The Path to Respectability: Chicago Cubs

Chicago

I wanted to finish this series before the season actually got going. Cubs fans will forgive me delaying my particular brand of optimism until now, I hope. The last time I did this, I covered the Pirates, so you can see how this goes if you like. The basic idea is highly imperfect: I take the team’s projected record on the Baseball Prospectus depth charts and try to figure out, given the existing roster, how the team could accomplish 88 wins instead of the figure they’re projected for. The way I do this is by adding more WARP to individual players. The reason this is even more imperfect than a typical exercise of this sort might be is that you don’t get to the existing projected win totals by adding the projected player WARP, but my point here isn’t to do a rigorous study. Rather, I’m trying to see what the shape of a winning, contending team would be given who’s on the roster.

The first thing I do for each team is give myself wiggle room: I add five wins worth of run-distribution luck to their record, and work from there. (That is, I’m basically projecting the team to beat its Pythagorean record by five wins.) For the Cubs, this gets them from 74 wins to 79, and leaves me needing to find a way to increase player performance by nine wins to get to 88. Nine isn’t too tough. After all, I got the Astros all the way from 65 to 88.

Let’s git ‘r done.

I’m going to bop in on the starting pitching first. Chris Volstad was acquired from the Marlins this off-season for Carlos Zambrano, a move about which many Cubs fans were relatively ecstatic — just dumping Zambrano’s contract was prize enough, so to get a pitcher with some upside was an unexpected bonus. PECOTA doesn’t see a ton of upside, though, and his depth-chart projection calls for just 108 innings of basically replacement-level production. If Volstad instead lives up to some of the promise that got him to the majors at just 21 and he puts up a reasonable facsimile of his 2010 season (pretty solid 4.66 FRA in 175 innings), 1.5 WARP is not out of the question. The extra innings can come at the expense of youngster Casey Coleman, who is also projected for replacement-level work.

Samardzija

The Cubs have also decided to use Famous Guy Jeff Samardzija as a starting pitcher this season after he threw 88 innings in 75 relief games last year. PECOTA doesn’t think he’s that great, figuring a 4.94 ERA. Sure, he notched a sub-three mark last year, but there was some unearned-run luck there, and PECOTA isn’t buying the .257 BABIP, either. What this adds up to is another replacement-level pitcher. The guy was something resembling a prospect once upon a time, though, so it’s not impossible to imagine his throwing to a 1.0 WARP based on an ERA in the low fours, ultra-straight fastball or no.

Out in the bullpen, James Russell and Rafael Dolis are supposed to combine for over 100 innings of very sub-replacement performance. Pushing those guys or someone replacing them to merely bad (replacement-level) performance instead of horrendous (ERAs in the low fives) adds a win to the Cubs’ ledger. I hope I’m not asking much here: replacement-level performance is something a major-league team shouldn’t struggle to find, even one in a rebuilding mode.

Needing five and a half more wins, let’s turn to the position players. First base is in some flux for the Cubs. Jeff Baker started on Opening Day because Chicago opted to send newly acquired top prospect Anthony Rizzo to the minors to begin the year and let Bryan LaHair see if he can mash in the big leagues as he’s been doing in AAA for years, only to see LaHair get hurt. Baseball Prospectus has the position being work less than one WARP overall, figuring on decent hitting but bad defense from LaHair, and bad hitting but ok defense from Rizzo, with Baker’s contribution being negligible. Between LaHair being a masher and Rizzo being as highly regarded as he is, though, I think the Cubs can get above-average overall production from the position, something like 2.5 WARP instead of 1.0. If LaHair repeats what he did last year in a tiny big-league sample or if Rizzo fulfills his promise (or both, in case LaHair hits but gets hurt or traded, or if they shove him aside anyway), this seems entirely reachable.

Buddy DeJesusIn right field, the Cubs have David DeJesus, who had a superficially poor season in Oakland, but after you adjust his hitting for the park and factor in his good defense (FRAA says +6 in right, and my eyes don’t dispute this), he still managed 2.0 WARP in 131 games. The .240 batting average got in everyone’s head, I think, but the Cubs likely got a steal by paying him just five million per year over two years. Still, PECOTA sees a batting line closer to 2011 than to his excellent (but injury-shortened) 2010, resulting in a 1.7 WARP projection. If he does hit more like 2010, though, when he batted .318/.384/.443 in Kansas City, he could add a win to that projection, pushing him above-average rather than just below. DeJesus isn’t young-young at 32, but he’s not so old that it’s crazy to imagine a return to his age-30 performance, either.

People used to like Ian Stewart. He hit all the way up the minor-league chain, albeit in some forgiving offensive environments. He had a nice year in 2010 for the Rockies, but had trouble staying healthy and keeping management’s faith as he struggled terrifically at the plate in 136 PAs. PECOTA sees a bounce-back while acknowledging that he’s not in Colorado any longer, figuring a 1.4 WARP season, though it also sees a lot of upside, with his 90th percentile projection coming out to a .278/.367/.497 batting line. For my purposes, I don’t need him to do that. .250/.340/.450 would be fine, and enough of an improvement over the course of his 500+ PAs to add a win to the Cubs’ totals.

My typical approach to this project has been to imagine improvement from mediocre and bad players, basically making everyone average or above-replacement to go along with the star or two that these teams have. Here, though, I’m going to take a radical turn and, for the last two Cubs wins, imagine a breakout season from Starlin Castro. “But last year was a breakout season for Starlin Castro!” you say. Well, yes. Four WARP is an excellent season, and PECOTA is a believer of sorts, figuring Castro for 3.4 this year, but do you know what’s even more excellent? 5.4 WARP. That’s excellent. Is this plausible? Castro is just 22 this season, so there’s all sorts of room for growth, and PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection is 5.5 WARP with a .332/.368/.458 batting line. We can change the shape of that, of course, because .332 is a big batting average, by supposing a more normal average with an improved walk rate, increased home-run power (even the 90th percentile projection is just nine homers), or, outside the slash line, better base-stealing (22/31 last year, projected for 23/34 at the 90th percentile level). A million guys have come to the majors and impressed and then never failed to reached the hall-of-fame level heights that we’re essentially asking of Castro, but, after all, this is an exercise in optimism.

To recap:

74 projected
+5 run-distribution luck
+1.5 Chris Volstad improvement
+1.0 Jeff Samadzija improvement
+1.0 bullpen non-crapness
+1.5 first base
+1.0 David DeJesus return to form
+1.0 Ian Stewart lives up to his promise
+2.0 Starlin Castro punches his HOF ticket

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