Half Decent: Setting Expectations for the 2011 Cubs (pt. 2)

Art the Cubs the worst team in Middle Earth? Methinks not.

Earlier this week I took a look at the very real possibility that next year could be the year that the Cubs become a half-decent offensive team again. This time I wanted to look at the pitching (and defense, to some extent) as it is and then, blindfolded, throw a few darts at some possible paths to half-decency. Here are the Cubs pitchers who qualify (.3 Innings Pitched per Team Game) sorted by ERA+ (ERA compared to league average and adjusted for park factor). As it was with OPS+, an ERA+ above 100 indicates a better than average ERA. Below 100 kinda sucks.

1 Carlos Marmol 27 2 2 2.50 50 19 50.1 94 177 1.192 0.2 6.1 16.8 2.76
2 Sean Marshall* 27 6 3 2.60 56 1 55.1 66 170 1.102 0.3 2.8 10.7 3.88
3 Tom Gorzelanny* 27 6 5 3.48 21 1 93.0 89 127 1.452 0.5 4.5 8.6 1.93
4 Ted Lilly* 34 3 8 3.69 18 0 117.0 89 120 1.137 1.5 2.2 6.8 3.07
5 Ryan Dempster 33 9 8 3.76 23 0 150.2 144 117 1.314 1.2 3.7 8.6 2.32
6 Carlos Silva 31 10 5 3.92 20 0 108.0 76 113 1.241 0.8 1.9 6.3 3.30
7 James Russell* 24 0 1 4.19 36 0 34.1 26 106 1.223 2.4 1.3 6.8 5.20
8 Randy Wells 27 5 9 4.40 22 0 129.0 104 101 1.426 0.7 2.7 7.3 2.74
9 Carlos Zambrano 29 3 6 5.61 25 0 59.1 57 79 1.753 0.9 4.4 8.6 1.97
Team Totals 29.3 47 61 4.35 108 21 957.0 852 102 1.406 1.0 3.5 8.0 2.27
Rank in 16 NL teams 13 3 12 14 9 2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/5/2010.

I know ERA is the big fat liar of all baseball statistics, which makes ERA+ just a more sophisticated liar, but it also accounts for team defense to some degree. I know, the E is for earned part of ERA eliminates errors from consideration, and if I could find RA+ without doing any more than the absolute minimum amount of work, I would use that. But team defense isn’t the quest to not commit errors, it’s the effort of an entire team to minimize runs against. While I don’t think this is a very good predictor of things to come next year, it’s at least an interesting look at where the Cubs, as they were assembled this year, rank against their NL opponents in run prevention.

Outside of the impotent scoring attack, the Cub bullpen has been the next biggest target of Cub fan hatred, but not because of Carlos Marmol or Sean Marshall. Those guys are dancing on the sorry heads of the average NL pitchers below them. The next four guys in line (Tom Gorzelanny, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, and Carlos Silva) have been significantly better than average. Even James Russell has been ahead of the curve out of the bullpen. The lone qualifying pitcher to have a below-average ERA+ is Carlos Zambrano. I’m sure that comes as no surprise.

Well, that Zambrano has been below average shouldn’t surprise you. Next Monday night he’s making his second post-exilic return to the starting rotation this season, first from the bullpen and now from the bullpen and anger management treatment. I hope Z returns not just to the rotation but also to the prominence that made him one of the most fun-to-watch pitchers I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. As it is, Zambrano, with all his back-and-forth misadventures, is the only below-average pitcher on the team to have logged enough innings to qualify for this list. I’ll expand it so you can see the full bullpen-induced carnage:

As bad as some of those numbers look, as a group, it still amounts to an ever-so-slightly above-average pitching staff, at least in terms of ERA+. So the pitching and defense, as the assumption of the OWn% formula dictates, have provided the Cubs offense an average baseline from which to work. If the Cubs can, in fact, put together a half-decent offense next year, and the pitching can remain somewhat okay, this team should be better than detestable, right?

I suppose that all depends on what the Cubs can get from their starting rotation. Let’s assume for the sake of half-hearted argument that Marmol and Marshall remain in the bullpen and remain better than average. Maybe  they won’t be as good as they have been so far this year, but that should balance out with the fact that no team of semi-ambulatory humanoids can reasonably hope to perform as badly as the rest of the Cubs bullpen has. That leaves us with the starting rotation.

Ryan Dempster will probably hold steady; I think he’s proved he can be a consistent force near the top of the rotation. Tom Gorzelanny, should the Cubs hold on to him, very well may do the same. I know that’s not much of an argument, but this isn’t that great of a blog. Randy Wells? I don’t expect him to get any worse. Carlos Silva? Don’t know if I can say the same for him. I’ll save all the jokes about weight and regression and just settle on the obvious conclusion that he’s the hardest potential 2011 starter to predict. At least he would be if Carlos Zambrano weren’t in the picture.

Big Z may not be in the team photo come next year, but right now I’m assuming that he will. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. Carlos won’t fetch much in return via trade if he doesn’t pitch well for the remainder of this year; but the Cubs would be idiots to deal him and pay a huge chunk of his contract if he does show he can return to form.

For now, I’ll just predict that one starter named Carlos will make a meaningful contribution to the Cubs as a starter, which leaves one job opening in the half-decent hurler arsenal. Could the Cubs make a run at Cliff Lee (way better than half decent)? Could they join the also-way-better-than-half-decent-even-if-there-isn’t-half-a-snowball’s-chance-it-will-happen Zack Greinke Sweepstakes? You never know, they might just sign Ted Lilly again as a free agent. Wouldn’t be the ticket to a 2011 World Series berth, but it would go a long way toward putting the Cubs on a half-decent cruise with Kathy Lee Gifford.

See? I don’t think I’m dreaming. The Cubs next year may very well be passable. Keep hope alive, Cubs fans!

Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh

The Chicago Cubs are a professional baseball team. In the majors.

The best news for the Cubs on Friday was that Carlos Zambrano got hugged.

The best news for Cubs fans on Friday was that Jim Hendry knows they suck and has for quite some time.

The second best news for Cubs fans (and it was a hard-luck runner up) is that several teams (all of them in the NL West, for some reason) have interest in Ryan Theriot. Being on their team. I know, right?

The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since the year the Baseball Writers Association of America was founded (1908). Think I’m jaded against the beat writers? Now you know why.


The Artist’s Cafe on Michigan Ave. in Chicago has a Crispy Fried Chicken Platter that comes with french fries and onion rings.

The leading candidate in the 2011 managerial search is Gallagher.

This is the absolute worst time to trade Carlos Zambrano.

I like hearing all the trade rumors. It’s like playing “let’s pretend the Cubs have different players,” but without having to watch them actually play.

Before you complain about paying over $250 so your family can watch the Cubs lose in person, consider that the Ricketts family paid $845 million.

I’m no fan of raging alcoholic rowdiness at Wrigley, but isn’t curtailing alcohol sales to Cubs fans like taking away anesthesia during heart surgery?

Andrew Cashner needs to go back to the starting rotation. In Iowa. Right now. No offense.

The Cubs bullpen.

The Ted Lilly as Chuck Norris meme has this going for it: the Cubs are as unwatchable as any movie or television show starring Chuck Norris.

It’s not all that much more fun writing about the Cubs than it is watching them. But I can’t complain. I mean, I can complain about the Cubs, but I won’t complain about writing about them because . . . well, because I’m lying. Complaining about the Cubs is a lot more fun than watching them lose.

If the worst of your problems is being a Cubs fan, you live a charmed existence.

George Ofman Joins Us for a Trade Deadline Edition of WTF

WGN’s George Ofman took a break from fielding the calls from angry/delusional Cubs fans to call into our sarcastic corner of Cubdom on Wrigley Talk Friday with Julie from LOHO and Tim from Aisle 424. He had some intriguing perspectives on the Cubs’ next manager, the return of Carlos Zambrano, and recent developments from the talks between the Cubs and Dodgers about a deal that would send Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot to the land of Mannywood. Two big shockers: the Cubs have known they were out of it as long as we have, and Hendry had a chance to pull the trigger on a deal that would have sent Ryan Dempster to La-La Land. Listen in the sidebar player or here.

Many thanks to George, who blogs on That’s All She Wrote and tweets under his eponymous handle.  Kudos to Julie for bringing in a steady stream of great guests, including next week’s guest, former Cub Doug Glanville. Stay tuned!

Zambrano Fails to Apologize to Starving Children

When do they get their dinner, Carlos? And when do they get their apology?

I said yesterday that Carlos Zambrano said all the right things in his apology to the fans and his general statement that everything about his dugout tirade was wrong, but that was before I had all the facts. It has since come out that Zambrano has yet to apologize to the Cubs as a congregation. He hasn’t even embroidered all his shirts and jerseys with the scarlet A for Anger as ordered by Pastor Morrissey.

Sure, Zambrano has apologized to players individually, but what about the team as a whole? What about the Wrigley Field ambassadors? What about the children? Never mind the convenient fact that Zambrano has been separated from the Cubs by an average of 1,000 miles since he was suspended. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s apologizing in the absolute wrong order.

The first person he needed to apologize to was obvious, but whether he did that or not is between him and DeRosa. After that, he should have apologized to Derrek Lee. Okay, he did that, too, but only once? Another 99 are in order, and they should all be in public and/or under the supervision of a priest. Next comes his teammates, coaches, agents, and every innocent bystander.

Next he should have apologized to the media, starting with the white guys. Sullivan, Morrisey, Telander, Wittenmyer, Kaplan: these guys feared for their lives when Zambrano’s rage boiled over. No, he didn’t hurt anybody—this time—but he looked like he wanted to. The fact that he made his apology in an interview with Pedro Gomez won’t be lost on them. You could cut the racial tension with a knife, which is exactly what the Chicago sports media is afraid of.

But the most overlooked group on Zambrano’s apology waiting list, with its chronology screwed up beyond even Quentin Tarantino’s comprehension, are the millions of starving children around the world. While they looked on in horror, the biggest, whiniest, most spoiled child of them all went out to dinner with the manager of the opposing team. Zambrano stuffed his petulant face with dinner, completely deaf to the rumbling empty stomachs of those less fortunate than himself.

But himself is all Zambrano thinks about. He’s sorry. He was wrong. He is embarrassed by his actions. He is trying to improve the way he handles his anger. Selfish, racist, diva. This apology was all about him. The families of the victims of the Hindenburg disaster? Never even crossed Zambrano’s mind.

Zambrano: I’m Sorry, Cubs Fans

Carlos Zambrano is sorry, and he wants the world to know. The statements he made (quoted in that ESPN Chicago article) are pretty much exactly what people are looking for from a guy after an embarrassing episode. The video is more an apology to the fans, which, again, is exactly what the Cubs organization is expecting from Zambrano.
They’re also expecting him to pitch better, so we can only hope there’s some connection between his composure in general and his abilities on the mound. I’ve always doubted that to be true, but I hope I’m wrong. Will writing in his anger journal every time he gets mad really help him locate his cutter?
Hey, maybe it will. No one who watches the Cubs with any interest can deny that emotional investment in this team has its share of physiological effects. Fans get nervous during games, so players undoubtedly do too. The difference in most professional athletes, or any public performer for that matter, is that they can harness the nervous energy as a catalyst, propelling them to even better levels of performance than they would otherwise achieve. That’s why we cheer, isn’t it, to provoke such a response? 
Anger isn’t usually so beneficial, but it can be. Vin Scully has said that Jackie Robinson played better when he was angry. His vitriolic reaction to the hatred he faced fueled his performance without causing him to explode. Most human beings don’t respond that way, but some do (my only other example is Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, so I’ll move on). I don’t think anyone suspects Zambrano of being one of those rare exceptions, at least not anymore. 
From what Zambrano is saying, much to the pleasure of Jim Hendry and the rest of the Cubs’ front office (and potential trade partners, I suppose), he’s taking his anger management therapy seriously and views it in a positive light. Some people, with Ron Santo as their most vocal leader, think Zambrano’s anger and lack of composure is the only thing stopping him from being an all-world pitcher. If they’re right, the next couple of months should be a lot of fun to watch.

With Z, the Picture’s Worth 1,000 Angry Words

What does this man have left to say?

Zambrano is going to be allowed to speak his mind to his teammates before he says anything to the media. That’s phenomenal. I think the look on his face in the photo (imported from the link above) says it all.  Maybe he’s just tracking the flight of a fly ball, and I’m probably reading far too much into it, but he looks like a guy who is taking in a game he loves while feeling like he no longer belongs.

I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Zambrano Takes Care of Business

What was supposed to be a showcase of the projected odd numbered starters for the 2009 Cubs (1. Carlos Zambrano, 3. Rich Harden, 5. Jeff Samardzija) turned into an odd mix of an encouraging win, an embarrassing loss, and an early exit . . . but not necessarily in that order. Carlos Zambrano was expected to get some bullpen work in Wednesday night’s game between the Iowa Cubs and the Oklahoma City Red Hawks but left the scene after an early workout to, as HOFICMACSH* Ryne Sandberg put it, “take care of some business.” I hope Bobby Scales didn’t talk him into selling Amway.

Samardzija picked up his seventh Iowa win of the season after going five innings and allowing one earned run. He earned the W against his old (so old that right now he’s looking like he should join Lou in retirement) teammate Harden, who delivered a familiar 5 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 9 SO performance as he continues to rehab from a strained left butt cheek.

No reason to panic as Zambrano is scheduled to take the hill in relief on Thursday. Unless, you know, Zambrano pitching makes you panic. Or if the business he was taking care of was, in fact, dinner, in which case the National Guard needs to act pronto.

*Hall Of Fame Iowa Cubs Manager And Cubbie Skipper Hopeful

Cubs Facts that Don’t Make Me Angry

On any given day, the Cubs have a really solid chance of winning, even if it’s against the Pirates.

Pat Hughes is the best radio play-by-play man I’ve ever listened to on a daily basis.

Watching the Cubs lose in a hopeless summer is still better than the hopeful baseball-free winters.

There are an awful lot of Cubs fans that I like an awful lot.

Alfonso Soriano is no longer painful to watch.

The next heartbreaking playoff loss appears to be quite a ways off.

Ticket prices are going down like . . . well, like the Cubs.

Starlin Castro is still in the majors.

Tyler Colvin can hit.

The pitching has been pretty good this year, and I’ve always felt that bad pitching is much more frustrating to watch than bad offense.

Whether Tom Ricketts wants to run this team as a fan or as a businessman, he’s going to have to put a better product on the field to be happy.

I really like the calzones at Wrigley.

However awful the walk-up music is, I haven’t heard any Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber yet.

Even if they did, a little “Party in the U.S.A.” never hurt anybody.

Most people won’t admit it, but Carlos Zambrano spoke for all of us.

I’m pretty sure I have a fear of success, and the Cubs have been very understanding in that regard.

The fire sale is inevitable. And who doesn’t love a sale?

Z, Interrupted

Z angry! Z smash!!!

Carlos Zambrano’s rampage of terror has finally been stopped. After storming through the Cub dugout, terrorizing a camera crew outside of U.S. Cellular Field, and ravaging a Brazilian steakhouse with Ozzie Guillen, Zambrano finally succumbed to Cubs staff armed with tranquilizer cannons and electromagnetically powered titanium restraining belts. It took a few days to gain approval for his ultimate confinement while the ACLU and PETA wrangled to determine which group should be defending his rights.

Finally the dust has settled, freeing Jim Hendry to inform the public about the protective measures in place to minimize the damage Zambrano can inflict upon society. Long story short, we can breathe easy until after the All-Star Break. Big Z won’t be around to hurt any of us for quite some time. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Hendry’s statement, point by reassuring point:

Beginning Wednesday, Carlos will undergo a treatment program . . .

This is where a lot of the mainstream media have begun to water down the severity of the issue, referring to the prescribed course of action as “anger management” or “counseling.” Make no mistake: this is treatment. You don’t often hear people say Carlos Zambrano has an “anger problem.”  The term you hear thrown around almost universally is nut job.

So don’t leave this happy press conference thinking Carlos is going to be attending a few classes, some private sessions, and some group therapy. This is a serious medical issue that will require the utmost in clinical expertise.

. . . with mutually agreed upon doctors from the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball.

Now wait a second, here. Are these doctors selected from the ranks of the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball, or are they selected and agreed upon by those two parties? Doc Halladay is a hell of a pitcher, but he’s not qualified to take on a head case like Big Z. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the MLBPA and MLB will together avail themselves of the best psychiatric minds in the world.

Whatever crack military analysts have been  predicting the movements of Osama bin Laden, pull them off that cold case and put them on Zambrano. We need to know what strain of inhuman pathology has sent him down this path of self-destruction and what we can expect him to try next.

Basically, he will have to follow the treatment for his issues and be evaluated properly . . .

I’m sure the Zambrano family and both of his fans appreciate Hendry glossing over Carlos’s soulless predilection for torture as “his issues,” but the bottom line is that drastic experimental procedures need to be administered swiftly and relentlessly to ensure some semblance of public safety when Zambrano ventures back into society. Godzilla had issues. Zambrano has serious problems.

. . . and if the program is acted on properly in accordance to what the doctors they signify he needs to work on and improve on, and follow their directives, Carlos will not be reinstated any time until after the All-Star break.

Wait . . . what? If the weapons-grade lithium injections and shock treatment is properly executed and Zambrano stays conscious throughout the sensory deprivation and neural reprogramming, Zambrano won’t be reinstated until after the ASB? So what happens if one of those pillars of personal transformation should crumble? Euthanasia? Siberian exile? Trade to the White Sox? I guess we’ll cross that chasm into the eternal abyss when we come to it.

We’ve obviously had a lot of transgressions with Carlos in the past . . .

I hope Jim was just being polite with that first-person plural. If  Hendry, Lou, et al. have had transgressions with Carlos, I’d hate to see what scarlet letters emblazon their breasts. BP, maybe? But since the punishment is being prescribed to just Carlos, I can only assume that Zambrano alone has transgressed while Hendry, Piniella, the Ricketts family, and all of society have been mere victims of (not participators in) his tumultuous binges of iniquity.

. . . so I think we all agreed that it was time to go and get help, then address the apologies later.

Yes, we need to call in the authorities on this one. There’s plenty of time for tear-filled remorse in between sodium pentothal injections. That’s why they let you watch.

It’s an unfortunate situation.

Yes, it was completely a function of luck. The powers of fortune and fate transpired to bring Carlos’s demons to the surface. This “situation” had nothing to do with Hendry and Piniella moving Zambrano to the bullpen (which Hendry had stocked with rookies, pet projects, washed-up veterans, and injuries in waiting) just long enough for him to adjust to the move and then to draw him back into the rotation. The incessant criticism of Zambrano’s better-than-average 2009 (in which the Cub offense behind him scored an average of .0002 runs per month, hence the single-digit win total) wasn’t meant to make Z angry. The repetitive trade rumors leaked by the front office (despite Zambrano’s insistence that he loved Chicago and would never leave) were immaterial to Zambrano’s psychological condition. Oh no, Z has a medical problem brought on by the fickle middle finger of fortune.

. . . and His actions were certainly inappropriate and as I said on Friday, those actions toward his teammates and staff will not be tolerated.

Of course. This organization does not tolerate furious yelling. They just incite it.

That’s why we tried to work to a conclusion as efficiently and as quickly as we could.

Had they the budget to hire a sniper on short notice, the conclusion would have been much quicker and more efficient. But in a world of backloaded contracts and suffocating debt relief, a suspension and a marathon date with the league shrink will have to do.

It’s really pretty amazing how Hendry has managed to make Zambrano’s outburst look like the mad confession of a serial killer. The past few days just gave Hendry’s office time to find the bodies. A lot of people have criticized Hendry, Lou, and Zambrano’s teammates for berating Z so openly, but it’s really genius PR work. The excessive complaints, the drama, the mystery of Zambrano’s whereabouts, and the complete absence of any definitive statement from Carlos himself have all created this grand illusion that Zambrano is criminally insane.

Hendry didn’t have the slightest difficulty getting approval for intensive “treatment” for Zambrano because he made it so clear to the world that Zambrano is a sick, sick man. Lou seemed pretty calm in the dugout when the incident happened. After the game he was cool and collected but, admittedly, embarrassed. By the time evening fell, the shock of it all came crashing down and Lou was suddenly unable to eat.

Jim Hendry was likewise furious. Beside himself . . . with glee. Hendry has been looking to get rid of Zambrano for awhile now. He didn’t want him in the rotation. He couldn’t put him in the bullpen. He couldn’t trade him, release him, or send him down to the minors. What’s left? Thank DeRosa for the restricted list!

But didn’t all this diminish Zambrano’s trade value? Not at all! Don’t you see the evil genius at work? This isn’t a character flaw in Zambrano. This is a medical issue. He’s getting treatment. Zambrano’s temper is about to undergo Tommy John surgery, and the recovery time, apparently, is about three weeks. Whoever gets Zambrano at the end of July won’t be getting a moody, ineffective reliever, they’ll be getting the finest Carlos modern medicine can buy, one with the confidence, sensitivity, and electric fastball that can make him the ace of any staff.

It’s too bad. I liked angry Z. He made me laugh and, unlike almost everyone else on this team, he didn’t make me yawn until I wanted to pass out. I’m not defending what Zambrano did. Truth be told, I don’t even know what Zambrano did. Whatever it was he did or said, and whatever fractured reasoning was behind it, I highly doubt it calls for a lobotomy.