Wednesday, January 19, 2011

3 Questions: Chicago Cubs

By The Common Man

TCM had a big back yard perfect for playing “baseball” one-on-one in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given that his friends always wanted to be the Twins, TCM was forced to have a fallback option, and so he chose the Cubs. And he grew to love the Cubbies for a short time. TCM spent the summer of 1990 hitting like Jerome Walton in Little League. He thought he had the cannon arm of Shawon Dunston. And he felt certain that Mike Bielecki was just as good a pitcher as Greg Maddux.

Oh, how the times have changed. Walton hit .269/.333/.376 for his career in just 1760 plate appearances. Dunston had a career OBP of .296 and was actually a pretty terrible defensive shortstop. Bielecki would go 40-47 over the next 8 years, while Maddux would go 310-189 over the next 19. And the Cubs would go on to be one of the most frustrating free spenders in Major League Baseball, losing almost all of their charm in the process.

So now, disillusioned, what questions could The Common Man possibly want to ask the Cubs? Here are three of them.  (Reminder, to see a list of our other entries in the 3 Questions series, click here)

Question 1: How good is Starlin Castro?

Castro started 121 games last year as a 20 year old, and hit .300/.347/.408, good for a 97 OPS+. Since 1950, only eight players have gotten more than 400 plate appearances as a SS at 20 years old. Here’s the list:

NameYearOPS+Runs Created
Alex Rodriguez1996160157
Edgar Renteria199610363
Starlin Castro20109762
Robin Yount19759064
Alan Trammell19788952
Elvis Andrus20098265
Gary Sheffield19898239
Edgar Renteria19978069
Robin Yount19767655
Jack Heidemann19705135

As you can see, Castro’s in some pretty elite company, and has outperformed Hall of Fame caliber players in Alan Trammell, Robin Yount, and Gary Sheffield, which bodes extremely well for Castro’s potential offensive development. Even Edgar Renteria has had a fantastic career.

The only hesitation Cubs fans should have about Castro’s future is regarding his defense, about which Fangraphs and Baseball Reference disagree vehemently. BR.com claims that Castro was 1.2 wins below replacement in the field, and the worst fielding shortstop in the National League according to Total Zone. Meanwhile Fangraphs rates Castro in the middle of the pack defensively, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, probably due to his high error total (27 errors in 1073 innings). It made a huge difference in the final analysis, as BR.com calculated that Castro was worth just 0.4 WAR because of his alleged awful defense. Fangraphs, meanwhile, rated him at 2.0 Wins Above Replacement.

But even if you accept BR.com’s poor rankings, prospect mavens have been bullish on his defensive potential as well. In 2010, Baseball America wrote that Castro “excels defensively…with range to both sides, body control and arm strength to make any play. Managers rated him the best defensive shortstop in the Florida State League. The Cubs also like his instincts, charisma, and work ethic. Castro just needs to time to fill out and polish his game. He made 39 errors last season, which isn't a high number for a young shortstop, but shows that he needs to play more under control.” Kevin Goldstein was also high on him, writing “His defensive fundamentals are outstanding for both his level and his age, with smooth actions, soft hands, a quick transfer, and a plus arm.” Either way, Castro looks to be a strong building block for the Cubs going forward, perhaps a future MVP candidate, and easily a championship-caliber player.  At any rate, he's not going the way of Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith.

Question 2: Is Mike Quade the right man to lead this team?

When Mike Quade took over for the distracted and uninspired Lou Piniella last year, the Cubs were 51-74. Under Quade, for the last month and a half of the season, the club played strong and finished 24-13. Since then, Quade has survived the official hiring process and gotten the “interim” label removed from his job title, at the expense of Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg. But was that 24-13 a fluke? Or was Quade really the inspiration the Bear Cubs needed?

Of managers who took over in midseason (and managed at least 20 games), Quade finishes tied in winning percentage with Phil Garner of the 2004 Astros for 10th all time with a .649 mark. Here’s the list of those managers, and how they did in subsequent seasons:

YearTeamManagerWinning PercentageOverall year 1 WPYear 2 WP
1912IndiansJoe Birmingham.750.490.566
1924GiantsHughie Jennings.727.608DNM
1927GiantsRogers Hornsby.688.597DNM
1932CubsCharlie Grimm.673.584.558
1950Red SoxSteve O’Neill.663.610.565
1938TigersDel Baker.661.545.526
1925GiantsHughie Jennings.656.566DNM
1919IndiansTris Speaker.656.604636
1999AngelsJoe Maddon.655.432DNM
2004AstrosPhil Garner.649.568.549


First, the good news: Every manager on the above list finished the following season with a record above .500, which bodes well for the Cubs in a weak NL Central. But here’s the bad news: First, none of them actually improved on their performance under these managers in year one. It’s pretty easy to understand why, as few teams could actually sustain a winning percentage of around .650 over the course of a season, as that’s the equivalent of a 105 win team. However, it’s also worth noting that four of the six managers saw their club’s overall winning percentage fall in year two, with only Joe Birmingham in 1913 and Tris Speaker in 1920 heading teams that were better than the previous year’s overall performance. The historical upshot for Quade is that there is little evidence that the enthusiasm factor for a new manager carries over into a second year at the helm. So while the Cubs players may have been lobbying for their interim skipper in 2010, they may change their tune if Quade can’t pilot the club to a better mark in 2011.

Question 3: So can the Cubs compete for the NL Central in 2011?

Sure, why not? They’ve upgraded their pitching (a very strong move in acquiring Matt Garza, and a good cheap pickup in Kerry Wood), and picked up a good buy-low candidate to man 1B. Zambrano looked like he was back on track at the end of 2010. They’ll have Castro for a full season. Aramis Ramirez can’t put up another .294 OBP again, can he? He had a .245 BABIP last year, but looked to still have his power, so he’s a decent candidate to rebound. Alfonso Soriano is never going to play to his contract, but he seems to have recovered at least some of his productivity (particularly on defense, if Fangraphs is to be believed).

The Brewers are still poised to be the favorite in 2011, and the Reds are the defending champs. But Milwaukee has absolutely no depth in case of injury and Cincinnati’s young pitching is suspect. The Cubs could easily sneak in, assuming they aren’t bit by the injury bug themselves.

1 comment:

thesportsminion said...

Castro would be a promising young shortstop, if only he didn't play for the god-awful Cubs. I think the Cubs made a mistake passing over Sandberg, and lost way too much in the acquisition of Matt Garza. 3rd place finish at best.