Following weather problems in Denver, our Diamondbacks now travel to the tropical paradise of Chicago, Illinois, to take on the Chicago Cubs. Since the city is so well known for its beautiful spring weather, I don't anticipate any problems. Snark aside, the Cubbies should provide an interesting barometer for the Diamondbacks early in the season.
In 2008, the Cubs won 97 games, most in the National League, with a talented, veteran core of players. While they sputtered out in typical Cubbie fashion in the playoffs, their window of opportunity still appeared to be wide open. In that context, what followed has been an almost D-Backsian fall from grace, as the team has hemorrhaged wins from 97 to 83 in 2009 to 75 last season. While 75 wins is not embarrassing, it is not exactly worth paying $146 million for, as the Ricketts family did last year. Seemingly overnight, the Cubs' core transformed from "veteran leaders" to "old and overpaid," just as Lou Piniella transformed, in public perception at least, from a fiery leader of men, into an old man with an irrational fondness for Ryan Theriot. Here in 2011, the Cubs stand at a crossroads, with a new manager in Mike Quade, and an eclectic mix of youth and players left over from the glory days of 2007-2008. It's possible that they could they could go on a run and make a push for the playoffs, but from where I'm sitting now, they're probably about the fourth-best team in the division.
More after the jump.
The Cubs had a rather inauspicious start to the season, as they lost their first series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were the worst team in Major League Baseball last year. Bullpen trouble and inability to get timely hits plagued them against Pittsburgh, as Cubs led going into the top of the ninth in the rubber match of the series, before Carlos Marmol coughed up the lead. Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza all took the mound against the Pirates. Zambrano and Garza each pitched rather well, going six and seven innings, respectively, and allowing three runs each. Ryan Dempster pitched somewhat less well, giving up six ERs through 6.2 innings to the vaunted Pirates lineup.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Kosuke Fukudome, RF
Starlin Castro, SS
Marlon Byrd, CF
Aramis Ramirez, 3B
Carlos Pena, 1B
Geovany Soto, C
Alfonso Soriano, LF
Darwin Barney, 2B
Willie Bloomquist, SS
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Chris Young, CF
Juan Miranda, 1B
Melvin Mora, 3B
Miguel Montero, C
Gerardo Parra, LF
One big advantage that the Cubbies' lineup has over the Diamondbacks' is in the goofy name department. I mean, seriously, there's like one, maybe two common names in that lineup. Otherwise, the D-Backs will be facing a offense full of players who as kids probably got glared at by teachers a lot on the first day of school. But silly or not, one name to keep in mind is Starlin Castro, because he has the potential to be a great player for a very long time. Last season, Castro hit .300/.347/.408, which isn't great until you remember that he did it at the ripe old age of 20. Hell, I'm 20 right now and typing that last sentence made me feel utterly inadequate in comparison. If he can add some power to that line (only 3 HRs last year), he has a chance to be special. C Geovany Soto is probably their best hitter when healthy, as he put up an OPS+ of 131 last season and produced 3.2 (B-R) WAR in only 105 games. And at only 28, he has a bright future in front of him as well. Which is good, since most of the rest of their starters don't have much of a future in baseball at all. With the exception of Darwin Barney, who sounds like a PBS spin-off show, everyone else in the Cubs lineup is over the age of 30. 1B Carlos Pena should prove to be a good pickup, as he'll provide some much-needed power, along with enough strikeouts to make Mark Reynolds blush. The Cubs' season may well hinge on the bounce-back seasons of a couple of stalwarts: Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. Both players were important contributors to the playoff teams of 2007 and 2008, but have declined sharply over the past two seasons, and might be done.
Pitching: The pitching match-ups are as follows:
Monday: Barry Enright vs. Randy Wells
Insightful commentary: Despite playing for the Cubs, Randy Wells has actually managed to remain underrated, producing two straight seasons of 3 WAR in relative anonymity. He isn't flashy, but he has become a reliable mid-rotation starter for Chicago. Meanwhile, Barry Enright is in the unusual position of being both overrated and underrated. Overrated because he burst onto the scene last year by posting an ERA (3.91) that was entirely unsupported by his FIP (5.62). However, so many people, both on the 'Pit and elsewhere, have freaked out about this fact that he was in serious danger of losing his job in the spring, leading him to become underrated. C'mon people, sure he might not have an ERA under 4 this year, but at least give him a chance to play his way out of a rotation spot. It's not like there are any better options waiting in the wings and who knows, maybe he'll keep getting lucky.
Tuesday: Armando Galarraga vs. Andrew Cashner
Insightful commentary: Andrew Cashner is stupidly talented. He has a blazing fastball, a nice slider and, when he can control it, a buckling change-up. The only problem is that he's, uh, not very good. Cashner put up a 4.80 ERA (with an FIP of 5.03) out of the bullpen in his first full season. The primary culprit was his walk rate, which was a brutal 4.97 per 9 innings. Now they're trying him in the lineup, where it would likely behoove him to throw his fastball, blazing though it is, less than 69% of the time. Meanwhile, Armando Galarraga almost threw a perfect game once. You should just focus on this, rather than look up his stats from the rest of his career. You'll be much happier, trust me.
Wednesday: Ian Kennedy vs. Ryan Dempster
Insightful commentary: Despite getting knocked around on Opening Day, Ryan Dempster is the best pitcher on the Cubs, and has been over the last few years. Since he was moved out of the bullpen into the rotation in 2008, he has posted three straight seasons with an ERA+ of 113 or over. But all that's moot now, since Ian Kennedy's ERA is over 3.5 runs lower this season, meaning Kennedy will clearly wipe the floor with Dempster. ZOMG SMALL SAMPLE SIZES!
Final Verdict: To be honest, this is a pretty even match-up on paper. Both teams are coming off of bad seasons, and are trying to rediscover their identity with new managers at the helm. The pitching match-ups could generally go either way as well. Thus, logic would suggest that I should pick the Cubs, since they're playing at home. But screw that, I'm a homer: D-Backs are taking this series two games to one.
And if you're interested in getting the perspective of fans who bleed cubbie blue, check out the SB Nation blog, well, Bleed Cubbie Blue