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?

2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Five Years:
2009: 62 – 99 (6th, NL Central)
2008: 67 – 95
2007: 68 – 94
2006: 67 – 95
2005: 67 – 95

The Pirates won 79 games in 1997, which is the closest they have come to a winning season since 1992.

Runs Scored: 636 (Last, NL)
Runs Allowed: 768 (12th, NL)

Season Recap:

While we could hope that the Pirates would finally break the streak of losing seasons, most people figured that getting past 70 wins for the first time since 2004 would be an improvement…

Actually, the Pirates got out in front with decent April pitching.  After sweeping Florida and taking two from San Diego, Pittsburgh stood at 11 – 7.  Unfortunately, such heady days ended quickly as the Pirates went on to lose 14 of 17 as the offense stopped scoring any runs.  To their credit, the Pirates came back and had a winning June and on the 27th, the Pirates had gotten to within four games of .500

At this point, the Pirates sold out.  Nate McLouth was traded to Atlanta for a couple of prospects.  Nyjer Morgan went to Washington for Lastings Milledge (not sure why, either), Jack Wilson was sent to Seattle with a struggling Ian Snell.  Freddy Sanchez was packaged to San Francisco, and even former ace Tom Gorzelanny was shipped to Chicago with reliever John Grabow.

So, a team that actually was playing pretty well collapsed while testing a bunch of new guys, mixing in a variety of losing streaks between four and nine games long until they were fighting off the possibility of losing 100 games.  The Pirates lost 60 of their last 87 games.  Personally, I don’t know why the Pirates would want to ruin their season that way, but that’s just me.

Pitching:

Unlike Cincinnati, who had a few guys log a lot of innings but not one who was even SLIGHTLY above league average, the Pirates had a couple of decent arms.  Ross Ohlendorf got rolling down the stretch to win 11 games and save his team about seven extra runs in his 177 innings.  Zach Duke, usually a disappointment, logged 213 decent innings, walking just 49 guys, and edging nearly four runs better than the average guy.  Teams need Zach Dukes.  The Pirates wanted him to be an ace, which he is not, but Duke isn’t a problem.  Charlie Morton came over from Atlanta and was tolerable in his 18 starts.  Paul Maholm logged nearly 195 innings and wasn’t death.  Sometimes he looked pretty good.

What strikes you, however, in looking at the Pirates staff is the lack of a POWER arm.  Who on the staff strikes out a batter per inning?  Heck – who strikes out six per nine?  Nobody.  The closest thing the Pirates have to a live arm is Evan Meek, who had 42 Ks in 47 innings out of the pen, but his control keeps him from being a real stopper.  If you look at the guys who logged at least, say, 60 innings, you have nobody that blows you away.  The leader in strikeouts was Maholm with just 119.

Anyway – let’s look at what the Pirate rotation is going forward.  Maholm is back, as is Ohlendorf and Duke.  A full year of Charlie Morton – assuming he stays near league average as he did last year and doesn’t take a step back – will be better than what Ian Snell did last year (2 – 8, 5.36).  That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs.  Kevin Hart, acquired from Chicago for John Grabow, was miserable in his ten starts last year (1 – 8, 6.92) but really isn’t that bad.  Personally, I’d like to see Daniel McCutchen get a shot.  He got six decent starts down the stretch after going 13 – 6 with a 3.47 ERA and just 29 walks in 142.2 innings at Indianapolis.  He HAS to be better than what Kevin Hart did last year.

The Pirates are auditioning a ton of castoffs with Non-Roster Invites – a scary list of guys like Brian Burres, Jeff Karstens, Tyler Yates, and Jeremy Powell.  I don’t see any of these guys getting jobs other than those available in, say, Indianapolis.

The bullpen will be different.  After a rough year of Matt Capps, the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel to be the new closer.  Dotel has been a premium set up man, but as a closer he’s never really been up to the task – and that scares me.  Brendan Donnelly was signed (turns 39 on July 4th) to join Joel Hanrahan (my pick as future closer), Evan Meek, and Donnie Veal in the pen.  This is an eclectic mix of arms that I think improves if Kevin Hart is added to long relief and McCutchen is put in the rotation.

On the whole, however, I do see an improvement.  My take on it is that the starting rotation should be 20 runs better than last year.  It’s not enough.  They need a real ace to step forward – and Ohlendorf may be that guy – someone who is 20 – 30 runs above the league.  And to be really competitive, they need two.  I don’t see two of them here.  I see five guys who are within ten runs of league average over 200 innings – a bunch of third and fourth starters.

The bullpen may be better if only some of the guys logging innings (Jeff Karstens, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck) won’t be there.  But I don’t have strong faith that the eighth and ninth innings will be solid.  Let’s call it a wash.

Catching:

A full season of Ryan Doumit would help.  Doumit missed half the season, forcing Jason Jaramillo, not an offensive force, into the lineup.  Doumit is a middle of the order guy and could add 20 runs by hanging around for 130 games this year.  Defensively, this isn’t a strong group, being below average in team numbers (ERA, W-L PCT), fielding percentage, and being slightly mistake prone.  I’m not sure that Doumit will improve these numbers, but he’s the best Pirate against the running game and makes fewer mistakes than Robinson Diaz – who is NOT ready for the big leagues.

Infield:

Adam LaRoche is also gone – forgot to mention him in the selloff comment.  In his place might be Garrett Jones, who showed his slugging skills and wasn’t embarrassing at first base.  I don’t know that he’s going to be a huge step forward from LaRoche defensively, but you never know.  Jones hit 21 homers in 82 games – and a full season of that would be a huge step forward.  If not Jones, the Pirates may try Seattle prospect Jeff Clement there.  Clement has, at times, looked like the real deal in the minors but hasn’t put it all together in the bigs.  The Pirates would make immediate and big improvements if they would just move 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez here and call it good.

After Freddy Sanchez left, Delwyn Young took over and was a step back offensively and defensively.  Sanchez was creating about 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Young about 4.3.  Sanchez has slightly below average range (-3.9 plays per 800 balls in play), but Young was brutal (-10.2 per 800 balls in play).  To solve this problem, the Pirates picked up former Tampa Ray Akinora Iwamura.  Iwamura should be more like Sanchez in terms of range and batting.  Not playing Young is worth ten runs of offense.

Jack Wilson is gone and Ronny Cedeno is now the new shortstop.  Cedeno is a better fielder than Wilson these days – which could be worth ten runs over the course of a season – and was pretty much the same hitter.  Bobby Crosby arrives looking for a chance to play, but he’ll likely be a bench player for now.

Andy LaRoche finally got a shot at third base in the big leagues and proved to be a fantastic glove, but a league average hitter.  I like his chances of improving at the plate, however, now that he has a full season under his belt.

Looking forward, I see this team being about twenty runs better offensively and perhaps another twenty better defensively.  Unless, of course, Jeff Clement gets more playing time.  My fear is, in looking at the current depth chart, that Clement is going to get every chance at making the starting lineup.  If this happens, I’d go with no offensive improvement and only ten runs better defensively.

Outfield:

Wouldn’t it have been fun to see an outfield of, say, Jason Bay in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Nate McLouth in right?

Instead, McCutchen arrives as the full-time centerfielder.  He was a bit rough in the outfield last year, but he’ll be better – and he showed power, patience, and speed as an offensive force.  I like him a LOT.  And the other two guys are gone.

Garrett Jones will likely start in right field, which will be better than Brandon Moss offensively – but likely ten runs worse (or more) defensively.  Ryan Church is around, as is Moss.  Church used to be good until two nasty concussions clipped his 2008 season and likely affected his 2009 season.

In left, expect Lastings Milledge to get one last shot to make things work.  Milledge, to me, is the new Delmon Young.  He SHOULD be better, but is really nothing special.  Moss and Nyjer Morgan were great defenders and will be missed with this outfield.

I see the outfield being down this year – perhaps ten to twenty runs down offensively and twenty runs defensively.  If Milledge lives up to former top prospect expectations, it would help.  I just don’t buy it.

Prospects:

Well, the top pitchers in AAA (McCutchen, Morton, Vaszquez) are already in town.  Even Denny Bautista and Steven Jackson were given shots and didn’t take the world by storm.  The top AAA hitters are in Pittsburgh now, too.

Pedro Alvarez tore up AA playing for the Altoona Curve, hitting .333 with power.  He really needs to be on the Pirates now.  Gorkys Hernandez has great speed, and is 22 – but he needs to improve his OBP.  Jose Tabata, 21, is close to making it – he hit well enough at Altoona to get moved up to Indianapolis.  Not much power, better OBP than Hernandez with good contact skills, and decent speed.  Just not sure he’ll be better than a fourth outfielder at this point.  I think he can play some, though.  If Ryan Church doesn’t stay healthy, Tabata will get a shot.

The best pitchers at Altoona was probably Brad Lincoln (some power, good control) but it was the only time he looked solid since being drafted out of the University of Houston in the first round (2006).  He shares a birthday with the author, though, so he’s on my radar…  Former first round pick Daniel Moskos (2007) has control, but doesn’t blow people away – 77Ks in 149 innings.

Moving to Lynchburg, top picks Jordy Mercer (3rd Round, 2008) and Chase D’Arnaud (4th Round, 2008) started to show signs of progress.  Mercer might develop some power, while D’Arnaud seems to have a more well rounded game.  Both outhit Alvarez at A+ ball, but neither are REALLY better hitters…  You’ll see that when they get to AA.

On the whole, it’s hard to see who is going to help the Pirates, other than Alvarez, in the next year or two.

Outlook:

If the Pirates were serious about this, they’d get Jones in the outfield, move Alvarez to first base and play him now, and let both McCutchens play as often as possible.  This isn’t going to happen this spring, and as such, the Pirates have to hope for minor improvements.  I see the team scoring about 670 runs and allowing 740.  That gets them to 73 wins, which would look great compared to the last five years.  However, with the Reds and Brewers likely improving – it might not get to 73.  It might barely get to 70…