Monday, May 21, 2012

Chicago Cubs: Can Mediocrity Make a Difference?

The Chicago Cubs are not playoff contenders, they are not playoff hopefuls, they are barely a team of note in the National League right now. In all honesty the most noteworthy thing that may occur this season is the announcement that Kerry Wood has officially called it a career. Whether the Cubbies decide to go into an all out rebuilding phase and trade away everything that isn’t physically attached to Wrigley Field or they decide to sit on their roster and see what the offseason and the draft have in store for them, they’re bad, and not getting better immediately.

Randy Wells isn’t necessarily going to be starting much for the Cubbies this season after two unimpressive outings got him sent back to AAA for some work, but while he’s voiced his displeasure with being sent back down after 3 years with the big league club his walk rate was climbing slowly all the time, and (small sample size warning) was ridiculously bad before he was sent back down to try to work that one out. Wells’ past shows he has the ability to be a reasonably effective groundball pitcher, though he’s gotten away from that over the past year and change, and after only 2 starts while issuing more walks and hits than innings pitched, the decision was made. Wells will likely be better for the demotion, your position on a major league roster most certainly is earned whether you’re trying to break in with the best team in the league or you’re playing for a perennial cellar dweller.

Paul Maholm opened the season by attempting to make the Cubs look stupid for signing him giving up 3 homers and 12 runs over his first 2 starts totalling 8 innings. Since then Maholm has been making up for those two starts and over his last 5 starts has given up 7 runs over 31 & ⅓ innings to provide his team with a 2.01 ERA over that period. Maholm is a groundball pitcher who in the early going has taken it to the extreme, and in limiting line drives to an impossibly low 9%, Maholm is looking great (especially after those first 2 starts are omitted). Maholm *will not* keep his line drive percentage that low, and with that his BABIP will probably come back up closer to the .290 he saw last year from the .233 he’s seeing now. His infield flyball ratio will probably come back down to earth too, but if he can continue keeping batters on top of pitches his ERA will come down and his WHIP may stay manageable, though likely not at the current 1.169 he’s enjoying now.

Chris Volstad is all of the return that Chicago got for their former ace/resident headcase Carlos Zambrano and eating most of his contract. Volstad has so far looked like absolute garbage, He so far has managed 1 quality start. That quality start wasn’t even truly earned,  courtesy of an error or so he only gave up 3 earned runs. Volstad is of course a very tall pitcher, which makes his mechanics that much harder to handle on both ends. Volstad is a near even groundball/flyball pitcher so his BABIP at .331 (over his career mark of .303) is a bit high, and if he can start to more effectively keep batters on top of pitches could come down in a hurry, but overall he’s living on contact, which you can’t do if you’re also putting men on base for free. Volstad has walked 15 so far over his 41 innings, but has only struck out 24. I wouldn’t exactly say this inspires much confidence in his control or his overall repertoire. Overall Volstad is looking like a steep price to have paid to move Zambrano.

Ryan Dempster is looking to rebound after a miserable year last year posting an ERA+ of 80 with a 4.80 ERA, he’s come out of the gate strong with a 2.28 ERA  and a career low walk rate (2.7 per 9) while maintaining the strikeout momentum (perhaps the only positive) from last season. Dempster is putting together a bit less of a show over his past 2 starts, giving up a combined 8 runs over 12 innings, but plenty of pitchers hit little slumps here and there so I wouldn’t let that kill an otherwise stellar start to this year.  I’d be concerned that Dempster’s BABIP is so very far below his lifetime numbers (.264 vs a career .307) especially coupled with a 24% line drive rate. He’s literally giving up 1 streak shot for every 4 at bats that end in a ball in play. These will balance out to being more shots into gaps and into the seats as the year goes on. Something has to give when there are disparities like that, you can’t give up liners directly at fielders all year, and if you’re giving them up with that kind of frequency, they’ll start to burn you. Dempster will all but have to regress some or make some serious adjustments to continue to build on a strong start.

Jeff Samardzija is giving the Cubs a lot of reason to believe in the reliever turned starter concept. So far Samardzija has provided the cubbies with 51 innings this season where his stats are actually better than last year’s 88 relief innings. So far as a starter he has managed to keep opposing batters on the ground about ½ of the time and when the ball is lifted, it’s not really being driven with only a 14% line drive rate so far. Couple that with his 25.5% strikeout rate and less than 8% walk rate, the Shark is looking pretty good as a member of a rotation in desperate need of building blocks for the future. I would be somewhat surprised to see his numbers looking this good at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, it just seems like he’s due for a little regression, but by no means do I expect him to suddenly become a bad pitcher, he has been able to do all the right things so far it’s just a matter of how the league adjusts, and how he adjusts back.

Matt Garza is perhaps the most valuable player the Cubs have at the moment. He is in the midst of his 6th consecutive season at or above league average Garza’s BABIP is probably a big part of his success this season sitting at .248 while his career mark is a .290 (still better than the league) He’s letting opposing batters put the ball in the air a little more than ½ of the time, but has been able to keep line drives in check (17% of all balls in play so far) and with his 8+ strikeouts per 9 he looks to continue his above average pitching through the season, even as his BABIP adjusts. I would be surprised to see Garza keep up this pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him continuing to be a dominant pitcher for the Cubs and a potential trade candidate to help bolster the starting 5 for a contender for a season and ½.

The Cubs are registering as slightly more than a sad joke this season, having a better record (15-26) than the Minnesota Twins (14-27 as of this writing) and are overall just an underwhelming club despite Garza and Samardzija’s strong and potentially consistent contributions. This is the type of team that could legitimately make a better run at post season by starting fresh a la Major League.

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