Last year was such a disaster for the Cubs that this observer had to avert his eyes. Despite a high payroll and high hopes, their season came crashing down in public fashion, the pinnacle of which was Carlos Zambrano's very public meltdown in the dugout. That low point cost Zambrano some time on suspension, another round of anger management classes and ultimately redemption by year's end. Lou Piniella was a bad fit for last year's team and seemed world weary and zombie-like by the time he voluntarily stepped down. Only after Mike Quade took over for Piniella did the Cubs resemble a functioning baseball team. Which brings us to this year. They aren't the glamor pick this season. Most prognosticators are predicting a finish for 2011 after the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers. But does this team have a shot? Let's take a look.
A big key for the Cubs is the same for most teams: the rotation. And there is no greater linchpin in that story than Carlos Zambrano. Projections such as those by Baseball Prospectus are limited by the fact that Zambrano missed a significant chunk of time last year and the year before as he was bounced around by a quick hook from Lou Piniella and then the suspension. BP projects Zambrano's innings to 168, his win total to ten and his WARP to 1.8. This seems absurdly low considering that even despite his troubles, Zambrano has won 20 games the past two seasons and finished both a troubled 2009 and 2010 with a 2.8 WARP. The best thing that Quade can do is just hand the ball to Zambrano 33 times, wince in silence during the inevitable bad games and hang with him. If Quade does that, Zambrano should have no trouble winning 12 to 16 games with a WARP somewhere around 4.0.
Ryan Dempster has become a consistent workhorse for the Cubs since his conversion from closer in 2008. In the last three years, he's only missed two starts. 2008 was his best year, but he is a solid innings eater who keeps you in the game outing after outing. His WARP or WAR varies from system to system the last two years. BP gave him 3.4 in 2009 and 2.2 in 2010. Baseball-Reference.com gave him 2.8 in 2009 and 2.7 in 2010. Either way, BP's projection of 2.5 seems to be solidly in line with what to expect from Dempster at this stage in his career. He won 15 games in 2010 and there is no reason he can't win the same amount this year.
New addition, Matt Garza, is projected for a regression by BP. His WARP the last two years have been 3.5 and 3.4. And yet, BP projects him to finish 2011 with a 2.3. There are several factors that may be involved. One would be the increase in his homer rate last year. Another could be going from a good pitching ballpark to the "Friendly Confines." Another may be a loss of defense going from the Bay Rays to the Cubs. But this observer thinks all of that is mitigated by going from the extremely tough AL East to the softer NL Central. Yes, there are some heavy hitters in the NL Central, but you still have pitchers hitting and number eight hitters that aren't what you'd see where he used to pitch. We shouldn't be alarmed by Garza's numbers this spring because Arizona is a hitter's paradise. There's no reason Garza can't be as good as he's been the last two years and finish with a WARP of 3.5 or higher.
Keep in mind that the projection for the Cubs is for 80 wins. We've covered three pitchers in the rotation so far and have picked up a possible three and a half wins. What about the rest of the rotation? Slotting in at number four is Randy Wells. The knock on Wells in the past is the lack of a strikeout rate. But despite some struggles in 2010, Wells increased his strikeout rate a full strikeout per nine innings from 5.7 to 6.7. And his strikeout rate so far this spring has been impressive. Wells had a very good year in 2009 and a bad one in 2010. Two years ago, he was a bit lucky to be as good as he was. Last year, he was a bit unlucky to be as bad as he was. But again, he still accumulated a WARP of 2.3 despite a bad year. That makes his projection of 1.0 for 2011 again baffling. Wells has looked great this spring. This writer thinks he's going to have a fine year and finish with at least a WARP of 3.0. That's two more wins in the plus column.
The fifth guy in the rotation will probably be Carlos Silva despite an abominable spring. But if he falters once the season starts, look for Andrew Cashner to take his place. Cashner has been pounding the strike zone this spring and has only walked one batter. That is a vast improvement over his five walks per nine innings he showed in relief last season. Many Cub fans are pushing for Cashner, but we'll have to see how this goes. BP gives Silva a negative WARP for the season and Cashner a slightly positive one (just over zero). If this spot in the rotation remains neutral, the Cubs will be happy.
So the final tally according to the Fan from the rotation is a plus 5.5 wins, bringing their record to at least 85 wins. The bullpen is going to be just fine and could even be great. Marmol led all relievers in WAR last year. Sean Marshall is a great setup guy and Kerry Wood will be terrific behind them. There are no worries about this bullpen.
Much of the offense will depend on bounce back years for Aramis Ramirez and Alphonso Soriano. If Soriano repeats at least what he did last year, this Fan would be happy enough. Ramirez has looked so-so this spring but he can't be worse than 2010. His projected WARP is 2.4 and that seems reasonable. The Fan thinks Starlin Castro and Marlon Byrd's projections to be too low at 2.5 and 2.0 respectively. Castro compiled a WARP of 2.0 last year despite a late start to his call up. His defense will be better, his pitch recognition better and he is mashing the ball this spring. Even a WARP of 3.0 seems low for what he can do. The only limit on Castro is how willing he is to improve his walk rate. Byrd is also having a terrific spring and his WARP of 3.4 last year really blows away the 2.0 projection. There is no reason why Byrd can't repeat last season's total or exceed them.
Tyler Colvin should be combined with Fukodome. Fukodome has a great walk rate but is so-so in all other areas. Colvin has good power and a huge upside, but his walk rate is minuscule. The outfield for the Cubs should out perform projections by at least a run. We are up to 86 wins.
It appears as if Darwin Barney has supplanted Blake DeWitt as the starting second baseman. Barney and Jeff Baker are pretty much interchangeable. Both are plus fielders who don't strikeout much. Baker has more power. But both are better defenders than Blake DeWitt, who pegs much easier into the utility role. There is no reason why either Barney or Baker can't be as productive as Theriot was last year. So we'll call this position a draw.
Giovany Soto had a terrific season last year and, despite a bad 2009, has become the third best catcher in the National League. He has bookended two seasons around 2009 that exceed slightly his projections for 2011. That seems fair and the Fan wouldn't expect Soto to exceed what he's already done. He's a fine catcher and the Cubs are lucky to have him.
That leaves us with Carlos Pena. Pena, as everyone knows, has really struggled the last couple of years. His batting average ended up below the Mendoza Line last year making him one of the few players ever to bat below .200 and still hit 25 or more homers. Pena strikes out a lot and walks a lot and neither of those facts should change. The only question is the quality of his contact in his balls in play. Pena should hit 30 or more homers. You would like to think that he would get back to .250 in batting average (his high in the past five years was .286). But his projections of .230 seems fair in light of last year. Despite Pena's horrific struggles in 2010, he still managed to accumulate a WARP of 1.4. In light of that, his projection of 1.8 seems low by at least a win. He should finish somewhere in the 2.8 to 3.0 range if he hits .230 to .250.
The Fan's final tally and projection is 87 wins. It's completely hard to say if that is enough wins to win the division. The Fan's gut feeling is that it will take 90 wins to win the NL Central. All of the top teams have questions that will hurt their chances of getting to that win total. The conclusion here is that if all goes as well as the Cubs are capable of playing, this division is wide open and any team can win it with the exception of the Astros and Pirates. There is no reason the Cubs couldn't sneak into the big picture in 2011.