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2011 Rival Preview: Chicago Cubs

Carlos Zambranophoto © 2009 Barbara | more info (via: Wylio)In case you missed it last week, we’re doing previews of all the Brewers’ division rivals again this year. Last week, we covered the St. Louis Cardinals (thanks again to Cards Diaspora for the help on the Q&A). This week, we take a look at the Chicago Cubs.

2010 Finish: 75-87, 5th in NL Central
Batting fWAR Leader: Marlon Byrd, 4.1
Pitching fWAR Leader: Ryan Dempster, 3.5

Last Season in a Nutshell: Disappointment, almost from start to finish. Carlos Zambrano was sent home for a period of time after a dugout argument with Derrek Lee. Lou Piniella retired mid-season. Lee nixed a trade at the deadline that would have sent him to the Angels, only to accept a trade to the Braves. Aramis Ramirez hit .241/.294/.452 in 124 games. Alfonso Soriano hit .258/.322/.496. If there was a silver lining to the season, it was that Starlin Castro hit .300/.347/.408 as a 20-year old. He’s likely already the best shortstop in the division.

2011 Prediction: 4th — I actually think the Cubs could be a scary (or at least annoying) team to those contending in the top half of the division. They’ll have very solid pitching once again this year, and if they can get a rebound year from Ramirez they might not be in bad shape offensively, either. The Carlos Pena signing garnered a lot of snickers when it was announced, but the truth is he’s likely an upgrade over what Lee produced last season, and still has big time power. I do think they have too many holes to truly contend in the division, but they could be a .500 team.

Q&A: David Mick of Another Cubs Blog

1. I know you’ve been more down on the Matt Garza trade than a lot of Cubs voices out there, but what are you expecting out of him this season?
I tend to stick with the projections and they have him as a good pitcher, but not as good as what the Cubs are thinking they got.  Garza should see an improvement in his stats because of the move to the lesser league, but he’s a fly ball pitcher and Wrigley hasn’t been too kind to them.  Maybe he’s another Ted Lilly who can do so, but Lilly improved his control significantly and strikes out more than Garza does so I’m not optimistic.  He is a good pitcher and he’ll fit nicely in the rotation with Dempster and Zambrano.  They’ll have 3 pitchers who are basically as good as one another.  Dempster is a bit better, but they’re close enough.

They also have Garza for 3 years, but that does include rising salaries.  He was a Super Two last year and will have 4 years of arbitration.  He’s already making $5 million.  That’s cheap compared to what he’s going to be worth, but he’s another player who will be past his prime by the time the contract ends and they’ll be paying him an even large amount of money.  So right now I think the Cubs did well.  Two years from now?  Not so well.  This is a trade that teams make because they can contend.  More on that later.

2. A lot of people seemed to think the Cubs were overpaying when they signed Carlos Pena for $10 million, but I actually thought it was a decent enough one-year move. How do you see Pena faring?
I liked the Pena signing a lot.  I thought it signaled an attempt to put a half-way decent team on the field while also protecting the prospects and not committing more dollars than you have to.  I was wrong about the prospects unfortunately.  Pena had a poor season last year and you always have to keep in mind that 1st basemen don’t age as well as others.  As a result, it wouldn’t be shocking if Pena just fell apart last season and that’s his new true talent level.  Until we know that, we have to expect some regression.  Add in the lesser pitching and the smaller ballpark and you’ve got a guy could put up some impressive numbers at Wrigley Field.

Pena’s 2011 projections are just slightly better than Lee’s so based on what the Cubs thought they had entering last season, they’ve barely improved.  They were paying Lee $13 million while expecting less production so $10 million a year later is very good.  Plus, $5 million of that is deferred until next year.

3. I don’t think a lot of Brewers fans care where Prince Fielder goes after this season, as long as it’s not the Cubs. Do you think it’s a possibility that the Cubs go after Fielder after this year?
I think it’s definitely a possibility if Fielder reaches free agency.  I imagine the Brewers front office feels like you and other Brewers fans and would rather trade him this season than lose him to the Cubs next year.  That’s not likely to happen though as the Brewers are the class of the division right now.  I have concerns about Fielder.  His weight being the biggest one.  Defense declining even more as he ages.  That being said, the list of comparables for Fielder leads you to believe he’s capable of having a fantastic career after his current contract is up.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think the Cubs can afford Albert Pujols.  I actually don’t think there are but maybe a couple teams who can that would be interested.  That’s why I see him re-signing with St. Louis sometime during the season.  If Pujols does reach free agency at the same time as Fielder, I expect the Cubs to act as though they want Pujols, but quietly work on signing Fielder.  I’d actually guess right now that Fielder is playing 1st for the Cubs next season.  They’ve needed a lefty who can hit for a long time now and, well, you know.   I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they signed a 1st baseman for only 1 year when they signed Pena.

They’ll have the money too.  The question is whether or not they spend it.

4. I’m a big fan of Carlos Marmol, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like the Cubs may have overpaid on his extension. What are your thoughts on the deal?
There seems to be two different arguments being made.  One is that Carlos Marmol is due to regress simply because all players regress toward average at one point or another.  Look at the best players over a span of 4 season and if you look at their next 4 seasons the group will collectively be worse.  I looked at the best relievers in strikeout per 9 over four years at the same ages as Marmol and the group regressed.  He’s a lot of fun to watch, but he’s had ridiculously low home runs per fly ball rates and we know those are likely to regress toward average.

Also, arbitration eligible players earn less money than free agents.  It’s about 60% of free agent value for a 2nd year eligible player like Marmol was this year and 80% in the 3rd year.  They signed him for 3 years and they aren’t paying him as much as a free agent contract would, but they are paying him quite a bit more than he’s worth based on the fact that arbitration players make less money.

That’s difficult for me and others who look at it like this to consider it a good deal.  He wasn’t worth as much based on arbitration figures and he’s due to regress.  Add in Jim Hendry’s record with signing relievers and I’m not optimistic.

The other argument is that Carlos Marmol is so difficult to hit that he can maintain the lower HR/FB rate.  He’s so difficult to hit that he can maintain an ugly walk rate.  This may in fact be true.  Carlos Marmol may be an exception to the rules.  That’s entirely possible, but it’s just not likely.  To believe Carlos Marmol is an exception or that he can continue to do what he has is to ignore evidence in favor of optimism.

That’s not to say that Carlos Marmol is suddenly going to be a bad pitcher, though that’s distinctly possible considering his walk rate.  He’s likely to continue being a very good reliever.  He’s probably even worth the contract he got if he signed it as a free agent, but he’s not worth it when it was signed.  An organization in as much financial trouble as the Cubs shouldn’t be investing money in relievers for that long.

5. Where do you see the Cubs finishing this year? Any chance they have the pieces to make it a four-team race in the Central?
I’m thinking they finish in 4th place and are as likely to finish in 3rd as they are 5th.  A lot can go right for a team in one season so there’s always a chance the Cubs can make this a four team race, but I think it’s unlikely.  I’m guessing they win about 75 games.

A little bit on the Brewers if I can, they have an impressive team this year.  Unlike recent years, that rotation is excellent.  When you can look at Marcum and Gallardo as your number 2 and 3 in any order, that’s a very good staff.  I already bet someone that the Brewers would have the best offense in the NL (as measured by wRC+).  The question for the Brewers is defense as it’s been.  If that defense doesn’t throw game after game away, I think the Brewers win this division easily.

I think we’ll see a 2008-like division finish except the Brewers will be on top by about 6 to 8 games.  I really don’t think it’s close.  I don’t know if the Brewers are as good as that Cubs 2008 team.  Haven’t even thought about it, but the Cubs beat a very good Brewers team that season by about 7 games.  I don’t see another team in the Central that’s going to contend with the.  I do expect there will be a point in the season when the Reds have a chance, much like the Brewers did in July, 2008.  Other than that, it’s their division.