Riddle me this: how is leading off with Tyler Colvin any different from leading off with Alfonso Soriano?
Hint: It's not.
The one-spot should be given to Castro or Byrd. (Marlon is 2nd on the team with a .378 OBP; Soto leads the team in OBP with a .407, but I don't suppose you want to see his slow ass at the top of the order. Castro is 3rd with a .350 OBP so far this season.)
Here are the top 8 performances by hitters batting first in the order in the AL:
Texas would be Ian Kinsler; Seattle is Ichiro; I don't care about the Yankees; Baltimore is Brian Roberts; Toronto is Marco Scutaro; Detroit is Curtis Granderson; the Angels have Chone Figgins; and the Twinkies have Brendan Harris.
Even though the Rangers have a comfortable lead in the West, they always need pitching. What would it take to get Kinsler? We ain't getting Ichiro, we ain't trading with New York, and Baltimore is already out of it. But what would it take to get Scutaro, or better yet, Aaron Hill? Would would Granderson cost? His OBP is low, but he does hit for power. How about Figgins or Harris? What would it take for either of them?
See, Uncle Lou can talk all he wants about making changes, but until he gets a real leadoff hitter, nothing he does is really going to make much difference, and thing is? I bet he realizes this, more than you think. Maybe THAT's why the man looks constipated - because he's trapped by this roster. This plays right into the hands of all of you who want to blame Hendry for this disaster, and while I personally excuse him for the bustout formerly known as Fukudome, and think that perhaps the Bradley deal still might turn out ok, in my opinion Hendry's biggest mistake of all is not getting a legit leadoff man.
The ultimate solution prominently involves changing Alfonso Soriano's job description, but that isn't going to happen unless we get a legit leadoff man on the roster. And that, in itself, isn't going to happen without giving up one of the members of the rotation. And this in itself worries me, because it just occurred to me a possible reason why the Cubs are looking at Pedro - as a stopgap measure while Ryan Dempster takes time off to handle his family issues. This is the only decent thing to do, I believe. So the rotation is thinner than it appears, but we really have nothing else on hand that will attract a major league leadoff hitter in return.
Unless you think we can somehow swindle Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates.
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.
As tempted as I am to write a long, pithy post about the numerous talents of Jake Peavy and why he is worth the first born of every Cubs fan, I thought I would instead address another area of need by the Chicago Cubs - the leadoff hitter, aka The Wheel Man. (Note: the leadoff hitter is not in fact called The Wheel Man. I just made that up. If you see it used elsewhere, they stole it from here.)
We all know that the Cubs do not have a wheel man. They don't have a guy who will lead off a game by working 10 pitches before finally drawing the 4th ball, trotting to first, and then stealing second before the Cubs #2 hitter can smack a soft shot into the outfield porch and drive him home. What they have instead is an uber-rich star slugger, a left fielder with great bat speed who also has the ability to steal bases and prefers to bat leadoff despite being better suited to bat 5th. Phew. Long sentences so far in this one.
The cry to let Fonzie be Fonzie is not only plagiarism, it's also wrong. I don't believe he's as flaky as some think he might be, so treating him with kid gloves is unnecessary. After all, we have now seen Soriano bat leadoff for the Cubs through two post season appearances, and in both cases he appeared lost and inadequate. Coincidentally or not, so did the rest of the Cubs lineup and we the fans had to put up with watching our team get blown out by a collective score of 36 to 12. That's 12 runs in 6 games. Do the math. Wait, on second thought don't, because if you're anything like me it will end in a pit of depression, a drinking binge, and waking up in a seedy Detroit hotel with what appears to be a nude transvestite. The transvestite I could deal with, but Detroit? Oh no, my friends, you do not want to do the math.
Rob has already expressed his views that the Cubs need a Real Leadoff Hitter. He believes that it should be a top off-season priority and has suggested that, for a second winter in a row, Jim Hendry pursue Brian Roberts, who is presently wasting away in Baltimore for a perpetually crappy team (thereby proving that a leadoff hitter alone is not enough). However, I thought I'd put the anal back in baseball analysis and take a closer look at the players we already have. After all, surely the Cubs must have somebody who'd be a good leadoff hitter, right? Let's take a look.
Alfonso Soriano - 443 AB, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 19 SB, 3 CS, .287 AVG, 100 SO, 42 BB, .350 OBP, .894 OPS
In his second season as a Cub, Soriano put up those numbers while batting in the #1 spot of the lineup. Pretend he doesn't have a power game, and 19 steals in 22 tries plus a .287 AVG plus a .350 OBP puts him right in line to be a good leadoff guy. But the fact is this - Soriano is a free swinger. His actual numbers leading off an inning - as opposed to batting #1 in the batting order - are not great.
Leading off an inning: 168 AB, .286 AVG, .318 OBP, 36 SO
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 648 AB, 39 HR, .299 AVG, .335 OBP, 135 SO.
Some people are afraid that the Fonz would be too much of a headcase to succeed elsewhere in the lineup. I disagree. He may be one of those sensitive types who needs to know his jorb in order to feel comfortable, but he'd adjust. Quite frankly, he has expressed a willingness to bat elsewhere in the past, but after a shiz-itty start to the '07 season, the Cubs returned him to his comfort zone. He then had an equally crappy start to the '08 season, which leads me to believe the more likely scenario that he's just a slow starter in cold weather. So, relax already and move on. The Fonz is not the solution, nor should he be a problem if he gets relocated to 5th.
Kosuke Fukudome - 58 AB, 3 2B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 3 SB, 1 CS, 8 BB, .276 AVG, .373 OBP, .804 OPS
Ah, Fukkie. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that, back in March, our own Rob predicted that Fukudome would put up exactly the numbers he actually put up. Rob, heed your own advice: When asked who would be the biggest turd of the '08 season, you said "People are gonna say FukU because he is NOT going to hit for a high average in 2008... probably around .250. His OBP will still be over .350, though." (You also predicted he would hit 13 homers, by the way.)
The 'dome did not spend a lot of time batting leadoff, and in the second half he also didn't spend a lot of time hitting the ball. But he is above all else a professional hitter, and I am convinced that he'll have a decent 2009. Considering that he has respectable speed - he could probably do better than 12 steals in 16 tries, and I suspect he will next year - and especially considering that he has epic patience at the plate, then Fukudome might be a sensible in-house leadoff guy. However, I am intentionally ignoring his "lead off inning" numbers, because although he has a better OBP in those situations (.336 to Soriano's .318) he otherwise sucks.
Leading off an inning: 104 AB, 4 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 14 BB, 24 SO, .240 AVG, .336 OBP, .663 OPS
Reed Johnson - 77 AB, 4 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB, 2 CS, .234 AVG, .302 OBP, .666 OPS
If I was trying to talk myself into Reed Johnson as a leadoff choice, I promptly talked myself out of it when I looked at that line. However, taking it a step further, in the past 3 seasons as a leadoff hitter Johnson has had 724 AB, and he has a .290 AVG, a .360 OBP, and a .784 OPS. In other words, he's not an unreasonable option.
By the way, his "lead off inning" numbers also sucked last year, but doing the 3 year split thing, Johnson has had 377 at bats leading off an inning, and he's batting .281 with a .342 OBP in that situation. Here's the full splits:
Leading off an inning: 93 AB, 6 2B, 0 HR, 2 BB, 18 SO, .226 AVG, .265 OBP, .555 OPS
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 377 AB, 25 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 19 BB, 71 SO, .281 AVG, .342 OBP, .740 OPS
Ryan Theriot - 68 AB, 3 2B, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 6 BB, 1 SB, 1 CS, .368 AVG, .419 OBP, .831 OPS
I've argued for the past season that Theriot is either a #1 hitter or a #8 hitter. He doesn't have the slugging ability to bat anywhere else in the lineup, and Colin very well might disagree with me even on that premise. Theriot's numbers obviously benefit from limited at bats, but in terms of hitting, getting on base, and stealing, Theriot had a respectable '08. The one concern I'd have with him offensively as a leadoff guy is that he was caught stealing way, way, way too often this past season. His EOBP* was .364 last season, roughly 20 points lower than his OBP of .387.
(*EOBP = Essential On Base Percentage. Basically H+BB-CS divided by AB+BB = EOBP, or the number of times a player was actually a factor on the base paths for his team. It's a stat I invented a few years back that, I swear to Gawd, will someday catch on)
If Theriot can cut down on the basepath blunders, he might be a good choice to bat leadoff. Although, in reality, I believe that like Rich Hill before him, Theriot should be Trade Bait this off season.
Leading off an inning: 129 AB, 5 2B, 1 3B, 18 BB, 20 SO, .287 AVG, .374 OBP, .715 OPS
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 301 AB, 21 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 31 BB, 31 SO, .276 AVG, .343 OBP, .758 OPS
Mark DeRosa - Did Not Bat Leadoff in 2008, nope, not once
Ah, DeRosa, the dark horse. On a team where steals don't matter, DeRosa is a possible leadoff man, although he remains in my mind the best #2 hitter on the Cubs. Just consider even only his career line - .279 AVG, .348 OBP, and he actually was 6 for 6 in steals in '08. If DeRosa returns to the mean and puts up a .350ish OBP next season, he'd still be a fine choice to bat near the top of the lineup. (Sidebar - what's actually most impressive is that DeRo batted 6th last year 243 times and he batted 7th another 150 times, and he still managed to score more than 100 runs for the Cubs. Christ, that was a Complete Offense.)
Also, any way you cut it, DeRosa is one of the best when it comes to actually batting first in any inning. I can't believe this guy isn't batting second in the lineup at the very least.
Lead off an inning: 115 AB, 9 2B, 5 HR, 11 BB, 14 SO, .330 AVG, .394 OBP, .933 OPS
Lead off an inning '06-'08: 331 AB, 28 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR, 34 BB, 54 SO, .299 AVG, .370 OBP, .820 OPS
And now, just for crits and grins, let's take a look at Rob's Coveted:
Brian Roberts - 609 AB, 51 2B, 8 3B, 9 HR, 57 RBI, 82 BB, 104 SO, 40 SB, 10 CS, .297 AVG, .379 OBP, .831 OPS
Roberts is clearly a pro when it comes to this gig. In all ways, he's better than any Cub out there - but how much better? If I guessed, I'd say that were Colin to crunch the numbers, Roberts might account for a win difference of perhaps 2 or 3 games if the Cubs shuffled their lineup to bat Roberts leadoff.
But the place where Roberts might make a difference is when those 2 or 3 games would count the most - the DS, the CS, and the WS. There are so many little factors that go into playoff success, and I truly believe that the best team rarely wins. It often has a lot to do with luck, and who's hot. Roberts could easily enter the NLDS and tank. Soriano could enter the NLDS and light the park on fire with his bat. We really never know, but any advantage gets put under a microscope in October, and Roberts would be a good one to have. Although I would argue that, realistically, the Cubs do have a few options to bat leadoff who could get the job done, and perhaps their best option would be to find a more potent #3 hitter/RFer. Just a thought, assuming they can't do both.
Lead off an inning: 256 AB, 22 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 26 BB, 40 SO, .301 AVG, .365 OBP, .834 OPS
Lead off an inning '06-'08: 728 AB, 58 2B, 4 3B, 13 HR, 79 BB, 99 SO, .291 AVG, .361 OBP, .796 OPS
Incidentally, over the past 3 seasons leading off an inning, I would argue that the only difference between Roberts and DeRosa is pure speed. DeRo looks surprisingly comparable to Roberts otherwise.
So, who will be the Cubs wheel man? It's a tough call. If the team plays it in-house, the easy prediction is Theriot or Fukudome if he regains his stroke. If the team plays the free agent market and ponies up the cash, the best option may be Furcal. But if the Cubs are looking for their best option for scoring runs in the playoffs, then they need to reshuffle their lineup and pursue another big stick to play right field. A pure leadoff man of Robertsesque quality would be great - great - to have, but this is where I disagree with the Sloth. As great as it would be, it's probably not the end-all be-all move the Cubs can make.
The Tribune reports that Sweet Uncle Lou will be making one of his legendary lineup changes. From this point forward, until Alfonso Soriano returns from what can best be described as a broken hand, Koss-Kay Fook-ooh-dough-may will be batting leadoff. At least, that's how it'll be until Piniella changes his mind, as Goat Friend Paul Sullivan notes in his most recent blog.
Some people are shocked to see Fukudome in the leadoff spot, as it will be a waste of his epic power*. Not to mention the fact that Fooky doesn't draw many walks**, nor does he have much speed***. Point of fact, it makes absolutely no sense at all****, and I will be sending a letter seething with frustration and disgust to the Cubs in order to voice - you guessed it - my frustration and disgust*****. Hmm, is anybody else seeing stars in this paragraph?
(*5 homeruns on pace for 12.
**On pace for 104, OBP of .403
***6 steals in 8 attempts, on pace for 14
****It makes total sense
*****I'll be offering them up my firstborn in a Contract Format letter if they pledge to keep that foreign bloke there all year long)
In other shocking news that makes total sense, it turns out that the Cardinals suck, and, yes, I'm feeling very silly tonight. I shall go celebrate it by watching Futurama and falling asleep at 8:10.*
(*My nickname is Captain Excitement**
**It used to be Admiral Excitement, but I got demoted)
One last thought - I was on Jon Miller's show today, but I got so caught up at work doing the job they pay me for that I didn't have time to blog about it. Which is okay, because Jon totally schooled me live on air when I said "I haven't caluclated it since the game last night, but I think the Cubs are on pace for 103 or 104 games," to which Jon replied "well, the Cubs haven't played since last night," for which I wept live on the air. Yep, that's me, radio gold.