June 1, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
The Surprising Snugglies
About two week ago, I was feeling pretty smug, having watched the Cubs drop seven in a row to fall out of first place in the NL Central. I was pretty sure their April was fluky, the product of good months by random retreads like Jason Bere and Jeff Fassero. Mind you, I had a higher opinion of the Cubs coming into the season than most people, picking them to finish third thanks to an underrated rotation. I just didn't believe they had any business running with the Cardinals and Astros, and their fall from grace confirmed my notions.
Cut to today, and the Cubs are back on top of the division, riding a ten-game winning streak. Their pitching has outperformed even my expectations--the best rotation in the NL according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral Value Added--covering for an offense that calls to mind the early days of the Michael Jordan Bulls: one superstar and his supporting cast.
It's especially gratifying to see the continued improvement of Jon Lieber, who I've liked since he was a Royals prospect in the early 1990s. The trade that brought him to Chicago in exchange for Brant Brown stands as one of the best deals in Cubs history. Leiber doesn't do anything fancy: he throws strikes, gets ahead in the count, and gets outs. It's enough to make him the ninth-best starter in the NL so far this year.
Kerry Wood is other big story, as he continues his comeback from Tommy John surgery. Wood has been inconsistent from start to start, but has shown flashes of his 1998 form and at times has looked ready to be one of the top starters in the NL.
One thing to watch is his workload. I don't want to sound alarmist, and I don't know that there is a problem here, but Wood has gone over 100 pitches in all but one start this year, a product of his occasional control problems and his overall effectiveness. His pitch counts so far are reminiscent of Alan Benes in 1997, when Benes was over 100 pitches in almost every start before surgery ended his season in August. Wood hasn't had the starts of 120 pitches and up that caused concern in 1998, and as Keith Woolner's work in Baseball Prospectus 2001 indicates, it's those starts that are the problem. In the long term, though, Wood will have to improve his command to take the leap forward that someone like Leiber has. It's best for both his results and his health.
What has saved the Cubs is that rotation behind those two pitchers has exceeded expectations. Julian Tavarez and Kevin Tapani have been very good, while Jason Bere has avoided being a disaster in the #5 slot. A rotation that doesn't collapse in the last two slots can be a huge help to a team. The work the Twins, Cubs, Phillies, and Padres have gotten from the back of their rotations has been a big factor in the surprising success they've shared.
With the bats, the Cubs have been a nightmare. Sammy Sosa has been his usual superstar self, coming in eighth in the NL in Equivalent Average. The Sosettes behind him, though, have been a disaster. Save for Ricky Gutierrez, the Cubs don't have a single regular who is above average at his position (Bill Mueller, currently on the DL and out through June, is also having a good year), and their offense is 11th in the league. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the pitching-and-defense Cubs!
The Cubs have some things in their favor as they try to stay in the hunt. They have some prospects they can deal for the middle-of-the-lineup bat and middle-relief help they need. While everyone awaits the arrival of Corey Patterson, it's just not likely that Patterson is ready to help a team trying to win its division, not yet. The Cubs will be better served by going outside the organization to fix their first-base and center-field holes.
If they can do that--and they have the resources to do so--they should be able to stay in the mix for postseason play. As currently constituted, though, the Cubs just aren't going to score enough runs to get the 88 to 90 wins they'll need to play into October.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.