February 27, 2007

The Cubs Have Hitters; Can Soriano Pitch?

The Chicago Cubs entered Spring Training 2007 ranked number 1 all-time in dollars-spent in a baseball off-season. Totally unadjusted for inflation, the Cubs’ $297 million beat-out the $268 million spent by the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets wrote contracts for $196 million in and rank fourth. The Rangers finished 2001 with a record of 73 and 89 while the 2005 Mets finished in third-place in the NL East at 83 and 79. What does this mean for the 2007 Cubs?

The 2006 Cubs finished 15th and of 16 National League teams in runs-scored, last in the League in on-base-percentage, and first in the most number of losses with 96. Derrek Lee was injured and played only 50 games. Lee returns healthy in 2007 and the Cubs enhanced their lineup by resigning third-baseman Aramis Ramirez and adding Alfornso Soriano through free-agency. This is a revamped line-up that will score runs.

The problem is that hitting helps win pennants but it is hard to carry a team on the strength of the position players alone. The 2001 Rangers finished first in homeruns and third in batting-average. This was a line-up arguably stronger than the 2007 Cubs. Ivan Rodriguez was the catcher, Alex Rodriguez played short, Raphael Palmeiro was at first, Michael Young played second, and Ruben Sierra was the designated-hitter. That is a lot of all-star selections and MVP votes right there. Meanwhile, the pitching was entirely mediocre. The team ERA was 5.71, the highest in the American League. Rick Helling “led” the team with 12 wins.

The New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, and Seattle Mariners had the three highest victory totals in the American League in 2001. The top six finishers in the 2001 AL Cy Young balloting were all on these three clubs. The Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in ’01 and their Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson finished one-two in the NL Cy Young award voting. Pitching won.

The 2007 Cubs are not the 2001 Rangers nor are they the Colorado Rockies of the late-1990s with Todd Helton, Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, and Larry Walker bombing homeruns on their way to 90 losses. The Cubs do have a staff-ace in Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano struck-out 210 batters in 2006, won 16 games, and had an ERA of 3.41 on his way to finishing fifth in the NL Cy Young balloting. He is a confirmed ace who should only increase his win totals this year with the stronger line-up.

The Cubs also have a decent number two pitcher in Ted Lilly who they signed from the Toronto Blue Jays. He went to the All-Star game in Houston in 2004 and won 15 games in 2006 while throwing 181 innings. His ERA was 4.31 which is not stellar and is acceptable in this day and age. Zambrano and Lilly are a solid one-two set-up.

The picture grows murky after this despite the insistence of Outfield Grass’ resident Cubs-consultant Ben Daverman. In addition to Lilly, the Cubs lured Jason Marquis north from St Louis. Marquis is another serviceable starter who logged 194 innings in ’06. He won 14 games for the Cardinals but his ERA was 5.02 which raised his career ERA to 4.55. In the second-half of the season, his ERA climbed to 6.72.

The number 4 and 5 pitchers, Mark Prior and Rich Hill also have question marks. Mark Prior is reported to be healthy and Larry Rotschild, the Cubs pitching coach, is carefully monitoring his workouts this spring in Mesa. Prior started nine games in 2006 and registered a 7.21 ERA.

Hill started 16 games, won six, and has an ERA of 4.17. He started the year 0 and 4 with a 9.31 earned-run average. He was sent down to AAA Iowa mid-season and went 7-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 starts. When he returned to the North Side, he went 6 and 3 with a 2.93 ERA for the Cubs the rest of the season. Daverman reminds me that Peter Gammons is a big fan of Hill. I am a big fan of Mr. Gammons and Prior and Hill remain unproven.

The Cubs have a good team. They will, will all likelihood, improve on their last-place 2006 finish. But it is hard to look past the Cubs rotation which has its strengths but simultaneously so many question-marks and what-ifs. Prior may regain his strength and can still be the devastating pitcher which he has shown himself to be in the past. Marquis may regain his poise and benefit from the change to Chicago. Hill may mature and improve on his 2006. And they may not.

Back east in Queens, the Mets are hoping to improve on their National League East 2006 Divisional win by advancing beyond the NLCS to the World Series. Yahoo! Sports player ranking has half of the line-up in the top fifty hitters in baseball. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, plus Carlos Delgado are a scary four for opposing pitchers. What scares Mets fans are graphics like the New York Times published in its Sunday sports section on February 18 where it showed the 11 pitchers who may constitute the starting rotation this season. This is not how championship ball clubs open spring training.

The Cubs are not the only team with a decent staff led by a star. The Giants have Barry Zito. The Dodgers have Jason Schmidt and Brad Penny. The Phillies have Brett Myers and Freddy Garcia. The Diamondbacks have Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson (who could rediscover his strength in the Phoenix-desert). What makes this Cubs team that much better than the other good teams in the National League?


Blogger Kyle Washington said...

Hello Mr. Levin, My name is Kyle Washington. I am a former professional basebal player. I was selected by the New york Mets in the 6th round of the june drasft in 1988, I am better known for being the player that was traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Balitimore Orioles for Jose Mesa during the 1992 season. I just read your blog about Jackie Robinson day celebrated by MLB. I enjoyed comments and wanted to comment on what really captured my attention. The quote from Billy Williams (on blacks involvement in baseball) " we Look at the problem, read about it etc.

First they talk about the lack of interest from the youth of in the U.S due to NBA & NFL marketing. That is a bunch of Bull! Lets take a look at the money currently spent by all Major League franchises in Latin America alone. In addition, the number of former players that are working in those facilities to develop players from the age of 6-7 years of age to become Major leaguers. 99% of those working in those facilities are of Latin decent. Funded my Major League baseball they are still able to contribute their experiences and live comfortably and still view it as a lifetime opportunity.

In stark contrast, lets take a stab at the numbers, on the number of Black players who are drafted or sign as free agents who actually make it to the show. As we look closer you will see that very small percentage of the players make it out of single-A. Left with no pension, little or no college education these "Honored & Privileged" athletes great accomplishments are reduced to "Bitterness & Resentment" for the game. with very kittle or no opportunity to remain gainfully emploed within the friendly confines of the game. When you are finished on the field, you are done. The solution to me is keep these players in the loop! Invest in them and programs that offer jobs keeping the game alive in the black community as well.
Small business loans for players that have played the game who seek to teach, motivate, design products specific linked to baseball. The talent is here. I can go on and on......

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the Kyle Washington from Claremont,CA?

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