After jumping from the Giants to the Cubs in 2003, Dusty Baker immediately took the Cubs to their first division title since 1989. The team then slipped to 3rd, 4th and finally last place in the Central during the past three years. So long, Dusty. Hello, Lou. It’s extremely important to pay attention to managerial changes, because managers have different styles which can have dramatic impact on fantasy value. In the case of Piniella, his history shows a fondness for the SB, (Seattle and Tampa each had long spans where they were first or second in SBs). He also has shown a certain amount of impatience with closers, generally having poor team saves totals and spreading out saves among his bullpen liberally, (though Sasaki became a stud closer during his days in Seattle). His history also shows a strong loyalty to his starting rotation, with generally excellent health and solid innings totals throughout his managerial career. The Cubs also have a number of new faces on the field, making them a somewhat tricky team to project.
The Top Tier
OF Alfonso Soriano – For average, HRs and steals, Soriano has few peers. While his OBP spike from 2006 may be flukish, in most formats, even if this slips, it won’t matter much in fantasy terms. Assuming he stays in the leadoff slot, expect a line something like: .285/39/93 with 45 SBs and 114 runs scored. The only real concern is if Lou decides to try and make him an RBI guy, (the mistake the Rangers made). Soriano’s personality simply doesn’t mesh with being an RBI guy, and if placed in that spot, his production will suffer for it.
3B Aramis Ramirez – Third base is a deep position these days with only a few guys possessing a little stolen base potential to separate them from the fantasy pack. ARAM may not be in the ultra-elite arena, since he won’t be stealing much, but his power and RBI potential keeps him in the conversation. He’s posted .900+ OPS figures in all three full seasons with the Cubbies, and there’s no reason to think 2007 will be any different. A projection of: .295/37/114 with 95 runs is about what to expect.
SP Carlos Zambrano – The Cubs ace for the past three seasons, Zambrano is only 26 this year. While his control isn’t quite good enough to be considered the next Roger Clemens, he’s certainly not too far short of that lofty ambition. With sweet Lou running the show, Zambrano should benefit. With an improved Cubbie offense, as Floyd and Soriano come aboard, and Derek Lee returns from DL-land, he should also benefit. The only reason to be even a little skittish is the lack of a true center fielder on the team. While Soriano’s speed is a major asset in the outfield, how good or bad the Cubs outfield will be DEFENSIVELY is very much up in the air, (not a good place to be when the wind is blowing out). A basic repeat of what he’s done the past three seasons seems reasonable: 16 wins, 3.25 ERA, 205 Ks in 220 innings, though there is definite cause for optimism with a potential 20 win season conceivable, (though high-walk guys typically have greater difficulty moving their Win totals much above 15).
The Second Tier
1B Derek Lee – A lot of people may project Lee as a first tier producer, based on his outstanding 2005 performance, when he set career bests in nearly every category. Sorry, folks. That was a career year, and when he was playing in 2006, his production was right back where it had been the previous 5 years. Mind you, any player putting up consistent .850 OPS figures isn’t a bad guy to have. But there were 14 1Bs in baseball who bested that .850 figure in 2006, and Lee wasn’t one of them. The one area that gives Lee a little extra oomph at a super-productive position is SBs. He was well on his way to his 5th straight double-figure SB total, and he has a manager who is even more fond of running than his previous one. Project him to: .278/30/99 with 23 SBs. Among 1Bs, his power and RBI numbers won’t be that impressive, but he could be a nice steal, if what you need is steals.
CA Michael Barrett – This could be the most underrated fantasy player in the National League. By nature of the position, catcher’s rarely have the counting stats to impress, since most only play ¾ of the time. As a rule, if you can get a decent average and some dingers out of your catcher, you’re doing well. Barrett brings just that – nice average and decent power. He hit 16 HRs for the third straight season, tying him for 7th among all catchers and 3rd among NL backstops. And only a couple of guys bested his .307 average, (though this was a career best for him). When projected to: .275/16/60, Barrett makes a nice fill-in, who typically gets undervalued and often drops enough on draft day to become a bargain.
The Third Tier
2B Mark DeRosa – The Cubs get DeRosa coming off a career year, as he played a career best 136 games and posted a career best .813 OPS. The problem here is that even if he can repeat his 2006 season, (an unlikely occurrence), second sackers who can bat .280 with a dozen HRs are a dime a dozen. But most of those other guys have some speed, which DeRosa severely lacks. He’ll come back down to earth, (and there’s always the chance he’ll lose his job completely to Soriano, since the Cubs have some OF depth), so project him to: .269/9/56 with 4 SBs, and look somewhere else on draft day.
SS Ronny Cedeno – The best summary of Cedeno is to say, “Well, the kid may not be able to hit, but at least he’s slow.” He’s only 23, so of course there is potential for improvement. But his minor league line reads: .265/.316/.376/.692. When you can’t break .700 OPS in the minors, expecting more in the majors seems a trifle foolish. He’s also a horrid base-stealer, routinely getting caught almost as often as he steals successfully. Unless you’re playing in a low-ball league, this guy isn’t worth owning in any format.
OF Jacque Jones – In 2006, Jones had something of a career year. He tied his personal best in HRs, and managed his 2nd best stats in a number of categories. Overall, his line of .285/27/81 with 9 steals had him ranked 25th in among major league OFs in OPS, (.833) and 12th in the NL. The problem here is that this represents the pinnacle of what one can expect out of Jones, and his average year would be significantly less. An additional complication in 2007 is the Cubbies have a little too much depth in the OF. With the acquisition of Cliff Floyd and Soriano, last year’s best Cub Rookie, Matt Murton, is shoved back to #4 outfielder. Jones doesn’t hit lefties well, while Murton does, making for an extremely obvious platoon situation. Of course, players who are used to playing full time, typically don’t respond well to being demoted (in their minds) to a platoon situation. If Jones were certain to start 150 games, he’d likely project to: .280/23/77 with 14 SBs. The problem is, I don’t think he’ll get 150 games. I’m thinking he’ll be closer to 125-135 games, with a line of: .290/16/67 with 13 SBs.
OF Cliff Floyd -- Floyd has been a “full-time” major league player since 1994, (that’s 13 seasons), during which he’s managed to play 149 or more games on only 3 occasions, (’98, ’01 and ’05). The man has a .847 career OPS, and several times has posted .900+ OPS figures. But his production has swung wildly, because the guy simply can’t stay healthy. A healthy Floyd could repeat his 2005 season, (.273/34/98 with 12 steals), while an injured Floyd could repeat his 2006, (.244/11/44 in 97 games). For fantasy purposes, he’s a late round potential steal that you don’t want to waste money or a high draft pick on, but a guy who could turn into trade bait or excellent depth. Given that Piniella has a history of keeping his guys healthy, my instinct is that he’ll manage 143 games or so, and post a line something like: .279/28/89 with 14 steals. Nothing special among outfielders, but not a bad guy to fill in your bench.
SP Mark Prior – Five years ago, many were projecting Prior to become the greatest pitcher of the 21st century. But injuries have been a constant problem since his fantastic 2003 campaign, where he struck out 245 in 211 innings while going 18-6. One reality in fantasy land is that people hate to get burned wasting early round draft choices, which is where Prior kept going. After a painful 43 innings in 2006, (7.21 ERA), belief in Prior is at an all-time low. This is precisely the time when it’s possible to get a major steal on draft day. The trick is in correctly judging exactly how far his stock has fallen and jumping in just a smidge before everyone else. There’s no doubt he’s a risk, but he’s a risk with a known upside, (said upside being 18 wins, 2.43 ERA with 245 Ks). Pineilla has been a master of keeping pitcher’s healthy, so I’m actually optimistic about Prior this year, especially with a buffed up offense behind him. I’m projecting him to: 15 wins, 3.00 ERA with 203 strikeouts. But, he’s certainly a gamble, and shouldn’t be taken in the first few rounds. Pay close attention to mock drafts in your format and try to get a read where he’s going. If he’s staying on the board until the 8th or 9th round, then gambling on him in the 6th or 7th is certainly a consideration. If, on the other hand, he’s going in the first three rounds, you’re probably better off taking someone a little less risky.
SP Ted Lilly – Having spent his entire career pitching in the AL, it can be a bit tricky making projections on a pitcher moving to the NL. On the whole, ERAs are generally about 1/3 of a run lower in the NL, (pitcher versus DH), and pitchers strike out a lot, so pitchers K totals typically increase when going AL to NL. Lilly’s short-coming has actually been stamina. He’s got only 4 complete games in his 160 starts, and has never managed to break 200 innings. However, his overall profile is actually pretty close to Zambrano’s, except he’s slightly more prone to the long ball. A line of: 14 wins, 3.77 ERA with 169 K seems about right.
SP Jason Marquis/Rich Hill – The back end of the Cubbie rotation is simply too shaky to project with any kind of accuracy. Marquis never really had the strikeout figures to be a decent fantasy option, and he won’t win as many games with the Cubs as he did in his good years with the Cards, (the defense behind him simply isn’t comparable). Rich Hill, on the other hand, is a young arm with good stuff, who could have a breakout season and be a draft day steal, or he could suffer from the proverbial sophomore slump and be worse than useless. Taking a late round gamble on Hill isn’t a bad idea, since his K rate does show some upside. The problem is his walk and HR rates show enough down side that it’s probably better to wait until 2008 or 2009 to expect really good fantasy performance out of him.
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