NL Central: Chicago Cubs

As an analyst, you always want to be as objective as possible. I make a concerted effort to set aside my baseball loyalties when I'm evaluating other teams or players. My preconceived notions aren't going to do anything but hinder an accurate estimation of talent levels. As a writer on a team-centric blog, there's less need to be 100% objective. Expressing those loyalties and feelings about the team that everyone is rooting for isn't a bad thing and often let readers connect to the writing better. In some ways, I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --


With all that in mind, I hate the Cubs.

It's not a little hate; it's a visceral deeply rooted one. I don't like to see their team have success. I don't like their players. I don't like their coaches. I don't like them. I want them to reach their Century of Futility, to withhold the joy of a World Series that we so recently experienced. I don't want good things for them. Period.

Tragically, on paper, they appear to be the best team in the NL Central. If they acquire Brian Roberts, I'd call them the runaway favorites. It may be some time before they wrap up that deal given the glacial speed of the Orioles but the Cubs are a good team with a few weaknesses that are built to win now.

Starting Position Players:

Geovany Soto, C; Derrek Lee, 1B; Mark DeRosa, 2B; Ryan Theriot, SS; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Kosuke Fukudome, RF; Felix Pie, CF; Alfonso Soriano, LF

Remember when Lee when apeshit on the league back in 2005. He hit .335/.418/.662 with 46 bombs and every Cubs fan thought this was his new level of production; that they had found a counter to Pujols. Someone that would carry their team offensively moving forward. Besides the fact that he was almost certainly bound to regress, he suffered a broken wrist in 2006 and his power dropped off considerably from 2005. He lost 125 points of ISO compared to that career year and has only hit 30 homeruns in 2006 & 2007. He still represents the most potent bat in the Cubs lineup primarily because he walks a great deal with an OBP nearing .400.

Ramirez and Soriano are the other holdover offensive powerhouses. Both players are more reliant on their power than Lee to be productive but they both have power in spades. At 32, Soriano has an unseemly 7 years left on his contract. I'm just waiting to enjoy the albatross that that becomes. Ramirez signed a somewhat club friendly contract shortly after declaring free agency. Both are above average players capable of having MVP type career years.

DeRosa and Theriot are both over-exposed as regulars but Theriot much more so. It's possible that Ronny Cedeno could re-emerge in the SS picture but that ship appears to have sailed. Theriot was not a good player last year posting an OBP of .323 and an OPS of .669 with average defense at SS. Yet the Cubs seem to be pondering the idea of batting him at the top of the order, which is perplexing at best. Roberts addition would push DeRosa back into the super-sub role and probably represents a 1-2 win upgrade.

I'll admit my ignorance regarding Pie (pronounced pee-yay). He's been in the Cubs system the last few years and has gotten mixed reviews. He's alternately been called the next Corey Patterson and an All-Star. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle and Pie will probably settle in as decent player that doesn't hurt the Cubs in any way and could potentially be a boost. He's regarded as a good fielder with decent power, good speed and some lingering questions about his bat.

The two most interesting players on the team, in my opinion, are Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto. While I was disheartened to hear that Fukudome may where his first name on his jersey, I was more disheartened by the massive OBP upgrade he offers to the Cubs. I'll be shocked if a writer at some point this year doesn't comment on Fukudome "lacking the power to play a corner outfield position" or some other such garbage along those lines. The standard mantra for people obsessed with getting a certain type of production from a certain position will cloud the fact that the Cubs don't need more power, they needed an on base threat at the top of their lineup.  More importantly, even without above average power production, Fukudome can be an above average player - something that seems to perplex those aforementioned writers. If Fukudome bats second, the Cubs will score a lot of runs this year.

Soto is the top catching prospect from last year who took over the major league job. Writers wasted no time in falling all over themselves based on his performance last year. He suddenly became a top prospect after failing to even be recognized the previous year in some cases. As someone who watches the minors, I can see how easy it is to become completely enamored with a prospect when they perform well (see: Mather, Joe; Hoffpauir, Jarrett) but I don't think Soto is a particularly good hitter despite the success he experienced last year. He's someone I'll be keeping a close eye on to find out whether I was missing out on something or if regression continues to be the heartless character it always is.

Starting Rotation:

Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill and some combination of Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber and Sean Marshall

Zambrano is arguably the best pitcher in the NL Central with Roy Oswalt as the only real competition after Chris Carpenter was injured. If nothing else he's certainly the most entertaining pitcher in the Central when we consider player brawls. His demeanor is both an asset and a hinderance but he's shown that he can handle the innings workload and dominate teams. He fits that front of the rotation mold to perfection.

Ted Lilly was championed by LBoros during the previous offseason, and he delivered the goods in 2007. With career highs in innings pitched and strikeouts, Lilly was an excellent lefthanded pitcher last year. Projection systems aren't particularly high on him moving forward but it will be interesting to see if he can continue to build on his success since moving to the NL.

Rich Hill is Lilly's wronghanded counterpart. A dominant pitcher in the minors from 2005-2006, he was labeled as something of a tweener when he failed to emerge in the big leagues after opportunities both years. He brought his 5:1 K:BB rate from the last two years in the minors and found himself on the mound last season pitching 195 innings striking out 183 batters against 63 walks. He's not young for someone entering their second full year in the bigs but at 28 he's a cautionary tale for giving up on promising arms too quickly.

The rotation options after the first three are all in the "We need someone to pitch today category" with the exception of Sean Marshall. I liked the Jon Lieber signing although there's questions as to how much he'll have left after a foot injury and age. Dempster and Marquis both seem like the same pitcher to me and not one you particularly want on your team. It's also possible that we could see Marquis relegated to the bullpen just a year after signing that 21M dollar deal that gave everyone quite a chuckle in these parts. The rotation should be solid at worst and probably quite good given the stuff and success of the front three. This probably isn't the place the Cubs will crumble although if it is going to be anywhere, it's still the pitching. . .

Bullpen:

Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, warm bodies

Rather it's the pitching out of the bullpen that's going to be their death. Hope springs eternal as I read articles of Kerry Wood possibly being the closer this year. I'm continually shocked at the conviction of Kerry Wood supporters that he'll get better and return to some kind of dominant form. The fact that his arm is still attached to his body is a moral victory if you ask me. The clock struck midnight and Scott Eyre turned into a lefthanded pumpkin last year. Say it with me now, "Multi-year contracts for middle relievers rarely work out." While he's still marginally effective against left-handed hitters, the skills are deteriorating rapidly and he's now the type of reliever you could pluck out of the minor leagues for free.

Howry and Marmol are both going to be the foundation for the bullpen this year. Howry seems to have an inside track on the closer's job and while he's nearing the twilight of his career at age 34, he's still effective enough to be a closer. Carlos Marmol may have single handedly saved the Cubs last year as the kid came in with stones and put out fires whenever called upon. He had a game leverage index of 1.14 last season meaning he was used in situations that were significantly more difficult than average. He ended 2007 having pitched nearly 70 innings with a 1.43 ERA and a FIP well under 3.00 -- if he can replicate production anywhere near that level, he'll have gone a long way to solidfying the bullpen in the Windy City.

Summary:

The Cubs feature one of the best lineups in the NL and by the end of the season they may prove to be the best. Imagine if they complete the Roberts trade they can bat Roberts, Fukudome, Lee, Ramirez, Soriano1 through 5. Add in Pie and Soto who could both be above average and it's easy to see them fielding a team with above average offensive production everywhere except for SS. The pitching is much more suspect than the hitting. If any one of Zambrano, Hill or Lilly wind up on the DL for a significant period of time the Cubs could struggle. The drop-off to their replacement pitcher is pretty sizable. I'm ambivalent on the detriment that the bullpen is going to cause to the Cubs. Relievers are a fungible commodity in large part and the Cubs showed last year they're willing to take a live arm (Marmol) and put him in a situation to succeed.

I don't like the Cubs. I never will but I think they're going to win the NL Central.

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