Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Chicago Cubs' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

There is no heavier burden than great potential.—Charlie Brown

Charles Schultz might revise that statement in the face of this year's Chicago Cubs team. The 2009 Cubbies will be laboring under that heavy burden Charlie Brown bemoaned as well as decades and decades...and decades and decades of futility. Having said that, they are still one of three gorillas in the National League.

Along with the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies and the always-good-for-a-laugh-in-September New York Mets, the Cubs figure to be one of the favorites to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series this year. And that's not without reason.

Chicago had a formidable roster by the time the 2008 postseason rolled around and it got a stronger.

Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg now call Wrigley Field home, plus the Cubs stand to benefit from another year of maturity on Sean Marshall and better years from Derek Lee and/or Aramis Ramirez. With that preface in mind, take a look at how the club should shape up:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Geovany Soto
First base—Derek Lee
Second base—Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot
Third base—Aramis Ramirez
Shortstop—Ryan Theriot
Left field—Alfanso Soriano
Center field—Reed Johnson
Right field—Milton Bradley/Kosuke Fukudome

Bradley's already dinged up—or so he says, remember that veterans aren't above dogging it a bit in Spring Training. Regardless, Chicago isn't going to get 162 starts from him in right. Like it or not, Fukudome is gonna figure in the mix unless Joey Gathright can somehow jump him. Micah Hoffpauir might actually be the best bet, but his sample size is still a tad small.

Starting rotation

Ace—Carlos Zambrano (R)
Second spot—Ryan Dempster (R)
Third spot—Ted Lilly (L)
Fourth spot—Rich Harden (R)
Fifth spot—Sean Marshall (L)

I know, I know—Harden is the second best arm in this rotation when healthy (arguably the best). The key there is "when healthy." In order to keep him off the shelf and shake up the righty-lefty order, I'd move him down in the rotation so I could skip a couple starts over the course of the year. Plus, can you imagine matching up most team's fourth starter against Harden? Niiiice.


Closer—Carlos Marmol (R)
Set-up—Kevin Gregg (R)
Set-up—Jeff Samardzija (R)
Set-up—Neal Cotts (L)
Set-up—Aaron Heilman (R)

On paper, that club should waltz it's way to at least the National League Championship Series. Of course, you could've probably said the same thing about 2008's version and we all know how that ended. This year, though, the Cubbies have made several improvements.

The order is more formidable and that's saying something because it was pretty potent last year.

I never understood why everyone was so convinced Kosuke Fukudome was gonna be a star, even after his hot start. His role's reduced, having been supplanted by Milton Bradley. Bradley's an offensive stud when he's healthy and figures to produce well from one of the outfield corners.

Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez both had down years. Their numbers look pretty good—a .291 average, 41 doubles, 20 homeruns, 93 runs scored, 90 runs batted in, a .361 on-base percentage, and an .823 OPS for Lee with a .289 average, 44 doubles, 27 HRs, 97 runs scored, 111 RBI, a. 380 OBP, and an .898 OPS for Ramirez. But the supporting case was better than in recent years so the numbers are misleading. Aramis was whiffing far more than usual and Lee couldn't keep the ball of the ground at times.

Even if both continue a slow decline, they shouldn't be much worse and a rebound from either or both wouldn't be shocking considering Lee's only 33 and Ramirez is three years younger.

Geovany Soto quickly established himself as one of the best offensive backstops in the game last year while posting a .285 average with 35 doubles, 23 bombs, 66 runs scored, 86 RBI, a .364 OBP, and an .868 OPS. Those are great numbers from any position, from catcher? Whoa.

It's true that losing Mark DeRosa and Jim Edmonds might sting a bit. But Aaron Miles is serviceable and I personally like what Mike Fontenot's shown thus far. Over the last couple of years, Fontenot has seen 479 at-bats—about a full year's worth. He's tallied a .290 average with 34 doubles, 12 homers, 78 runs scored, 69 RBI, a .369 OBP, and an .826 OPS.

That'll do in a pinch and he might have room to grow considering he's only 28 and has yet to see full-time duty in the Bigs.

As for Edmonds' alleged replacement, Reed Johnson won't hit for the power that Jimmy did, but he won't strikeout as much and will hit for much better average. Chicago's power production shouldn't be a problem so that looks like a good swap to me.

When it takes this long to get to a player the caliber of Alfonso Soriano, that's saying something about your offense.

Meanwhile, the pitching is just as pretty a picture...on paper.

Carlos Zambrano is a horse with that edge that an ace needs to survive. Ryan Dempster—though not worth the contract he got—is a damn fine number two or three. Rich Harden could be even better than Big Z if he could make 30 starts and Ted Lilly is a nice three or four. While Sean Marshall isn't as consistent as the departed Jason Marquis, he's got a higher upside if he can realize the raw potential in his 26-year-old, 6'7" frame.

In the bullpen, losing Bobby Howry and Kerry Wood will hurt. But adding Kevin Gregg, putting another year of experience on the nasty Carlos Marmol, and getting a full year from a wiser Jeff Samardzija should be a nice little balm for that sore spot. Those are three quality arms and weakest (Gregg) is the wiliest.

It says here the Chicago Cubs are clearly the class of the NL Central. Nobody has the guns or the bats on paper to compete with them in baseball's biggest division. The Cincinnati Reds might be able to run with the Cubbies for while if Aaron Harang can bounce back, Johnny Cueto progresses, and Edinson Volquez doesn't regress. But they'd still need some lucky breaks from their young guys on offense.

Therein lies part of the problem from the lovable losers from the North Side.

Nothing short of the postseason will be considered a success. Even another first round kick to the seat will be received with groans and hostility. And these are the Chicago Cubs we're talking about—a franchise that's not exactly robust in their resolve against adversity according to recent history.

That doesn't bode particularly well.

Neither does relying on the insane fragility of Milton Bradley, Rich Harden, and Alfonso Soriano. Those three guys WILL go down at some point. You can also bet another key player will spend some time on the Disabled List because that's just the nature of the game.

So the path to Major League Baseball's second season isn't as sunny and safe as it might look.

If the Chicago Cubs can deal with the expectations and the constant questions about their historic futility and the injuries that are sure to come, they should be a sight to behold.

If not?

They'll still be worth watching. But for an entirely different reason.

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