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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Opening Day: The Best Day of the Year

Opening Day in Major League Baseball is my favorite day of the year – and this one had plenty of highlights that suggest that 2011 could be as exciting a season as can be imagined.

  • Red catcher Ramon Hernandez hits a three-run, game-winning homer to beat the Milwaukee Brewers – an at bat that happened, in part, because Brandon Phillips emulated Chad Ochocinco to avoid a Casey McGehee tag two batters earlier.   (McGehee claimed that Phillips left the baseline, but replays suggest the juke was legit.)
  • Jason Heyward launched a season starting homer for the second straight season.
  • Cameron Maybin, newly acquired centerfielder for the Padres, launched a game-tying two-out homer in the ninth, allowing San Diego to trip up the Cardinals in extra-innings.  Albert Pujols didn’t help the cause, becoming the first player to ground into three double plays on Opening Day.
  • The night ended with a remarkable pitcher’s duel between two young guns.  Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw outdueled San Francisco Giant Tim Lincecum to give Don Mattingly his first managerial victory.

If you didn’t enjoy those games, then you just don’t like Baseball

Transaction Wire:

Nearly everything over the last day or two had to do with decisions on whether or not to put some player on the DL for various knicks, pulls, and injuries.  Those getting to miss the fun for at least a week or so include Jason Bay, Brandon Webb (still), J.P. Howell, Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, Cody Ross, Johan Santana, Aaron Cook, Scott Olsen, Brian Wilson, Clint Barmes, Corey Patterson, Brandon Morrow, Frank Francisco, Homer Bailey, Brad Lidge, Chase Utley, Dayan Viciedo, Domonic Brown, David Aardsma, Franklin Gutierrez, Jake Peavy, Johnny Cueto, John Baker, Geoff Blum, Zach Duke, Jason Kendall, Francisco Cervelli, and Andrew Bailey.  (There are plenty of others, and if you have a fantasy baseball team, you are aware of many of these guys…

A new DL move, Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand was listed for today – Rowand has a fractured cheekbone.

Ronny Paulino has a few days left on his steroids suspension, so the Mets placed him on the restricted list.

A couple of days ago, the Phillies had signed Luis Castillo as an insurance policy while Chase Utley allows his troublesome left knee to heal.  That didn’t work out (Castillo is relatively immobile these days and his bat hasn’t been healthy for at least four months now), so the Phillies signed Ronnie Belliard.  Belliard, who turns 36 next Thursday, had an unimpressive season as a utiltiy infielder and pinch hitter for the Dodgers in 2010 (2 – 19 -.216) and a weak spring for the Yankees (.136 in 22 at bats), so this may be his last couple of months in the big leagues unless he can get a few clutch hits.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, seeing that shortstop Stephen Drew wasn’t 100% for opening day, signed former Mariner glove man Josh Wilson.  Wilson isn’t a bad guy to have around, but don’t count on him to hit like Drew can.

On the MLB Drama Network

Not sure if you are following the Barry Bonds trial, but we now have a handful of players who all admitted that they used steroids provided by Greg Anderson, Bonds’ personal trainer who is sitting in jail for his unwillingness to discuss the number of needles he put in Bond’s belly and butt.  Some of them admitted that they did because of the success Bonds was having since hiring Anderson to build up his physique.  A former personal shopper for Bonds says she saw Anderson give Bonds a shot in his belly button (ouch!), something Bonds told her was “…a little something for the road.”

Not that I am plugging my book (but I am):

Today is the day that Rube Waddell died, the result of a long fight against Tuberculosis, a major killer of men and women 100 years ago.  Waddell died in 1914 while convalescing in a San Antonio nursing home.  At the time of his death, he weighed at least 60 pounds less than his playing weight, 210.

Happy Birthday!

Among those celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances are…

Ron Perranoski (1936) – Dodger pitcher and pitching coach
Phil Niekro (1939) – greatest knuckleball pitcher ever
Rusty Staub (1944) – Le Grande Orange, and one of my favorite players as a kid
Willie Montanez (1948)
Frank Castillo (1969)
Matt Herges (1970)
Will Rhymes (1983)
John Axford (1983) – who gave up that homer to Ramon Hernandez yesterday (ouch)
Daniel Murphy (1985)

2010 – Top AL Pitchers

Just as a recap, here’s what I am trying to do:

1) I start with the number of runs allowed by each pitcher, and the number of innings that guy pitched.

2) I modify the number of runs allowed to account for any bias based on the pitcher’s home park.

3) I modify the number of runs allowed based on my defensive rating system for teams and players because if you have Seattle’s team defense behind you, you are less likely to allow a run than if you had the Royals defense behind you.

Top 10 Starters:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
34.1    173.2    Clay Buchholz (BOS)
29.7    249.2    Felix Hernandez (SEA)
26.5    208.0    Jon Lester (BOS)
26.2    237.2    C.C Sabathia (NYY)
25.8    200.2    Gio Gonzalez (OAK)

25.8    196.2    Trevor Cahill (OAK)
24.0    213.0    John Danks (CHI)
23.5    130.2    Brian Dunsing (MIN)
22.5    224.1    Jered Weaver (LAA)
19.4    191.2    Francisco Liriano (MIN)

I was surprised that Buchholz saved more runs, but he also had a remarkable ERA pitching in Fenway.  Like #3 Jon Lester.  Brian Duensing made 13 starts when Minnesota needed them, and his overall contributions were also impressive.  Not sure if he has a 200 inning season in him, but at this rate, he would have led the league in runs saved.  Among the returners from last year, Fernandez, Lester, and Sabathia…

Top 10 Relievers:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
20.4    65.2    Joakim Soria (KC)
20.0    74.1    Daniel Bard (BOS)
17.6    60.1    Joaquin Benoit (TEX)
16.7    63.0    Chris Perez (CLE)
16.4    49.0    Andrew Bailey (OAK)

15.8    60.0    Mariano Rivera (NYY)
15.7    62.0    Darren O’Day (TEX)
14.6    41.2    Alexi Ogando (TEX)
14.3    60.2    Matt Thornton (CWS)
13.7    62.1    Rafael Soriano (TB)

Three Rangers in the top ten – which helps explain how they controlled the division if the offense could just get a lead through five or six innings.  This is the second year I have made the list – and Bailey, Rivera, O’Day, and Thornton all returned to the list.

Bottom 10 Pitchers:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
-56.5     203.1    James Shields (TB)
-56.3     109.1    Ryan Rowland-Smith (SEA)
-35.8     150.0    Scott Kazmir (LAA)
-32.0    171.0    Jeremy Bonderman (DET)
-28.5    141.1    Scott Feldman (TEX)

-24.9    186.2    A.J. Burnett (NYY)
-23.1    161.0    Brian Bannister (KC)
-20.9    127.2    Josh Beckett (BOS)
-19.7     79.2    David Huff (CLE)
-19.4    161.0    Nick Blackburn (MIN)

Shields cleared 50 because he pitched 200 innings, had a solid defense behind him, and kept serving up homers.  The Rays stuck with him all season and will be giving him another shot in 2011.  I don’t think he’ll be this bad…  The worst pitcher, though, was Rowland-Smith.  He pitched just 109 innings, so essentially he gave up a run more than the average pitcher every other inning.  Ouch.

2009 Season Forecast: Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers
79 – 83 (2nd AL West – 21 Games Back)
Runs Scored: 901 (Tops in AL)
Runs Allowed: 967 (Worst in AL)

2008 Summary:

The most exciting team, and one that is just a few pitchers away from being an immediate contender in the AL West…  Got off to a slow April, but rebounded in May thanks to the Josh Hamilton show (and Ian Kinsler) to get back over .500.  The Rangers actually stayed there through June and July before their season was wrecked by an 11 – 18 August.

And, to be honest, the difference was pitching and defense.  By my reckoning, the pitching was about 83 runs worse than the average team, and the defense was another 67 runs worse than the average team (not counting catchers).  So, if you could get back 150 runs allowed, with this offense, you’re talking about winning 90 games.

Tell Me About That Offense:

No weak spots in the lineup – that’s for sure.

The outfield boasted Josh Hamilton, he of the Home Run Derby power, who played his first full season and blasted 32 homers good for 130 RBI.  Milton Bradley missed 25 percent of the season (what else is new), but put nearly 100 runs on the board, hitting .321 with a .441 OBP and a .563 slugging percentage.  He was so good, the Cubs overlooked everything else to sign him to a $30 million contract.  Rookie David Murphy was decent, too – some power, and a decent bat.  The fourth outfielder, Marlon Byrd, batted .298 with some walks, a little speed, and a little punch – a valuable performance.

In the infield, you had Ian Kinsler, with his 60 extrabase hits and 26 steals, batting .319 before losing last five weeks to an injury.  Michael Young gets credit for his 12 – 82 – .284 line, but to be honest, he doesn’t get on base that much and if he didn’t get to bat in the middle of the lineup, you wouldn’t really notice him.  He’s really just an average hitter.  Hank Blalock missed a lot of time, but hit when he played.  Ramon Vazquez played a lot and contributed with the bat.  Chris Davis hit for power though he struck out a lot – even short timers Joaquin Arias and future stud Nelson Cruz helped.  Cruz batted .330 with serious power in just 115 at bats.

Behind the plate, Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were a decent hitting tandem.

And the Defense?

Not so good.

Ian Kinsler is a great second baseman, and maybe the first basemen were just told not to go to their right because Kinsler was a gold glove quality player.  He makes 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than the average second sacker, helping save 26 runs.  However, three of the five guys who  played at least 200 innings at first were LOUSY.  Chris Davis, Hank Blalock, and Frank Catalanotto combined to give back nearly 50 runs with their shoddy range.  Throw in five third basemen who all had below average range, and you had serious problems at the corners.  I know Michael Young got the gold glove at SS, but I think they were honoring him by having been a shortstop for a long time.  He’s not that good.  I have him as slightly below league average in terms of range, made up somehwat by good DP/Error numbers.  It would have been more appropriate to give the award to Jason Bartlett.  Besides, if Young was so good, why did he move to third so that the rookie Elvis Andrus could play there in 2009?

Moving to the outfield, not a single guy logged 1000 innings at a position – though Hamilton did combine for it if you add his innings in center and right.  Milton Bradley and Hamilton both played well in right field, but the large and ambling Hamilton played too many innings in center, costing his team nearly 16 runs out there.  The best centerfielder is Marlon Byrd.  David Murphy played okay in right, not quite as well in left – which makes me think that he should have played in right, moved Hamilton to Left, and let Byrd play center all year.  This alone would have saved the club about 40 runs defensively, if not more.  Brandon Boggs is a better outfielder, but not as good a hitter as the others.  Nelson Cruz wasn’t bad out there – so the future will be brighter if Hamilton gets an easier gig.

As a tandem, the catching of Laird and Saltalamacchia was the worst in the AL, being below average in team ERA, winning percentage, stolen base percentage allowed (only two teams allowed more stolen bases than Texas), fielding percentage, and mistakes per game.  Because they were young, they were mobile.  That’s it.

Now Pitching:

Having admitted that the pitchers had no help from three postions (both corner infield and centerfield), and inexperienced catching, the pitching was still awful.

Kevin Millwood gained weight and was hit around a lot.  Vincente Padilla was slightly better than league average – but neither were in ace territory.  The really good pitchers save their teams 20 or 30 runs over 200 innings.  Combined, Padilla and Millwood were one run better than the average pitcher in 58 starts.  Basically two #3 pitchers.  Scott Feldman logged 25 starts and hopefully will find room to improve, but he doesn’t strike anyone out (74 in more than 151 innings).  Kason Gabbard was tolerable, Matt Harrison looks like he might be okay, but also didn’t fan a lot of guys, and Luis Mendoza got 11 starts we wish never happened.  He allowed more than a run each inning – 31 runs worse than the average pitcher in just 63 innings.  He’s the anti-Cy Young award winner…  There were a few guys (Boof Bonser, for example) who had a worse total number, but threw far more innings than Mendoza.

The bullpen was shaky, too.  C.J. Wilson was so erratic (6.02 ERA) that he lost his job to Frank Francisco (good call).  Eddie Guardado, who has been pitching since the Mexican War, was one of only two good relief options.  Jamey Wright, Josh Rupe, Warner Madrigal, and Dustin Nippert were not.

Forecasting 2009:

Actually, the Rangers are probably on the brink of a division crown.  When you can bash the balls like these guys, all you need to do is add a few decent pitchers and reorganize the defense and make a signficant impact.

First – who’s not here.  No Milton Bradley.  He was amazing last year as a hitter, but Nelson Cruz could be just as good.  And we haven’t heard stories (yet) that Cruz has “issues”.  Gerald Laird is gone – the team will live with youngster Taylor Teagarden and Saltalamacchia.

Who is new?  Elvis Andrus, a rookie, will take over at short.  Supposedly, he’s the real deal.  Blalock will get a shot at DH, 1B, and backing up new third baseman, Michael Young.  Andruw Jones signed a league minimum deal – it will be nice he can contribute, but his days of being a superstar are over.

A full season of Kinsler might net 10 extra runs.  Young will produce as much as the third basemen did last year – and the bench is still solid.  I think the improvement of Murphy and addition of Cruz might make up for what happens when Josh Hamilton slips just a little since last year was so much above anything he had shown before.  Chris Davis can bash – I hope he and Blalock field better.

The change in offense, though, is probably negative.  I think that without Laird, without Blalock (as much), and using Andrus at short probably costs the team 50 runs on offense.  Instead of 900 runs, it will be more like 850.

The key is defensive in nature.  Andrus and Young on the left side could be worth 50 or 60 runs in defense.  Davis and Blalock being (a) more comfortable at first and (b) in Blalock’s case, a little healthier, could be 20 runs of improvement.  The outfield would be stable with the moves I suggested – which may or may not happen.  Still – 80 runs of improvement.

Then, you have the pitching.  Rumor has it that Kevin Millwood was challenged by Nolan Ryan to act like the ace he is being paid to be.  Vincente Padilla slowed down after a summer in Texas, maybe he could hang in there.  Brandon McCarthy will be better than Mendoza.  More Francsco and less Wilson will help finish games, and if Wilson puts it back together in the seventh or eighth innings, that’s another ten runs.  More Derek Holland or Matt Harrison might be good for a short term fix.  They really could use another reliever – the injured Joaquin Benoit isn’t coming soon, but if someone were to just have a season like his in 2006, that would help.  Still, I don’t see that though I do see an improvement.  It could be 50 runs better.

So, if the team scores 850 and allows 830, it could be 83 wins.  And, if the Angels crash to earth (as I am predicting), the Rangers would be among the first to bash their way to the forefront.  If they were to get one more ace starter, look out.

Down on the Farm:

Most of the arms who looked any good in AAA Oklahoma City got a shot, including Brandon McCarthy, Kameron Loe, and 21 year old Tommy Hunter (nice control, doesn’t blow people away).  Matt Harrison will be a regular going forward – he was 22 last year.  Players who can hit also have arrived – Nelson Cruz (37 – 99 – .342, and Chris Davis (10 – 31 – .222 in 31 games).  Cruz is the real deal, but Davis has a bit of a hole in his swing.

Elvis Andrus hit .296 for the Frisco Roughriders (AA) at 19.  Julio Borbon, an outfielder with some speed, hit .337, and catcher for 2010, Max Ramirez, hit .354 with serious power.  Chad Tracy is a first baseman with a bat, too.  The best pitcher in AA was probably Derek Holland, who got four starts and looked great.  He got rushed through A, A+ and into AA because he has the goods.  I just hope he isn’t rushed to the majors because he might get swatted around and mess with his confidence.  He can pitch, though.

At A+ Bakersfield, watch out for Kasey Kiker – who looks like he can pitch a little.  Tanner Roark looks like he can pitch some, too.  Roark has control and strikes people out – a good combination.

From what I can tell, the Rangers have some hitting options, and might have a few future arms.  The future is bright.