The Cubs Off-Season Report – 2006 Projections and Previews

Spring is in the air….am I talking about a change in the weather, well not yet….but I am talking about baseball and our beloved Cubbies. The newspapers were full on Sunday or what could and what might never be. There was even a report out of New York about the Cubs new outfield consisting of Juan Pierre, Jacque Jones and Jerry Hariston, Jr. I could not believe it….they even mentioned Todd Walker still being on the market, but with them apparently knowing little about the Cubs….how much of that can we believe? Most of the Chicago newspapers were filled with questions and expectations for the 2006 Cubs. How will the Cubs perform in 2006? What will the lineup be? Could Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno be this year’s model of Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith? Or will they turn out more like Brant Brown and Kevin Orie? There were the questions surrounding the signings of Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry, would this be the 2006 version of Mike Remlinger and LaTroy Hawkins? Can Ryan Dempster provide the Cubs with a consistent closer 2 years in a row; something that has not been accomplished on the Northside since….well Randy Meyers (1993-1995) and that is questionable. Dempster is ranked 15th All-Time in Cubs’ history in saves after only one season. Who will hit behind Juan Pierre? Todd Walker? Neifi Perez? Jerry Hariston, Jr.? Or will Jim Hendry add another bat before the season starts? These are the questions posed on Sunday, will there be any answers before Opening Day in Cincinnati?

There are two more magazine projections I would like to review and lineup projections on Cubs.com. Plus, the Cubs did come to terms on Saturday with Carlos Zambrano (scroll down) and the Street & Smith’s projections from Saturday morning…. This will more than likely be the last Off-Season Report considering Pitchers and Catchers report on Wednesday….so let’s all get ready for the ride that will be the 2006 Chicago Cubs season. The 2006 Cubs, who will hit and play where? Beside Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Juan Pierre, there seem to be question marks. Beside Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux in the starting rotation….again question marks. It depends on which publication or website you choose to believe. The most consistent lineup projection I have found is:

Juan Pierre – CF
Todd Walker – 2B
Derrek Lee – 1B
Aramis Ramirez – 3B
Jacque Jones – RF
Matt Murton – LF
Michael Barrett – C
Ronny Cedeno – SS

Cubs.com is projecting the same and the only major difference I am seeing is the middle infield and who will hit second and eighth. I have read and heard the Cubs are going to give Cedeno every opportunity to be the everyday shortstop in 2006. With that being said, will the Cubs have a three-headed monster at second base when the season starts? Hariston provides depth in the outfield and Neifi provides insurance at shortstop, but I do agree with Will Carroll that if Neifi gets 250 at bats this season the team is in trouble and if he gets 500 at bats the Cubs are in last place. Walker provides a backup at first base, but with the addition of John Mabry, that is unnecessary. This will be a competition to watch starting March 2nd.

The most consistent starting rotation projection I have found is:

Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, Mark Prior, Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams

Cubs.com is projecting the same. But I have found varying projections. Some think Kerry Wood will be in the rotation. While he has question marks around him, most of what I have read and heard does not project him back until May and he will not start any games until around the All Star break. Wade Miller has been mentioned a few times, but in the same breath as Kerry Wood….too many doubt what help he can provide the Cubs in 2006. Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams are serviceable starters. Jerome Williams started to put things together in his last 6 starts of 2005. He posted a 2.40 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with a 2-3 record. Williams had a decent season in 2005 with the Cubs posting a 6-8 record with a 3.91 ERA. Williams could go a long way securing a spot in the rotation with a solid spring and quick start.

The most consistent bullpen projection I have found is:

Ryan Dempster, Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, Scott Williamson, Michael Wuertz, Will Ohman and Roberto Novoa

While the Cubs have received a lot of criticism this off-season with the signings of Howry and Eyre, they are definite improvements on paper over Remlinger and Hawkins. The health and status of Wood and Miller will have an affect on the Cubs bullpen this spring. If both Wood and Miller can pitch at the Major League level come May, Jim Hendry will have a few tough decisions to make. Novoa could be the odd man out, especially if Jerome Williams gets off to a good start.

Paul Sullivan brought up the leadership in the Cubs clubhouse in an article on Sunday in the Chicago Tribune. According to Sullivan, Dusty has mentioned that Marquis Grissom could fill the same role for the Cubs that Eric Karros did in the 2003 season.

Where will the Cubs finish this season? Well, I have already recapped what Street & Smith’s had to say….so let’s take a look at Lindy’s Baseball Scouting Report and the 2006 Major League Baseball Yearbook and Fantasy Guide.

The 2006 Major League Yearbook and Fantasy Guide reiterates what most predictions are saying about the 2006 Cubs. The big question in their minds in the overall health of the team especially the starting rotation. They pick the Cubs to finish third at 81-81 behind the Cardinals and Brewers. They think the Central will unfold like this: Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Astros, Pirates and Reds. The Mets will win the East, the Giants will win the West and the Braves will win the Wild Card. The Cardinals will beat the Mets in the N.L.C.S. and beat the Angels in the World Series. They are stating that Neifi will play everyday at shortstop and a team that does that is ‘not serious about winning ballgames’. Although I am not a Fantasy Baseball guy, I thought their take on the 2006 Cubs was very interesting.

Lindy’s Baseball Scouting Report predicts great things for the Cubs in 2006, including a World Series victory. They are predicting the Cubs to win the Central (followed by the Cardinals, Astros, Brewers, Pirates and Reds), the Braves to win the East, the Giants to win the West and the Cardinals to win the Wild Card. According to Lindy’s the Cubs will beat the Yankees in the World Series. They are also predicting Dusty Baker will win the N.L. Manager of the Year Award. The Cubs team average was .270 and they had 194 home runs, both second in the National League in 2005. Because of the lack of plate discipline they finished ninth in runs and only had 419 walks, the lowest in the league. According to Lindy’s the Cubs have strong players in the field and in the pitching staff and they are looking for ‘the missing ingredients that can get them back to the playoffs’. Lindy’s thinks if the pitching staff can stay healthy and Pierre can provide the Cubs with a consistent leadoff hitter; they should be a playoff team.

I went and pulled out one of the predictions for the 2005 Cubs and as I was writing this I kept thinking this team is better than last years. Let’s compare February 13, 2006 with February 13, 2005:

2005 Projected Lineup – Patterson, Walker, Garciaparra, Ramirez, Burnitz, Lee, Hollandsworth and Barrett
2006 Projected Lineup (depending on source) – Pierre, Walker, Lee, Ramirez, Jones, Murton, Barrett and Cedeno
2005 Projected Rotation – Wood, Prior, Zambrano, Maddux, Dempster
2006 Projected Rotation (depending on source) – Prior, Zambrano, Maddux, Rusch, Williams
2005 Projected Bullpen (Closer and Setup) – Hawkins, Remlinger and Leicester
2006 Projected Bullpen (Closer and Setup) – Dempster, Eyre and Howry
2005 Projected Bench – Hariston, Macias, Blanco, Dubois and Perez
2006 Projected Bench – Hariston, Mabry, Blanco and Perez

Here are the reasons I feel the Cubs are better today, than one year ago. Pierre is a definite upgrade over Corey in the leadoff spot. Dempster is coming off a better year in the closers role than Hawkins was in 2004. Howry has more experience than Jon Leicester and John Mabry gives Dusty a better option off the bench than Macias. Murton is young but in my eyes a better solution in left than the Hollandsworth experiment that was attempted last season. Plus the only team in the division I feel that has gotten better this off-season is the Brewers.

I am looking forward to the next 48 days….