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Series Preview #29: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 16: Matt Garza #17 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers  at Wrigley Field on June 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 16: Matt Garza #17 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field on June 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
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Normally in these previews, I more or less stick with talking about whoever the Diamondbacks are playing. But this time around, the Diamondbacks are playing the Cubs, and you don't care about the Cubs. Really, you don't. Honestly, even most Cubs fans have stopped caring about the 2012 Cubs, save about 3-4 intriguing players, and the D-Backs just played them two weeks ago. So, because it's the start of second half (in general baseball parlance, if not mathematically), and because of the Cubs, I thought I'd take a more macro view.

We've seen the 2012 Diamondbacks play 85 games, and I don't think I'm alone in having no idea what to make of them as a team. We know they're somewhere in the purgatorial space between great and terrible, but there are reasons to believe that this team can make a run at the division, just as there are reasons to believe they'll be sellers at the trade deadline, and none of us know which reasons are better. We know that their offense has been adequate, if inconsistent. Which is fine, because "adequate" is considerably better than what the Giants and Dodgers are trotting out there every day, and they've done this with their star right fielder playing like a pale imitation of himself, and a starting center fielder who has played like a pale imitation of the pale imitation of their star right fielder. This should improve at least a little in the second half, and hopefully it will negate the probable regression of Goldschmidt, Kubel, and others.

The pitching? Well, the good news is that they have about six or seven pitchers who should be in the starting rotation. The bad news is that they have zero pitchers who should be at the top of a rotation. And in addition to being very average, the Diamondbacks' rotation will also be very young. The Diamondbacks figure to have three rookies pitching significant innings down the stretch this year, and that's assuming that Saunders comes back and doesn't get traded. Expect plenty of inconsistency going forward.

Will the Diamondbacks make the playoffs? Possibly! Will the Diamondbacks trade for prospects at the deadline? Conceivably! Will Jim write an article later today that talks about all these things far more eloquently than I just did? Most likely! Should I go back to talking about the Cubs? Definitely!

The Cubs have actually played pretty well lately, winning nine of their last thirteen following the sweep at Chase Field. This hot streak vaulted them all the way up to fifth in the NL Central, as they're now a half game ahead of the Astros. They've made up plenty of ground on the division leaders as well, moving from 15.5 games back after the sweep to 15 games back now. They're still toast, but they're no longer on pace for the worst record in their famously miserable history. So that's something.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 95 80
Pitching (FIP-):
94 105
Fielding (UZR):
17.5 4.5 Arizona

Even during their last thirteen games, the offense hasn't improved much, scoring under 3.8 runs per game during that time. Their season wRC+ is tied with the Mariners for 30th in baseball. And when you think about it, that's really not so bad. Think of all the thousands of little league teams, minor league teams, independent league teams, NPB teams. Most, if not all, are worse at offense than the Cubs! Really, being 30th in MLB probably still puts them in the top one percent of offenses overall in baseball. But yeah, speaking relatively, this is not a great offense, and the pitching, while somewhat better of late, is not good enough to save them.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Stephen Drew, SS
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Jason Kubel, LF
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Chris Young, CF
8. Ryan Roberts, 3B

Chicago Cubs

1. David Dejesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Bryan LaHair, RF
6. Geovany Soto, C
7. Darwin Barney, 2B
8. Luis Valbuena, 3B

  • So, obviously the big change here is the presence of Anthony Rizzo at first base. You know, sometimes I feel bad for fans of other sports, because they never get to experience anything analogous to watching a prospect on your favorite team tear up the minors. The wait is excruciating, but the promise is tantalizing. In the moment before a top prospect comes up, he can be anything, because he's unconstrained by the pesky realities of major-league numbers. So for Cub fans, who saw in Rizzo the hype of Trevor Bauer combined with Triple-A numbers so prodigious they might have been produced by Your Daily Goldschmidt, this call-up was Christmas in the middle of a long winter.
  • Oh yeah, and Rizzo's hitting .354/.367/.688 in his first 49 Plate Appearances as a Cub. Probably shouldn't forget that.
  • Before Justin Upton, Starlin Castro was the obligatory supremely talented youngster who was available for the right price. It sort of made sense, as Castro's having a down year (OPS of .736) and the Cubs can't afford to close themselves off to any offer that might improve their team. But still, the knee-jerk national reaction, just as it was with Upton is "Wow, these guys are crazy and/or desperate," because they see all the upside without the frustrations of watching these players on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes baseball makes more sense from a more detached perspective.
  • With Rizzo's arrival, Bryan LaHair moves to right field as the Cubs try desperately to have their cake and eat it too. With such a bad lineup, you can understand why the Cubs want to keep their best bat around even as their rookie gets playing time. At the same time though, you're moving someone who has never been an outfielder in the majors (I can't find any information about his defensive position in the minors, but I seem to remember him coming up as a 1B) and has been barely average at a far less demanding position, to right field. We'll see how this goes.
  • Has anyone dropped off the face of the earth more suddenly than Geovany Soto? Our Rookie of the Year in 2008 has been injury-prone and mediocre since 2010, and honestly sort of since 2008. He's 29 now, and he has an OPS of under .600 this year while missing significant time with injuries. Not good.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Ian Kennedy (6-7, 4.26) vs. Paul Maholm (6-6, 4.57)

Insightful Commentary: Sorry to disappoint those of you who clicked on this article just to read about Paul Maholm, but I really don't have much to say about him. He's not particularly good, he's not particularly interesting as a pitcher, and the team just faced him.

So I'd much rather talk about Kennedy. As I've mentioned before, all my normal hot, sexy sabermetrics have fallen flat here. His BABIP is more than 50 points higher than it was last year, and I'm dubious of just calling it luck at this point in the season. But his strikeout rate is right in line with his career averages, and his walk rate is the lowest it has ever been. And his line drive rate (which often drives BABIP), is almost identical to what it was last year.

Seriously, I just spent the last fifteen minutes driving myself crazy scouring Fangraphs and the incomparable Brooks Baseball to find more data. The data that I could find isn't all that clear, but just from looking through a whole bunch of game logs, it looks like he's not locating quite as well this year, particularly on the inner half of the plate to righties. I still think he'll be fine and have a strong second half, but location matters immensely for someone like Kennedy, and even a small loss in location can hamper him.

Saturday: Joe Saunders (4-5, 3.44) vs. Ryan Dempster (4-3, 1.99)

Insightful Commentary: Both pitchers are making their triumphant return from injury. Saunders has spent the last two months remembering he's Joe Saunders after a surprising April that saw him post an ERA of 0.90. His overall numbers still look pretty solid, and he's still on pace for a career high in K-rate and a career low in walk-rate, so that's nice.

Ryan Dempster has emerged as a rather unlikely candidate for the ERA title in 2012. The 35-year-old bad-starter-turned-okay-reliever-turned-good-starter probably won't finish with an ERA under 2, but his FIP of 3.15 is still a career low, thanks to the (stop me if you've heard this one before) lowest walk-rate of his career. I think it's a pattern, guys!

Sunday: Trevor Cahill (7-7, 3.64) vs. Matt Garza (4-7, 4.32)

Insightful Commentary: So Cahill gave up two more home runs against the Dodgers, who lead the league in not hitting home runs. This gives him six in his last 18 innings, for a Yusmeiro Petitian HR/9 of 3.00. Just from watching the highlights, four of those six came on sinkers that didn't sink, and only one of the six pitches was anything other than belt-high. Truthfully, I preferred Wild Trevor Who Missed Out Of Zone to this version, who misses right down the middle.

Garza's ERA is up exactly a run from his mark in his career-best 2011. The problem would seem to be dingers, since he's already given up one more home run than he did all of last year. He still has great stuff, and gets plenty of strikeouts, but the home runs are going to hamper any trade value the Cubs are looking to get out of him.

Final Verdict: I shouldn't have to tell you that the D-Backs are a much better team than the Cubs. Of course, the last time the Diamondbacks faced a team they were much better than, they promptly got swept at home, so that's not exactly a guarantee of success. Still, I think they start off the second half right. Diamondbacks two games to one.

Head over to Bleed Cubbie Blue to chat about the Cubs with posters who presumably don't literally bleed Cubbie blue.

(Stats via Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball)