NLDS Preview: Will the Cubbies be snake-bitten again?
Hi, I'm Bryan Smith, the co-creator of this here site and now a writer for Baseball Prospectus. Not many of you have seen me write about the Majors too often, but after watching most of the Cubs’ season, I jumped at the opportunity to write this preview when Rich asked. While I won't live and die by this team like I did in 1998 and 2003, the latter of which left me irrationally upset, I'll feel as if I have something invested as long as the Cubs still have Kerry Wood. Ron Santo deserves this.
Hi, I’m Marc Hulet and I dabble in writing about the minor leagues for Baseball Analysts and I am also a newspaper editor in Ontario, Canada. Despite my northern location I have been a huge fan of the Diamondbacks since the team’s inception (although my favorite D-Back, Orlando Hudson, is on the disabled list). I even had the pleasure of spending two weeks at spring training in Arizona this past March and saw the Diamondbacks play, along with a handful of other teams. I can honestly say I love the state as much as the ball club, especially with another Canadian winter looming just around the corner. I am also honored to be sharing this preview with Bryan, who just happens to be one of my favorite writers. Now, on with the show…
Chris Snyder (.252/.342/.433, 13 HR, 47 RBI) was beginning to look like a bit of a bust earlier this year, highlighted by a .192/.283/.385 line June. But he turned things around in the second half of the year and hit .301/.393/.519 after the All-Star break. Unfortunately, he still struggled against right-handed hurlers and hit more than .100 points higher against southpaws.
Jason Kendall (.241/.298/.308, 3 HR, 41 RBI) has had an ironic mini-resurgence in his return to the Junior Circuit, as it took an exit from Moneyball Oakland to get him walking again. While Tim McCarver will have you believe Kendall's leadership and experience is a feather in the Cubs' cap, former broadcast partner Lou Piniella would be much better off playing Geovany Soto.
Marc says: Even. Snyder is a little bit better offensively but I have to give Kendall credit for his veteran experience, leadership and solid handling of pitching staffs.
Bryan says: It's even or a slight Cubs advantage if Soto plays often, a slight edge for Arizona if it's all Kendall.
Tony Clark (.249/.310/.511, 17 HR, 51 RBI) spent most of the season as a bench player but manager Bob Melvin started the veteran over sophomore player Conor Jackson a significant portion of the time when the season was on the line. Will this continue into the playoffs? My guess is yes, even though Clark’s one season of playoff experience was ugly: .143/.143/.190 in 21 at-bats for the 2004 New York Yankees during the League Championship series. Clark has game-changing power, which is something the more consistent Jackson lacks.
Derrek Lee (.317/.400/.512, 22 HR, 82 RBI) worried Cubs fans when he returned from last season's season-ending injury to hit just six home runs in the first half, but Lee clubbed 16 in the second half, including seven in September, to push this team to the playoffs. Lee is the team's best fielder, second-best hitter, and nicest guy. Dads, you want your daughters after men like Lee.
Marc says: Edge to Chicago, regardless of who is manning first for Arizona.
Bryan says: Lee is a better player than what you could produce by melding Clark and Jackson together.
Augie Ojeda’s (.274/.354/.354, 1 HR, 12 RBI) name looks pretty silly here, especially when Arizona has arguably the National League’s best defensive second baseman in Orlando Hudson. But Hudson is out for the season with a hand injury so the second base duties fall to 32-year-old minor league veteran Ojeda, who did not play in the majors at all in 2005 or 2006. On the positive side, he has shown a pretty good stick down the stretch, although he possesses little power or stolen base speed. Alberto Callaspo could also see some time at second base, but he struggled this year and hit only .215/.265/.271.
Mark DeRosa (.294/.373/.422, 10 HR, 72 RBI) was the center of much criticism against Jim Hendry after his spend-happy winter, but DeRosa's value in 2007 far exceeded his $2.75 million salary. DeRosa is an old-school, double-switch loving manager's best friend, and you won't see Piniella hesitate to move DeRosa to right field or third base if needed. Minor worrisome trend: the DeRosa that slugged .520 in April has moved on, as he's been reduced to a far more middle infield-like .092 Isolated Power in the second half.
Marc says: Edge to Chicago with O-Dawg on the shelf.
Bryan says: Augie will got a lot of cheers in Wrigley, but he's just not DeRosa's, even second-half DeRosa's, caliber.
Mark Reynolds (.279/.349/.495, 17 HR, 62 RBI) is the beneficiary of veteran Chad Tracy’s bad luck. Tracy is out for the year (and possibly part of 2008) after microfracture surgery on his knee. Reynolds was a bit of a sleeper early on in his minor league career as a 16th round draft pick out of the University of Virginia in 2004. But his power is legit (He hit 31 minor league homers in 2006). Reynolds still has work to do and he is going to struggle to hit .270 in the future if he does not improve his approach at the plate (37 walks compared to 129 strikeouts in 366 at-bats). On the plus side, he has shown the ability to make adjusts and, after hitting below .200 in June and July, hit more than .300 in both August and September.
Aramis Ramirez (.312/.367/.552, 26 HR, 101 RBI), for my money, is the best pure hitter in Chicago since Frank Thomas, and one of the National League's most dangerous hitters. While Lee doesn't walk enough, his ability to make consistent hard contact is as good as anybody in the game. With the game on the line, Cubs fans want Ramirez at the plate.
Marc says: Edge to Chicago (Is there an echo in here?).
Bryan says: Reynolds isn't the hitter his numbers suggest, and Aramis might be better than his. Cubs.
Stephen Drew (.238/.313/.370, 12 HR, 60 RBI) had a disappointing first full season in the majors. Unlike Reynolds, Drew has yet to show that he is making adjustments in The Show, as he has been consistently mediocre throughout the season. He needs to step up his game in the playoffs to help compensate for the loss of Hudson and Tracy.
Ryan Theriot (.266/.326/.346, 3 HR, 45 RBI, 28 SB) has oddly become the favorite player of manager Lou Piniella, which has allowed him to exceed his destiny as career utility infielder for an everyday shortstop job. While Theriot is powerless at the plate, his baserunning does make him the most likely member of the team to replicate a Dave Roberts in 2004 type stolen base. Is that a backhanded compliment?
Marc says: Slight edge to Arizona
Bryan says: I agree, largely because Drew has the *potential*, but it's closer to even than I would have ever imagined three years ago.
Eric Byrnes (.286/.353/.460, 21 HR, 83 RBI, 50 SB) is playing like a man on a mission, or more accurately a player in a contract year, which is great for Arizona’s playoff hopes (but bad for their checkbook). Byrnes should be a force to be reckoned with in the field (he may run through a wall or two in this series alone), at the plate and on the base paths. He has the ability to change the tone of a ball game with one play.
Alfonso Soriano (.295/.334/.550, 32 HR, 67 RBI, 19 SB), like the rest of the team really, recovered from a horrible April (.270/.308/.392) to validate his huge offseason contract. While like no other leadoff hitter in the Majors, Soriano is completely at home in the top spot, leading off multiple September games with a solo shot. Defensively he takes horrible reads on balls, but the Diamondbacks would be fools to underestimate his arm, as it's among the most accurate of any Major League outfielders.
Marc says: As much as I love Byrnes, I think Soriano has the edge here with his excellent finish to the season… but it’s close.
Bryan says: Despite Byrnes' big season, edge to the Cubs and their September MVP.
Chris Young (.237/.295/.467, 32 HR, 68 RBI, 27 SB) is going to make the White Sox rue the day they included him in the Javier Vazquez trade, if he hasn’t already. There are not many players that combine defensive prowess and home run power like he does… and at the tender age of 24. On the downside, though, Young is still prone to poor plate discipline (141 Ks in 569 at-bats) and does not get on base enough (.295 OBP).
Jacque Jones (.282/.333/.395, 5 HR, 65 RBI) smiles a lot. There, I said something positive. Cubs fans took a dislike to Jones around his .176/.250/.275 June, calling for him to be traded in July, and not even forgiving him after an .818 OPS in the second half. In reality, Jones is a decent asset, a slightly above-average outfielder (prone to stupid mistakes) and a decent bat against right-handed pitching (while prone to looking stupid).
Marc says: Despite the low batting average and on-base percentage, Young takes it. He’s going to be a monster with a little more experience under his belt.
Bryan says: Arizona wins a category outright!
Jeff Salazar (.277/.340/.394, 1 HR, 10 RBI) and Justin Upton (.221/.283/.364, 2 HR, 11 RBI) could both see time in right field for Arizona. Unfortunately, combined, they have only 234 career MLB at-bats. Upton is also questionable for the opening series after taking Ubaldo Jimenez' 96-mph fastball off his wrist on Sunday. Salazar has an interesting combination of speed and power.
Cliff Floyd (.285/.372/.423, 9 HR, 45 RBI) will most likely get the most time in right field during this series, but like the catching position, the team would be better off using the younger player, in this case Matt Murton. While the two might still be a wash at the plate, Floyd is among the worst defensive outfielders in the playoffs, and a far better fit at his old home at first base. So, I suppose, this makes him the most likely Cub to jump up and down pouting if a fan steals a ball from his glove.
Marc says: Something tells me, if healthy, Upton could have some sort of magical October rookie performance ala Bobby Jenks or F-Rod, but maybe I’m just crazy. If not, the edge goes to Chicago.
Bryan says: I would have never guessed the Cubs could have an edge in right field, but they do, albeit a slight one.
Off the bench:
Miguel Montero (.224/.292/.397, 10 HR, 37 RBI) is a nice complement for Snyder, although he does not offer the veteran experience a young pitching staff might need in a stressful playoff series. His power potential off the bench is a plus.
Conor Jackson (.284/.368/.467, 15 HR, 60 RBI) is a great player to have on the bench, if Melvin does in fact favor the veteran Clark in the playoffs. Jackson has the ability to hit for average and even has a little pop (although it is below average for a first baseman).
Jeff Cirillo (.200/.273/.300, 0 HR, 6 RBI) did not have a great regular season but he is an experienced bench player who has come up with key hits in the past.
Carlos Quentin (.214/.298/.349, 5 HR, 31 RBI) has yet to show Arizona fans just how good he really is, thanks in part to a shoulder injury earlier in the season. If truly healthy, Quentin could be a force off the bench and he should be an above-average regular for years to come.
Geovany Soto (.404/.448/.692, 3 HR, 8 RBI) is no .404 hitter, nor even the hitter his Triple-A numbers (.349/.418/.648) would suggest. But he's got some pop and he can throw a runner out, so at this stage, he's five times the catcher Kendall is.
Mike Fontenot (.283/.339/.409, 3 HR, 29 RBI) seemed destined to be a footnote in history when he was tossed into Sammy Sosa's boot from the south side, but Theriot's old college teammate has made a career for himself. As a pinch-hitter against right-handed pitchers, and DeRosa's double-switch partner, Fontenot has solid bench value.
Matt Murton (.283/.355/.422, 8 HR, 22 RBI) either needed more consistent playing time, or the kick-in-the-ass demotion to jump-start his season, as he was gangbusters after returning from Iowa in August, hitting .316/.381/.553 the rest of the way. My ridiculous prediction is a home run off Doug Davis in this series.
Craig Monroe (.220/.268/.371, 12 HR, 59 RBI) hasn't looked great since Jim Hendry traded for him, and he didn't look great in Detroit before that, but as a Jones platoon-mate, late inning defensive replacement, and all-or-nothing pinch hitter, I have seen why the Cubs made this move.
Marc says: Edge barely to Arizona on the strength of pinch-hitting experts Cirillo and Clark, as well as Chicago’s inexperience.
Bryan says: Completely even from where I'm sitting. I hope, as a Cubs fan, Bob Melvin has as much faith in Cirillo as Marc.
Brandon Webb (18-10, 3.01) is Mr. Diamondback. Webb has gone from unheralded eighth round draft pick to underrated prospect to unquestionable ace of Arizona’s playoff-bound staff. The sinkerballer combines the rare ability to induce grounders (career 3.25 groundball to flyball ratio) AND strikeout a significant number of batters (194 in 236.1 innings), which should serve him well against Chicago’s big boppers.
Doug Davis (13-12, 4.25) continues to plug away as one of baseball’s most underrated left-handed starters (wouldn’t Texas love to have him back?). He allows his fair share of baserunners (95 walks and 211 hits in 192.2 innings) but he always seems capable of wiggling out of jams. However, the lefty will face a Cubs’ lineup heavy with right-handed batters.
Livan Hernandez (11-11, 4.93) could prove to be one of the most valuable pitchers on the Diamondbacks’ staff this October. Why? He is the only starting pitcher with playoff experience. He has pitched in two World Series (Florida, 1997; San Francisco, 2002) and overall he has a 3.99 ERA and a 6-2 record in 10 postseason appearances, including eight starts. The one downside to Hernandez circa 2007 is that he has fringe stuff. I watched him pitch in spring training this year and thought he was done.
Micah Owings (8-8, 4.30) is currently scheduled to appear in Game 5 of the series, if necessary, according to MLB.com. The rookie hurler has looked absolutely dominant in a handful of starts this season. On the downside, he has also looked positively terrible in a number of starts this season, especially in June and July. Owings, though, has some added value. With a .333/.349/.683 line in MLB 60 at-bats and his reputation as a great two-way player in college, I would personally favor him as a pinch hitter over anyone else on Arizona’s bench late in the game, save perhaps for either Jackson or Clark.
Carlos Zambrano's (18-13, 3.95) fist-pumping is likely to be featured heavily on FOX's pregame over-dramatic montages, but he is the face for playing baseball with emotion. It took Michael Barrett's fists to provoke the Cubs ace to starting to pitch like one, and save a bad August, he's been great ever since. Zambrano will make his mistakes with command, but expect Rich's favorite, a lot of groundballs and strikeouts in Big Z's start(s).
Ted Lilly (15-8, 3.83) has, for years, been considered on the cusp of major success, and he found it with a return to the National League. The Cubs certainly overpaid for Lilly, but given the attendance numbers in Wrigley this season, I don't think anyone minds the few extra million it cost for the team's most consistent starter. Lilly hit a career high in strikeouts and a low in BB/9 in his finest season, and while he might give up a few home runs, expect a quality start when he takes the mound.
Rich Hill (11-8, 3.92) is similar to Lilly in a way, what with his gopherball tendencies and big, slow curveball. However, while Lilly used better command to post slightly better numbers, no one will deny Hill gets points for better stuff. Hill's inconsistency should be nerve-wracking to Cubs fans, but like the start that clinched the Cubs postseason berth, he's a threat to have no-hit stuff with every start.
Jason Marquis (12-9, 4.60) is the reason it's imperative for the Cubs to win a game in Phoenix. While the right-hander had a fantastic season after a disastrous 2006, his 5.36 second half ERA is most indicative of his talent level. On a good day Marquis stays down in the zone and gets his groundballs, letting the Cubs steady infield defense do the work. On bad days he hangs that slider, loses command and gives up a run per inning. The less the Cubs depend on Marquis' start, the better their chance to win the series.
Marc says: Edge Chicago, although I might give the edge to Arizona’s third and fourth starters. Zambrano and Webb are close to a wash and Lilly trumps Davis in a battle of the lefties.
Bryan says: I agree Chicago gets it, but just by a nose, because I'll be afraid in both Webb’s games as well as Owings' start.
Jose Valverde ( 1-4, 2.66, 47 SV) finally broke through to be the closer that Arizona thought he could be, and he ended up leading the majors with 47 saves in 54 opportunities. One of the big reasons for his success has been the confidence he has shown after limiting his repertoire to his fastball and splitter. The big question, though, is how well he’ll handle the postseason pressure.
Tony Pena (5-4, 3.27, 30 HLD), like his counterpart Carlos Marmol is new to the role of late-game reliever so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. Brandon Lyon (6-4, 2.68, 35 HLD) has a little more experience in the high-pressure role so he could get the call in the playoffs, but Pena has better stuff and a wider margin for error. Pena was formerly known as Adriano Rosario, before his true identity and age (he was three years older) were discovered during a Major League Baseball investigation in 2004.
Ryan Dempster (2-7, 4.73, 28 SV) is, when pitching well, the Cubs fifth-best reliever. However, when healthy this season, no one else gets consideration in close games in the ninth inning. Dempster has neither knockout stuff nor pristine command, so like the days of Rod Beck in 1998, every save comes with a good dose of sweat -- and Dempster is neither as good or as entertaining as '98 Beck!
Carlos Marmol (5-1, 1.43, 16 HLD) is the star of the show. It looked for awhile like Marmol would never give up a run this season, and while he hung a few sliders along the way, he's been as valuable as anyone during this run. Marmol is a converted catcher that seems to sling the ball with everything he has, touching 96 mph and then dropping a nasty slider that he tends to command well. Cubs fans can only pray that in the highest leverage situations, it's Marmol (and not Bobby Howry, though he has been good) that gets the ball.
Marc says: Edge to Arizona on the strength of Valverde’s season and Dempster’s inconsistencies.
Bryan says: Arizona has both the edge in depth and closer, so they win this big category.
Marc: As much as I would love to see the Diamondbacks’ youngsters advance to the next round of the playoffs, I just can’t see them overcoming the odds. Chicago has a much more well-rounded roster, as well as a collection of veterans with playoff experience, something that is sorely lacking in the desert. Arizona is also already spread thin depth-wise due to injuries. That said, the 2007 playoffs should be an extremely valuable experience for the likes of Upton, Young and Webb and could help create a juggernaut club within three to five years. I think the D-Backs’ youngsters will make the series interesting and will by no means roll over and play dead; Chicago in five.
Bryan: The three most important people for this series are all on the Cubs, in my mind: Soriano, Lee and Ramirez. If Webb and company can minimize their damage, they will absolutely win the series, as the Cubs have little else offensively. However, all three are running into October on a hot streak, so I'm picking the Cubs. It may take all five games, but Zambrano on Game 5 fumes is an even better bet than the Cy Young runner-up Webb, in my mind. Like Marc, Chicago in five.