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March 31, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

Overdue

by Dan Fox

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"The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better."
--George Will, "The Chicago Cubs, Overdue"

This season will mark my 30th year as a Cubs fan. After realizing just how exciting baseball could be as I watched the 1975 World Series, my brother and I began following the Cubs during the summer of 1976. We followed the Cubs because growing up in eastern Iowa the only televised games, besides Monday Night Baseball, were WGN-TV broadcasts picked up by the Quad Cities affiliate on Sunday afternoons. As an eight year-old my heroes were Manny Trillo, Rick Monday, Jerry Morales, Steve Swisher (yes, the father of the A's outfielder), Ray Burris, and my favorite, the immortal Jose Cardenal.

Well, that Cubs team finished 75-87, and thus began my journey towards becoming the conservative that I am today, grounded in the belief that both man and nature are fallen, and that the law of unintended consequences must always be considered.

In fact, Will penned those words two years before my fandom began; before fast starts in 1977 and 1978 were followed by swoons in June; before the ball went through the legs of Leon Durham and Steve Garvey sealed the deal in 1984; before Will Clark became superhuman in the fall of 1989; and before interference (what, me bitter?) coupled with the oft-forgotten Alex Gonzalez error doomed the 2003 edition. Overdue? I guess you could say that, in a grind-your-teeth-and-smile sort of way.

And so I bring all of that angst with me as I begin writing here at Baseball Prospectus.

For those who aren't familiar, I'm a software architect (my secondary career choice, of course, although I also score games for MLB.com). On the advice of a friend--and Cardinals fan, no less--I started a blog called Dan Agonistes three years ago. The purpose was ostensibly to share my insights on software development and promote my programming books and speaking. What I quickly discovered, though, was that I would rather write about baseball than computers, and in the process rediscovered my passion for the game that began in the fall of 1975. The blog eventually led to writing for The Hardball Times last season, and while I enjoyed it immensely and have great respect for Aaron Gleeman and Dave Studeman, I'm glad to be here, among august company.

October may be the winter of a Cub fan's soul, but hope literally springs eternal. And so in the theme of the "Setting the Stage" series, I offer the Cub fan's cumulative best case scenario for the 2006 season:

  • For the third consecutive year the favorite spring pastime for Cubs fans has been to speculate, and sometimes wager, on just when Kerry Wood and Mark Prior would be injured and what those injuries might be. Amid more than half a dozen trips to the disabled list between them and injuries that include right Achilles' tendonitis, bursitis in the right shoulder, irritation to the ulnar nerve, and inflammation of the elbow joint (and who knows what else), Wood has thrown just 206.1 innings the last two years and Prior just 285.1. That's about 50% of the production you would hope for from your frontline starters and, the collapse not withstanding, it's what likely kept the Cubs out of the playoffs in 2004.

    This spring, if you bet on "posterior rotator-cuff irritation" or a "slow recovery from shoulder surgery and minor knee surgery of the right knee," collect your winnings; both are on the disabled list and out until at least late April.

    Ah, but we're due, and so the Cubs medical staff will work wonders and in 2006 Prior shakes off the rotator cuff problem, comes back in late April and goes 17-4 with a 3.24 ERA striking out 226 batters in 201 innings. Wood returns in early May and still starts 27 games going 16-5 with a 3.66 ERA in 177 innings of work.

  • In 2005 the Cubs rented Jeromy Burnitz to play right field, and he predictably put up Burnitz-like numbers, which is to say that he was league average. Seeing the error of their ways, GM Jim Hendry cunningly upgraded to Jacque Jones. One might be tempted to believe that Jones is on the way down, having had his career year at Age 27 and performing worse each year since. But, because we're due, Jones is now primed for the oh-so-common second breakout season in the Windy City as a 31 year-old. Don't let his .201/.247/.370 performance against southpaws in 2005 fool you. After working with Tony Gwynn in the off-season, in 2006 Jones smacks 31 home runs and puts up a .293/.347/.493 line. Fortunately, Hendry outbid his competition and locked Jones up for three years at $16 million, so we'll be able to watch him work his magic through 2008.
  • Cubs fans suffered a lot during the period we'll call the "Corey Patterson Experiment." It's hard to watch a young player struggle that much and do it in such an obvious fashion. Consistently getting out is one thing, but making outs the way Corey Patterson did--by showing absolute contempt for the strike zone--is painful. Well, at least he didn't clog the bases too much for hitters coming behind him.

    But I digress.

    We're due, and Juan Pierre is just the guy to "ignite" the Cubs offense in 2006. Despite his precipitous drop in VORP in 2005 (from 35.1 in 2004 to 12.1 in 2005), Pierre will rebound to hit .315/.367/.410 in the Friendly Confines and routinely go into the ivy to take away enemy hits. Oh, and unlike Dontrelle Willis, Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, and Reneyal Pinto will all turn out to be busts for the Marlins.

  • Just as in 1989 when a pair of rookies, Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith, helped the Cubs to 93 wins and a division title, the 2006 Cubs sport two rookies that will make their mark. Ronny Cedeno at shortstop and Matt Murton in left field both have the skills to hold down regular jobs. Because we're due, despite a slow start by Cedeno and a mid-season slump by Murton, manager Dusty Baker wisely refrains from giving their jobs to crafty veterans Neifi Perez and John Mabry, which would push the rookie pair first to the bench and then to Des Moines before August. On the contrary, both of the youngsters finish in the top five in Rookie of the Year honors, with Murton slugging 27 home runs and Cedeno a top candidate for a Gold Glove.
  • The battle of the spring in Mesa has been the competition over second base with Jerry Hairston competing with Todd Walker for the everyday job. Walker is the superior offensive player while Hairston turns the double play better, and both are coming off injuries--Walker hurt his knee late last season and Hairston's leg has been troublesome the past few seasons.

    As the Cubs in 2006 are due, Baker, finally realizing what he has, keeps both players sharp by using a non-traditional platoon: Hairston at second when groundballers Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano are on the mound and Walker manning the position the rest of the week. Dusty then uses Walker to spell Aramis Ramirez at third and discovers that it won't rip a hole in the space-time continuum if Neifi Perez doesn't play at least four times a week and make lots of outs while batting second. The result is improved offense and defense at second base.

  • The big upgrade of the off-season for Hendry was the acquisition of LOOGY Scott Eyre and right-hander Bobby Howry not to mention the re-signing of closer Ryan Dempster. With Howry signed for three years and $12 million, Eyre for three years and $11 million, and Dempster for three years and $15.5 million, the bullpen is rock solid through 2008. Cubs fans shouldn't worry that studies such as the one discussed in the 2006 Baseball Prospectus (Yankees essay) show that middle relievers are a bit of a crapshoot, and that over the last 30 years there is a 60% turnover in top relievers each season. Hendry knows what he's doing, and of course, because we're due, all three will actually outperform their career years as relievers in 2005. Dempster leads the league in saves with 46 and Howry and Eyre combine for a 2.33 FRA (fair runs against average).
  • With the injuries to Wood and Prior, and even perhaps without them, Carlos Zambrano has been the ace of the Cubs staff the past two seasons. His nasty sinker and 95 mph fastball combine to make him a groundball pitcher with a high strikeout rate--a lethal and rare combination. Over those three seasons he's thrown 647 innings, started 96 games and averaged 109 pitches per start. All of this at the tender ages of 22 through 24, giving him the second highest Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) in 2005, third highest in 2004, and 10th highest in 2003. But Cubs fans aren't worried about a breakdown. "In Dusty we Trusty," and he knows how to work young pitchers: Zambrano will continue mowing down opposing batters in 2006, going 21-6 in 243 fabulous innings while capturing the Cy Young Award.
  • And I haven't even mentioned that Derrek Lee will duplicate his better-than-Albert-Pujols 2005 season and that Ramirez will continue to rake at third base while continuing to improve defensively.
Some folks have gone to great trouble to simulate the 2006 season thousands of times using various projection systems. The Replacement Level Yankee Weblog has done so, and when averaging out the simulations has the Cubs winning a middling 84 games. Nate Silver even has his projected PECOTA standings with the Cubs winning 85 games. Please. We're overdue, and so when things break right as I've described (and I think you can see just how likely it is) the Cubs will end up with 98 wins and a comfortable margin over the second-place Brewers. The Cardinals will, of course, finish dead last.

After the NLDS sweep of the Braves and the NLCS win over the Mets, the Cubs will triumph over the White Sox in the World Series in seven games, winning the finale in the newly renovated Wrigley Field as I look on from the bleachers. Dusty Baker will have his contract extended and we'll live happily ever after.

Eamus Catuli!

Related Content:  Cubs,  Rookies Of The Year,  Will Clark,  Rock Of Ages,  Quad-a

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