Series Preview: Chicago Cubs (0-0) at Pittsburgh Pirates (0-0)

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Well, here we go with another season of Cubs baseball. The Cubs open the season in what is probably the most beautiful ballpark in baseball (it's certainly one of the top 30). At least, beautiful when the weather forecast isn't 40s and raining. The Pirates aren't the punching bag they used to be – they've finally gotten over the hump and gone from terrible to credible. I'm not expecting them to contend much more than I'm expecting the Cubs to contend, but it sure would be nice for Pirates fans to see this team with a winning record for the first time in decades. 

Team Overviews

Here's how the teams' 2012 numbers stack up (NL Ranks in parentheses). For new readers, the stats I'm using are:

  • wRC+ : Weighted Runs Created Plus – attempts to combine all aspects of offense into a single stat. Park adjusted. 100 is an average score, and 120 means the player contributed 20% more than the average player, 80 means the players contributed 20% fewer.
  • BSR : Fangraphs baserunning measurement statistic. Handles things like players going from first to third or TOOTBLANing relative to other teams. This is measured in the number of runs contributed (or taken away) by baserunning over the course of the season.
  • UZR: MGL's Ultimate Zone Rating
  • DRS: Defensive Runs Saved from John Dewan's Fielding Bible
  • FIP-: Fielding Independent Pitching Minus – uses the popular DIPS stat FIP, park adjusts it and puts it on a scale to show how a player performed compared to league average. Unlike wRC+, a lower FIP is good. 100 is average, a score of 80 means a pitcher was 20% better than league average, a score of 120 means a pitcher was 20% worse. 
  Cubs Pirates
wRC+ 80 (16th) 90 (13th)
BSR -8.1 (14th) -4 (10th)
UZR 30.5 (2nd) 0.4 (8th)
DRS -7 (7th) -25 (12th)
SP FIP- 108 (13th) 107 (12th)
RP FIP- 116 (16th) 98 (9th)

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Fangraphs this year for adding a ordered ranking column to their tables this year.

Injuries

The Cubs are short several players that would have been on the opening day roster, if healthy. Matt Garza is out until with May a lat strain suffered in spring training, torpedoing his trade value. Scott Baker is out with an elbow strain suffered while coming back from TJS. His return date is June, but I'm pretty much resigned to news of another surgery at some point this season. 3B Ian Stewart is out with a quad injury suffered in spring training, and 2B Darwin Barney is on the DL due to a laceration to his left knee (apparently cut to the bone) caused in the Cubs last exhibition game of the offseason. Thus we have Brent Lillibridge, opening day second baseman. Whee.

The Pirates are short three starting pitchers right now. Offseason signing Francisco Liriano broke his non-throwing arm on Christmas Day, and could be back in a month or so. Jeff Karstens, who was non-tendered and eventually re-signed by the Pirates after posting a breakout 3.32 FIP season (WTF), is out indefinitely with shoulder tendinitis. Worm-killer Charlie Morton is working his way back from TJS and could be back in May or June.

Storylines and players to watch

Certainly the main storyline is Hooray Baseball! It's going to be nice to watch games that count again. And, as hard as it is to believe, I'm looking forward to watching Jeff Samardzija pitch. I'm also looking forward to a full season of Jim Deshaies. What we saw in Spring Training seems to point to him being a vast improvement on Brenly.

The Pirates are Andrew McCutchen's team, and there's no question about it. He stat-gathered more WAR last year than the two next highest performers on the team combined. If the Pirates do manage to contend this year, he would be strongly considered as an MVP candidate (whether or not the Pirates contend he should be a candidate anyway, but that's an entirely different story). He's also managed to do the unthinkable – have a high enough profile to actually have a guy in a Pirates uniform in multiple national TV commercials. 

Pitching Matchups

I list each pitcher's ERA, FIP-, xFIP, and ZiPS projected FIP. I'll use 2012's numbers for the first month or so of the season.

Monday: Jeff Samardzija, RHP (3.81, 89, 3.38, 3.49) vs A.J. Burnett, RHP (3.51, 93, 3.40, 3.94), 12:35 PM CT

Samardzija shoved our criticism of the team moving him to the rotation back in our faces in his first start last year. Shark was one out shy of a complete game, striking out 8 while allowing one run. The Cubs shut him down late in the season due to reaching his innings limit, but from everything we've seen both last fall and in spring training, he doesn't seem to be showing any signs of fatigue from the jump in workload *knocks on all the wood he can find*. Props to Ryno for telling the Cubs office to stick with Samardzija, he deserves all the credit. He's still waiting for that consulting fee, BTW, so if you want to get on that soon that would be great, Theo.

Burnet missed the beginning of last year with a fractured face caused in the Pirates own bunting competition. After coming back, he quietly posted a very non-A.J. Burnett season. The National League suited him well, as he posted a 2.76 BB/9 after years of control problems in the American League. The Pirates fleeced the Yankees on the Burnett deal, basically getting two seasons of him for free as the Yankees tried to get rid of him. Apparently the 36-year old Burnett is considering retirement after this season, but if he can put up another season like last year's someone is going to want to pay him a chunk of change to stick around. 

Wednesday: Edwin Jackson, RHP (4.03, 99, 3.79, 3.66) vs Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (3.76, 103, 4.09, 3.55), 6:05 PM CT

For those unfamiliar with my past previews, Wandy Rodriguez is the source of my epynomous Wandy Rodriguez Hall of Fame. This exclusive club is filled with players who left me with an incredibly poor first impression. I remember watching the Cubs (and everyone else) light up Wandy in his first two years with the Astros. He improved into a solid pitcher, but during those years I would always grumble "I can't believe they're losing to Wandy Fucking Rodriguez" when he would inevitably shut down the Cubs lineup. The Pirates picked him up in a trade with Houston last year, and the Astros are eating a nontrivial chunk of his salary for the next two years (assuming the Pirates pick up his option).

The Cubs locked up Edwin Jackson to a four year deal this offseason, putting a halt to his quest to pitch for seemingly every team in MLB. He's another member of the WRHOF – he was pretty terrible early in his career with the Rays, and was traded half a hundred times over the three seasons after he left the team. Once he hit his prime he turned into a quality pitcher, and the Cubs targeted him and Sanchez specifially for their ages (Jackson is 29). Jackson has also been durable, logging 30+ starts for the past 6 seasons. 

Thursday: Travis Wood, LHP (4.27, 120 ,4.62, 4.39) vs James McDonald, RHP (4.21, 111, 4.21, 4.10), 11:35 AM CT

McDonald managed the rare feat of having an ERA, FIP, and XFIP of 4.21 in 2012. He's a flyball pitcher and struggles a bit with his control, walking nearly four batters per nine in his career. His 4.21 ERA last season was backstopped by a .269 BABIP, so I'd expect some regression on that front. The Pirates basically stole him from the Dodgers in 2010 for Octavio Dotel.

Travis Wood had a decent chance of ending up in the bullpen before Matt Garza was re-injured. He had an up-and-down season last year. After being penciled in to the rotation, he was absolutely awful in spring training and started the year in AAA. After being called up in May, he had several stretches of good pitching, and eas even referred to as the Cubs "ace" at one point (laughing). He is what he is – a young, cost controlled, averageish pitcher. He's not too bad with the bat either, for a pitcher. 

Prediction

Pirates take two of three

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