Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NL North - Part II

Chicago Centerfielder Orlando Soriano shows why the “C” stands for “Consistent”

After winning 88 games in Season One, the Cubs chose to stand pat last offseason and made few if any moves to shake up the core of a team that came within a game of clinching a playoff spot. That “if at first you don’t succeed” strategy paid off in Season Two: the Cubs went on to win a remarkably consistent number of games again – 87 last year – and clinched a playoff spot thanks to the stumbles of other clubs.

This winter however was destined to be a far more active offseason for the franchise, as free agency loomed for some key players on the club and key decisions would have to be made. By the time pitchers and catchers started reporting this spring, five players from last year’s playoff team had been acquired by other clubs or been traded, and quite a few new faces could be seen donning the oversized red “C”. But, looking more closely at the changes, one sees that not much was really added or taken away over the offseason from Chicago’s current winning formula: good defense + a good offense + a decent pitching staff yielding playoff opportunities. And why not? We all know, once in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The pitching staff suffered the most turnover starting with the departure of 32-year-old Garrett Kolb (1.54 WHIP, 3.94 ERA). The Cubs were content to let the free agent walk after he started 6-5 in 16 starts last season before tearing his rotator cuff and landing on the 60-day DL. To replace him, the Cubs in turn signed Tampa Bay Ray free agent Josias Gonzalez, who inked a five-year, $32.5 million deal. The big righty went 24-23 in two years with the Rays, posting a career 1.36 WHIP but missed about five starts last year tending to a bonespur in his shoulder.

In the bullpen the Cubbies also lost aging closer Carson Yearwood to Cincinnati and short reliever Alex Black, who signed with Colorado. Yearwood was a familiar face on the mound in the ninth, posting 36 saves in 40 opportunities last year while finishing with a respectable 1.26 WHIP and 3.57 ERA on the season. Alex Black’s role was much more limited, working just under 40 innings, in a few appearances for the club. It remains to be seen who will patch these holes. Rumor has it Cookie Alfonzo, the hard-throwing righty from the Dominican Republic who signed with the Cubs last season for $16.8 million in bonus money, might see time in the Bigs this year.

On offense, the Cubs lost a popular player in Hub Bradley. The former Silver Slugger centerfielder signed with the Pirates over the winter. Replacing his 28 homeruns, 33 doubles and 109 RBI had to be a priority in Chicago, and management delivered with a key trade. The Cubs packaged up three prospects from their minor league system to net the services of hard-hitting Orlando Soriano from the Rays. Soriano hit .253/.329/.512 last season, swatting 40 homeruns while driving in 111.

Also traded was starting rightfielder Hector Fernandez (.270/.333/.414), a gifted 34-year-old defensive player who has the skills to also play third base. He was sent to Seattle for a pair of young prospects. The move clears the way for young Darren Simmons to hold down the corner, for about $7 million less, but his durability is a concern and won’t be able to start every game in right.

The net effect of these moves should be minimal on an offense that finished 10th in Batting Average and 8th in Slugging Percentage last season. It’s clearly still the David Davis show in Chi-town, despite the Cubs pretenses at shopping him over the winter. But no bats were added to the lineup beyond replacing what departed. As for the pitching staff, which finished a hair above average in WHIP, OAV and Runs Allowed, the addition of Gonzalez is an upgrade over Kolb but only if the club can find suitable solutions for the bullpen.

dwb’s take: The Cubs patch up the holes from their departing free agents but don’t make any significant moves I see that look to improve the win total. Expect the Cubs to finish with a win total in the mid 80’s to record their third winning season in a row but finish second to the Brewers, who have just too much pitching. The franchise will continue to put steady pressure on the rest of the National League for a wild card spot.

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