Second City October: Finding Confidence In The Cubs’ Depth

I loved Aramis Ramirez. For nearly a decade he solved the Cubs’ riddle known at the hot corner, a vacuous wasteland for much of three decades after being vacated in the early ’70’s by the incomparable Ron Santo. Ramirez could hit anyone’s best heat, while still punishing breaking stuff that had even the slightest hint of loose spin. He collected 25 WARP as a Cubbie, and the speed of the game never appeared to elevate his blood pressure. His greatest moments came while wearing blue. He was the Cubs’ (lesser) version of Adrian Beltre.

Yet so many younger Cubs fans remember his time with the team because of just six games. The 2007 and 2008 iterations of the Cubs were very different than each other (85 wins in ’07, compared to 97 in ’08), but they often find themselves lumped together as one, as each ended in a three-game sweep in the NLDS. A further commonality between them was a failure of production from Ramirez in the playoffs, in which he went a combined 2-for-23. He and Alfonso Soriano (2-for-28) seem to have ended up shouldering most of the blame for the teams’ failures, which I find increasingly galling as time wears on. The span of six games is simply too short to draw such overarching conclusions about someone’s career. Where was the supporting cast? Did the starting pitching hold up? Was the defense stout?

It struck me recently that the memory of the misery of the back-to-back postseason collapses were the central reason many young Cubs fans felt such fear entering this October, rather than the century of futility the franchise has endured. For many, 2008 is the key playoff memory they have before last season’s run, and it isn’t a pretty one.

Kris Bryant went 6-for-34 in last season’s playoffs, and the rest of the team failed in the NLCS right alongside him. This didn’t offer any assistance in alleviating the trepidation fans might have felt entering this season. Thankfully for the Cubs, Bryant avoided this type of performance in this year’s National League Division Series, as he went 6-for-16 and hit a memorable game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Game Three. However, fellow star Anthony Rizzo struggled mightily against the Giants’ pitching staff, collecting just one hit in 15 at bats. It begs the question: is the rest of the team good enough to overcome the struggles of one or both of its MVP candidates, or could those stars instead be labeled—as Ramirez and Soriano were—the players principally responsible for postseason failure? It appears that the NLDS proved that this team can overcome one of its stars slumping—and that’s a big difference between this squad and those earlier ones.

Baseball Prospectus ranks Soriano as the 2007 team’s best player, as he generated 6.2 WARP (14th best in baseball) compared to Ramirez’ 5.2 (20th in baseball). After that, they had Derrek Lee (2.5) and Ryan Theriot (1.6). Here’s how the rest of their top-10 offensive players shook out:

Darlye Ward (1.2)
Mark DeRosa (1.1)
Matt Murton (1.1)
Geovany Soto (1.0)
Jacque Jones (0.6)
Mike Fontenot (0.6)

2007 top-10 WARP total: 21.1
3-10 WARP total: 9.7

In retrospect, this was a shockingly shallow offensive team. Ward was the fifth-best hitter, despite coming to the plate just 133 times. Jason Kendall actually surpassed Ward’s WARP total in only 33 games with the Cubs (1.3), but his -1.6 total with Oakland leaves him negative for the year and disqualifies him from this list. Beyond Ramirez and Soriano, the rest of the top 10 position players totaled only 9.7 WARP. Their saving grace was an obscure but effective front end of the rotation, with Carlos Zambrano (2.1), Ted Lilly (4.9) and Rich Hill (4.8) combining for 11.8 WARP. The bullpen, led by Carlos Marmol, was solid as well, but an assessment of the offense makes it obvious why the faltering of just two players led to a swift postseason exit.

The 2008 team was a different animal entirely, driven by an excellent starting pitching staff, featuring a resurgent Ryan Dempster having a career year (5.8 WARP). The additions of Jim Edmonds, Kosuke Fukudome and Reed Johnson fortified the outfield and added depth, while Geovany Soto burst onto the scene en route to winning Rookie of the Year. Strangely—for a team that led the National League with 97 wins—they lacked a true offensive star. The veteran DeRosa surprised the baseball world, mashing 21 homers while getting on base at a .376 clip, and leading the team with 4.5 WARP. Mainstays Soriano (3.8) and Ramirez (3.5) followed closely behind, but none of the three really produced at an elite pace. Here are the next seven:

Geovany Soto (3.3)
Derrek Lee (2.8)
Mike Fontenot (2.3)
Jim Edmonds (1.9)
Reed Johnson (1.9)
Ryan Theriot (1.6)
Kosuke Fukudome (1.5)

2008 top-10 WARP total: 27.1
3-10 WARP total: 18.8

This was essentially a group of solid veterans (Ramirez, Soriano, Lee, Edmonds, DeRosa), and also-rans that had career years (Soto, Fontenot, Theriot, Fukudome) without a prayer of sustainability. Considering the Cubs’ pitching staff faltered in allowing 20 runs in three games to the Dodgers in the NLDS, did the options of an aging Lee and Edmonds, and a breakout DeRosa inspire much confidence beyond Soriano and Ramirez? They certainly leave me feeling that the result may have been far more inevitable than we cared to admit at the time. The combination of age and surprising spikes from relatively unknown players was also an obvious omen for what was to come in 2009 (and 2010… and 2011… and 2012).

The first thing that caught my eye in comparing the 2016 Cubs to these previous vintage is just how much better the stars are on the current version. Bryant’s 9.1 WARP topped the best two offensive players on the 2008 team combined. Anthony Rizzo’s 7.0 mark also eclipsed the combined totals of the third and fourth best players. You simply cannot use recent Cubs history to contextualize the level of dominance Bryzzo performed at this season. However, this exercise isn’t meant to throw flowers at the National League MVP, but rather to assess whether the Cubs’ depth may still put them over the top should Bryant and Rizzo have a Ramirez and Soriano type faltering. Here’s a quick shorthand of how the supporting cast fared this year:

Ben Zobrist (4.1)
Addison Russell (3.9)
Dexter Fowler (3.7)
Javier Baez (2.5)
Willson Contreras (2.4)
David Ross (2.3)
Miguel Montero (2.1)
Jorge Soler (1.1)

2016 top-10 WARP total: 38.2
3-10 WARP total: 22.1

Perhaps the best trivia to come out of this exercise is that the 2016 team has three catchers better than the fourth-best player on the 2007 squad, and that’s after losing Schwarber, who might  have eclipsed all of them in WARP. The 2016 group as a whole is markedly better than either of the previous teams, but you already knew that. Should the Cubs’ best players falter when it matters most in the Championship Series, the strong supporting cast is poised to step up in a way that neither the 2007 nor 2008 team’s could.

The NLDS against the Giants was a fabulous example of this depth. Not many teams are capable of overcoming their three-hole hitter floundering all series, but the Cubs’ complementary players were uniquely able to shoulder the load left behind by Rizzo. In Game One, the young man dubbed Ednel by his adoring parents played hero by launching a majestic home run into the teeth of the wind at Wrigley Field. Game Two featured 5 1/3 innings of shutout baseball by the team’s underrated bullpen, after starter and Cy Young favorite Kyle Hendricks was knocked out early by a line drive off his pitching arm. The deciding Game Four was a smorgasbord of ancillary player contributions, with the bullpen again stoically shutting down the Giants without fanfare. Clutch hits were delivered by Baez, rookie catcher Contreras, and veteran stalwart Zobrist. In short, this team is capable of winning in multiple ways, rather than simply relying on the contributions from a few stars.

This also obviously ignores the fact that Bryant and Rizzo are much less likely to fail in the dramatic fashion that Soriano and Ramirez did, because they are simply head and shoulders better than that tandem. This also ignores Albert Almora, Jr., Matt Szczur, Chris Coghlan and Tommy La Stella, each of whom contributed 0.4 WARP or better to the cause. Finally, this also doesn’t include Jason Heyward—my personally chosen x-factor—a 27-year-old player with 27 WARP already to his name. Heyward has looked much better at the plate in recent weeks, with better weight-distribution, a quicker load and a shortness to the ball we really haven’t seen all season. There are, in short, more than enough players ready to step up to keep the Cubs strong and deep going into the NLCS.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

2 comments on “Second City October: Finding Confidence In The Cubs’ Depth”

The CHI Sports Fan (@TheCHISportsFan)

What jumps out to me is that if Heyward rebounds (as he has twice in his career) to a 3.5-4 WAR avg, We effectively add TWO Zobrist – caliber players to this team.

Isaac Bennett

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username