|Art the Cubs the worst team in Middle Earth? Methinks not.|
|Rank in 16 NL teams||13||3||12||14||9||2|
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!