The Cubs have improved in some areas this winter but there are still three trouble spots.
First, they haven’t created an opportunity for Micah Hoffpauir. Hoffpauir was a lefthanded power bat that the Cubs should have gotten into the lineup, even at the expense of Derrek Lee. Fontenot is an additional lefty bat, sure, and so is Milton Bradley; but while I’m sure Bradley is a better hitter than Jim Edmonds, who batted only .241 in the second half, Bradley will be hard pressed to improve on Edmonds’ 19 home runs with the Cubs. Bradley has never hit more than 22 in a season. Do you really want all your power from the left side to come from the bats of Bradley and Fontenot? I thought that was the area where the Cubs most needed improvement.
Lee has his detractors, and even his fans are aware that he grounded into 27 double plays, second in the league. But Lee gets so many at bats–his 623 led the league among first basemen–that his 93 runs scored and 90 runs batted in look bigger than they really are. Among fourteen first basemen in the National League with at least 350 at bats, Lee stood seventh in OBP, seventh in runs per at bat, twelfth in home runs per at bat, twelfth in slugging and thirteenth in runs batted in per at bat. The only regular first basemen in the league that you can safely say were worse hitters than Lee are Loney and Aurilia.
Here are the numbers.
OBP: Pujols .462, Berkman .420, Teixeira .390, Fielder .372, Votto .368, Gonzalez .361, Lee .361, Delgado .353, LaRoche .341, Howard .339, Loney .338, Aurilia .332, Jacobs .299.
Runs per at bat: Berkman 20.58%, Pujols 19.08%, Howard 17.21%, Gonzalez 16.72%, Teixeira 16.54%, Delgado 16.05%, Lee 14.93%, Fielder 14.63%, Jacobs 14.05%, LaRoche 13.41%, Votto 13.12%, Loney 11.09%, Aurilia 8.11%.
At bats per home run: Berkman 12.04, Howard 12.71, Pujols 14.16, Jacobs 14.91, Delgado 15.74, Gonzalez 17.11, Fielder 17.29, Teixeira 19.05, LaRoche 19.68, Votto 21.92, Lee 31.15, Aurilia 40.70, Loney 45.77.
Slugging percentage: Pujols .653, Berkman .567, Howard .543, Delgado .518, Jacobs .514, Teixeira .512, Gonzalez .510, Fielder .507, Votto .506, LaRoche .500, Lee .462, Loney .434, Aurilia .413.
Runs batted in per at bat: Howard 23.93%, Pujols 22.14%, Teixeira 20.47%, Jacobs 19.50%, Gonzalez 19.32%, Delgado 19.23%, Berkman 19.13%, Fielder 17.35%, LaRoche 17.28%, Votto 15.97%, Loney 15.13%, Lee 14.45%, Aurilia 12.78%.
It inflates Lee’s importance to the Cubs that they automatically bat him third. The only other first baseman who hits third for his team is Pujols. (Even Berkman shifted to fourth for most of his starts in 2008.) Most first basemen in the league bat fourth. The ones whose numbers are most similar to Lee’s are Loney, LaRoche, Aurilia and Votto. These players usually bat five, six or seven. This is where Lee belongs. It would be very unusual for a rookie to step into the three hole, so you’re protecting Lee by batting him higher than he merits.
We don’t have full season stats, obviously, for Hoffpauir. One of Hoffpauir’s fourteen starts came in the final week, in a game the Mets had to win. Hoffpauir recorded five hits, including two home runs, and five RBI. One game, some will say, doesn’t prove anything. Actually, it does prove that Hoffpauir has it in him to have a game like this in the majors. Pick any one of Derrek Lee’s 154 starts in 2008 and it won’t involve two home runs. You have to go back to 2007 . . . to find a season in which Lee started 147 games and never hit two home runs. The last time Lee hit a pair of homers in a game was September 2006, over 300 starts ago.
Hoffpauir had 73 at bats in the majors and hit .342/.400/.534. It is well known that his numbers in Iowa were tremendous, and I will only note once again that his slugging percentage of .752 was the highest recorded in AAA ball (Pacific Coast League or International League) since Daryle Ward slugged .772 in 1999. Hoffpauir didn’t make the Cubs’ playoff roster and may not make the 25-man out of spring training, since rookies are not usually comfortable or successful in very limited roles.
That’s one problem area: the Cubs don’t realize that Lee is not a number-three hitter. Another problem is that Carlos Zambrano has not developed into an ace. This they do seem to realize, and they’re apparently still eyeing Jake Peavy. To cite an October post on LBFC:
Personality issues aside, the case against Zambrano rests on his wildness. He was 43rd in the league in K-to-BB ratio among pitchers with 140 innings. Zambrano’s number was 1.81, less than two strikeouts per walk.
Here is a quick look at Zambrano in comparison to the Cubs’ other starters in K/BB and also WHIP. If there are sixteen teams in the league and we only look at starters (140+ innings), then we can stipulate that an ace should be in the top sixteen, a number two in the top thirty-two, etc.
Ted Lilly was 12th with 2.88 strikeouts per walk. Jake Peavy (not quite a Cub yet) was 15th with 2.81; Dempster 19th with 2.46.
In WHIP, Peavy was 11th with 1.18; Dempster 14th with 1.21; Lilly 16th with 1.23; and Zambrano 21st with 1.81.
Roughly speaking, Peavy and Lilly look like number 1′s, Dempster looks like a 1 or a 2 and Zambrano a 2 or a 3. Rich Harden produces ace numbers in both categories but has a problem racking up innings.
Here is a good source for these stats.
So go after Peavy, but at a reasonable price. Don’t trade your top prospects. Ricky Nolasco is a real ace, up there with Hamels and Haren, better than Peavy, and the Cubs dealt him for one season of Juan Pierre. The Sean Gallagher trade hasn’t come back to haunt the Cubs yet but it will.
The third trouble spot is center field. (You might say the three problem areas are Lee, Zambrano and Fukudome.) I expect Fukudome to bounce back to some extent, but he won’t turn magically into a home-run hitter or base stealer, and I simply don’t see anyone playing on a regular basis for Piniella who doesn’t steal twenty bases or hit twenty home runs. Reed Johnson has the same issue as Fukudome–not quite enough speed or pop–and so for that matter does the underrated Sam Fuld. Expect base-stealer Gathright to line up second on the depth chart in center until the pro forma experiment with Fukudome ends and Gathright begins to take starts away from him. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Tyler Colvin at Tennessee/Iowa. Colvin can play center, and while his BA has not been high in his two full years as a pro, his power numbers are decent: fourteen home runs plus eleven triples in 2008. Colvin had the same .230-.240 batting average every month last season from April through July. In August, something clicked and he hit .342 with five homers and five triples. He’s the centerfielder of the future now that Pie is gone. Given Colvin’s power footprint, Piniella might see more future in him than he ever did in Pie. All Edmonds had to do to keep that job was patrol center competently and hit the occasional ball off the wall or over it. Colvin can do that. If he comes back strong from post-season TJ surgery, he could begin to solve the Cubs’ centerfield problem by the middle of July.