Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Chicago Cubs 2008 Preview: The Adventures of Sweet Lou and the (S)crappy Shortstop

2007...the year that sucked/was groovy (pick one)

The 2007 Cubs started slowly. A six game losing streak at the end of May left them with a 22-31 record, 7 1/2 games out of first. With the Milwaukee Brewers starting the season practically perfect in every way, there was no shortage of prophets of doom in the always upbeat Chicago media, and no doubt that many gave up on the team already. But the Cubs turned around fast, going 34-20 in June and July to pull back into the race. The Cubs were no great shakes in August (12-16) but the Brewers were falling flatter than a case of bad, week-old opened beer, going 9-18 in the month to let the Cubs pass on the left hand side. Both teams played good ball in September; the Cubs were just a bit better and clinched the division title on the final Saturday. The Cubs were then immediately swept out of the postseason by the Diamondbacks, who didn't need a goat or Steve Bartman or the pointing finger of Babe Ruth but just played a better brand of baseball. Over the winter the Cubs swept out two unproductive outfielders in favor of their best prospect and a Japanese star and decided to cut bait on the frustrating career of Mark Prior.

They can put it on the board, yes! no! maybe!

The Cubs finished eighth in the NL in runs scored in 2007. That's less impressive than it sounds, and it doesn't sound all that impressive. Wrigley Field played like the Wrigley of old last year, inflating offense by 6-7%. The Cubs scored well at home (as we all should) but were next to last in the NL in runs scored on the road. Somebody please explain to me why Lou Piniella had Alfonso Soriano, who has lots of power (.560 slugging) but is not overly skilled at reaching base (.337 OBP) was leading off, while Mark DeRose, with modest power (.420 slugging) but a .371 OBP was hitting sixth?

LF Alfonso Soriano
SS Ryan Theriot (really? I mean, really?)
RF Kosuke Fukudome
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
2B Mark DeRosa (again with the sixth spot!)
C Geovany Soto
CF Felix Pie

I'm sure that Bob will have more to say about this, if this really is the lineup that Sweet Lou goes with. I'm just going to point out the absurdity of having the guy with the .560 slugging average leading off and the guy who had the .443 OBP in Japan batting third. And what is the fascination with Ryan Theriot, anyway? Just because the Cardinals had David Eckstein, the Cubs need one just like him? I'm sure that Theriot is fun and scrappy and inspirational, but he can't really hit (certainly not enough to be a top of the order hitter) and really can't play short all that well. If the Cubs really don't want to play Ronny Cedeno, they really need to look around at some real options. I think that the White Sox have a shortstop they'd like to ditch donate to a worthy cause.

Pitchers, or belly itchers?

Cubs pitching in 2007 was absolutely incredible, not that anyone noticed. Despite their bandbox of a ballpark, the Cubs allowed only 690 runs, second in the NL only to the Padres, who get to do their pitching in Petko Field. Every Cubs starter was better than league average, even Jason Marquis.

SP Carlos Zambrano
SP Ted Lilly
SP Rich Hill
SP Jon Leiber
SP Sean Marshall or Jason Marquis or Ryan Dempster

CL Kerry Wood/Bobby Howry/Carlos Marmol or most likely all three.
RP The above plus Scott Eyre

Zambrano is the ace and gets all the attention, some of it unwanted. Geovany Soto probably knows better than to emulate Michael Barrett when dealing with your leading starter. Ted Lilly was the real story in 2007; he cut a huge chunk out of his walk rate while maintaining his strikeouts and was really the Cubs best pitcher. Hill struck out 183 batters in 195 innings. Leiber, Marshall, Marquis and Dempster are all decent back of the rotation starters. Lou Piniella has some history of success fashioning a bullpen out of a group of hard throwers; just keep Bobby Ayala way from the mix.

Witnesses for the defense

The pitching staff didn't do all the work; the Cubs were the league's most efficient defensive team in 2007. When a ball was put into play by opposing hitters, the Cubs turned it into an out 71% of the time. Flipping Jones and Soriano was a turning point in the season; Soriano was poor in center (to no one's great surprise) but was outstanding in left. Pie should at least be strong in center even if he struggles with the bat. Aramis Ramirez, so often maligned for his play at third, was outstanding in 2007. A real shortstop is still needed here.

Farm aid

With Pie and Soto already graduated to the starting lineup, the Cubs don't have any more impact players at the upper levels. Pitcher Donald Veal made big strides with his control over the second half of the season at double A; he could be in the running for a rotation spot in 2009. Eric Patterson has speed and a decent bat and no defensive position.

Watch out for that tree!

The Cubs wisely got rid of pretty much anyone who might qualify for this category: Michael Barrett, Cliff Floyd, Jacque Jones. They did bring in a new candidate in Jon Leiber, but they have plenty of other options if Leiber tanks. Scott Eyre is another candidate, but who would know or care if Scott Eyre takes a dive?

I can make a hat, or a broach...

The NL Central is a weak division, and the Cubs are a good team. A team in this division that features Soriano, Lee, Ramirez, Fukudome, Zambrano, and Lilly has every right to consider itself the favorite. The only problem is that the Brewers are a pretty fair country ball club too, and if the Cubs are going to do stupid things like making Ryan Theriot the everyday shortstop and number two hitter, it's going to cost them. With Fukudome and Soto replacing Floyd and Barrett they have upgraded two positions. Getting a real shortstop would make it three and give this team a chance at winning 95 games.

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