May 03, 2010

Series Preview: Chicago Cubs (13-13) at Pittsburgh Pirates (10-15)

Despite the recent offensive explosion, it's tough to believe that the Cubs offense is pretty good. They've scored the 4th-most runs in the NL, trailing the Diamondbacks (who have scored the most but have an awful pitching staff), Phillies (not surprising), and Dodgers (kind of surprising, though they've had some pitching problems too), and one run ahead of the Brewers offense. Looking at wOBA, among NL teams they trail the D-Backs and Brewers and are shockingly ahead of the run-scoring machine that is the Philadelphia Phillies. What the hell? Offensive explosion in the last series aside, it has felt like nearly every game this season has been a repeat of the Natinals/Mets/Astros series.

Luckily, the Cubs are heading to play Pittsburgh, whose season makes those godawful series look like exciting baseball. The Pirates have been outscored by 89 runs in only 25 games this season - on average they have coughed up 3-4 more runs per game than they've scored. They're "lucky" to have notched even 10 wins. The extreme shittiness of the Astros and Pirates this season should help the wild card chances of the other NL central teams, though the Brewers might have already dug themselves in too deep a hole for their shambolic pitching staff to bounce back from. Here are their primary players (note - I'm going to switch to using the updated ZiPS projections, since they're already on fangraphs)

Batting (wOBA, updated ZiPS wOBA, CHONE projected defensive runs)

  1. Ryan Doumit, BHB (.385, .350, -3.4)
  2. Jeff Clement, LHB (.231, .341, -0.8)
  3. Akinori Iwamura, LHB (.292, .332, -1.6)
  4. Ronny Cedeno, RHB (.255, .297, -0.8)
  5. Andy LaRoche, RHB (.373, .338, 1.8)
  6. Lastings Milledge, RHB (.264, .319, -3.2)
  7. Andrew McCutcheon, RHB (.362, .357, 0)
  8. Garrett Jones, LHB (.347, .364, -3.8)

Pitching (FIP, xFIP, ZiPS FIP)
  1. Zach Duke, LHP (5.59, 5.00, 4.31)
  2. Paul Maholm, LHP (4.70, 4.61, 3.94)
  3. Charlie Morton, RHP (7.28, 3.98, 4.14)
  4. Brian Burres, LHP (5.35, 6.31, 4.52)
  5. Jeff Karstens, RHP (5.40, 5.28, 4.73)
  6. Octavio Dotel, RHP (6.30, 4.46, 4.00)
  7. Joel Hanrahan, RHP (5.68, 3.99, 3.48)
  8. Brendan Donnelly, RHP (7.53, 6.16, 4.22)

They've had some crappy luck (team hitting BABIP: .275, pitching BABIP .335, on top of underperformance) but it's not like there's a ton to work with there. Andrew McCutcheon is going to be pretty good, so I guess the Pirates have that going for them. I wonder who they'll trade him for in 2 years?

Garrett Jones missed Saturday's game after surgery to remove a chunk of roast beef from Friday's post-game spread that became lodged in his esophagus. He played on Sunday so I guess he's okay. McCutcheon is day-to-day with a sprained right ankle. Brendan Donnelly has a strained side muscle, though looking at his numbers he's probably better off not pitching. Ross Ohlendorf, one of their rotation 'mainstays' is on the DL with back spasms and should miss one more start before returning (Thursday is his usual turn in the rotation). Chris Jakubauskas is on the DL after a scary head injury from a screaming liner off the bat of Lance Berkman. He seems okay - he never lost consciousness and cat scans showed no skull fractures but the team is wisely taking it easy with him. Former Cubs Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart, the two pieces in the Gorzelanny/Grabow deal, both have torn labrums. Ascanio had his surgery in February and Hart is having his today.

For the Cubs, Silva's wrist is still bothering him, and his next start was pushed back a day. IIRC he injured it while batting a start or two ago. Caridad is working his way back, and threw an inning in extended spring training yesterday. He should be heading to Iowa next, and could rejoin the team this weekend in Cincy.

Players to watch
McCutcheon and Doumit are both pretty good players, and they're pretty much the only guys who have been hitting on the team. As for the Cubs, you have to go with the white-hot Soriano. The fact that the Cubs are facing 2 lefties this series isn't going to hurt his chances at extending his hot-hitting streak.

Pitching matchups
Tuesday: Ryan Dempster, RHP (3.48, 3.61, 3.64) vs Paul Maholm, LHP (4.70, 4.61, 3.94), 6:05 PM CT
Demp has pitched well this year, and gave a good outing that wasn't supported by his offense (8 innings, 3 runs, 2 HR). Obviously he can't be the Ace. Hitters aren't making very good contact off of him - he's posted a 10.5% LD rate so far this season, which is a big reason why he has a .243 BABIP. The most you can say about Maholm, who is probably the Pirates erstwhile ace, is that he 'battles' and 'keeps his team in the game' with his sucky pitching. Honestly, I'd rather have a more volatile guy like Ted Lilly, who is more likely to throw a bunch of really good starts and have a blowout or three (like his last start) to even out his numbers.

Wednesday: Ted Lilly, LHP (5.90, 4.22, 3.99) vs Charlie Morton, RHP (7.28, 3.98, 4.14), 6:05 PM CT
Speaking of Ted Lilly, he's getting the next start. I'm not *too* worried about Lilly - as I mentioned above he's the kind of guy who just gets shelled a few times a year because of his flyball tendencies. He's also still coming back from that injury, and from what I've heard he didn't have great control (Lilly's calling card) in his first start either (he got some help from a hack-tastic lineup). Charlie Morton was a guy a lot of people in the Pittsburgh FO thought would break out this season, but he's been terrible - mainly due to the HR ball as he's allowed 7 in only 19 innings (check out his xFIP). He's also had an absolutely horrendous .439 BABIP on balls that don't leave the yard, though that's right in line with the 31.9% LD rate he's posted. He's a decent pitcher and this should be a good matchup.

Thursday: Randy Wells, RHP (2.35, 3.20, 4.11) vs (probably) Brian Burres, LHP (5.35, 6.31, 4.52), 6:05 PM CT
Brian Burres has been filling in for Ohlendorf and should get the start, but the Pirates might opt with the right-handed Brian Bass given the Cubs right-leaning lineup. He pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his last start but wasn't really fooling anyone. He's had big control problems throughout his career. Wells has sure done a good job os silencing the doubters who figured he'd go into a sophomore slump this year (though there's still plenty of time...). His strikeout rate has jumped by over 2 batters per nine innings, and he's walking one less batter per nine as well. Obviously he's had a bit of HR luck but he's pitched pretty well - he's even been quite unlucky with balls in play (.370 BABIP) but still pitched quite effectively.

Prediction Even when teams are very far apart a sweep is never the most likely outcome, but I'm going to say the Cubs do it anyway. They're throwing their three best pitchers in the rotation this series against (possibly) two left-handers and the anemic Pirates offense. Wednesday's game should be the only one that's close.