Not-So-Lucky ’13: Cubs Season In Review (Part I)

All is well that ends well, right?

The Cubs were swept by their arch-rival Cardinals over the weekend, completing a 96-loss season in impressive fashion. They clinched the No. 4 pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by being outscored 17-3 over the three-game stretch.

As pointed out in a recent post, the difference in WAR between the 4th and 5th picks is rather significant.

It was a fitting end to another year in which the Cubs did their best to tank in a season built to “Lose Today For A Better Tomorrow.” And yet, it didn’t completely feel like a lost season. In part one of a series, we’ll look at the job the Cubs front office did as it entered its second year fighting a two-front war.

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#LoseTodayForABetterTomorrow: The Final Countdown

It’s almost over, friends.

The sequel to #LoseTodayToWinLater, which I have re-branded  #LoseTodayForABetterTomorrow, is in its final days and the 2014 MLB Draft picture has really cleared up.

Remember when I said I’d be happy with the Cubs season as long as they landed a protected pick in the 2014 draft? Well, I probably should have been more specific with my claim.

The top three spots are set. Houston (again) will be drafting first, with the Marlins drafting second.

The Royals beat the White Sox on Thursday, which clinched the No. 3 overall pick for Chicago’s South Side team.

That leaves the Cubs and the Twins, who enter Friday’s games with identical 66-93 records, in a battle for the No. 4 pick.

The Cubs close their season out with three against the arch-rival Cardinals in St. Louis, which leaves Cubs fans in an unenviable position.

Root for the Cubs and sacrifice a pick in the draft or root for the Cardinals to clinch the fourth pick with a series sweep and have to deal with watching a third team clinch a postseason berth in the same week.

Welcome to a Cubs fan’s dilemma.

The Cardinals have baseball’s third best home record at 51-27, while the Cubs’ 35-43 road record lies among the middle of the pack. St. Louis has a 9-7 edge in the season series against the Cubs and is 55-29 (.655 winning percentage) against sub-.500 teams.

The Cardinals’ sweep of the Nationals in St. Louis earlier this week put the Cardinals’ record at 39-36 against teams with records of .500 or better.

And while we’re here, let’s note that the Cardinals are 27-28 against teams who have clinched playoff berths already.

The Cardinals built a reputation of being bumslayers early this season and it’s a trend that continued throughout. With that said, I can only assume the Cards take care of business and send Dale Sveum home with a nice parting gift on his way out.

As for the Twins, they close their season out against the Indians at home over the next three days. Cleveland enters the weekend with a  one-game lead over Texas in the wild card standings and likely needs to win out to ensure a spot in the Wild Card game.

The intrigue of this series is that the Twins are pretty awful at Target Field (32-46), while the Indians are a sub-.500 road team (38-40).

What’s troublesome (if you’re rooting for a Cubs tank job) is that Cleveland’s record against bottom half of baseball makes what the Cardinals have done look like amateur work. The Indians, fueled by their 17-2 mark against the White Sox, are 53-18 against sub-.500 teams (.746 winning percentage). They are also 10-6 against the Twins and 4-3 at Target Field.

If all else fails and both teams end the year with identical records, the Cubs win the tiebreaker (and the No. 4 pick) because they finished worse in the standings in 2013.

I knew #LoseTodayToWinLater had its perks.

So, why does it matter?

This is why it matters.

Image

Above is a screen grab from baseball-reference.com, which has kindly calculated the WAR (wins above replacement) for players drafted in each position. As you can tell, players drafted fourth have a higher collective war than those drafted fifth.

Yes, baseball’s draft is a crapshoot with steals occurring throughout the draft. Albert Pujols was a 13th round draft pick in 1999. Mike Piazza was selected in the 62nd round in 1988. John Smoltz was picked in the 22nd round in 1985.

But the proof is right there for you. The best chance to find a high-impact talent is high in the draft.

Besides, the draft pool system and the new penalties for paying overslot have really put a dent in finding the unsignable value players later in the first round and in later rounds in general.

That’s one of the things that made Boston a draft powerhouse under Theo Epstein’s watchful eye. Quality players dropped to them because teams with tighter budgets couldn’t afford to draft and sign players whose costs went beyond what they were able to pay. Thus, the rich were getting richer in the process.

In case you’re wondering, here are the top four players to be drafted fourth, based on WAR.

  • 70.2: Barry Larkin, SS: Career .295 avg., .815 OPS; 12 ASG, 9 SS, 3 GG, HOF
  • 68.3: Kevin Brown, RHP: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 6 ASG
  • 64.0: Dave Winfield, OF: .827 OPS, .283 avg., 465 HR, 13 ASG, HOF
  • 45.9: Thurmon Munson, C: Career .292 hitter, .756 OPS, 116 OPS+, 1970 ROY, 1976 MVP, seven-time All-Star

If you’re looking for a successful recent No. 4 pick, Nationals 3B Ryan Zimmerman (career .831 OPS in 1,135 games) was drafted in 2005. Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy is MLB’s No. 14 ranked prospect. Fellow Oriole Kevin Gausman ranked 56th in the top-100 in 2012 and is currently holding down a roster spot on the major league roster.

Of course, the difference between choosing 3rd and 4th is getting a chance to draft Manny Machado third in the 2010 draft or getting stuck with Christian Colon, who is in his fourth season in the Royals organization.

Those of you who care about the best fifth picks, here they are:

  • 53.2: Doc Gooden, RHP: 194-112, 3.51 ERA, 4 ASG, 1984 ROY, 1985 CYA
  • 47.5: Mark Teixeira, 1B: .894 OPS, 341 HR, 4 GG, 3 SS
  • 46.3: Dale Murphy, OF/1B/C: .815 OPS, 398 HR, 7 ASG, 2 MVP, 5 GG, 4 SS
  • 44.8: J.D. Drew, OF: .873 OPS, .278 avg., 1 ASG

Some interesting names rank further down the WAR list. Ryan Braun (35.4, 2005) comes in at 5th, Vernon Wells (29.1, 1997) is sixth, Buster Posey (17.4) was a fifth pick in 2008 and Matt Wieters (13.2) was the fifth selection in 2007 who came two picks after the Cubs grabbed Josh Vitters third overall.

So, congratulations White Sox on your excellent season!

In case you’re wondering, yes, the Cubs have picked fourth. In fact, they’ve done so three times.

The last time the Cubs picked fourth overall was in 1995 when they selected Kerry Wood.

Alfonso Soriano: Same As He Ever Was (And A Brief Note On Matt Garza)

Most of this morning has been footballcentric, but there is a baseball narrative that is bothering me.

“Alfonso Soriano has been so good for the Yankees. Typical Cubs. Let a guy go, then he becomes great.”

Soriano in 47 games with the Yankees:

.254/.305/.524/.829 with 15 HR and 47 RBI

Soriano in 48 games before trade to the Yankees:

.247/.284/.532/.816 with 13 HR and 35 RBI

Soriano is the same as he ever was, especially in the slugging and run production departments.

But yeah! He was a bum on the Cubs and great for someone else.

Yawn. Laziness.

By that logic, shouldn’t Matt Garza be well on his way to an AL Cy Young?

The Rangers are 6-4 in Garza’s 10 starts since being traded from the Cubs shortly after the All-Star Break. The Rangers offense has averaged 5.3 runs per start, nearly a run higher than their 4.44 runs per game. But Garza hasn’t really taken off thee way one would have thought after going 6-1 in 11 starts with the Cubs.

(Regression to the mean, anybody?)

Since the trade, Garza’s ERA has ballooned from 3.17 to 3.79. Returning to the AL has a little something to do with that. His ERA has been 4.46 with the Rangers. The WHIP has jumped to 1.23 in Texas from 1.14. The hits-per-9 has jumped to 8.8 from 7.7 and the homers-per-9 are up slightly (to 1.4 from 1.0). The good news for Garza is that his strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved to get closer to 4-to-1 (3.7-to-1) as it was 3.1-to-1 with the Cubs. His BB/9 ratio is down slightly, while he is averaging a strikeout-per-9 ratio is up slightly.

As for Garza’s ERA+ — in which 100 is league average — his sits at 93 (7% worse than the average pitcher) with the Rangers after posting a 125 ERA+ (25% better than the average starter) with the Cubs.

Looking back at it, it’s impressive Jed Hoyer was able to get multiple useable pieces for what might amount to be 14 starts from a league average pitcher.

Preview: The 2013 Chicago Bears

One last look at 2012: The Bears’ 10-6 record gave Lovie Smith a career 81-63 record with the franchise. It is the best mark for a head coach since Mike Ditka roamed the sidelines. Alas, it wasn’t good enough because the team missed the playoffs partially because all six of the team’s losses came vs. teams that finished above .500. The 2012 Bears were bumslayers. But what does 2013 have to offer?

Da (new) Coach: For the first time in my 27 years on this planet, the Bears hired a coach with an offensive pedigree by hiring Marc Trestman. Trestman coached as an assistant from 1985 to 2003 in a variety of roles. He coached running backs (1986 Vikings), quarterbacks (’87 Buccs, ’91 Vikings, ’97 Lions) and had several offensive coordinator gigs (1988-89 Browns, 1995-96 49ers, 1998-00 Cardinals, 2001-03 Raiders. He probably should have landed a head coaching job after his stint with the 49ers or Raiders, but nothing came to fruition, so he ended up coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL from 2008 to 2012.

This is the guy the Bears have hitched their wagons to as they attempt to unlock the mystery that is Jay Cutler.

The good news is that Trestman has had success in molding quarterbacks. Bernie Kosar was respectable in Cleveland. Rich Gannon put up won a NFL MVP award after a career being a pedestrian back-up. And that Steve Young fella was alright for the 49ers.

The bad news is that Trestman hasn’t coached stateside since 2006 when he was the offensive coordinator for North Carolina State university. He hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2003. If a hack columnist was writing this, he’d be trying to fit a pun about teaching an old dog new tricks. Reminder: I am not a hack columnist.

The QB: There isn’t a more polarizing player in the NFL than Jay Cutler. Though, I’d argue that if he didn’t have such a punchable face or played in a softer media market, he wouldn’t be nearly as hated.

Take Sam Bradford, for example. Cutler and Bradford are two peas in a pod, as far as I’m concerned. High draft picks with immense talent, surrounded by dolts in the front office and on the field.

Can you name Sam Bradford’s targets? Doubt it. And if it wasn’t for the acquisition of Brandon Marshall, the only Bears widoeut you would know by name is Devin Hester — and that’s only because of his exploits as a return man.

And like Bradford, Cutler’s acquisition was much ballyhooed, only to realize that both front offices forgot to equip their prized signal caller with protection.

Whoops.

I digress.

If I was only allowed to use one word to describe Jay Cutler’s time in Chicago, it would be adequate. He owns a 34-22 record as a starter, but QB starter wins are as meaningful to me as starting pitcher wins as the Bears defense was to wins as a starting quarterback what run support is to your favorite starting pitcher’s Cy Young case.

His 59.6 percent completion rate and 219.5 yards per game are disappointing. As are the 4.7 percent TD rate, 11.9 yards per completion and 81.9 quarterback rating.

He clearly hasn’t lived up to the potential he showed in Denver, but it hasn’t been a total loss. Cutler threw 26 interceptions in 555 pass attempts in 2009, good for a 4.7 interception percentage. In three years since, Cutler has thrown 37 picks in 1,180 attempts and the INT% has dipped to 3.1 percent.

If Cutler can find a way to keep his interception percentage where it has been the last three years, while finding a way to improve accuracy and efficiency, he might actually have the breakout year we’ve been waiting for since 2009.

The rest of the offense: Credit Phil Emery and the front office for addressing the teams biggest needs in the offseason.

The Bears offense should be better on multiple levels. The hiring of Marc Trestman should improve the playcalling significantly, if only because Mike Tice isn’t calling the plays. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has a positive reputation working with offensive linemen who played in pass happy systems after his time with the New Orleans Saints.

Addition by subtraction is another area where the Bears offense makes significant gains. Kellen Davis is off the roster and on the streets. He made the Browns’ 53-man roster, but was cut a day later. Cleveland’s current tight ends are Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge. That’s really all you need to know about how bad Davis was/is.

Devin Hester won’t see time in the offensive huddle either. Hester, though, is still with the team. His focus will be on returning punts and kicks. Kudos to the Bears staff for realizing the guy paid to be a top target hasn’t produced to the point where it’s better to overpay him to produce in other areas, rather than watch him bog down an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way for much of the 2012 season.

From 2001-02, Charlie Garner gained 3,320 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,801 yards, 8 TD and caught 163 balls for 1,519 yards out of the backfield in Marc Trestman’s offense.

Imagine what a healthy Matt Forte could do.

Martellus Bennett was brought in to be the pass catching tight end Cutler hasn’t had since Greg Olsen was traded. But truth be told, Bennett still has to prove that his run with Eli Manning last winter was no fluke

Brandon Marshall is still around, as is Alshon Jeffrey.

The offensive line is another unit that should be improved. Gone are J’Marcus Webb, Chris Spencer, Gabe Carimi, Chilo Rachal, Chris Williams and Edwin Williams. Having replacement level players at those spots should be improvement enough for the Bears offense. In case you’re wondering, the lone returning starter from 2012 is Roberto Garza.

The defense: The Bears aren’t going to miss Brian Urlacher the same way you don’t miss that cute, bubbly, but nagging ex-girlfriend. And much like that ex-girlfriend, Brian Urlacher is an ex-Bear for a reason. Sure, you’ll miss some things like the connection you had or the intangibles brought to the table. But it’s OK that things go in a separate ways because it’s better for all parties.

Did you really want to see Urlacher labor through another injury riddled year?

Didn’t think so.

For those of you looking for familiarity, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings are still employed by the Bears and are expected to be key contributors. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has promised to keep the base principals in tact, so while a drop-off is expected, the Bears’ defense should still rank among the top 10.

The special teams unit: Robbie Gould. Adam Podlesh. Patrick Mannelly. Sometimes it’s OK when things don’t change.

Worst case scenario (Option A): The defense regresses significantly, while the offense stays neutral or takes a step back. Cutler tanks. The dark side of Marshall rears its ugly head. The offensive line, despite its overhaul, still blows chunks. The Bears miss the playoffs. Lovie Smith cackles and rolls blunts while collecting paychecks signed by Virginia McCaskey.

Worst case scenario (Option B): The defense regresses significantly, but the offense shows signs of life. Cutler is good, but not great and the front office has to choose between signing Cutler long term or handing him the franchise tag, making him among the highest paid quarterbacks in the league despite not playing like it.

Best case scenario: The defense still ranks among the league’s best and the offense makes progress. Cutler throws for 4,000 yards and more than 25 touchdowns and the Bears hit him with the franchise tag and say “Do it again and you’ll get paid big time.” Marshall makes his second straight Pro Bowl appearance as a Bear. Forte proves that talent + system = All-Pro. Bennett proves 2012 was no fluke. The Bears make the playoffs, win a Wild Card game before exiting at the hands of Green Bay or San Francisco in the divisional round.

My prediction: The Bears finish 9-7, which would be considered a win if you took the Bears at +8.5 before the year started. The defense takes a step back, but is still respectable. Jay Cutler throws for a career high in touchdowns and gets slapped with the franchise tag as soon as humanly possible.