When I was in high school, one of the youth leaders at my church routinely discussed three topics more than any other: the unholy trilogy of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It really didn’t matter what biblical story or teaching we were covering, the focus was almost always redirected to the condemnation of one or more of those three vices.
I remember one lesson in particular in which we were told that physical attraction should be the least of our concerns when deciding who to date or court or arrange a marriage with. While anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that appearance isn’t the most important attribute in a significant other, trying to tell a teenager to ignore it completely is like persuading a shark to eschew seafood.
After hearing variations on the diatribe for a few weeks, all the members of my youth group knew the answers we were supposed to be giving and that they directly conflicted with the protests of our hormones. So when our teacher asked us what qualities we would look for in a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, my fellow classmate Dwight Stowers attempted a compromise between the proffered high moral ground and his basic primal urges into a succinct summation of what he wanted in a woman:
As Cub fans, we find ourselves in a similar struggle between what we want and what the baseball gods are telling us we can have. While by no means immoral, it’s looking pretty unrealistic that fans of baseball on Chicago’s North Side will ever find ourselves in a long-term relationship with a 10—but is it too much to ask for a 6 or 7?
I’m setting out to determine just that: can the Cubs be half decent in 2011? Forget the World Series. Set aside those playoff aspirations. I just want to find out if next year’s Cubs might be looking down at .500. But before I do, let’s take a look at where this year’s team is, because I’m not all that confident that the hot stove will be cooking up a very big buffet of changes (despite how we know Jim Hendry feels about big buffets).
Tomorrow I’ll take the same this year/next year approach to the pitchers, but for now let’s look at the hitters and a couple of stats from Baseball-Reference.com that compare Cubs hitters to league average.
Above are listed the 9 Cubs hitters averaging at least 2 plate appearances per game, sorted by OWn% (Offensive Winning Percentage). Assuming average pitching and defense, a team of 9 Geovany Sotos could expect a .711, thanks in large part to the 7.6 Runs Created per Game (RC/G) you’d expect from a guy with a .903 OPS. Not bad for a number-8 hitter.
What really sticks out to me on this table, aside from the impressive contributions of the two rookies, is that only three of the Cubs’ kinda-sorta-everyday players are below league average in this category. Derrek Lee is the barometer, as his .440 OWn% is just a shade higher than the Cubs’ current .440 win percentage. Keep in mind that we haven’t factored in pitching yet, but Lee is still the personification of the Cubs offensive woes this season.
We should also consider that these numbers aren’t rated by position. Lee is hitting below average for a Major League Baseball player. At his power-hitting first base position, the situation is much worse: he’s tied for last among NL first basemen in OPS (.719 with the Marlins’ Jorge Cantu).
But the Cubs can’t pin all their woes on Derrek Lee. Ryan Theriot and Aramis Ramirez have been much, much worse, and a team made up of Theriots and Ramirezes would really, really suck (though, shockingly, not as bad as the .343 Pirates). Those three below-average players (with the bench players and pitchers figured in as well) have plummeted far enough below the league average to bring the entire team down to a .487 OWn%. That’s a little higher than the team’s actual win percentage, about 5 or 6 wins better but not really all that much closer to half decent either.
Whether the Cubs are unlucky or their pitching and defense have been bad enough to bring the team down further I don’t know. But I will say that having the only below-average contributors to your offense hitting leadoff, 3rd, and 4th does not typically lead to a lot of wins. Also, if you’re not a fan of the OWn% stat, you can see that OPS+ (On-base plus Slugging adjusted for park factor and compared to league average) tells a very similar story.
Above 100 is above average and below 100 is below average, even though the league average somehow works out to 94; I guess a league average player is below average. The point here is that the Cubs hitters (with a few critical exceptions) are hitting above average. If the Cub infield was half-decent offensively, this team might not be half bad. But ifs don’t count for much in baseball. Unfortunately, that’s all they (or any team, for that matter) has to look forward to. So let’s look ahead, shall we?
There’s no use complaining about the big contracts the Cubs are saddled with, because (as is the gist of the complaint) they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe the Cubs get rid of Fukudome. Soriano and Ramirez are here to stay. Marlon Byrd has been a bargain, and Tyler Colvin, Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto, and Blake DeWitt are dirt cheap for the time being. So out of a 9-man group of regulars (4 OF rotation, 4 infielders, and a catcher), the Cubs have 4 cost-controlled contracts, 1 below-market free agent, 3 veterans almost certain to be overpaid, and an empty first-base slot that may very well be filled by Derrek Lee again.
That’s not as much of a doomsday glut of crippling contracts as Cub detractors have made it out to be, but forget about the money for a second. Just looking at the prospective lineup for 2011, will the Cubs be half decent? To simplify things, I’ll just use a letter-grade scale.
DeWitt’s 2010 OPS is squarely at 100 (.527 OWn%) and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to be at or above league average. C+, maybe? Colvin seems like a perfect candidate for a sophomore slump, so I’ll put him at a C-. Castro, however, seems to be improving, and I’d predict a solid B for him in 2011. Fukudome is the definition of a career C- player. Maybe the Cubs deal him away, but even if he stays with the club, he’s not the guy bringing this team down. Soriano has the potential to be anywhere on the grading curve. I’m hoping for (and predicting) a B, but you know a raging F isn’t out of the question. I’ll put Soto down for an A and Marlon Byrd for a B, which leaves us with two big question marks. Ramirez put up an A+ week to bring his F of a season up to a D. I don’t know that we can count on him to ever return to B/B- status, but I don’t think a C is too much to expect, do you?
The final spot is first base, and I won’t predict what Derrek Lee might do, but I will say I think Jim Hendry, with his job on the line, is quite capable of adding a league-average first baseman. Put a C at first, and the Cubs are a half-decent offensive ball club. Sign a B at first, deal Fukudome for a C+ outfielder, and this team might actually be 3/4 decent. Offensively.
Maybe I’m being too optimistic and simplistic, but I don’t think things are as bad as they looked during last night’s 18-1 drubbing at the hands of the Brewers. It does make me wonder about the state of this pitching staff, and I’ll look at that tomorrow. For now, just take some solace in the fact that, while the baseball gods might not permit us to go all the way with the best team in the league, we have a good chance of hooking up with a half-decent team and maybe even getting to second base.