2013 Season Forecast – Chicago Cubs

Record – Last Five Years:
2012:  61 – 101
2011:  71 – 91
2010:  75 – 87
2009:  83 – 78
2008:  97 – 64

Record at Home: 38 – 43
Record at Home: 23 – 58 (ouch)

Runs Scored:  613 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 759 (14th in NL)

This is still going in the wrong direction.

Season Summary:

Ultimately, the team was awful out the gate, and continued playing poorly into May, including a long losing streak in late May (12 games).  Something clicked in late June and July – from 6/25 to 7/30, the Cubs went from 24-48 to 43-58, a nice run of 19 wins in 29 games.  Sadly, that was the high point – from that point forward, the Cubs had just a single good week in the last two months of the season.  When they played the Astros to end the season, it was the first time in nearly 50 years that two teams with 100 losses appeared in the same game(s).

Record By Month:
Apr:    8 – 15
May:   10 – 17
Jun:   10 – 17
Jul:   15 – 10
Aug:    8 – 21
Sep:    9 – 19
Oct:    1 –  2

The bad news is that the Astros are no longer in the NL Central, so if the Cubs want to avoid last place, they actually have to get better…

STARTERS:

The rotation, save a couple of spots, wasn’t the problem.  Jeff Samardzija was an above average option, going 9 – 13 thanks to a lack of run support.  Travis Wood wasn’t horrible, and neither was Paul Maholm (9 – 6 in 20 starts).  Ryan Dempster was great until he was sent to the AL, while Matt Garza was decent until he got sent to the DL.  The two problems were Chris Volstad, who was predictably horrible (3 – 12, 6.31) and rookie Justin Germano (2 – 10, 6.75).

Heading into 2013, the Cubs won’t have Maholm either – he’s a Brave.  However, the Cubs did import the well-traveled Edwin Jackson who should be an innings-eater, if nothing else.  Samardzija returns as the ace (and he is getting better), and the bottom of the rotation will include Scott Feldman from Texas and Carlos Villanueva, a former Brewer and Blue Jay arm.  Feldman was not very successful in Texas (11 runs worse than average in about 135 innings), but Villanueva wasn’t half bad in 125 innings.  The question is can either of these guys get to 180 innings.  If Garza can come back and help at all, the rotation looks to be no worse than last year with the efforts to improve the slot where Feldman takes over for Volstad offset by the lack of anyone who can pitch as well as Dempster did before he left.

RELIEVERS:

One of the biggest problems in Chicago lately has been the lack of a dependable closer – Carlos Marmol has no idea how to control his pitches and he walks people all day until he serves up a homer.  Even at that, his runs allowed rate is marginally above average.  Shawn Camp was pretty good, James Russell is a better reliever than starter, and former Sox arm Michael Bowden did okay.  The problem is that the rest of the relievers are below average.

The Cubs will give a shot to a couple of Asian imports, Kyuji Fujikawa and Hisanori Takahashi.  Both can be better than what the Cubs had, but aren’t really proven commodities.  If Marmol continues to deteriorate and the imports (and Camp) take a step back, this could be a devastating problem.

CATCHERS:

Goodbye Geovany Soto, and hello to the Wellington Castro era.  Dioner Navarro has been brought in to help out.  Cubs catching was well below average compared to the rest of the NL (bad against the running game, bad at winning games, bad at preventing runs from scoring, slightly error prone).  Castillo wasn’t better than Soto, but he did hit better than Soto had.  The problem is that Navarro may hit like Soto did last year.

INFIELD:

Anthony Rizzo was a solid addition at first base and only has room to improve.  Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro are the best keystone combination in the majors defensively – they hit some, too.  The problem is that the third base slot isn’t being filled well by either Luis Valbuena or Ian Stewart.  This is a significant hole – and Josh Vitters doesn’t look ready to fill it.  The Cubs miss Aramis Ramirez.  A full season of Rizzo looks like the only opportunity for improvement over last year.

OUTFIELD:

Alfonso Soriano had a reasonably good year in left – better as a defender, believe it or not, and as an expensive option, likely isn’t going anywhere.  David DeJesus is okay as a number two hitter, but not a great centerfielder.  He’s also getting older.  In right, the Cubs trade Bryan LeHair for former Giant Nate Schierholtz, which isn’t a step forward.  I see this group falling off from last season’s stats both offensively and defensively.

BENCH:

Alberto Gonzalez and Brett Lillibridge are around, as is Scott Hairston, who is an able bodied pinch hitter and fourth outfielder.  Other than Hairston, I’m not impressed.

DOWN ON THE FARM:

AAA Iowa Outfielder David Sappelt didn’t do much and got a job out of spring training, which scares me.  Josh Vitters hit .304 at Iowa with some power, but didn’t impress at the major league level – he will get another chance.  Rizzo killed AAA and made the big leagues.  None of the starters were impressive, even though Chris Rusin got a cup of coffee – the best relievers, like Bowden and Scott Maine, were given shots with the big club.

The AA Tennessee Smokies didn’t have a single batter clear .300 who played regularly, but Justin Bour wasn’t horrible – some power, a bit of a free swinger.  The best arm may be Nicholas Struck, who is 22, fanned 123 and walked just 44 in 155.2 innings and had a winning record.  Eric Jokisch looked okay in 17 starts, but needs to find a strikeout pitch to advance and be productive.

Daytona (A+) has 2011 first round pick Javier Baez to look forward to – but he’s a shorstop who may have to be traded for other options.  John Andreoli isn’t horrible, a good eye, great speed, but no power.  Young arms may help, though, including Matt Loosen and Frank Del Valle.  Unfortunately, 2010 first round pick Hayden Simpson may be done.

2013 FORECAST:

I don’t see a reason to be optimistic.  The team crashed down the stretch, they didn’t make any significant changes to the roster, and the one area where the team could improve (first base) is going to be offset by the outfield getting another year older and less productive.  This team looks to finish about 65 – 97 and are an injury to Rizzo or Castro from losing 105 games.  Theo – it’s about time for your first miracle, wouldn’t you think?

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2012 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

2011 Record:  71 – 91 (5th, NL Central)
Runs Scored:  654 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed:  756 (14th, NL)

Only Colorado and Houston allowed more runs…

2011 in Review:

The Cubs started losing early, and pretty much were consistent about it throughout the season.  Starlin Castro kept hitting all year long, but the team was lacking in production from the outfield and the catcher spot.  Carlos Zambrano was extremely frustrated and threatened to retire – but considering his history of blow ups, the Cubs shut him down anyway.  The Cubs really had little truly decent pitching, helped by a defense that had little range and made a lot of errors.  When it was over, Chicago was under new ownership.  That group finally let Jim Hendry go – Hendry was the GM who was responsible for this mess – and replaced him with the Boston Red Sox mastermind, Theo Epstein.  At least the Cubs have THAT going for them.

 

Starting Pitching:

Matt Garza was acquired from Tampa and battled things to a draw.  He finished 10 – 10, his ERA looks good here, but it’s masked somewhat by the 17 unearned runs he allowed.  In terms of runs allowed per nine, he was barely league average.  Ryan Dempster‘s season was particularly troublesome.  His strikeout rate was pretty good, but he walked more than in the past and he gave up too many homers.  Zambrano, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Doug Davis were all at least 10 runs worse than the average pitcher given the number of innings pitched.  Here’s the breakdown:

Runs Saved /Pitcher
1.81    Matt Garza (31 starts)
-10.71  Rodrigo Lopez (16 starts)
-12.45  Carlos Zambrano (24 starts)
-13.24  Randy Wells (24 starts)
-16.82  Doug Davis (9 starts – ouch)
-17.17  Ryan Dempster (34 starts)
-22.88  Casey Coleman (17 starts)

Essentially, the starters gave up 90 runs more than an average pitcher would have done in the same amount of innings.

For 2012, Dempster and Garza are back.  Zambrano was traded to the Marlins for starter Chris Volstad, but that’s not an improvement – Volstad pitched worse than Zambrano last year.  Jeff Samardzija is being moved to the rotation – he was one of the few Cubs pitchers to pitch on the good side of average.  If he can match that for 180 innings instead of 90 innings, that would be a huge improvement over, say, Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez.  If Wells can stay healthy and get back, that would help, too.  One can see a 40 run improvement at this spot.

 

Relief Pitchers:

Carlos Marmol has been a closer for a few years now, and he isn’t getting any better.  A closer with an ERA over 4 is a problem – and he’s so wild that he’s allowing nearly six walks every nine innings.  The set up squad was actually pretty good – Samardzija was nearly six runs better than the average pitcher; Sean Marshall was even better – the best pitcher on the staff (14 runs saved).  Kerry Wood was tolerable, but is running out of innings in his arm.  After that, though, you run through some guys who struggled – John Grabow and James Russell.

Looking forward, I’m scared here.  The best pitcher, Sean Marshall, is gone.  Samardzija is in the rotation.  The Cubs could be relying on Coleman to take on a long relief role, or pulling in Rafael Dolis or Chris Carpenter.  I’m worried that this unit could easily be 10 – 15 runs worse than 2011.

 

Catching:

As a unit, Geovany Soto and Koyie Hill were fair against the run and mobile.  On the other hand, they were mistake prone and if they are to get some responsibility for the pitching staff, the team was 20 games under .500 with a lousy overall ERA.

Soto can hit a little, but he’s been inconsistent with his batting average and power.  Soto finished by hitting .228 with 17 homers, which really isn’t good enough – especially in Wrigley Field.  Hill was worse – .194 with sub .300 slugging and on base percentages.

 

Infield:

I made a comment that the team defense wasn’t very good in 2011 – that doesn’t apply to the middle infielders here.  Shortstop Starlin Castro saved the team 18 runs – which breaks down to 24 runs because of his range, but he gives back nearly six runs because of his errors.  Darwin Barney was also mobile and slightly error prone, but the net result was another 14 runs saved.  The play on the corners, though, featured two older guys who no longer have the range to help out.  Carlos Pena was once a fine fielder – not anymore.  He cost the team 19 runs.  Aramis Ramirez was even worse – he cost the Cubs 36 runs.  Granted, the offense here isn’t half bad.  Barney has room to improve – he needs to be more selective at the plate and get his batting average up to the .290 range.  Castro had 207 hits and generated 108 runs of offense, but he makes a lot of outs.  Ramirez had a nice season – 109 runs created, and Pena added 85 more, despite hitting just .225 (he drew 101 walks and hit 28 homers).  That kind of production will be hard to replace.

The Cubs will try Bryan Lahair, the minor league home run champ, at first base.  His fielding isn’t sterling, but his bat can help.  Ian Stewart was acquired from Colorado and he’s going to hit better than the .156 he hit in 2011, but he’s NOT going to be the run producer that Ramirez was.  Castro may still have more growth in him, as will Barney, but this unit could easily be down 50 runs from last year.

 

Outfield:

The Cubs featured an outfield of Alfonso Soriano, who has below average range, Marlon Byrd, who is surprisingly mobile for an older guy – but still below average in terms of range, and, for three months, Kosuke Fukudome.  Fukodome has great range for a right fielder.  Tyler Colvin replaced him, but he fell off the map in terms of his offensive output.

Offensively, Soriano still has power – 26 homers – but he doesn’t run and he still is too much of a free swinger.  Byrd seems to have lost all of his power and he, too, stopped getting on base after getting hit in the face with a pitch in Boston last May.  Colvin hit .150 – ouch!  The Cubs never seemed satisfied with Fukudome, yet he was actually the most productive hitter in the outfield.

Colvin is gone – he’s in Colorado – but Soriano isn’t going anywhere soon, and Byrd needs to get out of center and move to right so that the young legs of Tony Campana can take over in center.  Reed Johnson (he’s still around?) played well – he needed to play more.  The problem is that the Cubs don’t have someone who can help immediately.

 

Prospects:

The AAA Iowa Cubs were devoid of young prospects who can help soon…  The aforementioned Bryan Lahair hit 38 – 109 – .331, but was 28 last year.  The best player to roll through here that was younger might be catcher Wellington Castillo , a 24-year-old who looks no better or worse than Geovany Soto, and Tony Campana, who was here for just 30 games and hit .342 – a burner with little or no power.  Casey Coleman was the best pitcher, but even he had holes – he doesn’t have a big strikeout pitch and he gave up 11 homers in 70 innings.

There may be help in AA, though – the Tennessee Smokies were a top flight minor league team.  Josh Vitters, a former #1 pick (2007) and Rebel Ridling – a great name – hit enough and with some power to suggest that they might get a shot by the end of 2012.  2008 #1 pick Ryan Flaherty hit pretty well, but he’s a shortstop and middle infielders are pretty set in Chicago.  He might get used in a deal soon – him or his fellow middle infielder D.J. LeMahieu…  The pitcher who had results was reliever Jeff Beliveau – who sounds like he should be a hockey player – 57 innings, 69 Ks and just 13 walks.  Kevin Rhoderick has a stunning arm but needs to refine his control.  Jeff Stevens had good numbers here, but he’s already turning 28 soon and has had a cup of coffee…

A+ Daytona finished second in the Florida State League and first baseman Justin Bour led the team in homers and RBIs – hitting 23 homers in the FSL is legit power.  Undrafted Junior Lake continued to play well – is turning 22 and hit over .300 with some power and great speed.  One thing you notice when looking over the pitching staff is a lack of high draft picks – the best pitcher was undrafted Jeff Antiqua, who logged 83.1 innings, fanned 81, and walked just 18.

If there is help on the way, it might be catcher Richard Jones, who hit 24 homers and batted .309 for low A Peoria.  It doesn’t look like it will be #1 pick Hayden Simpson, who fell off to 1 – 6 – 5.32.  The best arm might belong to 11th round pick Eric Jokisch, who went 9 – 3 with a good K/W ratio in 118.2 innings.

 

2012 Forecast:

The Cubs will probably allow 30 fewer runs this year – it can’t really get worse than 2011 – but the offense looks worse.  If the team falls back another 50 runs, which is entirely possible, you’re looking at a 66 – 96 team.  If Stewart doesn’t come back and Soriano falls off, and LeHair doesn’t hit in the majors, the Cubs are looking at 100 losses.  Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do.

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.

Top NL Catchers

Unlike the guys who play between the baselines, determining the value of a catcher defensively is a much harder proposition for me.  I haven’t been able to translate defense into runs the way I have for all the other positions, but I AM able to look at the responsibilities of a catcher and determine what teams are benefiting more from good catching than others.  Here’s how I do it.

There are seven things for which a catcher would get credit as being solid defensively.  If the catchers for a team are above average in a category, they get a point.  If below average, they lose a point.  The top score is seven, the lowest score (obviously) would be -7.  Here are the categories:

W/L Percentage: Score a point for a winning record, take one away for being below .500.

Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.21), score a point.

Mistakes Per Game: Essentially errors and passed balls are added up.  The norm is about .11 mistakes a game for AL catchers.  Score a point for doing better than that.  Otherwise, take one away.  The only time this is patently unfair is when a team has a knuckleballer – so this works against Boston right now.  But it’s just a single category and I tend to give that team the benefit of the doubt on that category.

Mobililty: Mobility is the total number of assists that aren’t tied to stolen bases and the number of putouts that aren’t strikeouts.  A good catcher blocks the plate and gets outs on throws home, or can race out of the crouch to snare bunts and make plays in the field.  In the AL, the average catcher made .38 plays requiring mobility.  Score a point for beating that number.

Fielding Percentage (not counting strikeouts):  I guess someone had to get credit for the putout when a batter strikes out.  Unfortunately, catching strike three isn’t really “fielding”.  So, I look at the fielding percentage after removing putouts for Ks.  The average catcher has a fielding percentage of about .914 on balls in play or when runners are trying to advance.  Beat it, and score a point.

Assists Per Game: These are assists NOT tied to stolen bases and is used to grade the catcher’s ability to make good throws.  The league average is .23 assists per game.

Stolen Base Percentage: Can a catcher hold the running game in check?  If so, score a point.  The league average is 73.6% – which is awfully high, don’t you think?

The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time.  As it turns out, there was a seven in the NL in 2009 – and it was your St. Louis Cardinals led by the incredible Yadier Molina.  The Cardinals had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 3.48, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.

I’ll list the table here to show you where the catchers rank defensively and then discuss the nuts and bolts in the player comments below.

  M. ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK Mob. Asst Rank
NL AVG 4.21 0.500 71.2% 0.917 0.11 0.44 0.33 ***
ARI 4.03 0.432 76.1% 0.948 0.08 0.37 0.32 -1
ATL 3.77 0.531 67.8% 0.906 0.15 0.49 0.31 1
CHN 3.60 0.516 67.4% 0.879 0.14 0.50 0.34 3
CIN 4.23 0.481 62.7% 0.923 0.09 0.52 0.28 1
COL 3.76 0.568 81.0% 0.886 0.11 0.41 0.42 0
FLA 4.02 0.537 75.4% 0.971 0.07 0.35 0.29 1
HOU 4.71 0.457 69.1% 0.924 0.13 0.58 0.38 2
LAN 3.67 0.586 69.5% 0.914 0.09 0.41 0.37 3
MIL 5.12 0.494 79.6% 0.968 0.06 0.43 0.34 -1
NYN 4.58 0.432 66.0% 0.904 0.11 0.38 0.18 -4
PHI 4.10 0.574 72.0% 0.917 0.12 0.39 0.21 0
PIT 4.51 0.385 71.3% 0.883 0.18 0.44 0.39 -4
SDN 5.02 0.463 70.4% 0.891 0.16 0.45 0.29 -3
SFN 3.48 0.543 71.8% 0.911 0.12 0.37 0.42 -1
SLN 3.82 0.562 61.1% 0.943 0.07 0.54 0.42 7
WAS 4.98 0.364 70.1% 0.941 0.10 0.46 0.26 1

Catchers Ranked by Runs Created

Brian McCann (ATL):  Unlike the AL, where Joe Mauer is arguably as valuable as any player in the game, the NL doesn’t have even one catcher who can generate 100 runs of offense.  McCann has the ability to do it, but in 2009 fell a little short.  Not that anybody is complaining – he’s been a top flight catcher for a few years now…  Power, patience, hits for a good average (though not as high as two years ago).  McCann is such a good hitter that it might be worth it to move him to first base to save his bat before the grind catches up with him.  Backup Dave Ross was impressive against base stealers, nabbing 19 of 40 attempts.  (88.95 Runs Created)

Yadier Molina (STL):  A complete defensive package – only the best runners even DARE to run on him, and those are nabbed at a 40% rate.  As an offensive weapon, Molina almost hit .300 and worked his way on base about 36% of the time – very good offensive production for a catcher, too.  (72.22 Runs Created)

Miguel Montero (ARI):  Power, patience, decent batting average.  Granted – gets help by playing in Arizona, but would look good most anywhere.  Montero and Chris Snyder avoid mistakes, but aren’t all that good against the run – and the team generally underperformed (though it’s not their fault that Brandon Webb didn’t play except on Opening Day).  (66.14 Runs Created)

Russell Martin (LAD):  Years of playing every day likely contributed to Martin’s amazing loss of energy and power.  Still a solid defensive catcher – good against the run, his teams are very successful and the pitchers all look good.  He’s consistently the second best catcher in the NL – but now is a below average offensive run producer.  (65.19 Runs Created)

Bengie Molina (SF):  More power than most catchers, and a decent (if slightly above average) batting average.  Rarely walks, though, so his OBP is low (.291) which makes him a slightly below average offensive performer even with the power.  People can run on Bengie (and do) and he’s just below average in terms of his mobility and dependability.  Backup Eli Whiteside was great against the run.  In a year, Buster Posey will have this job.  Maybe sooner.  (61.7 Runs Created)

Miguel Olivo, recently of Kansas City and now in Colorado, would rank here.

John Baker (FLA):  He’s a decent enough hitter that Baker bats second in the lineup from time to time.  Good OBP, decent power.  His platoon mate, Ronny Paulino, also had a good season so the Marlins got a lot of production from this spot.  Both tend to be dependable, but not necessarily mobile – and Paulino threw well enough…  (50.26 Runs Created)

Jason Kendall (MIL):  Brings his lack of power and barely acceptable on base percentage with him to Kansas City.  To Kendall’s credit, the man is durable.  On the other hand, look how badly so many Brewers pitchers fared.  Look at the team ERA.  Sure, he doesn’t make mistakes, but baserunners were successful 80% of the time.  And the Royals didn’t want John Buck out there?   For 2010, the Brewers will try Greg Zaun, George Kottaras, and possibly rookie Angel Salome – who would be my first choice… (50.24 Runs Created)

Carlos Ruiz (PHI):  Not appreciably different than Baker – both had 9 homers, between 40 and 50 RBI, and virtually the same SLG and OBP.  Ruiz, Paul Bako, and Chris Coste provide ordinary, middle of the road defense.  How many teams has Paul Bako played for now?  (48.6 Runs Created)

Rod Barajas – just signed by the Mets – would rank here.

Chris Iannetta (COL):  His batting average was down (.228), but his power and OBP were still solid.  Shared the job with Yorvit Torrealba and now will share with Miguel Olivo.  Virtually everyone could run on Torrealba or third stringer Paul Phillips.  (41.42 Runs Created)

Ramon Hernandez (CIN):  I’d say this was a disappointing season for the veteran backstop – missed half the season due to injuries.  Power numbers fell off to five homers, the rest of his game is barely average.  Of course, Ryan Hanigan caught the most innings, but he’s not better with the bat (merely average at best).  Even third stringer Craig Tatum had a good year against base stealers and as a team, the Reds had pretty good catching defensively.  (40.10 Runs Created)

Nick Hundley (SD):  Had stats that his dad might have had…  Some power, a low batting average, but on the whole wasn’t too bad.  Has room to improve defensively – easy to run on and a bit mistake prone.  Henry Blanco was much better behind the plate, but you’d rather see Nick with the stick.  (39.18 Runs Created)

Geovany Soto (CHI):  Now THERE’S a sophomore slump.  Ouch.  Cut his homers in half (seemed like his batting average, too) – lost power and his OBP (.326).  Says that he’s going to come into spring training in better shape and also not have to deal with the World Baseball Classic.  For the Cubs sake, let’s hope so.  Defensively, his backup, Koyie Hill, looked stronger against the run, but as a team they were above average in five categories – so they ranked very highly.  (38.66 Runs Created)

Ivan Rodriguez (HOU):  Finished year in Texas, now catching for the Nationals.  His arm isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s still solid.  Backup Humberto Quintero was even better, nabbing 12 of 25 would be base stealers.  I-Rod’s bat is gone, though.  As a prospect, J.R. Towles would appear to be finished, huh?  (36.46 Runs Created)

Ryan Doumit (PIT):  Missed time with injuries (most catchers do), didn’t have his best season offensively and, as such, fell far down the list.  As a team, Pirate catchers look bad – mistake prone, average against the run, with poor records and poor pitching ERAs.  Jason Jaramillo isn’t the answer either and hits like a backup catcher.  (34.97 Runs Created)

Omir Santos (NYM):  Forced into more playing time than planned, Santos was tolerable.  Slightly below average as a hitter – like many of the people on this list – Santos played when (a) Brian Schneider couldn’t keep his back and knees healthy and then (b) Ramon Castro got sent to the White Sox.  On the whole, Santos didn’t look very mobile and Schneider certainly is more polished.  But, the Mets catching as a whole looked off – below average results for pitchers and the team, a few too many mistakes…  (34.20 Runs Created)

Ronny Paulino, discussed above, would rank here in offensive production – not bad for the right handed partner of a very effective Marlins platoon.  (32.41 Runs Created)

Ryan Hanigan, the Reds catcher, got more innings than Hernandez, but a few less at bats.  Good glove, a little bat kind of a guy.

Josh Bard (WAS)  Got more innings than Wil Nieves or the injured Jesus Flores, Bard has some skills and was probably glad to not have to catch a knuckler…  Doesn’t hit or get on base, and is power is marginal at best.  (29.03 Runs Created)

Yorvit Torrealba (COL)  Suffered through the kidnapping of his son, which – fortunately for all – ended without incident.  Hit .305 with a decent OBA…  Brutal against the run (8 out of 57 baserunners) but made fewer errors than Iannetta.  (25.95 Runs Created)

Koyie Kill (CHC):  Not much of a hitter – but can still throw some.  (23.94 Runs Created)

Might Be Yankees Year; Giambi and Padilla join Smoltz on Released and Designated for Assignment List

I struggled to stay up to watch the Yankees-Red Sox fifteen inning masterpiece – a great game, really, with loads of amazing pitching and the best stained player of his generation hitting a game-winning homer in the 15th inning to win it.  You had Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, former teammates in Florida, dueling it out before handing it to the bullpen.  And it was the bullpen of the Sox – heck, the pitching of the Sox, once touted for its depth and skill and now looking frazzled and weak – that finally caved.  The one time weakness, the Yankees bullpen, pitched nearly eight innings of beautiful baseball.  It’s certainly not over.  Ali looked like he would finish Frazier in 4 rounds in Manilla, if you remember, but Frazier gamely came back for more.  A war of this size cannot be won in a single series.  But the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East, and Tampa might be #2.  And the difference is depth – depth in offense and pitching, which the Yankees have now, and the Sox do not.

Speaking of the Red Sox pitching…  What to do with John Smoltz, he of the 8-plus ERA?  He’s been designated for assignment.  The Sox have ten days to trade or release him, and then Smoltz will have to figure out what he wants to do.  Should he head to the minors and work through it?  Should he take another offer?  Should he ride off in his golf cart into the sunset?  If so, he’ll have plenty of people to golf with – now that Maddux and Glavine also have free time.  The PGA Champions Tour will have to look out.  Smoltz is coming soon.  [MLB, SI, ESPN, FoxSports]

Just as the Cubs started rolling after the All-Star break, another pitcher stumbles.  This time, it’s Carlos Zambrano who was scratched from his start with a stiff lower back.  [SI]

And, the Dodgers don’t need this – Chad Billingsley tweaked his hamstring running the bases after hitting a single in the sixth inning.  Billingsley tried to pitch at the start of the seventh, but one warmup pitch later, he was done.  He’s start to start, but a DL stint wouldn’t be surprising.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Erik Bedard has fraying in his sore throwing shoulder – and will likely miss this season and if another MRI shows more damage, could require surgery.  [SI]

The Minnesota Twins could use some starting pitching, and Cleveland – who had given up on 2009 – gave them Carl Pavano.  Pavano will actually start Saturday for the Twins.  Cleveland put Pavano on the waiver wire, the Twins pegged him, so the two clubs worked out a deal.  Cleveland will get a player to be named later.  [MLB]

Baltimore also got a player to be named later when they agreed to trade catcher Greg Zaun to Tampa.  Chad Moeller was recalled from AAA to back up Matt Wieters.  [SI]

Most teams are looking for help.  Here are two teams that are moving in the other direction.  Texas designated Vincente Padilla for assignment.  Padilla hasn’t been in the good graces of Rangers management – and now management has ten days to trade, release, or send Padilla to the minors.  And, Oakland released Jason Giambi.  The 38-year-old slugger has been fighting a quad injury that has him on the DL – and now he’s got time to find a new job.  If he’s healthy, he might be able to help someone off the bench for six weeks – so somebody might take a flyer on him.  [SI]

Alex Rios was considered a franchise type player by Toronto.  Now, he’s been put on the waiver wire and according to sources, some team put in a claim.  Toronto can let him go (the new team takes on the rest of his $60 million in salary), or pull him back and make a trade offer.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Geovany Soto (Cubs), Darin Erstad (Astros), Rich Aurilia (Giants) all returned from the DL.  Chris Woodward had been released by Seattle – Boston needs a shortstop badly, so they signed him up…

Hurry Back!  Astro reliever Doug Brocail heads to the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Dodgers got two starts out of Jason Schmidt before he headed back to the DL with a strained shoulder.  Now THAT was a good investment of $47 million… 

Welcome to the Majors!  Julio Borbon was called up by Texas.  He’s hit over .300 the last couple of years heading through the minors, but in cities that make people look like hitters.  He’s got some speed and won’t turn down a walk, but isn’t likely to get one because he makes so much contact.  He’s probably no better or worse than Willy Taveras (though he won’t run as often), but he is certainly younger and cheaper…

Former Closer Now Former Blue Jay; Rolen Keeps Rollin’

One time closer and fantasy baseball stud B.J. Ryan’s career came to an anti-climactic end.  Ryan was released by the Toronto Blue Jays in order to open up a spot for the new closer, Scott Downs.

Somebody is going to give Ryan a shot – he had 32 saves just last year, but he has struggled with his control in 2009 and had moved further and further down the depth chart.  (The Marlins fan in me would love to see him in AAA New Orleans, find his control, and help the Fish down the stretch.)  [SI]

FoxSports writer Jon Paul Morosi says that the Marlins are chasing Pirates closer Matt Capps, but so far the Pirates aren’t interested in the return package – namely, outfielder Jeremy Hermida. [FoxSports]

If you want more trade rumors, check out what Ken Rosenthal has to say on FoxSports.com.

The Cubs can’t keep anyone healthy.  Geovany Soto injured his oblique during batting practice, which could cost him the rest of July before he plays again. [ESPN]

Another team fighting the injury bug is the Angels, who have outfielder Torii Hunter sitting out with a pretty serious groin strain.  [ESPN]

Speaking of strained groins, Aubrey Huff strained his groin when caught in a rundown on Wednesday.  Huff says he’s day-to-day. [MLB]

Meanwhile, fans of the Fish await good news about shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has sat out three games with a right hip flexor injury.  Andy Gonzalez arrives from AAA to play, while outfielder Alejandro De Aza returns to AAA.  [SI]

Earlier this year, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had a 30-game hitting streak.  Now, veteran third sacker Scott Rolen has a 25-game hitting streak. [MLB]

Hurry Back!  Ronald Belisario, mentioned yesterday, heads to the DL to rest his irritated elbow.

Welcome Back!  Marlins reliever Kiko Calero, Yankees catcher Jose Molina, Reds reliever Aaron Laffey, Mets starter Oliver Perez.

Afterthoughts…  Lenny Dykstra filed for bankruptcy, claiming he has liabilities between $10 and $50 million.  Wasn’t he offering financial advice to major leaguers not too long ago? [SI]

Soto Not Out of the Weed(s); The Doc Who Gives Female Fertility Drugs to Ballplayers

It’s not enough that he’s barely hitting his weight, struggling through what has been a difficult sophomore season with the Cubs.  Now comes word that Geovany Soto tested positive for marijuana during the World Baseball Classic while a member of the Puerto Rican baseball team.  Soto will not be suspended, but may be fined and will likely get more regular drug tests.  Soto calls it an isolated incident.  What was isolated about it: the usage, or getting caught? 

If you were wondering what doctor would prescribe a female fertility drug to cure some “illness” with Manny Ramirez, you aren’t alone. Apparently, Federal DEA officials are investigating the person whose signature is scribbled on the RX form; one Philip Publio Bosch, a 71-year-old family practitioner in Coral Gables, and his son Anthony, who apparently is the person who put Ramirez in touch with his doctor daddy. Dr. Bosch has a clean slate, according to initial reports, but Anthony has at a reputation for hanging out with sports types for more than a decade. 

Seattle’s Yuniesky Betancourt heads to the DL after smoking his right hamstring running out a grounder in the eighth inning Thursday. Ronny Cedeno gets a shot at short for the near future. 

He started the season as the Pirates #2 starter, and now Ian Snell is in AAA Indianapolis, having been demoted. With a 2 – 8 record, Snell was told to work on throwing first pitch strikes and work on his breaking pitches. If this were a team with depth or options, like Philadelphia or the Yankees, Snell would be sent to the DL with soreness or inflammation and get a few rehab starts to do the same thing. 

Atlanta reliever Jeff Bennett was angry about giving up a two run hit to Alex Rodriguez, and in anger punched a door with his left hand (thankfully, as we learned in Bull Durham, he threw his non-throwing hand). However, the door won – the hand is broken – and Bennett will take a turn on the DL. 

Koji Uehara says his elbow is fatigued, pulling himself out of his start against the Marlins after six innings. Spencer Fordin, writing for MLB.com, reports that Uehara is struggling with pitching every fifth game, rather than once a week as he did in Japan. The Orioles have tried to ease the transition, but Uehara is already scheduled for a checkup with the team orthopedist. 

I watched a little of John Smoltz’s first start against Washington – and while he had good velocity, he threw a lot of pitches up in the zone and got tattooed early. By the end, though, he was fine and even fanned the side in the fifth. 

Welcome Back! Ryan Freel, Cubs infielder, returns from the DL. He’ll be back soon. Brad Lidge was activated today by the Phillies. Jose Lopez went home to Venezuela for a death in the family – he returned to the lineup today. God Bless…

Hurry Back! Reed Johnson, Cubs outfielder, with lower back spasms. John Buck gets a rehab assignment in Omaha before he returns to the Royals. Eric Stults, my second favorite Dodger starter, gets a rehab stint with the Inland Empire 66ers.

Afterthoughts… The Detroit Tigers signed draft pick Giovany Soto – a pitcher. Now, if he could wind up pitching one day to the Cubs catcher, that would be cool.  Magglio Ordonez and Vladimir Guerrero both cut their hair and homered that night.