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Cubs '09 Season Preview

Thanks to popular demand, I’ll begin a series today previewing the other NL Central clubs. I’ll begin w/ the ’08 champs, the Chicago Cubs. (They’re also first alphabetically, giving us 2 different options for the 2nd in the series. We like to keep you guessing here at VEB!)

  • '08 record -- 97-64
  • '08 Pythagorean record – 97-64
  • Scored most runs in the league – 5.31/game
  • Gave up 2nd fewest runs in the league – 4.17/game
  • DER -- .706 – highest in the NL (Defense Efficiency Ratio)
  • BP projected record -- 93-69
  • Chone projected record – 88-74
  • Welcome!: Aaron Miles, Kevin Gregg, Milton Bradley, Aaron Heilman, Luis Vizcaino
  • Don't let the door hit you...: Mark DeRosa, Jason Marquis, Kerry Wood, Rich Hill, Jim Edmonds

The Cubs finished last season w/ the NL’s best record and home field advantage as long as they lasted in the NL playoffs. Unfortunately for the boys from the Windy City, that lasted all of 3 games as the 84-78 Dodgers finished them off before many of their faithful fans recovered from their Wrigley Field hangovers.

The ’09 iteration of the small bears figures to be about as strong as the ’08 version, however. Their ’08 lineup featured 7 players who produced at least 3 wins and this year’s lineup replaces Mark DeRosa w/ Milton Bradley (4.5 wins in ’08). Bradley also helps to solve the team’s biggest offensive problem – the lack of a solid left-handed hitter. Of course, in ’09 the Cubs will require Bradley to play much more defense than the Rangers required of him in ’08 but, according to UZR, Bradley’s always been a plus defender in RF. Though the Cubs take a step backwards by the loss of DeRosa, they should take a big step forward w/ the addition of Bradley (assuming he stays healthy and relatively sane!).

Rotation – one of the strengths of the Cubs’ team. They, inarguably, have the best rotation in the division. Though Zambrano’s not quite the pitcher he was from 2003-06, he’s still a 3 or so win pitcher and, despite the fact that many people have been waiting for his arm to explode for about 5 years, he’s thrown 188+ innings 6 years running. Ryan Dempster was terrific last year (a contract year) and should be at least a solid contributor this year as well. Ted Lilly is an underrated lefty who’s been an above-average starter for 5 of the last 6 years. Either of them would be, at worst, the 3rd best starter on our staff. The Cubs’ best starter is also their biggest question mark – Rich Harden. When he pitches, he’s fantastic. He threw only 71 NL innings last year and was worth 2 wins – as much as John Lackey was worth in 163, and more than Jon Garland, Braden Looper, Aaron Harang, and Todd Wellemeyer were worth in a full season. That fact is also Harden’s biggest problem – he only threw 71 NL innings and 148 overall. The worst part is that Harden’s only thrown more than the 148 innings he threw last season once in his career – way back in 2004. Expect to see ?????? (Chad Gaudin? Angel Guzman?) get a lot of starts in Wrigley this year. Sean Marshall’s the 5th starter and will probably fill that role adequately. He’ll do as well as Jason Marquis would have anyway.

Bullpen – The Cubs allowed Kerry Wood to get away this offseason and, instead, traded for ’08 Marlins closer Kevin Gregg. There’s little question that this is a big step backward (provided Wood stays healthy) as Gregg is nowhere near the pitcher Wood is. Wood was 1.6 wins better than Gregg last season. Whether Gregg or young fireballer Carlos Marmol is the closer has yet to be determined (though Piniella may be leaning toward Marmol) but Marmol is clearly the better pitcher. Though wild, the 26 year old Marmol struck out 114 batters in 87 innings last season. They also added solid righty (and Yadi victim) Aaron Heilman and still have young Jeff Samardzija. Despite the loss of Wood, the Cubs’ pen figures to be solid.

Catcher – Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto was terrific last year. Worth 4.6 wins last season, the only thing he didn’t really do was throw out runners – 20.7 CS%. Chone has him projected to be just about as good next year. His backup is lefty Paul Bako.

Infield – While Derrek Lee isn’t quite the player he was a few years ago, he’s still an above average performer. Aramis Ramirez is the Cubs’ infield star now (4.7 WAR in ’08). Middle infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot were worth 6.3 WAR in ’08, giving GM Jim Hendry the freedom to trade Mark DeRosa. Neither projects to be quite as good in ’09 as they were in ’08 (particularly Fontenot) but if they can be league average again, they’ll help the team quite a bit. The Cubs also have former Card Aaron Miles and Ronny Cedeno waiting in the wings should either falter or spend time on the DL.

Outfield – Alfonso Soriano mans LF and, while he’s not worth his outrageous contract, he’s still a solid 3+ win contributor. The centerfielder figures to be the much-maligned Kosuke Fukudome. Much was made of Fukudome’s 2nd half collapse in ’08 (.639 OPS vs. .791 in the first half) and, while I’m not sure he’ll rebound offensively in ’09, too little has been made of what a fine defensive player he is. He was worth almost a win in RF in ’08 and should be an improvement over Jim Edmonds in CF as long as he’s no worse offensively than he was last year. RF, as stated earlier, will be occupied by the always combustible Milton Bradley – a switch hitter who was fantastic last year. Will he be as good in ’09 as he was in ’08? I doubt it but he’s been worth at least 2.3 wins each year since 2003. He’s, w/o a doubt, one of the most underrated players in baseball. The Cubs will use Micah Hoffpauir, Reed Johnson, and Joey Gathright for the 40-50 games that Bradley doesn’t play.

The only thing really the Cubs lack is depth should they lose a starting pitcher or major position player for an extended period of time. If someone like Ramirez were to go down for 40-50 games, the Cubs’ lineup would suffer somewhat as there’s no obvious replacement on the roster or at the upper levels of the minors. Still, few teams could withstand losing a 4.5 win player w/o losing something offensively. If this is the year that Zambrano finally breaks down, or Dempster does again, the Cubs could be challenged in the division. Short of that, however, I see no reason why the Cubs won’t repeat as division champs in ’09. And with that rotation – assuming Harden’s healthy – they should be major factors in the postseason as well.