On his podcast earlier this week, Jonah Keri asked Rob Neyer what was going to be the biggest surprise of the 2011 season and his answer was...the Chicago Cubs.
I'll allow a moment for the shock to subside.
His rationale is interesting. Simply put, he expects the Cubs to get better production out of at least five or six positions. And, he believes the addition of Matt Garza and the return of Carlos Zambrano will make up for the loss of Ted Lilly and the general uncertainty at the backend of the rotation.
Not bad points. Here's what Rob is talking about in more detailed terms:
Cubs C '10: .257 AVG, 70 R, 19 HR, 75 RBI, 774 OPS (#4 in NL)
Cubs 1B '10: .254 AVG, 91 R, 20 HR, 74 RBI, 722 OPS (#14)
Cubs 2B '10: .257 AVG, 69 R, 7 HR, 45 RBI, 644 OPS (#13)
Cubs 3B '10: .262 AVG, 85 R, 25 HR, 96 RBI, 771 OPS (#7)
Cubs SS '10: .303 AVG, 78 R, 3 HR, 56 RBI, 744 OPS (#5)
Cubs LF '10: .261 AVG, 83 R, 26 HR, 92 RBI, 795 OPS (#6)
Cubs CF '10: .286 AVG, 93 R, 14 HR, 75 RBI, 770 OPS (#7)
Cubs RF '10: .250 AVG, 82 R, 27 HR, 86 RBI, 789 OPS (#8)
That's truly abysmal production. Conventional stats aren't the greatest indicators, obviously, but it's never good when no position produces either 100 R or 100 RBI and only two positions manage an average above .265. No position provided 30 HR. No position managed an OPS above 800 (32 NL players had 800+ OPS in 2010, two per team).
I'm willing to take for granted that a full year of Aramis Ramirez, who was plenty productive when he got back from the DL, will give the Cubs at least one sizable upgrade.
I'm also excited to see more of Geovany Soto. Soto was great in 2010 (890 OPS), but Lou Pinella severely limited his ABs against right-handed pitchers and his splits show why (796 OPS v. RHP, 1072 OPS v. LHP). Still, he's a hell of a lot better than Koyie Hill, no matter which way the ball is coming from, though his '10 rates might be slightly misleading.
Beyond that, there is a lot of uncertainty. One hopes that Starlin Castro will be even better in his first full season, but sophomore slumps are hardly unusual, especially when we're talking about a 21-year-old who played a grand total of 57 games at AA and zero at AAA. The Cubs actually got decent production from shortstop last year, because Castro was very good in the second half and Ryan Theriot was pretty good early in the season, prior to Castro's promotion. I certainly wouldn't guarantee an improvement in 2011.
One expects that free-agent acquisition Carlos Pena will give the Cubs some pop at first base, something they were sorely lacking in 2010. But, Pena actually posted a 732 OPS last year, worse than Derrek Lee, to go along with his sub-Mendoza batting average. He was reportedly nursing injuries, so I'm willing to embrace an optimistic position towards his 2011, but he's hardly a sure thing.
Alfonso Soriano is actually coming off one of his best seasons since he joined the Cubs. He got more plate appearances than he has since 2007 and seemed more comfortable after finally being moved down in the order. However, now 35, Soriano's 30/30 potential has all but vanished and the Cubs should probably be thankful if he merely repeats his 2010 line for a couple more years.
For Marlon Byrd, it was a tale of two seasons. He made the All-Star team based on a first half in which he hit .317 with an 845 OPS. After the break he hit .261 with a 682 OPS. Is Marlon Byrd really better than a league-average hitter, which is more or less what his overall production made him in 2010? I don't believe so.
In 2010, four replacement-level players shared second base: Theriot, Blake DeWitt, Mike Fontenot, and Jeff Baker. This spring the Cubs are working out DeWitt, Baker, Darwin Barney (708 career OPS in the minor leagues), and a smattering of non-roster invitees, the most recognizable of which is Augie Ojeda, a 36-year-old journeyman who most recently posted a 486 OPS (not a misprint) with the D-Backs. Seeing potential for improvement here is like betting on a coin flip.
The biggest wild card for the Cubs in 2011 has to be in right field, where Chicago is presumably prepared to go with Tyler Colvin full-time, after the rookie earned his way into the starting lineup over the course of last season. The scouting reports are extremely mixed on Colvin. Like Castro, he spent very little time in the high minors. He showed great power right off the bat in the majors (20 HR, .500 SLG), but his plate discipline is very suspect (100 K in 358 AB, .316 OBP). If Colvin matures quickly he could be Adam LaRoche or even Adam Lind, but he could also be a forgotten flash-in-the-pan by this time next year.
Of the rotation, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'd say Garza has a really strong chance of becoming Ted Lilly upon his transition to the NL. In three-and-a-half seasons with the Cubs, Lilly went 47-34 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. He averaged 31 starts and 196 innings per season, providing stability, but not brilliance. As I've said before, Garza is young enough that he may still prove himself to be more than that, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Assuming Garza makes up for the loss of Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells hold steady, and everybody stays healthy, a full year from the revitalized Zambrano, who went 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA after returning to the rotation down the stretch, should make the rotation substantially better in 2011. And it wasn't that bad last year.
Our problem was the bullpen. Even with a truly outstanding seasons from Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall, the Cubs bullpen ERA was the second worst in the National League. Jim Hendry addressed this problem this offseason by rehiring Kerry Wood. Undoubtedly, he's expecting greater contributions from youngsters like Esmalin Caridad, Andrew Cashner, and Casey Coleman as well. Again, the best I can muster is "perhaps."
Keep in mind, Neyer did not say he expected the Cubs to win the NL Central, merely that they were capable of making a 10-12 win improvement on last season's 75-87 record. That's not beyond the realm of possibility. The Cubs had some seriously bad luck in 2010. Ramirez missed time. Zambrano melted down. Lee fell off the table. Byrd disappeared in the second half. Had they been spared a few of these misfires, one could easily see them as a .500 team.
The Cardinals, a team who's lack of depth cost them dearly in 2010, failed to competently address their glaring holes this offseason, then lost their Ace in the opening week of Spring Training. So, the perennial NL Central juggernaut is plenty vulnerable. However, both the Brewer and the Reds are balanced, stacked franchises. I just can't see the Cubs making a run at either of them. Would a .500 record really be surprising? For a team boasting a $135 Million payroll? For some reason, I can't even summon my usual springtime sanguineness.