Extremely early roster thoughts: 2009 Edition
Despite the "predictions" tag I used, I'm not trying to be Goatstradamus here or anything. I am not saying that this is what I expect to happen. I'm not even saying that the guys who decide about things on these matters will agree with me. But if today was opening day and in a moment of frantic desperation Jim Hendry called me up for advice, this is the Cubs team I'd trot out to face the league.
1. Carlos Zambrano - Arm problems? Inconsistent delivery? Loss of "ace" status to Ryan Dempster last October? Zambrano remains the best Big Game Pitcher the Cubs have.
2. Ryan Dempster - A 17-game winner and receiver of a large contract this past winter, Dempster probably won't have as good a 2009 but he should still be a reliable #2 starter.
3. Ted Lilly - The Ice Man has been worth every dollar of his contract so far. Another 17-game-winner, Lilly just might be the best #3 pitcher in the NL.
4. Rich Harden - Call him the defacto 5th starter if you want, but it's an insult to his talent to even have him listed as the #4 guy. If Harden had a healthy arm, he'd be a perennial Cy Young contender. If he can be healthy enough to give the Cubs 25+ starts in 2009, then he'll be hands-down the best #4 pitcher in the game.
5. Jeff Samardzija - My first controversial pick! Here's the logic: he's proven that, in a limited capacity, he can pitch effectively in the Major Leagues. He's young, will certainly encounter growing pains, may get his ass handed to him from time to time, but pitching for an offensive juggernaut on a team with four other extremely talented guys in the rotation means that there is room to grow. In other words, the Cubs can afford to allow the Shark to struggle. And while he is unlikely to have the same impact as the '98 version of Kerry Wood, he just might be one of those feel-good stories that comes along every once in a while.
Note: The next section has been edited on account of how I forgot about Heilman. Vizcaino has subsequently been moved to long relief and Heilman has been inserted into the MR role. My official take is this: if Guzman gets "awarded" another option, let him start out in Iowa out of the rotation. If he doesn't, then his fate will be determined by the guys who are gunning for the 5th spot of the rotation. If Shark actually does win, Guz is done. If Shark loses and starts his year in Iowa, then Guzman becomes the defacto Long Reliever, Vizcaino gets bumped back to Middle Relief, and all is well.
LR - Luis Vizcaino - He's sort of the forgotten man on the Cubs pitching staff, at least by fans. From 2004 to 2006, he was a reliable arm. In '07 he was Howry-like, and in '08 he was even worse. The good news is that he remains an effective strikeout pitcher (which tells us a little bit about his stuff). The bad news is he gave up a Howry-load of homeruns in '08 (even though he was pitching in Colorado, but he gave up an even number of homers at home and on the road). If he can rebound, he'll be a reliable arm. If not, he'll just be another Gas Can. But he won't be able to do too much damage as a long reliever if he's running on fumes.
LHMR - Neal Cotts - I don't like him. Watching him pitch is a sweat-inducing experience. Unfortunately he's entrenched and I doubt that any other lefty reliever can outperform him.
RHMR - Aaron Heilman - He wants to start but he might not get the chance. He's possibly good enough to serve in the setup role, perhaps even better than Gregg if he finds his groove again. When you consider how unreliable the Cubs pen was after its three best pitchers, and you then look at this year's bunch, it's really Heilman who puts them over as having improved. With him - and even with Cotts and Vizcaino occupying roster spots - the Cubs might be five strong out of the pen -- and that sort of thing can make a huge difference in the playoffs.
RHMR - Chad Gaudin - Gaudin wants to start. Can't say I don't blame him. In my pretend scenario, he lost the gig fair and square to Samardzija. Last year as a Cub he was pretty good until he got hurt and was Piniella's whipping boy in the August 22nd game against the Nationals. Based on his age and ability, I'd expect him to be reliable.
LHSU - Sean Marshall - Not that he's shown a ton of ability to be an Out pitcher, but between he and Cotts it's a no-brainer. If Piniella needs a lefty in the 8th inning, Marshall will be his guy in '09 in this pretend scenario.
RHSU - Kevin Gregg - It's true - Carlos Marmol is better for this job. For 2 years, Kevin Gregg has been a reliable-if-not-unimpressive closer. If baseball was a computer game, I'd assign this gig to Marmol. Since baseball is played by people with egos, it goes to Gregg.
CL - Carlos Marmol - The most dominating setup man of my lifetime has earned his shot to close. I can't see why he'd fail. Marmol shutting down the opposition in the 9th would be a refreshing change on the North Side.
C - Geovany Soto - In his second full season, I'd hope and expect Geo to have a year similar to that of many premier catchers in their second full years. In his second year, Johnny Bench saw his OPS go up by almost 100 points. Carlton Fisk saw his power numbers go up, but his AVG dropped by about .50 points. Pudge Rodriguez's OPS went up by about 70 points. Mike Piazza's numbers were almost identical. Granted, none of that is at all relevant to Soto. But I do not think he'll do worse, and based on his age he could do better.
1B - Derrek Lee - If they made a movie about Lee's life at this moment, maybe they'd call it The Slow Decline. I'd still expect Derrek to be a reliable bat in the lineup and glove in the field, although he was defensively shaky in '08.
2B - Mike Fontenot - Bats lefty? Check. Good pop to his swing? Check. Gritty? Check. Shawty has played well and I expect that he will earn his way to the starting role come April.
SS - Ryan Theriot - I believe that Theriot will probably produce numbers somewhere between his '07 and '08 output. That would land him at a .287 AVG, 25 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, and about a 75% base stealing success percentage. Oh, and his OPS would be at .358. Actually that about puts him right where he'd need to be to leadoff. More on that later.
3B - Aramis Ramirez - I don't think Ramirez will hit 38+ homeruns again, as he appears to have elected not to go the Sammy Sosa route in terms of career progression. But at 30, he is still well within the window of legitimate Massive Production. If A-Ram has the kind of year he is capable of, then the Cubs opponents will weep.
Lf - Alfonso Soriano - This guy is bound to stay healthy sooner or later, right? I mean, he was never injury prone before he began dodging Wrigley Field potholes, so we may have a healthy '09 to look forward to for Sori. Imagine the kind of runs the Cubs would score if he was smashing the ball with regularity all season long.
CF - Kosuke Fukudome - Before he came to Chicago and tried to bring back the twist, Fukudome was a pure hitter of science and grace. Call me crazy, but I believe he could return to form. Maybe he'll never be a hitter of Matsui/Ichiro proportions, but if he can actively increase his offensive output in 2009 then the Cubs will have a phenomenal lineup.
RF - Milton Bradley - Crazy Milton had the best OPS in baseball last year. He walks a ton. He hits the ball a ton. He gets injured a ton. He hasn't had a healthy year since 2004. Maybe he's due?
C - Paul Bako - What does Paul Bako have in common with only two Cubs on the current roster? He's played for the Cubs when they won playoff games and a playoff series. Not that it means much. I can't believe he'll live up to the work of Henry Blanco, but as a backup how much will it matter?
IF - Aaron Miles - He's replacing the versatility of Mark DeRosa without the actual hitting ability. He's spent time playing every position but catcher and first base, and while he's not a homerun hitter, Miles does get his fair share of singles. If he can match his career averages of .289 in a limited capacity, then he might be extremely valuable in 2009.
IF - Luis Rivas - Based on their current available players, the unlikelihood of pursuing another Nomar, and their undeniable need for another infielder who can play shortstop, it's pretty hard to deny that Rivas will break camp with the Cubs in April. He's offensively about as exciting as Neifi Perez was in his heyday, but as long as he isn't as stupid with the glove as Ronny Cedeno was, I can't see him being any worse.
OF - Reed Johnson - Reed Johnson is one of the best bargains Jim Hendry has acquired in recent years. Picked up off the scrapheap after back surgery, Reed delivered unto the Cubs a great performance in 2008. Based on his consistency (apart from the year of the back surgery), it's safe to bet that Reed will see more at bats than any other backup outfielder in 2009, and he should do well there.
OF - So Taguchi - Probably the second most controversal "choice" I've made, this selection is where Childhood Dreams go to die. Micah Hoffpauir turns 29 in a week or so and had a great month with the Cubs last year. Joey Gathright is a 27-year-old bases-stealing fool. Taguchi can converse fluently in Kosuke Fukudome's native tongue. I love Hoffpauir, but I don't think it's realistic that he will be a successful major leaguer. I've made this point before, so here it is again: if he's as good as you think he is, then how come he's on the bubble with the Cubs and not a single Major League GM has attempted to acquire him? Don't you think a tight-budgeted team would spring at the chance to acquire a guy who - according to you - will outperform Derrek Lee and his 12 million dollar 2009 contract? Sorry, just thought I'd point that out. Anyway, probably Gathright is the better choice, although both he and Taguchi both suck fairly badly. There are really only two things working in So's favor - a) he could be a friend for Fukudome, and b) he bats righty, and the Cubs have a lot of lefty bench bats.
Lineup and unscientific projections:
Taking this scenario a step further, below is how I'd bat 'em and how I think they might do (if the stars align correctly)
1. Ryan Theriot - .285 AVG, .350 OBP, 30 SB, 5 CS
2. Mike Fontenot - .285 AVG, .350 OBP, 30 2B, 15 HR, 5-10 SB
3. Aramis Ramirez - .300 AVG, .370 OBP, 40 2B, 35 HR
4. Milton Bradley - .300 AVG, .400 OBP, 40 2B, 25 HR
5. Alfonso Soriano - .285 AVG, .340 OBP, 40 2B, 40 HR, 20 SB
6. Derrek Lee - .290 AVG, .350 OBP, 30 2B, 20 HR
7. Geovany Soto - .280 AVG, .340 OBP, 30 2B, 25 HR
8. Kosuke Fukudome - .280 AVG, .360 OBP, 30 2B, 10-15 HR, 10-15 SB
That would be potent. It's also surely on the high side a little but don't forget, we are blogging from pretend land today.
Anyway, I like this team. I like the roster. The rotation is solid, the bullpen isn't weak, the lineup is amazing (and probably could score the most runs in all of baseball), and there is enough depth for me to not feel too worried about potential injuries.