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MLB Team Previews: 2011 Cubs Preview

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Not Ready to Rebuild

Since 2008, the Cubs have slid from 97 wins to 83 in 2009 to 75 last year. While Geovany Soto (only 322 at-bats) and Alfonso Soriano (.818 OPS) bounced back to an extent, collapses by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez (due to a thumb injury), and less effective pitching were too much to overcome. With Soriano and Carlos Zambrano carrying disastrous contracts, no true No. 1 starter and below-average options in center field and second base, the Cubs might have decided to blow this team up and rebuild. Instead, they traded a package of quality prospects for Matt Garza, signed Carlos Pena to replace Lee and got Kerry Wood on the cheap to shore up the bullpen. With those additions and the return of promising rookies Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin, it's not farfetched the Cubs could be a darkhorse in the NL Central - though the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers are probably better bets.

Offseason Moves:

Transaction: Comment:
Traded SS Hak-Ju Lee, OF Brandon Guyer, P Christopher Archer, C Robinson Chirinos and OF Sam Fuld to Rays for P Matt Garza and OF Fernando Perez. Garza gives them another front-of-the-rotation arm to go along with Ryan Dempster, but Lee and Archer are both good prospects, and Guyer tore up Double-A last year, though he was 24 years old. Short-term, this helps, but the cost of Garza, who is solid but not a true ace, was steep.
Signed free agent 1B Carlos Pena to a one-year $10 million deal. Pena will start at first base and hit in the heart of the batting order. There's no doubt about the power, and he has on-base skills if he can get his batting average north of .240 again.
Signed free-agent P Kerry Wood to a one-year $1.5 million deal. The Cubs got Wood at a great price, and you have to think he gave them a hometown discount, so to speak. He'll set up Carlos Marmol and would be the odds-on favorite to close should Marmol falter.
Traded P Tom Gorzelanny and OF Michael Burgess to the Nationals for P Graham Hicks, P A.J. Morris. The Cubs had extra pitching depth, but Hicks is a project, and Morris hasn't blown anyone away in the low minors.
Claimed C Max Ramirez off of waivers. After a monstrous Double-A stint in 2008, Ramirez has disappointed. Still, he hit a little at Triple-A in 2010 and is just 25 years old. He'll likely start at Triple-A Iowa and would need a Geovany Soto injury and have to leapfrog Welington Castillo and Koyie Hill on the depth chart.
Signed free agent OF Reed Johnson. He'll vie for a fifth outfield job.
Replaced manager Lou Piniella with Mike Quade. It's hard to know whether and to what extent Quade will shake things up, but one player who stands to benefit is Geovany Soto whom Piniella often benched for Koyie Hill for God knows what reason.

Projected Lineup/Rotation: Lineup (vs. RH/vs. LH):

  1. RF Kosuke Fukudome/Tyler Colvin*
  2. SS Starlin Castro
  3. 1B Carlos Pena
  4. 3B Aramis Ramirez
  5. CF Marlon Byrd
  6. LF Alfonso Soriano/Tyler Colvin*
  7. C Geovany Soto
  8. 2B Blake DeWitt/Jeff Baker

* will split at-bats, not a strict platoon. Fukudome could be dealt at any point as the team will want Colvin to get at-bats. Before that happens, the Cubs essentially have four outfielders for three spots. When Colvin plays over Fukudome, it's unclear whether he'd hit leadoff to keep everyone in his regular slot (obviously Colvin with his .316 OBP isn't ideally suited for it). Baker and DeWitt could form a strict platoon or not - it's possible DeWitt could take the job and run with it. Soto should hit higher and might before long, but we think he'll slot in the seven-hole to start the year.

Starting Rotation:

  1. Ryan Dempster
  2. Carlos Zambrano
  3. Matt Garza
  4. Randy Wells
  5. Carlos Silva

We put Zambrano over Garza at No. 2 simply because we think the team will due to seniority - Garza's clearly the more valuable property at this stage of their respective careers, despite Zambrano's strong finish. Carlos Silva doesn't have the No. 5 slot locked up, but given his veteran status and strong season in 2010, he's the odds-on favorite. Hard-throwing prospect Andrew Cashner, James Russell and Thomas Diamond among others will attempt to unseat Silva in spring training.

Closer: Carlos Marmol

Marmol is the most unhittable pitcher in all of baseball (16.0 K/9), but because he issues so many walks (6.0/9), he comes with some risk if the K rate drops even to normal elite levels. In any event, he's the undisputed closer, gives you starter-type Ks (138 last year) and has a good deal of job security. Kerry Wood would likely be next in line should something happen to Marmol with Sean Marshall, coming off a fantastic year, an option from the left side. Cashner is a dark horse if things fall apart.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Starting Pitching

This rotation is solid but unspectacular with Dempster and Garza profiling more as No. 2s, and the erratic Zambrano profiling anywhere from a No. 2 to a No. 5. Wells is a groundballer with decent peripherals, but he'll need Castro, Ramirez, DeWitt and Pena to play well in the infield. Silva had a huge rebound last year, but his ceiling is limited. Getting a surprisingly good showing out of Cashner or another prospect would be a needed lift.

Bullpen

As long as Marmol doesn't implode and Wood stays healthy, this is a strong pen. Marshall was an elite lefty last year, and Cashner gives the team another big arm should he fail to make the rotation.

On-base skills are lacking, power is good

Besides Fukudome and Soto (both of whom will be lucky to get 500 at-bats, assuming the former is even with the team this summer), no one else can get on base. Pena will draw walks, but unless he hits .245 (his career average is .241), he's marginal in that department, especially for a middle of the order hitter. Ramirez and Castro can hit for average, but they don't draw walks, and the rest of the team does neither. On the other hand, Soriano, Ramirez, Pena and Soto all have big-time power, and even Byrd and especially Colvin (.500 SLG) will contribute in that department.

Strengths:

Power-hitting, bullpen.

Weaknesses:

On-base skills, lack of a No. 1 starter, injury-prone hitters, outfield defense.

Sleepers:

Rising: Geovany Soto - we had him in this spot last year, and he led all catchers in OPS. This year, Lou Piniella's gone, and Soto gets close to 500 at-bats with similar rate stats.

Declining: Carlos Marmol - don't pay for last year's 16 K/9 - that's probably not sustainable, and the control issues could cost him if the rate drops down to a more reasonable but still elite 12 K/9. Marmol's being priced as a top closer, but there are far safer options at his price.

Sleeper: - Kerry Wood pitched well for the Yankees despite some control issues last year, but he's happy to be back in Chicago and would be the likely first choice if the electric but erratic Marmol were to implode.

Supersleeper: - Andrew Cashner - he still needs to improve his control, but he's got ace stuff, keeps the ball on the ground and only has to beat out Carlos Silva for a job. Even if Cashner doesn't win a rotation spot right away, there's a good chance he sees time there by the summer.

Roster:

Here's the rundown on the rest of the team, not mentioned above

Jeff Baker, 2B - Baker signed a one-year deal in December, which means he'll return as a part-time second baseman and back up Carlos Pena at first and Aramis Ramirez at third. Baker's defense is merely average, and while he has modest power, his plate discipline and contact skills are below par. The younger (and left-handed) Blake DeWitt should get most of the playing time, but it's unclear exactly how the at-bats will be split up.

Darwin Barney, SS - Barney got a cup of coffee in September and didn't hit. He can play second, short and third, and he runs well (though he hasn't translated his raw speed into base-stealing ability), so he'll be considered for a utility role. Otherwise, his skill set - not much power or patience, good contact skills - doesn't jump out.

Justin Berg, RHP - Berg kept the ball on the ground last year, but that's about the only good thing one can say about his performance. He walked 20 batters in 40 innings, and struck out just 14. He was a little more effective at Triple-A, but you can chalk that up to a .249 BABIP there. He'll compete for a middle relief role, but has almost no upside of which to speak.

Esmailin Caridad, RHP - An elbow injury in April cost Caridad most of the season, though he did make a brief and ineffective stint with the Cubs in September. Caridad has passable command and can miss Triple-A bats on occasion, but he was awfully hittable in the high minors (17 homers, .322 BABIP in 131.2 IP in 2009). He'll battle for a middle-relief role this spring

Welington Castillo, C - Castillo is a good defensive catcher with some pop in his bat, but lacks plate discipline and on-base skills. He played well in a brief September callup last year, and should compete for a job backing up Geovany Soto. That said, the team tendered Koyie Hill a contract in December, so Castillo could begin the year at Triple-A.

Casey Coleman, RHP - Coleman pitched passably as a rookie last year, keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. But his 27:25 K:BB ratio in 57 innings pitched makes him an innings-eating back-end starter at best, assuming he manages to secure the last slot in the team's rotation.

Thomas Diamond, RHP - Diamond saw some work in the Cubs rotation down the stretch and after a good start (10 K, 3 BB) against the Brewers, got knocked around. Diamond struck out nearly a batter an inning at Triple-A, but his command was inconsistent. At age 27, he's not really a prospect anymore, but has a chance to be in the back-of-the-rotation mix with a strong spring.

John Grabow, LHP - Grabow pitched poorly through knee problems last year before succumbing to a torn MCL in August. He should be OK for the start of the season, but he's just an average-at-best left-handed middle relief option. With Kerry Wood now in the primary setup role in front of Carlos Marmol, there's little chance that Grabow will pick up more than the occasional save.

Koyie Hill, C - The Cubs tendered Hill a contract in December, and we're not sure why, given the presence of Wellington Castillo who seems ready to assume the role of Geovany Soto's backup. In any event, if Hill is with the team, he'll back up Soto and bring his combination of no power, no on-base skills and free-swinging tendencies for a start or two per week this season.

Marcos Mateo, RHP - Mateo saw some work with the Cubs at the end of the year, and while the 26:9 K:BB ratio in 21 IP looks promising, he gave up six homers in that span which explains the unsightly 5.82 ERA. In short, Mateo could win a middle relief job out of camp, but he'll have to cut down on the walks and the long balls before he earns an important role.

James Russell, RHP - Russell logged 49 IP as a rookie, and at first glance, his peripherals (42:11 K:BB) look awfully good. But a closer look reveals 11 homers, thanks to a miniscule 0.66 G/F rate. He's got a good chance to make the team again as a middle reliever and an outside chance to win the No. 5 starter job, but needs to keep the ball in the park.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP - Samardzija has a great arm, but simply lacks anything close to the command necessary for success at the major league level. In fact, he hasn't even pitched particularly well at Triple-A the last two years. He'll vie for a spot at the back end of the rotation with a cast of dozens, and failing that, could wind up in the bullpen in a low-leverage role. But it's more likely he begins the year at Triple-A.

Todd Wellemeyer, RHP - Wellemeyer signed a minor league deal with the Cubs on Tuesday, ESPNChicago’s Bruce Levine reports. Wellemeyer had a poor season in 2010 for the Giants working mostly as a starter with a 5.52 ERA and 1.568 WHIP in 13 appearances. Look for him to compete for a bullpen spot with the Cubs this season.

Top Prospects:

Brett Jackson, OF - Jackson turned in his second straight solid minor league season, this time as a 21-year-old at High-A and Double-A. Jackson has good speed (18 steals in 22 attempts at Double-A), good power and decent plate discipline, but with just 228 at-bats in the high minors and a crowded Cubs outfield, he's likely to begin the year at Triple-A. With a strong showing there, a September callup strikes us as likely, but unless injuries strike (or the Cubs deal Alfonso Soriano (not easy) and/or Kosuke Fukudome), it would be surprising to see Jackson sooner.

Andrew Cashner, RHP - Cashner dominated as a starter in the high minors last year, but struggled as a reliever for the big league club, with too many walks and pitches over the middle of the plate. Cashner did strike out nearly a batter an inning and also kept the ball on the ground, so there's reason to be encouraged. The 2008 first-round pick can reach 98 mph with his fastball and features a sharp-breaking slider and a solid changeup, a repertoire he could get a chance to display at the back end of the team's rotation this year, especially now that Kerry Wood's signing has the setup role covered.

Trey McNutt, RHP - McNutt is now the top pitching prospect in the Cubs' organization with Chris Archer traded to the Rays in the Matt Garza deal and Andrew Cashner likely making the big-league club. If he's able to improve his changeup, there's reason to believe we're looking at good No. 2 starter type. Even if that doesn't happen, McNutt has an excellent fastball (92-98 mph) and breaking ball, which should make him a viable late-inning reliever. For now, the Cubs will continue his development as a starter and he'll likely return to Double-A Tennessee after getting a taste of that level following a dominant 22-start run between Low- and High-A (139:33 K:BB in 101 innings) last season.

Josh Vitters, 3B - The third overall pick in 2007, Vitters took a step back last year with a .223/.292/.383 line in 206 Double-A at-bats before breaking a finger in late July. He's still just 21 years old, and the power is real, but his poor plate discipline is likely to remain a problem even in the high minors. Expect Vitters to start the season at Double-A where he'll have to work on his batting eye or prove he can get by without it.

Chris Carpenter, RHP - Carpenter throws hard (up to 98 mph) and has a good curveball, but injuries (two elbow surgeries) and control issues have held him back. Barring a free-agent signing, the team's fifth rotation slot is up for grabs, and Carpenter could put himself in the mix this summer with a strong start at Triple-A. That said, he's probably behind Carlos Silva, Casey Coleman, Jay Jackson and possibly even former first-round pick Andrew Cashner to get a shot in the rotation

Matt Szczur, OF - Szczur was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the '10 class, from Villanova. His name is pronounced "Caesar" as in the Roman dictator. He's a premium athlete with blazing speed, and he'll draw walks. He lacks power, however, which might preclude a starting role at higher levels.

Hayden Simpson, RHP - The Cubs selected Simpson out of Southern Arkansas University with the 16th overall pick last year. A Division II star, Simpson is smallish for a right-hander at 6-0, but has a 90-96 MPH fastball and a big-breaking curve. Simpson was projected in the third or fourth round, and is still a project at this point.

Jay Jackson, RHP - As a 22-year-old at Triple-A, Jackson held his own, but not much more. On the positive side, his command improved significantly (just 2.75 BB/9IP), but he was inconsistent from start to start, and his strikeout rate dropped to 6.82 K/9IP from 8.16 at Double-A the year before. Jackson also moved into the bullpen for seven effective appearances before returning to the rotation in late May. Jackson throws a low-90s fastball, with a changeup, slider and curve, and could get a chance to compete for one of the last rotation spots this spring.

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