Tuesday, February 28, 2006

2006 cubs: the outfield

that time of year is again approaching when hapless souls endeavor to forecast something about the 2006 cubs season which will not mortally embarrass them forever after. in the interests of the best possible prospect of suffering such chagrin, this writer has decided to offer a more detailed look than last year's forecast -- and, with more said, more probability of humiliation.

the first part of this analysis has already been posted as an examination of overall payroll and efficiency in a recent historical context. now for the outfield.

matt murton looks to start the year in left field if he is not traded before the end of spring. his blistering stint with the big club last year has set expectations very high for his sophomore campaign -- indeed, probably far too high.

if murton produces 265/320/420 with 17 hr and 67 rbi to equal last year's aggregate cub left field, this page would be pleased. that sort of output is quite a lot to ask of a player with only 140 major-league at-bats to his credit, and demanding more seems a bit foolish. many people forget that he hit .380 vs lhp in 2005 -- a small sample which isn't likely to extrapolate over an entire year -- and went 260/330/480 vs rhp despite being in the hottest streak he could ask for, hitting for the kind of power he simply has never hit for over any sizable length of time in the minors. this time through, if allowed to play everyday, murton is going to take three-quarters of his plate appearances vs rhp. while murton is well capable of playing as a major-league-average left fielder, and may be a fine if somewhat powerless hitter in time, one must be prepared for a bit of a letdown.

moreover, he'll have to play well from the get-go in order to keep his spot. one should be prepared for the appearance of marquis grissom in the lineup more often than one would wish. grissom played very poorly in 2005, and there is some question as to whether or not, at age 39, he has lost his capacity to play the game well (or as well as he ever did). but he's almost sure to be defensively superior to murton and may still have enough offensive potential -- 280/320/430 with 15 homers -- to displace an unproven player who struggles, regardless of being in the twilight of his career.

juan pierre arrives in chicago in lieu of the team's big free agent signing, and he will be a welcome and massive upgrade over korey patterson. pierre's defense may not be everything one would hope for -- particularly a weak throwing arm -- but his offensive potential as a leadoff hitter can fill a gaping need. 2005 was not pierre's best season, and it's quite reasonable to expect a return to 310/360/400 over 600+ at bats and 50+ stolen bases. his work ethic and conditioning is rumored to be remarkable, which is important for a team that has no replacement for him at the top of the order.

this writer feels that a lot of people are going to be amazed not only at how bad jacque jones is compared to what he's been advertised as, but how he's unexpectedly worse than 2005's right fielder, jeromy burnitz.

burnitz, for all his manifold shortcomings, was a good fielder with an accurate arm. jones is a strong thrower but is not at all accurate -- is in fact wild, will overthrow/underthrow cutoffs and bases regularly and probably launch a couple into the stands this year, as he always does. in combination with pierre's underpowered arm, one can expect a lot of national league teams to take the extra base on any ball hit into the right field gap or corner.

offensively, burnitz fanned 109 times in 605 ab last year; jones is a mortal lock for 130 fans if he gets that many at-bats, and he'll walk half as often. he'll struggle to reach burnitz's meager 2005 output of 24 homers, going from the metrodome's hefty bag to wrigley's deep rightfield alley, and burnie's 87 rbi would represent a career high for jacque. this is a guy who would ostensibly hit fourth between lee and ramirez to set up the right-left-right lineup? not on a good team. though he may rebound a bit from last year's dismal performance, it won't be enough to keep jones from representing a downgrade in right field -- and one with a regrettable three-year contract.

john mabry and jerry hairston will offer other options in backup roles, but barring injury should see relatively little time in the outfield. angel pagan, should he see chicago at all, will probably do so in a situation where the cubs fate has already been decided.

on the whole, then, this outfield unit is marginally upgraded from last year's version, which was here touted at the worst outfield in the league. pierre will almost certainly keep it from that lowly status, but it is nonetheless a major team weakness still. the defense will be poor, the power and production likely well below the average major league outfield much less that which will carry the offenses of winning teams -- and remains a far cry from that which this team fielded as recently as 2004.

part 1: payroll and expectation
part 2: the outfield
part 3: relief pitching
part 4: the infield
part 5: starting pitching

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