Wednesday, October 11, 2006

the other end of the spectrum

an ongoing offseason roundtable being hosted by the chicago national league ballclub blog rendered this typically insightful and trenchant analysis from host participant and 1060west friend and commenter maddog.

If we establish the core talent at this point as Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and Michael Barrett, we’re not talking about a whole lot of talent to build around. Zambrano is undoubtedly the most productive player of those four.

3-year average Value Over Replacement Player (VORP):
Carlos Zambrano — 55.6
Aramis Ramirez — 46.2
Michael Barrett — 28.3
Derrek Lee (using ’02-’04 stats) — 37.0

The Cubs core, also their top 4 VORP players combine for a total VORP of 167.1. The average of just the top three VORP leaders of the 8 playoff teams is 162.9. The Cubs core consists of four players that make up just a little bit more production than a playoff team’s top three VORP guys.

The average of the eight playoff teams highest VORP player is 65.7 (Zambrano = 55.6). The average of the 2nd highest VORP player on the playoff teams is 53.2 (Ramirez = 46.2) and the average of the 3rd highest is 44.1 (Lee = 37).

The Cubs fall short of the average playoff team’s VORP leader at each spot.

pardon me for a moment of what seems like irrational optimism in the aftermath of a catastrophe season, dear reader, but this can be twisted into a granule of hope for 2007. retain ramirez and land one young star of a 6-to-7-win caliber and the cubs have an apparently-legitimate playoff-average core, even if only for the next couple years at best. (as maddog too notes along with yours truly, this core is already nearing its age-mandated expiration date.)

imagine (indulge, if you will) engineering a trade for miguel cabrera with a flight of young pitchers -- including, say, blue-chip prospect donald veal but not the major-league-ready rich hill. install him in left. or, maybe better, manufacture a similar trade for vernon wells and place him in center.

if the young pitching takes some semblance of flight in 2007 with a positional core of wells, lee, ramirez, zambrano and barrett -- if hill builds on his second half and if mark prior or another youngster were to step into the rotation and make a meaningful contribution -- then the cubs could possibly be able to stage a fair imitation of a resurgence next year.

but such a fate is conditional on at least two other acts -- only one of which lies entirely within the team's purview.

health, obviously, is the first -- but at least the team should know better than to rely on wood and prior as rotation components.

the second is this. the cubs problems in 2006 stemmed from two complementary issues, it seems to this writer. maddog analyzes the shortage of plus talent on the field, which is undeniable. but the other half was the persistence in playing really bad players for the lack of good ones. examine these lists: of batters and pitchers, who played for the cubs in 2006 sorted by value over replacement, and of 2006 win percentage added for the club. openly destructive players like rusch (-12.6 vorp, -1.44 wpa), dempster (-3.13 wpa), mabry (-12.6 vorp, -1.89 wpa), neifi (-7.3 vorp, -1.47 wpa in only 87 games) and -- most egregiously -- cedeno (-17.1 vorp, -4.65 wpa) have to be limited or sidelined. neither hendry nor baker made decisive moves to do so, excepting the trade of neifi to the playoff-bound tigers. (note also that this page does not name angel guzman or carlos marmol here, as their "contributions" were made in large part after the fate of the team had been decided in the name of building experience.)

consider a comparison of detracting players on the cubs to those of both the playoff clubs and the misbegotten of baseball. this table contains the number and sum of players with a wpa of less than (-1) on each team, followed by the sum of negative vorp players (limited to those recording more than 100 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched).

teamwpa <(-1)vorp <0
playoff average4.6-6.41-37.2

on this view the insufficiencies of the cubs on the lower end of their talent spectrum are made clearer -- the difference between the cellar-dwelling likes of the cubs and the cream of baseball is as much or more pronounced at the low end of the talent scale as at the high end. not only were the cubs plagued by a nominal lack of star power; they were riddled with the players that made those shortcomings true disasters by being unable to perform even at replacement levels in the absence of very good players.

if, for example, juan pierre were replaced by a full year of premier talent such as vernon wells or andruw jones in centerfield, the cubs could expect an improvement of some three to four games in record for the exchange -- the approximate difference indicated by their usual warp and vorp differentials. however, if cedeno were replaced by even a fourth-tier talent such as juan uribe or jack wilson, the difference to the cubs by the same metrics would be the same three to four games. execute both moves in conjunction with a typical six-to-seven-win year from derrek lee at first base over the virtually null production vis-a-vis replacement from that position this year, and the cubs have added some 12-15 wins to their meager 2006 output of 66.

this page would suggest that -- if the goal is to field a winning team in 2007, rather than undertake the ground-up rebuilding that this writer advocates as the surer path to constructing a consistent winner -- the better part of jim hendry's job between today and opening day 2007 is not the landing of a few stars (though that would be both welcome and necessary) so much as finding five or six players capable of reliably playing at least replacement level baseball.

of course, the difficulty is in the doing -- finding a way to vernon wells or miguel cabrera is not likely. and it remains to be seen as to whether this club and its general manager can even do the simple part: admit mistakes like cedeno and rusch, and be sensible enough to at minimum deleverage dempster by placing him in a mopup role if not move him outright. what transpires between now and december 31 will, as always, determine much about what happens between april and october of 2007.

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