Cubs-Brewers '07...An In-Depth Analysis
# 1 Starter...Ben Sheets v. Carlos Zambrano.
This has the potential to be a terrific matchup. Sheets is the true X-Factor for the Brewers in 2007. Although his win totals have never been eye-catching, true baseball fans are aware that wins and losses are perhaps the 3rd or 4th most telling stat when it comes to evaluation of a starting pitcher. And Sheets' peripheral stats are truly remarkable. Consider the following...
Over the last three years, two of those he spent battling nagging injuries, Sheets has compiled 521 strikeouts, while walking just 68 in 499.6 innings. That's a 7.6/1 ratio, amongst the best in baseball. Sheets compiled an ERA of 3.13 over that time frame, once again amongst the best in the game. Although Sheets has picked up the dreaded Prior-like "injury-prone" status, Sheets missed a total of 3 starts over his first four full seasons (throwing well over 200 innings in three of them), and still managed to pitch over 250 innings over the course of the last two seasons. And by all accounts, this spring is the healthiest Sheets has felt since 2002.
Sheets put up some amazing numbers last year, despite the nagging injuries that limited him to 17 starts. Jeff Sackman’s brilliant article on hardball times pointed this out that in 106 innings of work last year, he posted 11 walks, while striking out 106 batters. No other pitcher has EVER thrown 50 more innings in a season while striking out a batter per inning, and walking fewer than on per 9. Incredible stuff. If you want a taste of what Ben can do over the course of a full season, refer to 2004, his last fully healthy campaign: He had a stellar ERA of 2.70, struck out 264 batters in 237 innings, and walked just 32, an 8.3-1 K/BB ratio. If the Brewers can coax 200 innings out of Sheets' golden right arm,
Zambrano is no slouch himself. Like Sheets, he is a two-time All-Star. Also like Sheets, his best season came in 2004, when he posted an ERA of 2.75 and a WHIP (Walks and hit per innings pitched) of 1.2. Unlike Sheets, Zambrano's durability can't be questioned. He's pitched at least 200 innings (these days the barometer for a workhouse starter) for the last four consecutive years, and his bulldog manor on the mound has served him well for the most part. One thing that might be of concern to Z is that, while his K/9 ratio was a career high 8.8, his BB/9 ratio also marked his highest total since becoming a full-time starter in 2003 at 4.8. Basically, both of those numbers mean he throws a ton of pitches per start. It will be interesting to see if those numbers, combined with the ridiculous mis-use of the pitching staff that characterized the Dusty Baker Era in
# 2 Starter...Jeff Suppan v. Ted Lilly.
The Brewers are paying Suppan 42 million over 4 years to do what he's done the last eight years...pitch at least 188 innings, provide a better than league average ERA, be a mentor to younger pitchers, and be a stabilizing force. $10.5/year might sound like a steep price, especially for the Brewers, but it was the going rate for those types in the offseason, and Brewers brass felt strongly enough about the rest of the team to invest in Suppan. His remarkable durability and postseason experience (he was the MVP of the '06 NLCS) make him a pretty decent # 2 starter, but certainly his stuff won't blow anyone away. His numbers over the past three years, in almost every category, are basically the same. He is 32 years old, which is a concern with any pitcher. However, because he is not, nor has he ever been, a flamethrower, age issues shouldn't effect him all that much.
The Cubs, meanwhile, shelled out basically the same deal for Lilly (4 years, 40 million). Lilly is a year younger, has never pitched 200 innings, has pitched never won a post-season game, and has a career ERA of 4.60. On the plus side, he's a lefty, had a terrific year in 2004, and pitched in baseball's toughest division over the last three years. While it would be hard to argue that Lilly is worth the $10/year he got, he should provide decent dependability to the rotation.
# 3 Starter ...Chris Capuano v. Jason Marquis
Over the last two years, Capuano has proven to be a dependable starter that shows flashes of brilliance. An All-Star in 2006, the lefty has pitched 440 innings over the last two years, has one of the best pickoff moves in all of baseball, and has a combined ERA of just under 4 for the last two seasons. Cappy made huge strides last season in improving his K/BB ratio. While maintaining his strikeout rate (176 in '05, 174 in '06), Cappy allowed just 47 walks in '06, as compared to 91 in the year prior. He has started 69 games over the past two seasons, and was 7th in the National League in innings pitched in 2006. He finished 6th in the NL in BB/9, with 1.91.
Marquis was signed to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal despite being so terrible for the Cardinals in 2006 that they left him off their playoff roster. Marquis finished 2006 with a an ERA of 6.02 and struck out just 96 while walking 75. The Cubs have to hope that Larry Rothschild can bring back the Marquis that pitched over 200 innings in both 2004 and 2005, while compiling an ERA of around 4.23. Not stellar numbers, but at least enough to take some pressure off the bullpen and give your team a chance to win the game. Marquis' whip last season was over 1.5.
# 4 Starter...Dave Bush v. Rich Hill
Bush is an interesting story for the Brewers. He went to
Hill is a pretty decent prospect for the Cubs that has always done well in the minors, but had a horrific big league stint in 2005. Last season appeared to be much the same as after 10 outings, he was carrying an ugly 6.44 ERA. However, Hill put his big, sweeping curveball to work for him down the stretch and ended up with an ERA of 4.17. It appeared as though he had things figured out, so 2007 will be a crucial year for Hill to make the leap. Who is the real Rich Hill? The guy that struggled through his first 20 outings or so, or the one that had terrific success in his last 7 outings in 2007?
#5 Starter...Claudio Vargas v. Wade Miller
Vargas, acquired in the Doug Davis-Johnny Estrada deal, is a fairly league average pitcher that has the ability to pitch a gem from time to time. However, despite his relative success last year, I am a bit skeptical at his abilities. He had a nice home/road split, which in this case means he wasn't very good in the hitter-friendly environs of BankOne Park, but was very decent (4.12 ERA) away from Arizona. I'll take a wait and see approach. He's 29, so it's not like he's going to get a lot better here quickly.
I project Miller to win the 5th spot, but could easily be wrong, as Guzman and others are challenging. Miller in an interesting project. From 2002-2004, he averaged 184 innings, and compiled a solid 3.57 ERA for the Astros. However, in the three years since he has started merely 36 games, including 5 for the Cubs in late-season duty last year. Since his injury, his K/BB ratio has been atrocious, as he has walked 109 batters while striking out 158 in 199 innings. Last season, he walked 18 and struck out 20 for the Cubs, posting a pretty terrible 1.7 WHIP. While Miller was once a solid pitcher, he's 30 now, and coming off a serious injury. If he somehow returns to form, he will be a nice #5.
6th starter/Long Man/AAA Depth...Carlos Villanueva v. Angel Guzman
Villanueva is one of the pleasant surprises to come out of the Brewers farm system in the past few seasons. Acquired from the Giants for Wayne Franklin in 2003, Villanueva was a little-known rookie ball pitcher with average velocity and a slight frame. Whatever the Brewers brass saw in him, their faith was rewarded as Carlos steadily rose up the system, posting a 3.24 ERA in his minor league career. Villanueva was called up from AA last season after a string of terrible outings by higher touted prospects in the stead of Sheets and Tomo Ohka, who went down simultaneously with serious arm injuries. His 2006 starting debut came against
Guzman is a very highly regarded prospect for the Cubs that has seen little major league success. His only stint in the show came in 2006, and like much of the rest of the Cubs staff, was summarily lit up like Clark Grizwald’s Christmas tree. He ended the season with a 7.39 ERA that was actually much worse (9.28 ERA) as a starter. He has solid stuff according to most accounts, but is also advancing in age for a prospect, as he turned 25 in December. His minor league numbers are beyond reproach, as he has compiled an ERA of 2.83 over 7 seasons in the Cubs minor league system. 20027 will be a put up or shut up kind of season for Guzman.
Middle Relief…Turnbow, Wise, Capellan, Shouse v. Eyre, Howry, Novoa, Wood, Ohman
The keys to the Brewers bullpen lay in the hands of Derrick Turnbow. The former Angel castoff took
The Cubs middle relief was a high point last season, as high dollar contracts doled out to the likes of Bobby Howry (3.17 ERA) and Scott Eyre (3.38) paid off nicely. Other bullpen stalwarts included Will Ohman (4.13 ERA, 78G) and Roberto Novoa (4.26 ERA, 66G), both of whom will be integral parts of the 2007 pen. Neil Cotts has had one decent season, 2005, but posted a WHIP of 1.63 last season, and a 5.17 ERA The X factor for
Closer…Cordero v. Dempster
Dempster, a converted starter, had a nightmare 2006. He went 1-9 with a 4.80 ERA and nine saves. Because, save Wood, the Cubs don’t have another candidate for closer, Dempster will at least start the season with the job. He did the job in 2005, saving 33 games while compiling a 3.13 ERA.
Misc. Bullpen comments…
A bullpen’s best friend is a starting rotation that can consistently get deep into games. In this way, the Brewers figure to have a large edge, particularly as the season wears on, and the bullpens wear out. Although there are question marks in the middle of
Catcher…Estrada v. Barrett
In their only trade of the offseason, the Brewers sought to upgrade their catching position that has been a weak spot in the lineup since David Nilsson hit .309 with 21 home runs in 1999, making the All-Star team in the process. Estrada is a guy that is known more for his offense than his defense, but his arm should be adequate for what his bat can provide. He had a terrific 2004 for the Braves, hitting .314 with 9 HR before regressing into a .261 season in 2005, featuring just 4 long balls. He bounced back in 2006 with the Diamondbacks, hitting .302 with a career high 11 home runs. The issue with Estrada is that he doesn’t draw a lot of walks (just 13 in 2006). So when his batting average goes, so too goes his OBP down the tunes. However, at age 31, he shouldn’t be in a quick decline, and hopefully finish somewhere around that .300 mark. He certainly has people taking note of his hitting skills in
Barrett has been remarkably consistent in his three years with the Cubs, hitting exactly 16 home runs each season, and always batting between .275 and .307. While his walk rate is better than Estrada, he also doesn’t meet the 1 BB/10 AB standard preferred by OBP mavens. He’s the same age as Estrada roughly, and shouldn’t decline too much in 2007.
1st Base…Fielder vs. Lee
A position of strength for both teams to be sure. Fielder had a terrific rookie campaign, shaking off an 0-11 start with 27 home runs, and a solid .830 OPS (on-base plus slugging, the preferred offensive metric for most statheads). Seeing that he’s only 23 years old, and 2006 was his first full season of action, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he won’t exceed his 2006 numbers. His ceiling is virtually unlimited, and he could easily turn into one of the game’s top sluggers. He was very durable last year, playing 157 games, and was better defensively than most expected.
Derrek Lee’s absence from the Cubs lineup was a major contributing factor to their garbage 2006 season. He hit well when he was in the lineup, though not up to the silly numbers he put up in 2005. In that season, his OPS was an astounding 1.080, good for first in the majors. Last season, he regressed back to .842, which was more near his career norms. I certainly think Lee’s a good hitter, but it’s also just as clear when looking at his career stats that the 2005 season was an outlier, and should be treated as such. Still, most teams would kill to have him in their lineup every day, and his defense is simply stellar at the bag.
2nd base…Weeks vs. DeRosa
Firmly entrenched as the Brewers leadoff hitter, this is a big year in the career of the talented Mr. Weeks. One of the highest touted prospects in baseball, Weeks tore through the minor leagues and made his debut in June of 2005. He got off to a solid start before injuring his thumb and sputtered down the stretch. 2006 was much of the same, as he missed the last 62 games with a wrist injury. It appears to be mostly healed, though in a troubling statement Weeks recently indicated that it still wasn’t 100%, merely good enough to play with. Weeks needs a healthy campaign for the Brewers to excel in 2007. He should steal well over 20 bases, hit at least 15 home runs, and hit around .280 with a decent OBP in 2007. Weeks still has the ceiling to be one of the top offensive 2nd baseman in baseball, but ’07 is a year to prove his mettle. Defensively, he was a disaster for the first 50 games, and nothing less than stellar his final 45 or so. His range is terrific, but he sometimes struggles with routine plays.
Mark DeRosa was signed by the Cubs in the offseason after spending two seasons with the Texas Rangers. In the offensive haven that is the Ballpark at
SS…Hardy v. Izturis
Much like Ricky Weeks, JJ Hardy has lots to prove as the Brewers SS. A 2nd round pick with silky smooth defensive abilities, Hardy saw his 2006 campaign cut short with an ankle injury that felled him on May 16. He had a very slow start to his major league career, hitting just .180 in the first half of his rookie campaign. However, the Brewers’ patience was rewarded when JJ bounced back with a .308 batting average in the 2nd half. He also has a surprising power stroke, hitting 14 homers in 159 career games. A realistic total year for Hardy would be around .270, 12-15 homers, and a solid year defensively. His plate discipline is acceptable, but as a potential #2 hitter in the lineup, more patience would be helpful.
Cesar Izturis was acquired in the Greg Maddox deal from the Dodgers last season, and there is no doubting his defensive acumen. The 2004 Gold Glove Award Winner sees has seen his share of problems as the plate, however. Besides a breakout year in 2004 when he was a National League All-Star and compiled a .711 .OPS, his highest season stands at just .624. That’s thanks mostly to his complete lack of plate discipline. Last season, he drew just 12 walks, and he’s never even came close to the 1BB/10 AB standard. It also doesn’t help that he doesn’t have any power at all, as Hardy (14) has more homers in 159 games that Izturis does (11) in over 650 games. The Cubs obviously feel that they are strong enough elsewhere offensively to overcome his deficiencies.
3B…Graffanino v. Ramirez
This is the one position in which the Brewers are obviously weak offensively. Their best laid plans went to waste once it became apparent that Corey Koskie might never play again after suffering a concussion last summer. At the very least, he’ll be out the first month or so, which left the Brewers with an interesting dilemma at 3rd base. They gave stud prospect Ryan Braun a look, and his bat wowed, while his glove woahed, which is why he’ll be spending opening day 2007 in a Nashville Sounds uniform instead of facing Derek Lowe and the Dodgers. The 26th best prospect in the game according to Baseball
Ramirez, meanwhile, is one of the Cubs’ greatest assets. They resigned him to a long-term deal over the winter, a just reward for the guy that has averaged 35 home runs and 105 RBI over the past three seasons, and has played solid defense at the hot corner. His OPS has declined over the past two seasons, but at over .900 all three years, he’s still doing just fine. At 29, he’s still got plenty of good years left, and should be a staple in the Cubs lineup for years to come.
LF…Jenkins v. Murton
The Brewers figure to give Geoff Jeknins the lions share of AB’s in left this season, though there has been plenty of noise about a platoon with lefty-masher Kevin Mench. After playing in left all his career, Jenks moved to right for two years to accommodate Carlos Lee. He was one of the game’s premier defensive LF’s for a long time, and although it appeared his defense slipped in the past couple of years, he should be fine out there. The question is weather he can hit LHP. The answer last year at least was a definitive no. He hit a paltry .133 against them last year, well down from his career mark of .244. He continued to mash against righties, hitting .306 with 15 of his 17 home runs. His season overall last year was disappointing. He limped into September hitting just .250 with 10 home runs, and for the first time in his career, he was benched. When injuries to other outfielders forced him back into the lineup, he excelled, hitting .409 with 7 homers in the season’s final month of action. Jenkins is also in the final year of a contract, and has been killing the ball against all pitchers in spring training thus far. It will be very interesting to see if Yost indeed does use Mench often against LHP. For his career, Mench is hitting .303 against lefties with a very healthy .930 OPS. After coming over from the Rangers in the Carlos Lee deal, Mench, a butcher defensively, struggled mightily, hitting just .230 with one home run in 130 Milwaukee AB’s. Seeing as though he hit 51 home runs in the two years prior in
Speaking of platoon, the Cubs might go that route as well, though I think it’s silly to take any AB’s away from Matt Murton to give to the aging Cliff Floyd. Murton last season put up solid numbers, hitting .292 with 13 home runs, showing decent plate discipline and putting put a .803 OPS. He hit righties almost as well as lefties (.782 vs. .870) and got stronger as the year went on (last three months over .300). He’s just 25 years old, is decent defensively, and is a player on the rise. Floyd, meanwhile, is 34 years old, bad in the outfield, and had just a .731 OPS last season with the Mets. He hit just .179 against lefties for a putrid .631 OPS, while he fashioned a decent .765 OPS against lefties. I don’t know why they signed him, unless it’s simply for depth on the bench. If that turns out to be the case, and Murton starts 130-plus games, then it’s not a bad signing. If they split the AB’s…not good.
CF…Hall v. Soriano.
Let’s compare some numbers, shall we?
Player A: .270 BA, .345 OBP, .898 OPS, 27 years old
Player B: .277 BA, .351 OBP, .911 OPS, 31 years old
If you had to guess, which player would have just signed a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal, and which player signed an 8-year, 136 million dollar contract, what would you say? Certainly most astute baseball followers would never say give the money to player B, especially when you consider that his normal position (LF) is a spot where you need those kind of numbers simply to stay afloat, right?
Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Player A is Bill Hall, and Player B is Alfonso Soriano. Soriano got the money, Bill Hall simply the production.
Hall is a pretty good story. A 6th round pick out of high school, Hall climbed the ladder pretty quickly and reached the big leagues (well before he was ready) by age 22. He stuck for good in 2004, but he was still without a position when he entered camp in 2005. He bounced around the diamond, playing 66 games at SS, 59 at 3B, and 23 at 2B. He did this while making a huge jump in his offensive game. His OPS jumped from .650 to .837, and his home run total from 9 to 17. He made another quantum leap in 2006, jumping from .837 to .898, and from 17 to 35 home runs. In another positive development, Hall went from walking 39 times to 63 and seems to have made plate discipline a priority in his game. His defense might be interesting to start out with, but Hall’s athleticism makes him a solid candidate for a CF spot.
Soriano, meanwhile, is coming off a good season which saw him mash 46 home run for the Washington Nationals. Plate discipline is neither a strength nor a focus for Soriano, as despite being the only formidable hitter in the Nats lineup, he walked just 67 times in 647 AB’s. That total represented almost double his previous career high. So perhaps he’s getting the hang of it. Or, perhaps he was just pitched around so much with that bad lineup that he couldn’t help himself. He also strikes out a ton, including a career-high 160 times last season. He was among the league’s worst 2nd basemen defensively with the Yankees and Rangers, and then made 11 errors in LF last season. He has not played a game in center field in his entire career. He has good speed, as evidenced by his 41 steals (he was also caught 17 times, too high of a number) last season, but it remains to be seen weather he can play a passable CF or not. And the contract is just ridiculous. I realize that Wrigley Field is a money-making machine, but do they honestly believe that this guy is going to be worth 17 million for more than a year or two? Studies have shown that the prime of a player’s career is between 27-30. He’s now 31. He will be 39 when his contract expires. He plays a position, or at least WILL play a position that makes offense a premium (remember that the Cubs tried to get a CF so he wouldn’t have to play out there). Overall, a silly deal, but there’s also no question that he represents a significant upgrade for the 2007 Cubs.
RF…Hart v. Jones
Corey Hart has flat-out hit where ever he has gone. In seven minor league seasons, he hit .299, compiled an .855 OPS, and hit 86 home runs. The former 11th round draft pick was the MVP of the Southern League in 2003, and stole 131 bases. He was switched all around the diamond before settling in the outfield. Last season, Hart hit .283 with nine home runs in 82 games, positing an .798 OPS. I believe that given 500 AB’s, Hart could easily put up a .280, 20 HR, 80 RBI year, with an .830ish OPS and at least 15 steals. He’s got a lot of ability, is just 25, and should only get better as the years go by.
Jacque Jones had a pretty solid season last year, despite his bashing of the Wrigley Field faithful. Jones posted an .833 OPS last season, hitting 27 home runs on the season. He plays a very mediocre right field, making the Cubs defense in the outfield pretty terrible. He has very little plate discipline, striking out 116 times while walking only 35. Jones hit only .234 against lefties last season.
Bench…Counsell, Mench, Miller, Gross, Clark v. Floyd, Theriot, Blanco, Ward, Pagan
The Brewers’ depth in 2007 is one thing that sets them apart from years past. They have a solid backup infielder in Counsell, one of the game’s premier backup catchers in Damian Miller, and a stable of outfielders that, depth-wise, has to be among the best in baseball. Gabe Gross was solid off the bench in 2006, finishing with an OPS of .908 against righties. Brady Clark is a seasoned pro that can play any of the three outfield positions, and get on base at a decent clip. There still is a decent chance of a trade being made with one of the outfielders, most likely Mench, but they have the depth to lose of those guys.
The Cubs counter with Daryle Ward, who can’t play defense or hit lefties but is a solid option as a PH against righties. Ryan Theriot hit well in a brief stint in 2007, and could be given a long look at 2nd base if DeRosa struggles. Henry Blanco is the definition of the good-field, bad-hit catcher, who actually didn’t do too badly at the plate last season, hitting .266 with seven homers. Angel Pagan is reserve outfielder that could make the team, while Ronny Cedeno has a chance at a backup infielders spot.
Summary…The NL Central is wide open this year. You could make a solid argument that any of four teams could win the division. Conversely, you could also come up with a laundry list of reasons that any one of those teams could end up under .500. I believe that this will be the Brewers best year since 1992…however, I’m just not quite ready to predict a division title, as people from Baseball