MLB March Report: Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs swung for the fences with their offseason hire of Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and entrusted him with the opportunity to do for the Cubbies what he did for the Red Sox and deliver a historic World Series title plus maybe one more for good measure. The organization Epstein inherits has been an underachieving mess. Can they turn it around and move up the ladder in the NL Central, still the easiest division in baseball to show rapid improvement in? TheSportsNotebook looks at the Cubs based on their ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: If the whole Moneyball theory was really about on-base percentage (it was actually exploiting undervalued assets on the market which OBP was at the time that Brad Pitt…er, Billy Beane…rose to fame) then the Cubs would need a group outing to watch the movie. Chicago has only one reliable table-setter and that’s shortstop Starlin Castro. The positive to this is that at least Castro’s a genuine rising star, a 21-year-old who put up two seasons of .340-plus before he was old enough to drink (good thing he wasn’t in Epstein’s old clubhouse). Centerfielder Marlon Byrd can be at least above average in this area, and the Cubs made a nice offseason pickup in adding David DeJesus to play rightfield. He had a bad year in Oakland, but that’s a tough park to hit in and prior to that DeJesus consistently posted good OBPs and respectable power numbers.

Beyond this though, the rest of the offense is monstrously inefficient. Alfonso Soriano is only of value when he hits home runs. Second baseman Darwin Barney has yet to show he can produce, while third baseman Ian Stewart has spent the last three years struggling with Colorado. #4 outfielder Reed Johnson had a good year in 2011, but it was his best season since 2006 and at 35, it’s asking a lot for him to duplicate a .348/.467 OBP/Slugging line, even if it just 200-250 at-bats a year.

POWER: Soriano at least hits home runs, so the Cubs have someone who can clean up the empty basepaths. Catcher Geovany Soto can help both here and with the on-base problem. He fluctuates between All-Star caliber and mediocrity. Maybe the good news for Cubbie fans is that Soto was mediocre last year and if his career trend continues he’ll tick back upward for 2012. An X-factor in the lineup is first baseman Brian LaHair. He slugged over .500 last year, but it was only 59 at-bats and that was his first playing time since 2008 in Seattle. He’s being handed the job in spring training.

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STARTING PITCHING: Matt Garza got off to a rough start after being traded by Tampa Bay and being picked to win the Cy Young Award by this writer, But Garza turned it around and ended with a respectable 3.32 ERA in 31 starts. I won’t pick him to win the Cy Young again, but I do expect him to be a legiitmate ace in this rotation. Ryan Dempster struggled last year after three straight solid seasons. I’m inclined to think he can bounce back and put up an ERA in 3s while giving new manager Dale Sveum 30+ starts, but Dempster is 34 years old, so the signs of irreversible decline have to be watched for. Paul Maholm is slotted in at #3 and the former Pirate is fresh off the best year of his career at age 29, with a 3.66 ERA. Another good pickup is Travis Wood, who’s put in the equivalent of one big league season over the last two years in Cincinnati. His cumulative ERA is 4.18, and at age 25 he can continue to get better. Look for him to be in the rotation when the season starts. For the fifth spot, we should assume it will go to Randy Wells, who has declined for three straight years, though Sveum might be inclined to try Andy Sonnanstine, a former Tampa Bay Ray. He’s never been effective, either as a starter or a reliever, but you never know what happens when someone used to facing the Yankee and Red Sox lineups can suddenly switch to a diet of the Pirates and Astros. Chris Volstad, a mediocre starter at Florida might also get a chance, and at 25, he’s got an upside.

RELIEF PITCHING: Carlos Marmol really struggled last year as the closer, blowing ten saves and briefly losing his job. He might have lost it for good, but no one else was any better. Marmol’s got good stuff and I’m looking for a bounceback year (and my money’s where my mouth is–in a Fantasy League where we can freeze up to 15 players from year to year, I’ve kept Marmol). Kerry Wood has completely rejuvenated his career as the setup man and is now one of the game’s better eighth-inning options. Jeff Samardzija turned a corner in his career and the former Notre Dame wide receiver had a 2.97 ERA in 75 appearances, averaging better than an inning per appearance. If Marmol comes back, you can put him with Wood, Samardzija and the tolerable James Russell to have a nice bullpen.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 74–This is what Vegas handicappers would call a tight number. I don’t see the Cubs moving more than two games either way. But if I have to choose–and my self-imposed rules on these March reports are that I do–then I take the Over, because the pitching could surprise and that would be enough to at least get to .500.