Series Preview #51: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Chicago Cubs

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This is the most exciting weekend of regular season baseball all year, and you're committing yourself to spending it watching the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Chicago Cubs. In fact, by reading this, you're actually pre-gaming for said series by clicking on a series preview to help you be better informed. Look at your life. Look at your choices.

Sure, this year qualifies as a disappointment, but there are real reasons to be more optimistic about next year. Starlin Castro saw his Batting Average drop a bit this year, but he hit for a bit more power as well, and seemingly improved his fielding a bit as well. Also, he's only 22. Anthony Rizzo has a 114 OPS+ since hitting the majors around midseason, which isn't exceptional for a first baseman, but it seems reasonable that the 22-year-old will improve. And then there's...

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And that's as far as I get.

I've sat down six different times to try and write this series preview, but I've yet to be able to talk about someone other than Rizzo and Castro without falling asleep. Sure, that's mostly the horse tranquilizers, but in addition, it's because the Chicago Cubs aren't just bad. The Cubs have made the playoffs all of six times since World War II: their fans can handle bad. No, the problem with these Cubs is that they are bad and boring.

See, the Diamondbacks are just a garden-variety mediocrity; we have nothing on the Cubs because at least we have legitimate reasons to be encouraged going forward. Sure, this year qualifies as a disappointment, but there are real reasons to be more optimistic about next year.

Before Skaggs was shut down, they were running out a rotation that had a median age of 24. They have the second-best Pythagorean record in the division, for instance, and I have a hunch that they won't hit .195/.260/.322 in situations designated "Late and Close" in 2013, either. Hill and Kubel might not hit quite as well as they did this year, but if you buy that Upton is a thumb injury away from being an MVP candidate again, they won't need to. I'm not saying that all of these things will happen, or even that any of them will, but just that they are things that we can cling to that help us realistically expect the 2013 Diamondbacks to be better than their 2012 incarnate.

And as for the Cubs?

Their offense has only two starters other than Rizzo and Castro with an OPS+ over 100. Just to hammer the point home, here's a list of every other player on the team with more than 200 PAs on the Cubs this year:

Alfonso Soriano
Darwin Barney
David Dejesus
Bryan Lahair
Luis Valbuena
Joe Mather
Steve Clevenger
Ian Stewart

Are there any building blocks in that group? Before you answer that, remember that Alfonso Soriano is 36 and spends around 155 games every season playing teams that aren't the Diamondbacks. Only Soriano and DeJesus have an OPS+ above 100, and frankly I'm not all that encouraged about any of them improving with more playing time.

And their pitching? Their rotation is a collection of boring journeymen and over-matched rookies that don't even have the decency to be good prospects. They've had 12 pitchers start for them, and all but one (Brooks Raley) is older than Trevor Cahill. Brooks Raley has an ERA of 8.14.

"But wait a minute," Cub fans are already starting to shout type in all caps, "What about Jeff Samardzija, the most untouchable player on the roster? And yes, it is encouraging to see him post a 3.81 ERA in his first full season as a starter. But it's also important to note that he all of one month younger than Ian Kennedy. He has a nice strikeout rate, but it's hard to see him becoming a genuine ace.

But then I suppose that's not really the point of this season. This is still part of the bottoming-out portion of the rebuilding phase. In theory, there are a bunch of rookies on the way who are preparing to usher in the next great era of Cubs baseball. But the problem with that is that we've already seen a trailer of that era, and it doesn't look all that encouraging.

Brett Jackson was (and still is) expected to be the team's center fielder of the future, but he just looked dreadful for 126 PAs this season. Dreadful to the tune of a .168/.294/.355. You can make the argument that he's getting BABIP'd, but that sort of falls flat when you consider that he's striking out in four out of every ten At-Bats. And fellow rookie Josh Vitters has an OPS+ of 1, which is one of those stats that just stands on it's own utterly outside of context. Literally, the number next to his name under the "OPS+" column is just one. Somehow, that actually looks worse than if it were zero or some negative number.

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I just re-read this whole article, and it comes off a bit harsh. And I don't want this to be misconstrued, I think the Cubs are doing the right thing. As a franchise, they haven't had a proper rebuild in decades, and this is an organization that badly needed some young talent. I think they're headed in the right direction.

But at the same time, they've suffered through an utterly hopeless season that was led by a lot of journeymen that will not be around for the Next Great Cubs Team, and very few of their established prospects showed that they could be effective right away. Sure, Jackson and Vitters still have time to show that they can be part of the future, but it has to be discouraging to these guys struggle in their first big league trial. If nothing else, it's a terrifying reminder at the high failure rate of prospects that we so often try to downplay.

This is shorter than most of my series previews, and somewhat less coherent than at least some of them. But frankly, I could have probably stopped after my paragraph on Castro and Rizzo. The Diamondbacks will see a mediocre offense, and three fringy pitchers in their mid-to-late-20s who are trying to prove that they belong in the majors. So many series on the last weekend of the season have no meaning, but rarely are they this upfront about it. Go Diamondbacks?

Head over to Bleed Cubbie Blue, or don't. See if I care.

(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs)

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