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February 12, 2007

Prospectus Today

Better Days in Wrigleyville

by Joe Sheehan

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I met a Cubs fan recently, and not the kind of fan I'm used to meeting. This person doesn't know the first thing about VORP or marginal value or even OBP. She probably couldn't name five current Cubs, and if you asked, Sammy Sosa might be one of the names she gave you. She's from the Midwest, though, and she loves going to Wrigley Field and hanging out in the sun, and the Cubs are her dad's favorite team, and she likes baseball even if she couldn't tell you the trade-offs involved in a late-game sacrifice bunt.

The thing is, there are a lot more of her than there are of me. There is no one correct way to love baseball, and if you come to the game because you like sunshine and hot dogs and yelling, that's no different than coming to it because you love guessing along with the batter or tracking the outfield shifts or arguing over whether the left fielder should be platooned, or traded, or perhaps sold to a sweatshop in Belize. Finding joy in analyzing the game is great, but finding joy in just watching it is no less so. It's something those of us steeped in analysis would do well to remember on our more arrogant days.

Talking about the Cubs with her while having to keep my usual roster of arguments in check left with me with lot of material unused, so you get to hear them today. It's no secret that Jim Hendry went into this winter with a mandate to put a winner on the field immediately, at almost any cost, with perhaps his job hanging in the balance. Hendry committed nearly $300 million to retain Aramis Ramirez, to sign Alfonso Soriano and to add free agents Mark DeRosa, Cliff Floyd, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to the roster.

Now, most of those signings were panned as too much money over too many years for players of too little accomplishment. I see no reason to change my opinion on any of the contracts doled out, which is that none are likely to produce value for the money, and some may turn out to be massive albatrosses as soon as 2008.

If you just look at the very short term, though-2007, in this case-it's clear that the Cubs will be better for having made all of these acquisitions. In fact, there's a reasonable argument that the Cubs have the best team in the NL Central. Make a tallest midget argument if you care to, but the Cardinals' rings aren't going to shine any less brightly because they won a weak division on their way to a world championship. In the three-division era, it's enough to be better than the other guys, and the Cubs can do that in '07.

Set aside the contracts and just look at the team:

CF Soriano
2B DeRosa
1B Lee
3B Ramirez
RF Jones
LF Murton
C Barrett
SS Izturis

Bench: Floyd, Theriot, Cedeno, Pagan, Blanco

Rotation: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Marquis, Prior (Miller)

Bullpen: Dempster, Eyre, Howry, Cotts, Wuertz, Ohman, Novoa (Wood)

The Cubs scored 716 runs last season with Derrek Lee playing in just 50 games and the middle infield largely a disaster. At shortstop four players combined for a sub-.280 OBP. The latter problem may still be in play-Cesar Izturis has a .295 career OBP that is only even that high because of a fluke BA in 2004-but the team should get more production from a full season of Lee at first and the addition of DeRosa at second. DeRosa might not be the best second baseman in camp-I'd go with Ryan Theriot myself-and a solution that moved him into a utility role and allowed Theriot some time at the keystone, perhaps in a pseudo-platoon with Jacque Jones, would be an interesting approach.

Soriano will put more runs on the board than Juan Pierre did, even coming down from his career-year 2006 performance to a more typical .280/.330/.500 level with good stolen base numbers. Ramirez, Jones, Michael Barrett and Matt Murton can all be expected to perform fairly close to their 2006 lines, if not in each individual case, then certainly in the aggregate. The four were good for 302 EqR last year. I'd peg them for 310 in '07. Give the Cubs credit for an improved bench, the best hitting pitchers in the league, some additional runs for the Piniella Effect-Lou's teams tend to steal bases at a very high rate of success-and 770 runs doesn't sound out of line. There's a fairly wide range of possibilities here, given that four starters have sub-.320 OBPs in their recent histories. If the Cubs' season goes awry, it will be because Soriano, Jones and DeRosa fell under that mark again.

OBP won't be as big a problem for the teams facing the Cubs, especially the walks part of the equation. The Cubs led the league in walks allowed in '06 with 687, and have added two pitchers, in Lilly and Marquis, who won't do much to bring that figure down. Throw in Carlos Zambrano and a full season of Rich Hill, and you have the majors' most TTO rotation. The Cubs will lead the league in both walks and strikeouts; whatever success they have preventing runs is going to come down to how well they keep the ball in the park. That's been a huge problem for Marquis and a moderate one for Lilly and Hill.

If I wanted to be pithy, I could reduce the Cubs' 2007 chances to one proposition: If the Cubs allow fewer than 200 home runs in 2007, they will win the NL Central. That's how critical their home-run rate will be to their success. They'll rely less on their defense than any other NL team.

I mentioned the Piniella Effect on a team's stolen-base rate. Another characteristic of Piniella teams is a deep bullpen that can get strikeouts from both sides. The Cubs already have this in place, especially from the left side with Will Ohman (74 K in 65 1/3 IP) and Scott Eyre (73/61.1). Piniella has many options from the right side, including Bobby Howry (71/76.2), Michael Wuertz (42/40.2) and David Aardsma (49/53) (Aardsma is now with the White Sox. Mea culpa.--JSS) Add in the possibility of Kerry Wood (13/19.2) contributing, and it's possible that last year's closer, Ryan Dempster (67/75), is just the sixth- or seventh-best reliever on the team. Since Piniella has nothing invested in Dempster, it may not take him long to both realize this and act on it in distributing innings.

Jim Hendry's $300 million bet isn't likely to pay off at the individual levels. I don't feel any more sanguine about the back end of the Soriano contract or the overspending on DeRosa and Marquis than I did two months ago. Flags fly forever, though, and the Cubs are in better position to fly one next year thanks in part to that $300 million. The value of winning even one championship is measured in nine-digit numbers, and for a franchise like the Cubs, it's not hard to see a scenario where the benefits dwarf that $300 million. I am genuinely on the fence about the conflict between long-term concerns and short-term goals, but I can say with certainty that the 2007 Chicago Cubs are my pick to win the NL Central.

Maybe, at a time like this, it's best to be a fan, to just sit back in the sun, chow down on that mustard, ketchup and relish dog, and enjoy watching a team that has more than enough talent to play its way into October.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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