Tuesday, March 07, 2006

2006 cubs: the infield

to continue with our unfolding preview of the 2006 cubs, we will now consider the strength of this cub team -- the infield.

michael barrett and henry blanco return as the cubs catchers for this year, and this page cannot help but consider that to be a pretty good thing. barrett has come in for a lot of criticism for the failures of the pitching staff which, in the opinion of this writer, are attributable to the pitchers and the fans -- who persist in overrating the quality of the staff and therefore retain outsized expectations of it which are bound to be disappointed in most years. what is less often said is that barrett was the premier offensive catcher in the national league last year, ranking first or second in home runs, hits, total bases and rbi, winning the silver slugger to boot. jim hendry is often maligned in these parts, fairly or unfairly, but this page intends to give credit where it's due -- his obsession with barrett resulted in the cubs acquiring one of the five most productive catchers in the game.

blanco, for his part, provides the cubs with fine defensive work, throwing out 19 of 39 would-be base stealers in 2005 and committing only one error in 439 total chances. he can't hit his way out of a paper bag, but no one is asking him to.

i'm not sure what if anything new remains to be said about derrek lee's performance in 2005, but it was surely a season to rival any in living memory. forty-six homers, 107 rbi, 335/418/662 -- amazing, compelling viewing for any cub fan. it was also a radical outlier -- exceeding his previous career highs in homers (by 43%), doubles (28%), rbi (9%), runs (26%), hits (18%), batting average (19%), on-base percentage (10%), total bases (29%) and slugging percentage (30%).

the problem with once-in-a-lifetime seasons is that they so often do come only once in a lifetime -- it's called a "career year" for a reason. lee will still be a fine player and a keystone for this cub offense if he regresses to his old self in 2006 -- 275/375/510 with 32 homers, 90 runs and 100 rbi is good production from first base, compounded with his top-flight defense. but one should consider that lee scored or drove in 181 of this team's 703 runs last year -- one in four -- and a regression to the mean would, all things being equal, sink the cubs a few rungs lower in the nl offensive standings from the 9th they placed last year. while one can and should hope for a repeat season from lee, to expect it is to ask a lot.

second base is supposedly shaping up as a rotational position in 2006 with todd walker, jerry hairston and neifi perez seeing some playing time there. only the cubs know what todd walker has done to be demoted from the clear-cut starter in 2005 -- complaints about his defense, particularly around the bag and up the middle, don't withstand the obvious offensive advantages he grants over hairston and neifi. this is a player with the second-highest batting average on the 2005 team with over 150 ab and the fourth-best slugging percentage. a team that was offensively mediocre with 400 ab from the third-best slugging second baseman in the nl can hardly withstand his playing time being reduced.

this page has suported jerry hairston in the past as an alternative to neifi perez, jason dubois and korey patterson -- but over todd walker? loyalty has limits -- and although this page thinks hairston a servicable starting second baseman, it's also clear that walker is his superior and should play every day.

there continue to be manifold rumors of walker's imminent shipment, and this page can do nothing to verify or deny them. what it can say, however, is that the loss of walker would be every bit as harmful to the cubs as lee's reversion to his career mean and should not be underestimated in its possible impact.

the biggest question mark in the infield by far, however, seems to be shortstop -- which has ostensibly been handed to ronny cedeno. this page has already said much against the likelihood of success for cedeno, backed by an examination of data, but perhaps another avenue of insight will present more clarity.

let's go down the list of 2005 cubs, shall we, and see who was drafted where. first everyone with over 100 ab:

burnitz -- 1st round 1990
lee -- 1st round 1993
neifi -- undrafted free agent 1993 (17)
aramis -- ufa 1994 (16)
patterson -- 1st round 1998
barrett -- 1st round 1995
walker -- 1st round 1994
hairston -- 11th round 1997
hollandsworth -- 3rd round 1991
nomar -- 1st round 1994
macias -- ufa 1992 (18)
blanco -- ufa 1989 (18)
dubois -- 14th round 2000
murton -- 1st round 2003

then the pitchers with over 20 innings:

maddux -- 2nd round 1984
zambrano -- ufa 1997 (16)
prior -- 1st round 2001
rusch -- 17th round 1993
williams -- 1st round 1999
dempster -- 3rd round 1995
wuertz -- 11th round 1997
wood -- 1st round 1995
mitre -- 7th round 2001
novoa -- ufa 1999 (18)
ohman -- 8th round 1998
remlinger -- 1st round 1987
wellemeyer -- 4th round 2000
hill -- 4th round 2002

in light of this data, what can we say?

  • of 22 draft-eligible players to contribute meaningfully last year, 11 -- half -- were first-rounders and 16 -- three-quarters -- went in the first four rounds. moreover, note the first-round names: lee, barrett, walker, nomar, burnitz, korey. if you are hitting for any power at a high enough average to stay in the majors, chances are very, very good that you were drafted in the first round. people can cite mike piazza all they want, but the heart of major league lineups are built largely of very-high-caliber draft picks.

  • more relevantly to cedeno, foreign players are not draft eligible (yet). but what can be said is that the best players are hovered over from early teen years and normally signed within a few weeks of their 16th birthday by whomever has cultivated the best relationship with their family -- on the cubs, this is zambrano and aramis. players who slide into their 17th and 18th years -- blanco, neifi, macias, novoa -- are not so desired and most often demonstrate a far more limited upside.

  • now -- speaking specifically of cedeno -- this speaks only a bit ill for him, as he was indeed signed by the cubs seven months past his 16th birthday, on august 27, 1999. but compounding that judgment is the fact that most 16th-year signees demonstrate vastly more ability at earlier ages in the minors than cedeno has -- aramis is a good example. cedeno's career path far more resembles that of neifi -- a lot of struggling until the early 20s, when his advancing age and experience starts to work in his favor.

    that is the path of a player who is not greatly gifted in the art of hitting but who has managed to scratch out an existence by hook and by crook -- like neifi. and that's the kind of player we should expect cedeno to be. indeed, as was demonstrated by analysis of minor league data, the chances of his even being that good -- of sticking in the majors at all -- are not promising.

    in his first year in the bigs, then, this writer would expect cedeno to struggle terribly to get on base -- probably flailing with a sub-.300 obp at times, as the best he's likely going to manage in his career in any year is not much more than a .300 obp.

    at least as important but much less talked about is the quality of cedeno's glove. in just 65 games in iowa last season, cedeno managed to commit twelve errors -- nearly taking the team lead from mike fontenot despite playing in half as many games.

    no one wants to hear this, but neifi perez has put up 500 ab or more in six of the last eight years -- and more than 300 in the last nine running, every year since he broke in. he's an excellent defensive player and a proven (if offensively null) commodity.

    regardless of what the team is saying now, it seems rather hopeless to think that a kid like cedeno -- who suffers to take a pitch and committed so many errors in iowa last year -- is going to stick in front of a gold-glove winner like neifi under dusty baker. cedeno simply doesn't have the power to make pitchers fear him -- and when they find that he will expand the strike zone, he's going to get taken to school by grounding out to second. and if cedeno doesn't present a decided offensive advantage, he won't play.

    in short, this page thinks cedeno is being set up to fail. and this writer would go so far as to say that the team expects it -- which is why they have three "second basemen" on the roster, one of which played most of last season as the cubs' shortstop. indeed, the tribune and dusty baker are already managing expectations for the faithful, telling them that neifi is in the running at short. it seems to me that the price of failing to land rafael furcal isn't installing a bright young prospect to play everyday, but to return to the prospect of neifi perez manning the position for most of the year.

    the cubs primary option at third, however, is clear cut -- aramis ramirez has become one of the most fearsome young third baseman in baseball. his erratic throwing helped by the glove of derrek lee, he has been sufficient in the field even if his range is not great. but it's hard to even notice next to the thumping brilliance of his stickwork over the last two seasons. at 28 years of age, ramirez is entering his physical prime. nagging injuries have limited his playing time somewhat, but there is a great deal to look forward to for this player in 2006, a contract year. this page would expect ramirez to outshine a more human derrek lee and establish himself as the team's bona fide most valuable player.

    john mabry comes aboard this year as a competent bench player to substitute at the corners of the infield and outfield. one shouldn't underestimate the upgrade represented by mabry. barring extended injury, mabry will likely get 200 at-bats -- and far better he than jose macias.

    in summary, then, the continued excellence of barrett, aramis and lee will guarantee that the cub infield remains the heart of the club. but this page sees a continuing large role for neifi perez and expanded roles for jerry hairston and ronny cedeno, not to mention the likelihood of some regression on the part of derrek lee, as reasons to cap any hopes of overall improvement. it is possible that the output of this unit could increase -- if aramis plays 162 games, if lee doesn't regress, if walker gets more than 400 ab, if cedeno surprises this writer by playing most of the year in chicago and managing an obp significantly over .307 to do so -- but it seems a slim probability on most counts.

    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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