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2012 Preview: Chicago Cubs


Chicago Cubs

What They Did:      71-91, 5th Place NL Central.

      Actual Runs:      Scored 654 runs, Allowed 756.

                               Expected wins based on RS and RA:  70.3 (0.7 below actual)

           Restated:     Scored 672 runs, Allowed 750.

                              Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  72.9 (1.9 above actual)


Theo Epstein, Chicago’s new General Manager, is going to make the Cubs better in a hurry because like a new doctor in town who has previously practiced his craft in the crucible of a war zone, he not only can identify a patient’s ailment, he also knows the cure.  The last two seasons Chicago finished in 5th place in its division after three straight seasons of finishing first or second – seasons which included two playoff appearances.  Offensively the Cubs stopped scoring runs, having plated nearly 15% less runners the last two seasons than the two before, while dropping a total of 24% from 2008 to 2011.  Here’s the key symptom:

                                   Walk Rate

2008                                10.0%

2009                                  9.5%

2010                                  7.8%

2011                                  6.9%

An average MLB team walked about 8.5% of the time over this same period.  The distribution is bunched very tightly so top-tier teams walk more than 9% of the time and elite offenses cross the 10% threshold.  Epstein’s previous team, the Boston Red Sox, were always among the best offenses in baseball during his reign, and the team perennially finished with at least a 10% walk rate and always more than 9%.  It’s probably worth noting that the last time Chicago had a 10% walk rate, in 2008, the Cubs were the winningest team in the National League by five games.

The Cubs will have three new starters in 2012 compared to the team that ended the season in 2011, Ian Stewart at 3B, David DeJesus in RF, and Bryan LaHair at 1B.  In 2011, they all had above to well-above league average walk rates.

                 2011 Walk Rate

Stewart            10.3% 

DeJesus            8.9%

LaHair              13.0%

Two of the three starters they are replacing, Aramis Ramirez (6.9%) and Tyler Colvin (6.3%) walked less than 7% of the time.  Colvin, in fact was part of the trade for Stewart.  It’s clear the Cubs are not built to win this year; even with more baserunners Chicago doesn’t have the big bats in the line up necessary to score runs in bunches. There is one bat, though, that may fill that role in the future, and it’s a bat Epstein has long coveted.

Having drafted Anthony Rizzo in 2007 for the Red Sox and then having traded him as the centerpiece prospect in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, the Cubs’ new GM wasted no time getting him back into an Epstein-run organization.  Realizing the Padres had soured on Rizzo after just 153 plate appearances at the major-league level – half of them in pitcher-friendly Petco Park – Epstein sent pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Padres for Rizzo.  Rizzo had a horrendous year at the plate during the two months he played in the majors hitting .141/.281/.242.  Despite the horrendous .141 batting average and .242 slugging percentage, Rizzo did manage to walk 13.7% of the time, obviously a trait which endears him to Epstein.  Before he got to the majors, Rizzo absolutely tore up minor-league pitching at all levels, including hitting .331/.404/.652 over 413 plate appearances in AAA last year – during the same season he struggled in the majors – and amazingly the Padres felt that the 153 plate appearances at the MLB level, at the tender age of 21(!), were more telling.  Epstein knows Rizzo well and he stole him from San Diego, possibly providing the Cubs with the first power-hitting piece of what could be a contending team a year or two from now.

If the Cubs do compete for a division title as soon as 2013, Rizzo will almost certainly be joined in the line up by shortstop Starlin Castro and catcher Geovany Soto, the other two future building blocks.  The remaining five starters in 2011 are either place holders or in the case of Alfonso Soriano, a legacy player burdened with an unmovable contract which will pay him $18 million a year through 2014.  This winter Epstein showed that an unmovable contract doesn’t necessarily make the player unmovable.  Pitcher Carlos Zambrano may have had an $18 million contract with the Cubs this year, but in agreeing to pay $16.45 million of that total, Chicago dealt the 31-year old Zambrano to Miami for 25-year old Chris Volstad.  Epstein understands the concept of sunk costs, knew there was no way the aging Zambrano (and he’s aging very poorly) could help the Cubs win in 2013 since he’d depart via free-agency, so he flipped him for a pitcher who might.  Volstad appeared to take his craft to a new level of effectiveness last year turning into an extreme groundball/low walk hurler.  When obscured by a low-strikeout rate, that combination is perhaps the current undervalued skill in the MLB marketplace, (If a pitcher combines a high-strikeout rate with the low-walk/high-ground ball skill set, he’s Roy Halladay.  Teams are fixated on strikeouts presently; however, they seem to miss the value that a low-walk/high ground ball pitcher still holds.)  Zambrano will get more attention, he’ll have more fantasy value, and due to the team he’s now on, he has a better chance of pitching in October.  But Volstad, as measured by ERA, will be the more effective pitcher this year.

Dragged down by Zambrano’s 4.82 ERA over 24 starts and Casey Coleman’s 6.40 ERA over 17 starts, Chicago had the second-worst starting pitching in the NL, ahead of only Colorado.  This despite a terrific year from Matt Garza, who Epstein is certainly targeting as the team’s ace when it’s time to contend.  Coleman has been relegated to bullpen duty in 2012 with Paul Maholm, another low-walk, groundball pitcher and a cost-effective free agent signed to fill his spot in the rotation.  Chicago’s starters are going to give up less runs in 2012 than in 2011 and although some of that improvement can be expected to be offset by regression from an above-average bullpen in 2011, there is another, less obvious reason the Cubs will allow fewer runs.

Chicago had the second worst defense in all of baseball last year.  It’s not the errors that killed them, although they did make ten more errors than any other team in baseball, it’s the balls the defense didn’t get to.  Chicago’s defense record 60 less outs on the balls its opponents hit into play than the average MLB team.  Broken down by position, the two worst offenders were the third basemen (34 plays below average) and the first basemen (28 plays below average).  Chicago fans should note that those are two of the three positions where the Cubs have new starters.  If you don’t take walks and are a poor fielder, you’ll have a hard time finding a job on a Theo Epstein-constructed team.  In Epstein's eyes, it’s the football equivalent of blocking and tackling.

The Cubs just don’t have enough offense to have a legitimate chance to contend for a wild card spot this year, let along the division title.  The Cubs didn’t have answers for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols and although those sluggers are not be in the division anymore, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, or Matt Holliday are, and the Cubs don’t have run-producing counterparts for them either.  That might not be the case a season or two from now.  Not for a team draws more than 3 million fans a year, operates in a large market and has an astute general manager.  This year Cubs fans are going to have to be content rooting for a team that’s going to be nondescript but still better than expectations.  If the team flirts with .500 baseball for a significant part of the season, Chicago will be progressing down Epstein’s long-term path towards contention.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  The Cubs won 71 games last year, although its component performance suggests a team that fielded 73-win talent.  (See restated runs scored/allowed at top of essay.)  Starting pitching will be better this year, the defense should be better, but the offense will not score as many runs due to a big drop in power, but even that could change if Rizzo regains the form he’s shown in the minors.  As a result, I see a team with very reasonable expectations to win more than 73 games this year.  Oddsmakers have set the Cubs total wins over/under line at 73 ½.  There are only three over lines I favor in the NL.  The Mets were covered last week and another team will come later this week.  The Cubs aren’t my favorite of the three, but the line is favorable enough for them to get the nod as the third team. 

2012 Outlook:

79-83 – Fourth in NL Central

647 Runs Scored       666 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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