of Lou Piniella’s tenure in Chicago.  With a slow start, he could be gone as early as June 1.

However, the guy responsible for Piniella and the rest of the roster is General Manager Jim Hendry.  With a new ownership group in town, when Lou leaves he’ll have someone to hold open the door – Hendry will likely be shown that same door.

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Filed under Aaron Shafer, Alfonso Soriano, Andres Blanco, Andrew Cashner, Angel Guzman, Aramis Ramirez, Bobby Scales, Brandon Guyer, Carlos Marmol, Carlos Silva, Carlos Zambrano, Casey Coleman, Chad Tracy, Chicago Cubs, Chris Archer, Christopher Carpenter, Craig Muschko, Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto, Jay Jackson, Jeff Baker, Jeff Samardzija, John Gaub, John Grabow, Josh Vitters, Justin Berg, Kevin Gregg, Kevin Millar, Kosuke Fukudome, Koyie Hill, Marlon Byrd, Mike Fontenot, Milton Bradley, Randy Wells, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ryan Flaherty, Ryan Theriot, Sam Fuld, Sean Marshall, Starlin Castro, Ted Lilly, Tom Gorzelanny, Xavier Nady

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