Over the course of more than a dozen radio hits I've done over the past month, I've been asked several times if I have a sleeper team for 2010. That is to say, a team that I believe will do better than the conventional wisdom or even our projection system suggests. During each of those hits, the first team that I've named has invariably been the Cubs. Today I wanted to examine the roots of that belief, and figure out if I can still stand by it after having done my homework.
Let me preface this by saying I have no particular affinity for the Cubs. They don't rank among my favorite teams; on personal preference, I'd rather see the Brewers or the Reds take home the NL Central flag. The Cubs don't impress me as a particularly savvy team when it comes to decision-making; their perpetual failure to undervalue on-base percentage stands out like a sore thumb. I raise both points to show that they're not a team I'm predisposed to favor. I'll further point out that I don't have a tremendous track record when it comes to picking sleepers, though I did name Cincinnati in that capacity for about three years in a row, and finally hit the jackpot last year, similar to the way I kept picking Jake Peavy to win the NL Cy Young award until he finally won it.
As has been pointed out several times both here and abroad, the Central race has been thrown wide open ever since Adam Wainwright went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament at the beginning of spring training. The latest iteration of our PECOTA projected standings show the top four teams in the division separated by just five wins, with the Brewers and Cardinals coming in at 85-77, the Reds at 82-80, and the Cubs at 80-82. Already, that's cause for some mild optimism in support of my position, since the error bars on such projections are wide enough that the Cubs winning the division wouldn't be a shock in the way, say, the Padres taking the NL West last year would have been.
The Cubs went just 75-87 last year, their first sub-.500 season since 2006, and three wins worse than even their Opening Day forecast. In a sense, theirs was a tale of two seasons: through their first 125 games, the Cubs went just 51-74 under Lou Piniella, the third-worst record in the National League, and were outscored by 98 runs. Distracted by the illness of his mother, the 66-year-old Piniella abruptly stepped down in late August, and interim manager Mike Quade took over. From there, the Cubs stormed to a surprising 24-13 record, the second-best mark in the league over that time. Some of that was smoke and mirrors; the team outscored opponents by just 16 runs in that span, playing at a .549 clip according to their Pythagorean projection but winning at a .649 clip—a difference of nearly four wins over that stretch. That surge, and the positive vibes it generated on a team that made negative headlines earlier in the season was enough to help Quade remove the interim from his title, beating out the iconic Ryne Sandberg, who had been managing Triple-A Iowa for the Cubs organization.
The biggest key to that turnaround was the pitching of Carlos Zambrano. Exiled to the bullpen early in the year, then suspended by the team for over a month in the wake of his June 25 dugout tirade, the Big Z returned to the rotation on August 9, and from that point onward posted a 1.41 ERA in 70.1 innings, compared to a 5.61 mark in 59 1/3 innings prior. He wasn't nearly as dominant as that ERA suggests, with a 60/40 K/BB ratio mitigated by a .236 BABIP and just one homer allowed, flukish occurrences that won't be repeated. Nonetheless, his was something of a reassuring rebound, particularly since the chances of unloading him with $36 million remaining on his contract for 2011-2012 were nil.
The Cubs finished the year ninth in the NL in SNLVAR, and a look at their rotation's projections shows them to be similarly middle-of-the-pack. I do see a bit of room for optimism, however. I'd like to think that with his anger management issues somewhere on the back burner, the 2011 Zambrano can be a much better pitcher than PECOTA suggests. He's forecast for a 4.29 ERA while having never had a mark above 3.95. He's consistently outpitched his peripherals by a wide margin according to SIERA, primarily because his high walk rate (4.1 per nine career) hasn't come back to bite him to the extent that the system expects.
Elsewhere in the rotation, I'm a huge fan of Ryan Dempster, or at least the consistency he provides. He's coming off a season in which he posted his best strikeout rate as a starter and reached the 200-K plateau for the first time in a decade. While not an elite hurler, he's an outstanding workhorse who ranks 12th in strikeouts, 15th in innings, and 17th in ERA over the past three years while topping 200 innings each time. I'm not as high on Matt Garza as I was a year ago, and I do worry that the sudden extremity of his fly-ball tendency will be a bad fit in Wrigley Field, but the move from the AL East to the NL Central has to be worth something, right? Randy Wells should be significantly better than his forecast 4.68 ERA given that he's put up a 3.65 mark in his two-plus seasons while backed by decent peripherals and an extremely ordinary .301 BABIP.
The fifth starter spot is the one that's captured a lot of attention this spring, and from a larger field it's been pared down to a competition between Carlos Silva, Braden Looper, and Andrew Cashner. A pitch-to-contact righty who strikes out almost nobody (career 4.0 K/9), last year Silva rebounded from two dreadful years in Seattle in which he posted a combined 6.81 ERA. He charged to an 8-0 start with a 2.93 ERA in his first 11 turns, but came back to earth and was rocked for a 6.15 ERA thereafter while making just one start after August 1 due to an abnormally high heartbeat and then elbow tendonitis. Looper is a 36-year-old who didn't pitch at all last year after posting a 5.22 ERA in 194.2 innings with the Brewers in 2009; as Ben Lindbergh showed yesterday, such comebacks rarely bear fruit. Cashner is a 2008 first-round pick with mid-to-high 90s heat and a good three-pitch arsenal who spent last year in the Cubs' bullpen, where he was hit for a 4.80 ERA mark due to high homer and walk rates, though he did miss plenty of bats. He has pitched reasonably well this spring while Silva had been beaten like a piñata until his most recent start, and if the Cubs pitch the prospect instead of the contract (Silva's making $11.5 million this year, nearly half of it paid for by Seattle), they could stand to gain about a win relative to their PECOTA projections.
Despite the presence of unhittable closer Carlos Marmol and prodigal son Kerry Wood as the top set-up man, the bullpen is a shakier proposition. Last year the unit ranked 10th in the NL in WXRL, but 15th with a 5.61 Fair Run Average. Once you take away Marmol's 5.4 WXRL (fourth in the league), the 2.8 supplied by lefty set-up man Sean Marshall, and the 0.7 pitched in by Cashner, the remaining cast was an appaling 1.9 wins below replacement, with Fair Run Averages that came out of the Boeing catalog. With holdovers like James Russell and John Grabow not inspiring much confidence, and Jeff Samardzija yet to prove himself at the big-league level, you can almost see where a panicked organization might choose to return Cashner to the bullpen due to the perceived need, in a smaller-scale mistake along the lines of the Rangers' handling of Neftali Feliz.
The Cubs ranked just 10th in the league in runs scored last year with 685, but PECOTA has them projected to score 771 runs, more than every NL team save for the Rockies and Brewers. That's a function more of the lineup's projected pop (.425 SLG, projected for fourth in the league) than its patience (.333, sixth), and it comes in spite of an assumption that Starlin Castro, who's projected for just a .320 OBP, will take over the leadoff spot. Castro hit a very nice .300/.347/.408 as a 20-year-old rookie last year, and there's certainly a lot to like about him going forward, but he drew unintentional walks in just 4.3 percent of his plate appearances, which won't cut it atop the lineup. That said, it appears at the very least that Quade intends to keep him in the second slot with Kosuke Fukudome (projected for a .362 OBP, just a few points lower than his stateside career mark of .368) leading off against righties, which makes more sense.
Five Cubs project to hit at least 18 homers: Carlos Pena (33), Aramis Ramirez (23), Alfonso Soriano (23), Geovany Soto (19), and Tyler Colvin (18), the latter while reprising his role as a fourth outfielder. PECOTA is quite bullish on a rebound for Peña (.230/.354/.467) after a sub-Mendoza season for the Rays, and that line would be a considerable improvement over what Derrek Lee provided before being traded. Similarly, it's optimistic about Ramirez, who hit just .168/.232/.285 before going on the DL with a thumb injury in June, then returned to bat .287/.333/.556 the rest of the way; his .281/.348/.483 looks quite sanguine for a 33-year-old who's only played 206 games over the past two years. Soto (.274/.367/.471) projects to edge past his career rate numbers and remain among the top three catchers in the league offensively.
I have to admit that a bit of my sleeper assumption had to do with my misremembering the arc of Soriano's season. He's projected to hit .265/.324/.477, numbers which don't look bad in light of last year's performance, but my mental math had him potentially improving upon last year's numbers by avoiding another slow start since he wouldn't be coming back from off-season knee surgery. In fact, he hit .301/.368/.589 through the first two months of the 2010 season, and then cooled off, so that's a theory shot to hell.
Beyond that, the deeper I dig, the less I like. Quade apparently plans to hit Marlon Byrd third, and third's not the word I want to hear with Byrd, a guy whose .284/.340/.426 projection is right in line with his overall career numbers. Which is to say that he's not a guy who should be batting in the marquee spot given his middling power (and he's topped a dozen homers exactly once through his age-32 season) and his lack of patience; he's only walked about five percent of the time in each of the past two seasons. Colvin provides plenty of what the lineup already has (power) and not enough in the way of what it doesn't (patience). He doesn't fit into a natural platoon with fellow lefty Fukudome but will take at-bats from him nonetheless, hopefully coming closer to his lopsided line as a rookie (.254/.316/.500) than PECOTA's harsher reckoning (.254/.298/.428), but inevitably eating up more than his share of outs.
The mishmash at second base featuring lefty Blake DeWitt, righty Jeff Baker, and something called Darwin Barney (also righty) doesn't look like much either. DeWitt's slow spring has him in danger of losing out on the long half of a platoon, and even if he wins it he's still not really a plus. As I know all too well from watching him with the Dodgers, DeWitt's offensive value is propped up by his willingness to take a walk while batting seventh or eighth, which gets you less than it would if he could post that OBP on his own merit elsewhere in the lineup. Furthermore, his defense at the keystone is subpar. Baker is a fine lefty-masher (.308/.363/.545 against southpaws in his career), but he's overexposed if he's got to take on more of the job than that (.244/.300/.378 against righties). Barney, described in BP2011 as "a chip off the Tommy Veryzer block," doesn't project to do anything well with the lumber except pick his teeth with hit.
After digging into the numbers, suffice it to say I'm not digging the Cubs to quite the extent that I was when I spoke off the cuff. They look a whole lot more like a middling .500-ish team if they go with an uninspiring veteran in the fifth rotation spot, force low-OBP hitters into key spots atop the lineup, and leave Soto in the bottom third than if they take a chance on the upside of Cashner and try to get more at-bats for their higher-OBP guys. Furthermore, they could again have problems with the middle of their bullpen, and I've conveniently waved off any notion that Wood is less than durable in this evaluation. None of this is to say that the Cubs aren't without a shot in the post-Wainwright NL Central, but I'm less convinced they're such a promising sleeper than I was before I did my homework.