The Cubs in 2011
Sometimes it just all goes wrong. You could say that was the story of the 2010 Red Sox. They suffered injuries all over the roster. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Josh Beckett, you name the Red Sox player and it's likely they missed a chunk of time. John Lackey also fell short of expectations, Jonathan Papelbon imploded down the stretch, and the end result was a 3rd place finish.
But then again, what about the MVP season Adrian Beltre put up? And didn't Clay Buchholz somehow post a 2.33 ERA? Jon Lester had another Cy Young caliber season. Jed Lowrie posted a better OPS+ than Troy Tulowitzki in limited time. You get the point. There were bright spots for the Red Sox, and it's how they managed to win 89 games.
For the Cubs, things went south quickly. They started terribly out of the gate, and a short-tempered Lou Piniella, on his last managerial legs, reacted poorly. He mishandled Carlos Zambrano, whose awful April and delicate temperament seemed to overwhelm Piniella. Inexplicably, Piniella actually played Koyie Hill regularly while one of the game's best hitting catchers sat on the bench. In an unceremonious end to his career, Pinella quit over the summer when the Cubs were 51-74.
It wasn't just Piniella's fault, of course. From 2004 to 2009, Aramis Ramirez hit .303/.368/.551 in over 3,300 plate appearances. In 2010, he hit .241/.294/.452 on the heels of his worst BABIP, .245, since his 21-year old season for the Pirates. Derrek Lee hit .304/.384/.515 from 2007 to 2009 and then fell to .251 /.335/.416 last season for the Cubs. Sure it's probably just one of those things and not attributable to much at all, but the fact that Lee went and hit .287/.384/.465 for the Braves over the last 39 games does little to discredit the notion that there was a corrosiveness surrounding the Cubs in 2010.
There were also the 412 plate appearances of .647 OPS output that Ryan Theriot contributed. Indeed, the most productive Cubs infielder in 2010 was Starlin Castro, an exciting development that bodes well for the North Siders' future. But let's be honest. If a 20-year old shortstop is your best hitting infielder, chances are you're doing it very, very wrong.
On the pitching side, Zambrano notwithstanding, things started out pretty good for the Cubs. The problems arose over the summer. In June and July, they yielded 323 runs over a 55-game stretch. That amounts to 5.87 runs per game, or 951 allowed extrapolated over a full season. No National League team in the last 10 seasons has managed 951 runs. It was a disaster. On the bright side, the Cubs did finish 24-13 under new Manager, Mike Quade, who returns this season.
So what about 2011? Lee is gone and Carlos Pena is in. While it may be a lot to ask of an antsy fan base to grin and bear such a low batting average and a ton of strikeouts, Pena looks poised for a big bounce-back. Dan Szymborski's ZIPS has Lee at .239/.363/.508 with 31 home runs. On the other corner, Ramirez is another great candidate to return to form. At second, Theriot's out of the picture and while Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker might not amount to much, Theriot gone, and playing for the rival Cards no less, may well amount to addition by subtraction. Baker has hit .308/.363/.545 in his career against lefties, so Quade may have a tactical lever to pull in order to squeeze a bit more production out of second. At short, Castro's another year older and projects as a star one day. He might not get there this year but you never know when a player of his talent might make that leap. They're not the Phillies, the Red Sox or the Yankees but it should be a productive infield, which is a lot more than the Cubbies could say in 2010.
Behind the plate, Quade's mandate is simple. Play Geovany Soto. Play him as much as possible without risking injury. DH him in the AL parks. It was only nine games but I found this to be one of the very saddest things about the 2010 Cubs. Their pitchers hit .132/.170/.159 last season. In their nine interleague games in AL ballparks, Cubs DH's hit .154/.175/.179. They might as well have stuck with their pitcher. Sorry to get off topic but the point here is straightforward. Play Soto a lot. Play Hill as little as possible.
The outfield of (left to right) Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Kosuke Fukudome returns in place and while it's old and not the most prolific bunch, it's also steady. None of them figures to turn in a stinker of a season provided they can stay healthy. I'm not a big Tyler Colvin fan but he's versatile and fine enough as a fourth option.
On the pitching side, Ryan Dempster returns and Quade has already named him the Opening Day starter. It's a small thing but I like the early announcement for a few reasons. First, it shows that Quade appreciates what Dempster has managed to accomplish over the last few seasons. Since 2008, he ranks 14th in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement among all Major League pitchers. Rewarding Dempster for that sort of output reflects well on Quade. Second, it takes a hint pressure off of Zambrano and newcomer Matt Garza. Zambrano hasn't always reacted well to the expectations that come with a big paycheck in a media market like Chicago. And, like Zambrano, Garza is a fiery competitor who can feed off of, or be done in by, his emotions. Again, it's not a big deal but it reflects a level of thoughtfulness that was lacking during the Piniella days. The Cubs had a 103 team ERA+ last season, they return four of five starters, swap Garza in for Tom Gorzelanny and have added Kerry Wood to a bullpen that returns key pieces Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall.
If the Cubs fail to make a playoff push this season, it will likely be due to a lack of depth. That's a shame for a club with Chicago's payroll but it's the reality. A Soriano injury means everyday Tyler Colvin. If Pena or Ramirez miss time, does Baker move to a corner infield position? There's not much rotation depth at all, and outside of the top three or four or five options depending on how you feel about live arms Andrew Cashner and Thomas Diamond, the bullpen gets thin quickly.
Nonetheless there's a path to success for the Cubs this season. It's tenuous because of how thin they are, but it's there. With health, more of the same from the pitching staff, above average corner infield production, continued excellence and more playing time for Soto and a leap forward from Castro, the Cubs have the look of a contender. They look even more like one with yesterday's Adam Wainwright news, and if you compare the Cubs' reaction to the news to Cincinnati's, who knows? Karma monitors these things, and maybe the Cubs will find it on their side this year?