FanGraphs has written up their season preview of the Chicago Cubs, and while we can quibble with a few details of their analysis, their expectations for 2011 are relatively positive. They make a few assumptions that haven’t been born out yet, such as Wells and Silva in the starting rotation and DeWitt holding down an everyday job at second, but despite that they project 80-86 wins. That’s not a bad outlook for a team coming off a fairly miserable year. An average offense, solid starting pitching, and a very good bullpen should combine for a fairly decent season.
But could the Cubs be better than fairly decent? Is there any scenario by which the Cubs could exceed these expectations slightly, and possibly even sneak into the wild card?
There is some room for improvement on the offense. A good year and plenty of at bats for Tyler Colvin should result a slightly better offense. Colvin will get his at bats in the place of Fukudome, Byrd, Soriano, and Byrd. Two of those are right handed, setting up some potential platoon situations that could help the Cubs. A similar situation exists between DeWitt and Barney at second. A platoon of both should be better offensively than either separately. I doubt these tweaks will be enough to move the Cubs offense much above average, but a very good season from Soriano just might. This spring Soriano has been hitting very consistently. I don’t think it is too optimistic to consider that Soriano could turn in a .290 / 40 HR year. That means the Cubs could be in a position to get 100+ HR from their 4-5-6 hitters (Ramirez, Pena, Soriano). That’s not bad at all. The Cubs’ offense still isn’t likely to compete with Milwaukee, but it might be better than we expect.
On the pitching front, FanGraphs expects Wells and Silva to win the final two rotation slots. I can’t argue with Wells. He has pitched well this spring. Silva, on the other hand, seems far from certain. The most likely replacement for him in the rotation would be Andrew Cashner. Based on last year’s whole season numbers, a full season of Cashner should be a little better than a full season of Silva.
But FanGraphs had Cashner in the bullpen. Who takes that slot? There are a lot of possibilities, including Silva, Coleman, Russell, Coello, Jackson, Smit, Looper, Wellemeyer, and others. In terms of the total strength of the Cubs bullpen, though this one is unlikely to matter much. No matter who fills that last slot, the Cubs are going to have a very good pen.
There aren’t many other places to find much improvement without expecting the highly improbable. Adding Brett Jackson at midseason might help a little, but he might be a year away. With Josh Vitters and Marquez Smith, the Cubs are better insulated against a prolonged injury at third than they have been for years. If Ramirez goes down for a prolonged period, though, the Cubs chances are going to be very slim regardless.
All in all, I doubt these tweaks would do more than add a win or two to the Cubs total. So can a best case win total in the mid to high eighties make it to the Wild Card? We’ll save that question for a different day.