Monday, November 11, 2013

Team Postmortem: Chicago Cubs

Record: 66-96, -87 Run Differential

Summary: From one Chicago club to the other. Where the White Sox have only just begun to rebuild, the Cubs started their effort last off-season where they traded almost all their established talent making any money -- and finished the job at the Trade Deadline. What's left is, essentially, a AAA team on a Major League roster. That said, the Cubs are on the right track, but let's start by taking a look at the team on the field.

We'll start with the offense. When you field a bunch of AAA players, essentially, you'd expect to have trouble scoring runs, and the Cubs did. Their 603 Runs ranks 28th in baseball, to pair with an anemic .238/.300/.392 battling line and a 87 wRC+ (26th in baseball). Their BB% of 7.9% sits 22nd in Baseball and is certainly a major area that will need improvement. However, there is actually a touch of good news. To my surprise, the Cubs actually showed power in 2013. They hit 172 homeruns in 2013, which ranks 9th and had an ISO of 154 (6th). Unfortunately, the 300 OBP mean no one was on base when it happened. Looking at their position players, it's shocking how much turnover the team had. Only six players managed to get into even 100 games; but that is the nature of the being aggressive sellers at the deadline. Leading the Out of Nowhere Power Brigade was Nate Schierholtz. Nate clubbed 21 home runs in 2013 after a previous career high of... nine. He had a .219 ISO. Unfortunately, like the rest of the Cubs, he didn't walk (5.8%) and struck out too much (18.7%) and, perhaps most unfortunately, no one bit on him at the trade deadline. In terms of guys who may be part of the Cubs' future, Anthony Rizzo held up the power end of his game, hitting 23 home runs with a 186 ISO and improving his walk rate to 11.0% (up from 7.3% last season). For him to take the next step to living up to his potential, he'll need to figure out how to hit left-handed pitching, against whom he had a .282 wOBA and 72 wRC+ (as opposed to righties who he hit for .345 and 115). On the bad news front, once-hyped prospect Starlin Castro continued to regress. He hit .245/.284/.347 with a wRC+ of 70. His BB% was a mere 4.3% while he struck out 18.3% of the time. These are career worsts in every statistic. He's only 23, but it seems like Castro will never live up to the hype.

Now for the pitching. By looking at purely at Runs Allowed, the Cubs' pitching wasn't that bad for the cellar-dwellers. They allowed 689 runs, putting them 18th in MLB. Looking at their peripherals makes it even worse, leading to a FIP of 4.10 (24th) and an xFIP of 4.13 (28th). However, the news isn't as bad as that as a lot of the damage was done by the Cubs' bullpen. Their starters' FIP of 4.03 actually ranks 13th, and  their xFIP--an identical 4.03--is 19th. Conversely, their bullpen was one of the worst in baseball, ahead of only the Astros. Fortunately, when you are rebuilding, the pen is pretty much at the bottom of your priority list--home to purely trade bait. Jeff Samardzija is probably the best pitcher on the staff right now. His ERA of 4.34 may seem unsightly, but it masks solid peripherals. He had a K/9 of 9.01 and a BB/9 of 3.29 (up from his 2.89 in 2012, his ability to bring that back down will be an important factor going forward), and a solid GB% of 48.2%, but got very unlucky on home runs and balls in play with a HR/FB of 13.3% and had a career high BABIP of 3.14. As a result his FIP (3.77) and xFIP (3.45) are significantly better than his ERA. He's under club control through 2015, and the Cubs may look to extend him, particularly is they believe that he can improve his control.

While Samardzija was unlucky, Travis Wood got lucky. His 6.48 K/9 is terrible and while he had solid control with a BB/9 of 2.97, one would assume those numbers would belong to a pitch-to-contact groundball style pitcher. Wood is not that, with a GB% of 33.2%. His HR/FB of 6.9% is unsustainably lucky, leading to his FIP of 3.89 and, particularly, his xFIP of 4.50 to far exceed his 3.11 ERA. (Likewise, I'd expect his BABIP luck, which sat at 248 this season and 244 last year, to run out eventually.) He is young, has potential, and is under control until 2016, so the Cubs will continue to give him every shot to improve and contribute to the future.

Clearly, at the moment, the Cubs are a bad baseball team. However, there is reason for optimism going forward. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done an excellent job rebuilding the farm system, which now sits as one of the best in the game.  The Cubs have been drafting well since Theo and company took over prior to the 2012 season, and have made a number of shrewd trades. How many trades? Just during the 2013 season, they moved Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza, Carlos Marmol, Scott Feldman, David DeJesus, and Scott Hairston for prospects. As a result, Bleacher Report ranked their farm system post-minor league season as 3rd in baseball. It's a deep system with some real talent. However, before Theo and company came in, it was a nearly empty system due to the dark Jim Hendry years; now a lot of the talent is still in the lower levels and there will be a few more years before the Cubs are respectable again. In the meantime, they will to continue to bolster the minor league system, look for Buy-Low candidates to flip at the 2014 Trade Deadline, and search for players to surround the upcoming younger players. Already there are rumors of going after Price, Ellsbury, and/or Choo. I would guess they are aiming for around 2015/2016 to be competitive. Can Theo Epstein bring a Ring to Chicago after doing so for Boston? I'll be rooting for them.

Team MVP: Wellington Castillo, 3.2 fWAR

Team LVP: Shawn Camp, -0.8 fWAR

Down On The Farm: As I said, the Cubs have managed to build an excellent farm system. The good news, they may have the strongest crop of positional prospects in the game. However, they are lacking in pitching prospects at the moment, but a few more good trades and improvement in their recent draft picks could change that. Overall, it's a talented and deep system. If they can work out the pitching, it may end up the best system in baseball. As usual, we'll take a look at two of their top prospects.

Shortstop Javier Baez, 20 years old, is the Cubs #1 prospect and one of the top prospects in baseball. He has excellent bat speed and top-shelf raw power. He split the year between A+ and AA, impressing in both levels. In AA, he hit .299/.352/.650 with 20 homers (in only 53 games!), a .350 ISO and 185 wRC+. While the hitting ability is there, he still needs to work on his plate discipline with a 40/147 K/BB ratio. He'll start 2014 in the minors, but could quickly make struggling incumbent Starlin Castro nervous. The Cubs can afford to be patient with him, however.

Albert Almora is a 19-year-old centerfielder who was, unfortunately, limited to only 61 games this year due to a pair of injuries (a broken hamate bone in Spring, and a groin injury to end the season). The scouting reports I've read peg him as both an excellent defender and baserunner. In A-ball this season, he hit .329/.376/.466. He doesn't walk much (6.3%), but limits strikeouts (11.0%) and makes contact. He does have potential to be a 20/20 type guy. He'll probably start 2014 in A+ with a good chance for a mid-season promotion to AA.

If APOD was GM: There are two major things for the Cubs to look for this off-season. The first is players that they could sign to complement the upcoming homegrown core, with an eye towards 2015/2016. As such, there have already been rumors of them going after Choo or Ellsbury and even trading for Price. They don't have a lot of money tied up into anything else, and those players should still be good when the Cubs are ready. As for Price, as much as pitching is what the Cubs need most, I suspect that the price (heh) for him will be far too high, especially for the Cubs' plan of relying on homegrown talent. Take a long hard look at Ellsbury and Choo, but stay off Price.

The other move is to look for candidates to flip for additional prospects at the deadline. I fully expect this to comprise the bulk of the Cubs' off-season moves, and it's a smart plan. One pitcher I'd take a look at is Phil Hughes. Hughes just came off a disastrous season, but the potential was there once. The control is still there (BB/9 - 2.59), but Hughes was ruined by the longball over the past two seasons. On the plus side, a move to the NL could help him, but Wrigley isn't really a pitcher's park which may not help his HR/FB issues. He may not be the right piece (he makes more sense for the Mets), but there will be moves to be made.

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