Monday, January 21, 2008

Looking ahead to 2008

A couple of days ago, Lou Piniella announced what he thinks he would most likely use as the Opening Day lineup on March 31. I'm sure all of you have seen it by now, but here it is anyway:

Soriano, lf
Theriot, ss
Lee, 1b
Ramirez, 3b
Fukudome, rf
DeRosa, 2b
Soto, c
Pie, cf
Zambrano, p

While I don't necessarily disagree with his choices, I would do some things differently. I'm not trying to say that Piniella's lineup is undoubtedly wrong, like some of Baker's choices were, but if I had it my way, the lineup would read...

1. Alfonso Soriano
Okay, so he's not your typical lead-off hitter and his bat would be more useful elsewhere in the lineup, but let's face it: if Soriano doesn't get to lead off, he bitches and moans. Having him lead off might as well have been a clause in the contract that brought Soriano to the Cubs long term. When we were signing him, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. Hopefully, he'll be happy and keep his mouth shut.

2. Mark DeRosa
This may be the toughest decision in the lineup. Those that are for Theriot being in this spot prefer DeRosa in a run-producing spot in the lineup. But, we saw that Theriot's productivity goes down with each passing at-bat and while he should be a little more acclimated to a full season in 2008, we should still try to protect Theriot as much as possible. Besides, Theriot finished with an on-base percentage below Soriano's last year; I don't want a pair of .320-something's at the top of the order.

Theriot does a lot of things that a two-hole hitter should do: take pitches, lay down bunts, and hit behind the runner. But what's the point in having a prototypical number two hitter if you don't have a lead-off man that gets on base. Among the very few times that Soriano reaches, an unusually high proportion of those times will be a double or a homerun. Soriano usually doesn't stop at first base.

(If we get Roberts, he hits here. Soriano is the lead-off man. Period.)

3. Derrek Lee

4. Kosuke Fukudome
I fully expect Fukudome to be able to, at the very least, match Cliff Floyd's production from 2007. With that having been said, that should translate to about a .370 on-base percentage and 10-15 homers with a load of doubles. I had no problem hitting Floyd in between Lee and Ramirez and Fukudome is faster and has potential to be greater than Floyd, so why shouldn't he get to bat here? Besides, breaking apart Lee and Ramirez with a lefty in between can never be a bad thing.

5. Aramis Ramirez

6. Geovany Soto
Maybe I'm stretching a little bit with Geovany Soto, but I have him penciled in for production similar to what Michael Barrett has been doing for us in the past few years. That's a .280 or better average with about 15 homers and 20 or more doubles. If he can do that, then he provides more than enough protection for Ramirez in the lineup, especially if Lee and Fukudome reach base ahead of him. Teams would think twice before loading up the bases to get to Soto...

7. Ryan Theriot

8. Felix Pie
Felix Pie is surrounded by six very good bats and a seventh very capable bat. The way he plays defense, I would be okay with Pie brought little to no production offensively. As long as the top seven can mash the ball and the pitching lives up to expectations, there is no reason why you wouldn't run Pie out there every day.

General Notes:
Obviously, this lineup shouldn't be set in stone. If Ryan Theriot gets hot and proves that maybe he could maintain an on-base percentage around .350 for the entire year, then he would probably be the best candidate for the two-hole hitter. If you remember, Felix Pie also hit second for a small portion of the season last year and did very well. I don't expect Lou to write the Opening Day lineup exactly for 100 games out of the season; it's just a starting point.

Lou's starting point is an okay starting point. I think my starting point is equally valid. Once we are three-plus weeks into the season, the starting point won't matter anymore. Lou showed his willingness to flip-flop the order and juggle the roster when things weren't working and so it's really not a big deal what the team looks like on the first day. Once the season gets going, Piniella will make the appropriate changes, if necessary. Whether he's right or I'm right or a combination of the two, you can rest assured then when the pieces fall into place, Lou will know what to do with them.

1. Carlos Zambrano
What a nutcase this guy is. He wanted to let Lilly start on Opening Day, but that's not his decision to make. Carlos Zambrano is the ace of this team, despite what I may have said or thought at certain points during the 2007 season. Sure, there are times when another pitcher might be hotter than Zambrano, but in the grand scheme of things, few are better than Zambrano. I would start him on Opening Day, and Lou has said he would as well.

2. Ted Lilly

3. Rich Hill
Wow, this 1-2-3 is about as good as they come. I honestly believe that Zambrano, Lilly and Hill could combine for as many as 45 wins in 2008. (Zambrano just over 15, Lilly around 14-15 and Hill just under 14-15.)

4. Jason Marquis
I know a lot of people don't like him, but I don't understand why. Marquis has won 12 or more games in each of the last four seasons. And while I don't know the exact record of the Cubs in games in which Marquis has started, Marquis personally went 12-9. This means the team was, most probably, over .500 in all of Marquis' games. It's not like we need him to be the ace of the ball club; winning more than half of your games started by your number #4 starter is pretty good.

5. ??????
Sean Marshall filled in admirably in this role last year and he, among others, will be in the running for this spot. Ryan Dempster was moved out of the closing role, presumably to make room for Wood, but also to compete for this spot. Sean Gallagher is also in the mix, as is Kevin Hart.

Then, last week, the Cubs signed former 20-game winner Jon Lieber. Despite the fact that he has battled with injuries (albeit, not arm related) and that he will be 38 this season, Lieber will most likely be the fifth starter as long as he's healthy and consistent.

Closer: Bob Howry
I don't understand why Dempster was taken lost this job. A closer's duty is simple: finish the game with your team winning. If a closer has a three-run lead, any baseball enthusiast knows that he should go out there and pump strikes. He does, and the batter inexplicably swings at the first pitch and hits a homerun. How is Dempster to blame?

Throwing more strikes with a multiple run lead is the obvious thing to do. Even though you know that you'll give up the occasional solo bomb, that's still what you expect the guy to do. So don't blame him for the homeruns that he does give up. The closer's job is the preserve the lead, and Dempster ranked second in the league in save percentage last year.

Anyway, Wood is the popular choice and also appears to be Lou's choice. I would much rather see Howry as the team's ninth inning man (too late to move Dempster back now) as he has done it before, but I suppose Wood might have a higher ceiling.

RH Set-Up: Kerry Wood

LH Set-Up: Scott Eyre
As bad as he was for parts of the season last year, the fact that he lowered his season ERA all the way to 4.13 says a lot about how good was as well. Exactly how good was he? How about 2 runs and 17 hits in his final 25 innings? Oh yeah, he's definitely re-earned the role of being the top dog (and maybe only dog) among lefty relievers.

Middle Relievers: Carlos Marmol, Michael Wuertz
The fact that Marmol and Wuertz are considered the fourth and fifth best relievers in the bullpen should say something about how good the bullpen is. Marmol has little to no experience pitching as a closer, let alone as a closer for an entire season. We saw him starting to show the kinks in the armor late in the season, which is something that you won't see from Howry and Wood.

Until Marmol proves to me that he didn't have a fluke season (see: James Baldwin), he is at least third in line for the closing job.

Two spots remaining...
Tim Leahy immediately pops to mind, because we traded for this Rule 5 pick. A second lefty, either Ascanio or Pignatiello, also raises some eyebrows. Kevin Hart impressed a lot of people at the end of the season last year and the loads of pitchers that competed for and didn't get the fifth starting job also get thrown into the mix here.

Hendry and MacPhail are still talking potential trades and there's also a month of preseason before the roster needs to be cut down to 25, so trying to pick the two guys that would make the roster right now would be foolish.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cubs, Lieber re-unite

While the rumors about Brian Roberts coming to the Cubs appear to be on-again, off-again, the team did announce that they have agreed to a deal with former 20-game winner Jon Lieber.

The one-year deal worth at least $3.5MM puzzles me, as I don't expect Lieber to bring more to the table than what Dempster is capable of. Nonetheless, the deal does bring options for the team and that can't be all that bad. It might come at a slightly high price, but options are options.

Among those options include trading either Rich Hill, Jason Marquis or Ryan Dempster. While Hill would definitely put more meat on the table, Cubs' GM Jim Hendry has said that Hill, like Pie, is untouchable. Another option is to move Dempster back into the bullpen, though it's unlikely that Piniella would consider him for the closing role. In any event, speculation is that Lieber will make the rotation somehow and Sean Marshall would be the sixth man.

Quite frankly, I hope that Jason Marquis stays in the rotation, because otherwise it would mean that both Dempster AND Lieber will be. Whether or not Dempster can return to being a starter is a large question mark and Lieber's health and ability to pitch at his age is equally uncertain. Sure, they both have upsides, but with Marquis, you know that you'll be getting at least 12 or 13 wins. If our top four pitchers could combine for 55+ wins, we'd be in good shape.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Cubs close to landing all-star Roberts

A couple of sources have reported that Roberts was traded to the Cubs, only to have other sources come out and say those reports are false. However, the general consensus is that the deal is all but finalized. Gallagher, Marshall, and Cedeno would be going in the other direction.

I'm getting giddy just thinking about our lineup for 2008. Should Roberts lead off? Yes. Will he lead off? I don't think so.

1. Alfonso Soriano
2. Brian Roberts
3. Derrek Lee
4. Aramis Ramirez
5. Kosuke Fukudome
6. Geovany Soto
7. Ryan Theriot
8. Felix Pie

Not bad. Not bad at all.

In a dream world, Roberts would be a shortstop or center fielder, so he can replace either Theriot or Pie and keep Mark DeRosa in the same lineup. In a dream world, DeRosa could slide over and play shortstop to replace Theriot. (In a dream world, Soriano would move down in the lineup.) Even so, the opportunity to land of a guy the caliber of Brian Roberts should not passed up and Hendry realizes it.

While I haven't seen eye-to-eye with Jim Hendry on most of his moves, I want to applaud Hendry for being able to get this deal done without trading Rich Hill, Felix Pie or Matt Murton. (I guess it proves that MacPhail is even worse than Hendry?) Some would've been willing to give up Hill for Roberts and it would've been something that I would've had to think about long and hard about. Gallagher, Marshall, and Cedeno? I don't need to think about that one. And while Felix Pie doesn't impress me, he's our best option at center field and considering the perceived value of Pie on the market, Hendry deserves to be commended for his ability to land Roberts while keeping Hill and Pie.

Again nothing is official yet, but it's close. Real close.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Mets re-acquire outfielder Angel Pagan

The Chicago Cubs have dealt outfielder Angel Pagan for two prospects.

Pagan, originally drafted by the Mets in the 4th round of the 1999 draft, spent two major league seasons with the Cubs posting a .255 batting average and hitting 9 homeruns in 318 at-bats. Pagan was originally slated to compete against Sam Fuld for the fifth outfielder's spot on the 2008 roster, but it looks like the Cubs are trying to make room for the 2007 Arizona Fall League MVP.

In return, the Mets have sent A-ball pitcher Ryan Meyers and outfielder Corey Coles the other way. Meyers, 22, served as the closer for Savannah (A) last year, recording 13 saves. Coles, soon to be 26, hit .342 with 27 doubles and 21 steals in a full season with St. Lucie (Advanced-A) in 2006, though he's struggled a bit while bouncing around different levels of the Mets' farm in 2007.

Meanwhile, it looks like rumors about closer Joe Nathan coming to the Cubs will not happen and the story with second baseman Brian Roberts has also considerably cooled down, though there's still a chance for that.