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The 2011 Chicago Cubs posted their second straight fifth place finish in the NL Central. The Cubs were not devoid of talent and the roster was as healthy as one could expect. The team did not have upper echelon players mind you but had players that no less could contribute. It seems like the team underachieved to an extent in 2011 (at least it shouldn’t have been 20 games below .500 (71-91)). The arrival of new President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer brings a ton of optimism considering the work they have done in the past (*). They are charged with replicating the job they did in Boston and bring the Cubs its first World Series since 1908 (**).

(*) If I was a Chicago Cubs fan I would feel good about the direction the team is headed. There is certainly reason to trust Epstein given the success he has had (2 championships with the Red Sox).

(**) Quick Chicago Cubs playoff notes: not only has the team not won the World Series in 104 years but it has not won the pennant since 1945. After 1945, the club has made the postseason six times. Since going up 3-1 in the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins, the Cubs are 0-9 in playoff games.

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

The offense in 2011 was tied for 18th in runs scored in the major leagues. With the moves the organization made during the offseason, the offense will likely be weaker than last season. The Cubs lost both starting corner infielders, 1B Carlos Pena and 3B Aramis Ramirez, to free agency. Pena and Ramirez were two of the more productive hitters in the lineup. Their replacements, 1B Bryan LaHair and 3B Ian Stewart, are not all that enticing and seem to be placeholders this season. David DeJesus signed a two-year deal in the offseason and should provide stability in right field to go along with his bat at the top of the lineup. The organization does not have a lot of money tied up long term with the massive exception of LF Alfonso Soriano who is owed $18 million per season through 2014. Soriano is not the same player he was when he signed his long-term deal in 2007 and will be 39 when his contract runs out. The real star now and for the future is SS Starlin Castro who will turn 22 prior to the season. In 2011, Castro led the National League in hits. It would take multiple players outperforming expectations for the Cubs to have an improved offense in 2012. The Cubs have a few average to slightly above average starters but overall the starting lineup simply lacks bats.

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro will only be 22 (AP Photo/Charles Cherney)

Chicago’s rotation is led by Matt Garza, one of the better starting pitchers in the National League in 2011. Garza, now 28 years old, uses four pitches and has a fastball that averages over 93 MPH; he has started at least 30 games for four consecutive seasons. Ryan Dempster fills in the number two slot and has been a reliable starter since moving back to the rotation in 2008. He, like Garza, has started at least 30 games in each of the last four seasons. Garza and Dempster are dependable starters at the top of Chicago’s rotation. The North Siders welcome two new additions to the rotation in left-hander Paul Maholm (Pittsburgh) and righty Chris Volstad (Miami). Maholm has been steady in his career while Volstad will likely be the back-end starter providing innings. The rotation is rounded out by Randy Wells who is looking to bounce back from a dismal 2011. For the first time in years the face of Chicago’s staff will not be Carlos Zambrano who was dealt in the offseason after a long yet tumultuous tenure with the club. With the changes made in the rotation, the Cubs now have five starting pitchers that have shown in their careers they are capable of starting at least 30 games a season. There should be stability in the starting rotation in 2012.

Chicago’s bullpen features several hard throwing/strikeout pitchers who have a hard time finding the strike zone consistently. Carlos Marmol is the chief example. Marmol had a strikeout per nine innings rate over 12, but also walked a staggering 5.84 batters per nine innings (***). Jeff Samardzija’s rates were 8.90 K/9 and 5.11 BB/9. These rates could make Chicago’s bullpen volatile. Outside of Marmol and Kerry Wood, the bullpen is pretty inexperienced. The starters are reliable for the most part but the relievers have to be on point for the Cubs to improve on their 23rd ranked runs allowed mark from 2011.

(***) According to FanGraphs Marmol’s fastball velocity fell from 94.1 in 2010 to 91.8 in 2011. Marmol for his career throws his slider more than his fastball. In 2011 he threw his fastball only 36% of the time compared to 64% sliders.

The Cubs are multiple moves and players away from being true contenders. With an exciting new management team and flexibility moving forward, the Cubs could be on their way to building something. There’s still a way to go but teams do not have to do too much to be in the hunt in the NL Central year in, year out.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • David DeJesus (OF) – free agent
  • Paul Maholm (LHP) – free agent
  • Anthony Rizzo (1B) – trade with San Diego Padres
  • Ian Stewart (3B) – trade with Colorado Rockies
  • Chris Volstad (RHP) – trade with Miami Marlins
  • Travis Wood (LHP) – trade with Cincinnati Reds

Subtractions:

  • Aramis Ramirez (3B) – signed with Milwaukee Brewers
  • Carlos Pena (1B) – signed with Tampa Bay Rays
  • Carlos Zambrano (RHP) – trade with Miami Marlins
  • Sean Marshall (LHP) – trade with Cincinnati Reds
  • Andrew Cashner (RHP) – trade with San Diego Padres
  • Koyie Hill (C) – signed with St. Louis Cardinals
  • Ramon Ortiz (RHP) – signed with San Francisco Giants
  • John Grabow (LHP) – signed with Los Angeles Dodgers

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. David DeJesus – RF

2. Starlin Castro – SS

3. Marlon Byrd – CF

4. Bryan LaHair – 1B

5. Alfonso Soriano – LF

6. Geovany Soto – C

7. Ian Stewart – 3B

8. Darwin Barney – 2B

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Ryan Dempster – RH

2. Matt Garza – RH

3. Paul Maholm – LH

4. Randy Wells – RH

5. Chris Volstad – RH

Projected Bullpen:

  • Carlos Marmol – RH
  • Kerry Wood – RH
  • Jeff Samardzija – RH
  • James Russell – LH
  • Marcos Mateo – RH
  • John Gaub – LH
  • Lendy Castillo – RH

Projected Bench:

  • Welington Castillo – C
  • Jeff Baker – IF/OF
  • Adrian Cardenas – IF/OF
  • Reed Johnson – OF
  • Tony Campana – OF

Variables:

  • The corners – Stewart and LaHair at the corner infield spots is problematic. Their play will be telling for the Cubs offense. Will they be able to hold on to their jobs or will the organization make moves to improve production at those positions?
  • Starlin Castro – in his third full season, we may see a breakout
  • Power at the plate – the Cubs lost two of their three best homerun hitters. Will another player fill the void?
  • Alfonso Soriano – how much does he have left in the tank?
  • Bullpen – perhaps the biggest variable of them all for the Cubs

Fantasy Implications:

  • The two most impactful players on the Cubs roster for fantasy baseball are SS Starlin Castro and SP Matt Garza. Castro is a top five shortstop while Garza fits in as a 2 or 3 SP.
  • A lot of people will draft OF Alfonso Soriano because of past performance and name recognition. Soriano hasn’t run in some time (16 total stolen bases in the last three seasons) and his average will hurt you. There is some power (and likely RBIs) to be had there though.
  • SP Ryan Dempster will likely be owned in most leagues but he may be the type of player that is better in real life as opposed to fantasy baseball.
  • Geovany Soto is a borderline starter at catcher. He can provide some power for the position but the batting average could go either way. Soto has had problems staying on the field the past three seasons.
  • The offense overall is really weak. After Castro, Soto (position value) and Soriano (outskirts of relevance) there isn’t much else to consider.
  • If reserve outfielder Tony Campana receives playing time he would provide very cheap stolen bases for your team.
  • The volatility of closer Carlos Marmol makes him a gamble. If he hangs onto the closer job (which he wasn’t able to do last season) he will get saves. Where he helps you a lot is in strikeouts where he will rank among the best in the reliever category. With Marmol, when things get ugly, they get real ugly. His ERA may balloon on you any given night.
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