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NL Central Preview/Roundtable Part Three: Cubs

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It gives me great pleasure to pick the Cubs fourth . . .

Those who claim the Astros are over-reliant on Andy Pettitte to repeat his career-best year of 2005 really ought to take a look at the Cubs and Carlos Zambrano.  Remove Z from the equation and the Cubs could finish behind the Reds.

Ironic though, that my favorite players from that wonderful 2003 Marlins chamionship team who so decimated the Cubs both play on the Northside now.

Chicago Cubs

1. The Cubs were once again relatively quiet during the offseason, making a few moves here and there. Which of these moves are you a fan of, and which ones do you think the Cubs should not have made? Is there anything additional the Cubbies should have done?

The Crawfish Boxes:
Whenever I met a Cub fan during the offseason (and there are more than a few down here in South Florida), I made a point of telling them congratulations on being rid of Corey Patterson.  And now he's already in trouble in Baltimore.  :-/

Seems to me Patterson became an embarassment because of his resistance to attempts to improve his onbase percentage.  Even when he has an off year (as 2005 was), Pierre is able to best what Patterson had been able to do in that area.  But if Pierre surpasses what Patterson had become, he'll never be what Patterson could have been:  a two-place or three-place hitter with an OPS in the 8 or even 900's.  

The alligator-armed Pierre should find Wrigley a little more to his liking than Dolphin nee Pro Player.

If Pierre rebounds at all from a subpar 2005--and Cub fans understand what they're getting--I think that Pierre could have a successful run in Chicago.  Of course, Pierre's power (or lack thereof) throws that much more pressure on Matt Murton (and to a lesser extent Jacque Jones) to provide it.  Guess the Cubs figure he's up to the task.  :)

John Mabry isn't that much more expensive than Hector Luna, which makes me wonder why he's no longer a Cardinal.  He does appear to be a rather up and down player, but if he can get close to what he did in 2004 while functioning in any of the various roles he's capable of playing, I think the Cubs could end up pretty happy with Mabry.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: My friend Dave, who has forgotten more baseball than I'll ever know, has said the Cubs should have picked up Pierre for the last couple of years. He solved two problems: CF and leadoff, two things that sunk the 2005 Cubs. That said, they could have solved another problem if they'd managed to sign Rafael Furcal. The drama regarding Furcal's dollar/year figures between the Cubs and Dodgers is water under the bridge now. SS is in the hands of Ronny Cedeno, and he hasn't shown much this spring, but I do expect him to become at least a capable major league SS.

Jacque Jones wasn't a terrible signing -- if it had been for one year. He's pretty much the same player as the guy he's replacing, Jeromy Burnitz, and a few years younger. But why give him three years? No one else was offering that long a deal, and this locks the Cubs into what potentially could be a really, really bad deal a year or two from now.

Brew Crew Ball: It seems to me that the Cubs were in a bit of a bind going into the offseason.  They needed to fix CF, replace Burnitz, and obviously they jumped at the bit to go after Furcal.  With Lee and Ramirez in the lineup, they didn't need to go get a superstar (though it wouldn't have hurt), but their predilection for vets limited their options.  Pierre won't be a whole lot better than Joey Gathright would've been, and I assume Gathright would've cost less in trade.  He surely would've cost less in salary.  

Jacque Jones, as Al says, isn't a bad move for this year, but locking up Jones is like paying your local grocery store a retainer not to move out of the neighborhood.    I mean, Matt Diaz might outproduce Jacque this year.  Of course, had Jim Hendry brought Diaz in, Dusty would've convinced Grissom not to retire and be his starting RF, so obviously that wasn't an option, but that's what I mean by a bind.  Imagine how much better this team could be with Gathright and Diaz (or some other decent-but-cheap young corner OF) and Rafael Furcal.  Or maybe the money saved would've allowed the Cubs to do enough to get Tejada.  

There's one move the Cubs should've made but didn't.  After Jim Hendry signed Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre to their pricey multiyear deals, the Cubs top brass should've fired Jim Hendry.

Bucs Dugout: The Jones signing was a terrible idea. Just terrible. I hated it when the Pirates gave Jeromy Burnitz $6.7 million for next year, but that move looks brilliant compared to what the Cubs did with Jones. The Scott Eyre move was awful, too.

There's a little more gray area with the Pierre signing, but I also think that move is pretty bad. Pierre solves the Cubs' centerfield and leadoff problems, but only if you believe you've got to have a tiny, fast guy at the top of the order. If you'd prefer a good player getting all those plate appearances instead of one who merely looks the part, well, Pierre doesn't really solve either problem. His OBP was .326 last year, and while that's a lot lower than it was the previous two years, most of the decline came with a decline in his batting average. For a player like Pierre, who depends so heavily on speed and contact, I'm concerned that most of that batting average isn't going to come back. (And I'm not sure why he'd benefit from the change in parks, since he doesn't hit for power and Wrigley's grass is tall.) Also, Pierre's defense leaves a lot to be desired. Add in the fact that the Cubs traded two good pitching prospects in Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto to get Pierre, and this isn't the sort of move that well-run organizations like to make.  

Viva El Birdos: The Pierre acquisition is obviously going to help. He could turn in another subpar year as he did in 2005 and still add 20 runs to the offense. I think he might have a stellar year; he has always hit very well in the daytime, so all those afternoon Wrigley starts should suit him.

2. How do you see the oft-injured pair of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood performing this season? Will Wood eventually be sent to the bullpen for good? Will Prior work enough innings to help make the Cubs contenders? Is there anyone who can step in to try to stop the bleeding if/when it occurs? Will Moose and Squirrel realize they are walking into a trap?

The Crawfish Boxes:  As Boris Badunov might say, "BLAMMO!"  

Heh, just kidding.  Prior at the least is mechanically sound enough where you're thinking he's just run into some bad luck, and all us sabermetric types know that a corrective in a long streak of healthy pitching from Prior is overdue :)

Seriously, I've never bought all that "Dusty Baker ruined Prior and Wood" stuff.  Roy Oswalt pitched 230 innings at the age of 24, and we hear the Astros are simply lucky to have a horse.  Prior throws 211 at 23 and Dusty is Satan.  

I do kind of wonder about Wood, though.  Years of bad mechanics, whipping the ball across his body, injury after injury, and now he's gotta recover from the torn meniscus before he can rehab the shoulder.   And when he's dealt with those twin scourges, he can try to recover from a year where he had the league-average ERA.  

Maybe you see Wood follow the John Smoltz career path:  a couple years in the pen (you'd think he could do better than Dempster in  a closer's role) might rejuvenate the guy for a return to starting down the road.  

If Prior gives them, say, 160 quality innings and Zambrano has the kind of year everyone expects, Maddux in the three slot gives their staff a kind of stability even without Wood.  I don't think much of Rusch (or of Wade Miller's chances), but at 24, Jerome Williams might be able to build off the  109 ERA+ he posted with the Cubs last year, while cutting down on the walks.  If so, the Cubs could look very solid compared to the Astros and even the Cards. Their secret weapon/bleeding-stopper would appear to be Dempster, who can start if need be.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: First of all, GET THEM HEALTHY! Both of them will start the year on the DL. The Cubs are being mysterious about Prior -- again -- and others have held this up as an example of the Cubs management "lying" about players' health. I have also heard that Prior can be a bit of a baby about the pain that most pitchers go through as a matter of course.

Wood is now throwing off a mound, and may be ready by late May. Last year he was terrific in relief. I could see him as an Eric Gagne-type closer for years to come, but he doesn't seem to want to do that. If -- BIG if -- his mechanics are sound, and his shoulder is healed, he can help the Cubs in the rotation far more than in the bullpen. Without Wood and Prior, this becomes a ground-ball pitching staff rather than a strikeout staff.

Brew Crew Ball: It's this kind of question that makes baseball blogging sometimes feel like chasing your tail.  We can't just ignore Prior or the controversies swirling over just how healthy he is.  So what can I contribute to the discussion: not one friggin' thing.  I figure Prior is good for 25 starts; he'll get crushed by the monster Milwaukee offense a couple of times, but other than I'm sure he'll be great.  Wood?  I can't imagine any sane team would count on him for much of anything, and it looks like the Cubs are planning that way.  If he comes back healthy, great; if not, plan B is in place.

Seems to me that Wade Miller is the x-factor here.  I agree that Jerome Williams could step up and make life a little more pleasant for Cubs fans, but I don't see him topping a 110 ERA+.  So, good 3rd or 4th starter material--and that's upside.  Wade Miller, on the other hand, has ace potential.  And his variance is about as big as it gets: he could give you 25 ace-quality starts and be Prior's #1A, or he could not make it back at all.  In the first scenario, the Cubs suddenly look like contenders.  In the second, we can all resume our regularly scheduled programming and get back to making fun of Neifi.

3. Give me your take on Derrek Lee's 2005, and what you expect from him in 2006. Was 2005 a fluke? Is this the new Derrek Lee? Explain your reasoning.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: I read last year that Lee had, over the 2004-2005 offseason, made some adjustments in his stance and in the sort of pitches he would swing at and lay off, and those adjustments made a great deal of the difference in his season. Yes, he declined a bit as the year went on, but I really do think he HAS established a new level of performance.

It's said that "protecting" hitters doesn't really exist, but one of the keys to the Cub offense this year will be Aramis Ramirez, who is having a monster spring training, hitting everything in sight. Ramirez also spent the offseason getting into shape -- he appears to be in the best shape of his career. If Aramis has the season of his life, it can't help but help Lee.

Brew Crew Ball: Let's see.  Lee's '05 batting average was 50 points above his previous career high.  OBP?  20 points higher.  SLG? One hundred and fifty points higher.  11 more 2Bs, 14 HRs.  Obviously, it's a tremendous season, but to suggest he can maintain that level is ludicrous.  Will he settle in somewhere between his previously established levels and his outstanding 2005?  I'd say that's the best Cubs fans can hope for.  To give you an idea of just how out of line Lee's numbers were with the career before last year, his 90th percentile PECOTA projection is below his 2005 actual production.  For a player in the middle of his peak years, that's remarkable.

The Crawfish Boxes:  Basically, what Brew Crew Ball said.  I do find it ironic that even the sabermetric people were expecting Lee's numbers to go up when he left the former Pro Player for Wrigley after the 2003 season.  And then of course his OPS and RC went down for 2004.  

What I guess I'm saying is that Lee had confounded expectations even before he did his Albert Pujols impersonation last year.  Lee had spent four years setting a very praiseworthy benchmark for himself--.270 BA, .370 OBP, 500 slugging--that even park factors couldn't mess with, then blew it all to hell last year.  If I thought Derrek'd corked his bat (which I definitely do not) I might suggest that the whole thing reminds me of Norm Cash.  Anyway, Lee plays the sweetest defensive first base I've seen, and he has loads of value to the Cubs, even if he drops back.

Which I think he will.