Thursday, October 3, 2013

The 2013 Cubs Reviewed--Hitting and Defense

Yesterday's post covered Cubs pitching, today's discusses their offense and defense. To recap yesterday's post, starting pitching wasn't the reason for the Cubs woes of 2013. This chart shows the primary position players in 2012 and 2013:
There's quite a bit of turnover, so take a moment to shed a tear for...well, who's missed? Who's even still on a Major League roster--Joe Mather isn't, Brett Jackson isn't (thank God), All-Star Bryan LaHair isn't, Ian Stewart isn't. Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano, Tony Campana, David DeJesus, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker and Steve Clevenger are all wearing different uniforms, and who among them is missed, Soriano's nice finish for the Yankees notwithstanding. Speaking of that, someone tweeted out these facts a couple of days ago and since I couldn't find the tweet, I replicated the pertinent numbers:

Soriano's similar power numbers in far fewer games with the Yankees are remarkable, and they don't matter--he's gone.

But were the 2013 replacements any better? Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro combined for an excellent platoon at catcher, among the best combos from an offensive standpoint but unremarkable defensively--they allowed the 6th-most stolen bases (107) in the majors. Couple this with the fact that decent Cubs pitching gave opponents the 6th-FEWEST opportunities to steal, meaning fewer opportunities to steal somehow yielded more stolen bases. That doesn't bode well from a defensive standpoint. Navarro has reached the journeyman status of his career and no one considers Castillo a foundational building block.

No, those building blocks are Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, and the question marks surrounding them are well-documented. Rizzo's production by month:
Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 26 111 98 11 22 6 0 8 20 3 1 11 27 .224 .315 .531 .846
May 27 117 112 17 33 11 2 2 16 1 2 4 18 .295 .325 .482 .807
June 26 113 91 13 21 7 0 2 12 1 0 19 15 .231 .372 .374 .745
July 27 118 100 11 21 7 0 3 12 0 2 18 25 .210 .331 .370 .701
August 27 119 105 11 20 2 0 6 10 0 0 14 22 .190 .286 .381 .667
Sept/Oct 27 112 100 8 24 7 0 2 10 1 0 10 20 .240 .313 .370 .683
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2013.
Generally speaking, his power was okay but his average was sub-par, especially for someone signed through 2021. He's only 23 with plenty of time to improve, but this table leaves out his woeful production with runners in scoring position--he had 180 plate appearances in these situations and batted .191 with a .615 OPS. This is a small sample size, but there's a nagging fact behind it--hitters that hit well with runners in scoring position are usually good hitters OVERALL, and hitters that don't produce in these situation aren't. It's not an issue of clutch hitting as much as effective hitting, and he just might not have what it takes to hit at the Major League level. It's too early to tell, but the Cubs have already signaled their belief that he's one of the building blocks for their future and if he doesn't grow into that they'll have a huge hole to fill.

I'll begin with the positive for Starlin Castro--this shows his fielding in the first and second halves of the season:
I was troubled enough with Castro's fielding to write about it at length some time back, but credit must be given where credit is due--his fielding was noticeably improved in the second half. He still ended up tied with Alexei Ramirez for the Major League lead in shortstop errors, but it could have been far worse given how he started. To add some perspective, here are errors broken down by type for 2013 shortstops:
Errors Double Plays
Rk Age Tm PA Tot ▾ Cch Fld Thr
1 Starlin Castro 23 CHC 6026 22 2 12 8
2 Alexei Ramirez 31 CHW 5993 22 0 14 8
3 Ian Desmond 27 WSN 5844 20 1 7 12
4 Pedro Florimon 26 MIN 4766 18 2 6 10
5 Jed Lowrie 29 OAK 4274 16 1 7 8
6 Jonathan Villar 22 HOU 2185 16 2 6 8
7 Erick Aybar 29 LAA 5156 15 1 7 7
8 Zack Cozart 27 CIN 5389 15 1 4 10
9 Brandon Crawford 26 SFG 5233 15 2 8 5
10 Adeiny Hechavarria 24 MIA 5485 15 0 8 7
11 Jean Segura 23 MIL 5302 15 0 6 9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2013.
It's easy to write, but fielding errors can be improved with practice and focus on technique, suggesting Castro can decrease those. Throwing errors are more difficult to eliminate since they imply an inability to accurately throw the ball. This doesn't appear to be Castro's issue.

That's the good--Castro had a clear regression at the plate. Here are his career numbers to date:
Year Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2010 20 125 506 463 53 139 31 5 3 41 10 8 29 71 .300 .347 .408 .755 100
2011 21 158 715 674 91 207 36 9 10 66 22 9 35 96 .307 .341 .432 .773 111
2012 22 162 691 646 78 183 29 12 14 78 25 13 36 100 .283 .323 .430 .753 102
2013 23 161 705 666 59 163 34 2 10 44 9 6 30 129 .245 .284 .347 .631 72
4 Yrs 606 2617 2449 281 692 130 28 37 229 66 36 130 396 .283 .322 .404 .726 96
162 Game Avg. 162 700 655 75 185 35 7 10 61 18 10 35 106 .283 .322 .404 .726 96
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2013.
His 2012 power numbers are probably a reasonable expectation, and I'm sure the Cubs would be satisfied with that level of production by augmenting it with Rizzo and other players. That's not what they got in 2013. I'm not much of a split fan, belied by the fact that I'm about to show them for a second player in the same post, but in this case it is illustrative:
Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 26 115 112 11 31 5 1 3 12 3 19 .277 .296 .420 .715
May 27 122 115 15 29 7 0 0 9 6 20 .252 .295 .313 .608
June 26 113 108 11 18 6 0 1 5 3 24 .167 .204 .250 .454
July 27 121 113 10 33 6 1 3 5 6 23 .292 .339 .442 .781
August 28 118 110 5 24 5 0 1 5 6 26 .218 .265 .291 .556
Sept/Oct 27 116 108 7 28 5 0 2 8 6 17 .259 .302 .361 .663
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2013.

Castro had a fall-off in production in June, bounced back in July only to slip again in August. He was moved around in the lineup with more than 10 PA at seven different batting slots. Part of the rationale for the firing of Dale Sveum included some personal issues that have yet to come to light, but it's hard not to think that Castro's apparent regression wasn't front and center among those, given his importance to the Cubs future plans.

It could turn out that Castro's fielding woes won't be an issue and he's moved to 2nd, since no amount of defense can cover up Darwin Barney's complete lack of offensive production. Among the 140 players with enough plate appearances to qualify, Barney ranked 138th in OPS (Castro was 137th). Baseball-Reference WAR values were 1.5 for his defense--and -1.7 for his offense. HIS STELLAR DEFENSE DID NOT OVERCOME HIS DEFICIENT OFFENSE, and it never will--he will NOT be part of the answer whenever the Cubs begin to contend again and won't even generate anything of value in a trade.

There's rarely been a year in which spare wheels had more "impact" than this year, with Nate Schierholtz, Luis Valbuena, Ryan Sweeney, Brian Bogusevic and Donnie Murphy, scrap heapers all, having their moments in the sun. I have no real issue with any of them as all can be decent spare parts, but none are part of the future of the Cubs in more than a token fashion. Junior Lake might be different--he's only 23, and after his Yasiel Puig-type beginning cooled off, but that might be enough. I'm not sure what his real position is since he played almost equal amounts at center and left, and it would probably be best if it was left. There are rumors the Cubs have interest in Shin-Soo Choo, which would obviously solve the center field issue, but I'm not sure the Reds are willing to part with him.

Which brings us to the Cubs future--on paper it looks bright, but we've been told that before with Corey Patterson...and Hee-Seop Choi...and Kevin Orie...and Bobby Hill...and Rich Hill...and, well, I've made my point. Javier Baez has already advanced to AA and turns 21 next season. After making 31 errors in 73 games at Daytona he improved to 13 in 50 games at Tennessee. What I know about the Cubs farm system is limited to what I can see in their stat lines, so I have no clue if he's a smooth fielder still learning the nuances of playing the position, but he appears for real at the plate, hitting a combined 37 home runs with 111 RBI with a .920 OPS--THAT'S production from the shortstop slot.

Kris Bryant turns 22 next season and has been tearing up low and high-A ball, hitting a combined .336 with a staggering 1.078 OPS in his first taste of professional ball. His fielding was nothing spectacular, but fielding by third basemen is overrated for reasons I've described elsewhere. I've heard various estimates as to when he'll make the big club, some as early as mid-2014, but it's all a guess for a player who hasn't even been to one spring training.

The wild card is Jorge Soler, who had a season-ending injury while playing at Daytona. He'll also turn 22 in 2014 and was putting up very good numbers, but how he responds to rehab and how it will impact his future development is yet to be determined. Assume for a moment that he responds well--come 2015 the Cubs could possibly have a lineup of:
C-someone not on the team now
1B-Rizzo
2B-Castro
3B-Bryant
SS-Baez
LF-Lake
CF-Choo
RF-Soler
When viewed this way, Soler's development isn't as vital, but it would still be better for the Cubs if he was one less person that needed to be replaced. There's a whole lot of ifs built into that lineup, none of which can be predicted at this time--will Rizzo and Castro turn around and blossom into the players they were thought to be when they signed their contracts? Will Bryant, Baez and Soler make the successful transition from suspect to prospect? Will the Cubs pitching grow in step with the offense? Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been building the Cubs predicated on the idea that these are the answers--that will be the $100 million issue.

I'll finish with some thoughts on Cubs revenue going forward. I'll begin with this chart of team attendance:
I've written on Major League attendance trends and Cubs financials in other posts, but it's important to understand that attendance at Wrigley wasn't always standing-room only but a very recent phenomenon--and it's one on the downswing since 2007. The financial climate has been changed since then, but bad teams prove people don't attend Cubs games just to hang out and be seen. I won't make a guess, but a loss of 5,000 people a game, or around 400,000 in a season has to lead to a revenue shortfall somewhere in the $50-100 million range, and I don't care what team that is, that's significant.

This chart shows the Cubs payroll structure through 2021 and to the Cubs credit, other than the Rizzo and Castro contracts, the Cubs are relatively unencumbered with big money, giving them tons of payroll flexibility to use in any number of ways--targeted free agent signees (hopefully UNLIKE Edwin Jackson), beefed-up international scouting and talent acquisition or in other ways. Implicit in this is an idea that when the Cubs go to renegotiate their TV contract they'll be looking at another windfall. I'll never stop referring to this post by FanGraph's Wendy Thurm with regard to future TV money since lucrative deals like those of the Dodgers and Red Sox may be the exceptions instead of the rule. Look at the advertisers on a typical Cubs broadcast and contrast that with advertisers on an NFL game--it's not exactly apples and oranges, but the level of advertiser doesn't scream out huge money. Having written that, I suspect any Cubs contract, particularly if they stay on WGN will put them in the upper echelons of baseball, but I think $100 million a year from a TV deal is wildly optimistic. They currently generate  around $50 million between the two contracts, and I just can't see it going much higher.

Which leaves Wrigley Field renovations. This post is a very nice recap of all the nonsense various Cubs owners have gone through in order to update their own ballpark. I'll believe all the i's are dotted and t's crossed when I read about ground being broken, and when that happens, THAT has a real possibility to drive revenue. Every team, even in Miami, gets a boost from a new ballpark or ballpark renovations, and if the Cubs can manage the tricky feat of updating Wrigley AND putting a competitive team on the field at the same time, that could be something to behold. Again, I understand this is the Ricketts/Epstein/Hoyer plan, and as a Cubs fan I sincerely hope it works.

As I write this, the pieces are in place, but in every endeavor, the planning isn't the hard part as much as the execution. There were voices raised this year the Cubs "gave up" on the season with all their trades--gave up what? 75 wins instead of 66--who cares about that? It's too early to know if the Cubs got value back in their trades, but they certainly gained payroll flexibility, which in this day and age is just as valuable. I'm guardedly optimistic, knowing that it's typically the unknown or under-appreciated acquisition that turns the tide. The 2008 Cubs got significant production from Mark DeRosa, Geovany Soto, Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson, players that no one thought would play any significant role, and the same could be very true of the 2014 Cubs. They could accelerate the development process, but as of this writing that appears unlikely. What can I say?


WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR!

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