2008 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

2007 W-L: 85-77
Pythagorean W-L: 87-75

IN

OF Kosuke Fukodome, SP Jon Lieber, RP Jose Ascanio

OUT

OF Jacque Jones, OF Cliff Floyd, OF Angel Pagan, SP Mark Prior, SP Steve Trachsel, RP Will Ohman

That's a lot of players out and not many players coming in, but the Cubs are counting on Fukodome and a couple of interesting youngsters from their farm system. One never knows what to expect from players coming from Japan, but PECOTA thinks Fukudome is a little like a prime J.D. Drew, which would make his $48 million contract a bargain for Chicago. Even if that turns out to be a bit optimistic, Fukudome should be a good player.

Will Felix Pie be able to turn his tools into skills?
Photo: JLurie.
The other (relatively) new faces in the lineup are centerfielder Felix Pie (who's technically competing for a job with Sam Fuld right now) and catcher Geovany Soto, and both are worth watching. I love Pie, going back to when I saw him play for Class A+ Daytona in 2004. He's still a work in progress at the plate and on the bases (he doesn't draw enough walks, and he runs himself into outs), but he has the tools to be an All-Star, and his solid performance record suggests that he has a good shot to turn those tools into production. There's still a pretty wide range of outcomes for him, though, since his strike zone judgment is so bad. If he doesn't improve it, he could be the next Chad Hermansen.

Soto is a couple years older and more of a sure bet, and he's a great sleeper pick in your fantasy league. He hit an absurd .353/.424/.652 at Class AAA Iowa last year, hitting for power and average and drawing plenty of walks. There's an outside shot he's the best catcher in the NL this year. In any case, he should be a big upgrade over Jason Kendall and Michael Barrett, who did most of the catching for the Cubs last year.

It's a good thing Fukudome, Pie and Soto are ready to go because, in terms of injuries, the Cubs had pretty remarkable luck last year. "The Cubs had pretty remarkable luck last year" isn't a phrase you read every day, but still - the 2007 Cubs' pattern of good health isn't likely to repeat in 2008. Yes, 2007 featured the annual Mark Prior and Kerry Wood injuries, but we'll just take those as givens. Beyond that, the Cubs got at least 130 games out of six different starting position players. They didn't do that in right field, but the idea there all along was to have Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton share time. And Barrett and Kendall split the year at catcher, but not because anyone got hurt.

On the pitching side, closer Ryan Dempster missed a bit of time, but the health of the Cubs' rotation was remarkable - their top five starters made 152 starts, and they would've made even more if fifth man Sean Marshall hadn't been replaced down the stretch by the newly acquired Trachsel.

Even if the Cubs' starting pitchers do stay healthy this year, their rotation shouldn't be as good. Chicago had four starters pitch at least 191 innings last year, and their acquisitions of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis went as well as anyone could've expected. It seems reasonable to expect that both will take a step back this year. Most of Carlos Zambrano's indicators are heading in the wrong direction - he's struck out fewer batters than usual last year and allowed more homers. He walked fewer batters than he had in 2006, but he still walked way too many. It wouldn't surprise me if 2008 turned out to be his worst season in years, or if he wound up on the DL as the result of years of overuse.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they aren't counting on all those guys staying healthy all year. They've acquired Jon Lieber on a cheap deal and moved Dempster to the rotation, so Marquis isn't even guaranteed a spot in the rotation. Whatever happens to the Cubs' rotation this year, they've probably insured themselves against disaster, but if Zambrano or Lilly (or Rich Hill, though I love his chances of staying effective) take steps backward, it probably won't be that great, either.

Still, there's much to like here. The Cubs are adding three very interesting players to a good offensive core of Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee. And their bullpen, already a strength last year, should be very good - Carlos Marmol is one of the best young relievers in baseball, Bobby Howry, Mike Wuertz and Scott Eyre are solid veterans, and the Cubs have some interesting young options to sort through in Ascanio, Kevin Hart, and Carmen Pignatiello. And if, by some miracle, Wood can stay healthy, that's just gravy.

The Cubs aren't a great team, but it's hard to see how they could finish below .500. It appears that the only team who can catch them is the Brewers, and I don't think that's likely. It pains me to say so, but I think the Cubs will win the division. If that bothers you, this may make you feel better.

1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. St. Louis Cardinals
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

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