Series Preview: Chicago Cubs (15-26) at Houston Astros (18-23)

We knew that the Cubs would stink this year, but seeing the Pirates and Astros above the Cubs in the standings still takes some getting used to. At least we have the Hope Monster to remind us that the Cubs are only seven games back!!! It's gonna happen! The rest of the NL Central kind of stinks right now. The Cardinals got off to a hot start, but have gone into a tailspin over the past week or two and are now only three games over .500, and they probably just lost MO mancrush Lance Berkman to an ACL tear. The Brewers (who I was relatively high on) have had a run of bad injury luck that brings to mind the 2009 Cubs, and Bronson Arroyo has been the second most effective starter on the Reds staff.

There are rumors of a shakeup in the lineup, and even rumors that Anthony Rizzo might be called up in the next few weeks (most likely moving DeJesus to play CF and LaHair to stand in RF). I'm guessing that it won't be much more than Castro and DeJesus swapping places in the lineup. When the Cubs go 5-4 against the equally lousy Astros, Pirates, and Padres it will be a clear sign that things are looking up.

Team Overviews

NL rank in parens

  Cubs Astros
wOBA .296 (14th) .303 (11th)
BSR 3.4 (2nd) -4.5 (15th)
UZR 7.9 (4th) 9.1 (3rd)
DRS 4 (5th) -6 (9th)
SP FIP 3.75 (9th) 4.12 (12th)
RP FIP 3.75 (11th) 4.66 (16th)

The Astros have had a revolving door of replacement-level starters filling in the fifth spot in the rotation, though the Cubs won't face any of them this series. In their seven starts they've posted 34 strikeouts to 16 walks, but given up 11 HRs and surprisngly only 25 runs.

Houston has new ownership that hopefully won't meddle in the affairs of the sharp new management team they've hired, but they're facing an even more daunting task to rebuild than the Cubs. At least the Cubs have Castro, Samardzija, and Garza, not to mention at least some top prospects near the MLB level. It's pretty much just Wandy Rodriguez and nothing else for the Astros.

Position players

The Astros main contributers on offense this year have been their middle infielders, ex-Red Sox SS Jed Lowrie and 2B Jose Altuve. Obviously, neither of these guys are guy that you expect to be leading this offense (.330 and .323 projected wOBA, respectively). That said, who should be? The rest of their lineup includes the shambling remains of Carlos Lee (.333 projected wOBA), Tony Campana 1.0 Jordan Schaefer (.282), third base-man Chris Johnson (.303), who followed up his 1.5 WAR rookie season with a -0.8 WAR 2011, and top catching prospect Jason Castro (.279). It will be a miracle if four runs total are scored this entire series. Much like the Cubs the Astros like to run the bases, though they seem to have a much better group of players to do it with (32 steals to 10 CS, in contrast with the Cubs 27/16). Though judging from their overall BSR number, they're finding plenty of ways to make outs on the basepaths anyway. Defensively Jordan Schaefer's speed allowss him to cover plenty of ground in CF, but none of the other regulars are expected to rate particularly highly. Carlos Lee, on the other hand, does a decent job resembling a statue at 1b.


Schaefer has a leg injury so he might miss some games this series. Even if he does play, it will probably hold back his speed which is his main asset anyway.

After staying relatively healthy for the first month or so of the season, the Cubs injury list has grown quite long. And, unfortunately, concentrated. The Cubs are down three catchers, and Koyie Hill was acquired just because he knows a decent chunk of the pitching staff. Clevenger should be starting his rehab assignment today, and Castillo is only expected to be out a week or so. Carlos Marmol is still out with his hamstring injury and will hopefully stretch out his rehab as long as possible while he tries to find command of his fastball again. Less DL-worthy is the leg injury that Soriano is reported to be nursing. After looking great in the field for the first 6 weeks or so of the season (even admitted by Brenly!), he's clearly slowed down a bit. I'm surprised Sveum hasn't given him more rest during this stretch, and it's not like the Cubs have been facing a zillion left-handed starters either.

Current state of the Failpen

Due to the flurry of injuries and retirements and whatnot it's tough to remember who is currently in the bullpen. Here's the current list – someone is going to have to head back to the minors when the Cubs call up Travis Wood for Tuesday's start.

Rafael Dolis
James Russell
Shawn Camp
Randy Wells
Casey Coleman
Blake Parker
Michael Bowden

Wells's role has been specified as the long reliever out of the pen, but if they're serious about bullpenning him (and as much as I've defended Randy Wells, they probably should at this point), they might as well make him the closer because even Transformed Randy Wells is probably better than everyone else in this group. He certainly would be preferable to Dolis. This bullpen still stinks but it's a little better with guys like Coleman and Wells pitching in it rather than eating up innings in AAA with no chance at this point of contributing as a starter.

Pitching Matchups

Monday: Matt Garza, RHP (2.58, 3.21, 3.50, 3.40) vs Bud Norris, RHP (3.58, 3.60, 3.53, 3.84), 7:05 PM CT

Norris is an overlooked, solid pitcher, much like rotation-mate Wandy Rodriguez was earlier in his career. He's not a guy who lights the world on fire but it a pitcher just about any team would love to have in its rotation. His breakout year was 2010, where he had a 4.92 ERA that masked a 9+ K/9 rate and a not so great walk rate. He improved his walk rate while keeping a high strikeout rate in 2011, and he's right on track to keep doing so in 2012. He's a flyball pitcher so he gives up his share of HRs.

There's not much to say about Garza except that his numbers are right about in line with last year's excellent season. He's had a bit of batted ball and sequencing luck, but all of the peripherals are right where they need to be.

Tuesday: Travis Wood, LHP (4.50, 5.30, 4.28, 4.02) vs J. A. Happ, LHP (4.96, 4.60, 3.91, 4.57), 7:05 PM CT

Wood was penciled into the rotation by most people after being picked up in the Sean Marshall deal, but following the Transformation of Jeff Samardzija and a truly terrible spring, he found himself in Iowa instead. ERA-wise he's been pretty pedestrian there (4.57) but his peripherals (3.76 FIP, 3+ K/BB) suggest that he figured something out, hopefully. His .358 BABIP could explain that ERA-FIP split. He made one fill-in start earlier this month when Matt Garza skipped a turn due to a nasty flu bug and turned in a solidly adequate start against the Dodgers (6 IP, 3 R), though three runs is often an insurmountable lead for this offense.

Happ was acquired from the Phillies for Roy Oswalt in one of many facepalm-worthy Ed Lynch moves during his tenure as GM. Happ put up great ERAs in his time with thie Phillies, while posting merely meh FIPs. In his three seasons with the Phillies, mostly as a starter, he posted BABIPs of .266, .262, and .250, while it regressed back up to .300 not long after he joined the Astros. He's got a pretty good strikeout rate for a lefty starter but he can't find the plate worth a damn.

Wednesday: Jeff Samardzija, RHP (3.00, 2.97, 2.97, 4.02) vs Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (2.24, 3.03, 3.66, 3.74), 7:05 PM CT

Samardzija tried to do it all against the White Sox, going into the eighth inning and allowing three runs while also providing half of the Cubs feeble offense. He struck out eight and walked two batters, and didn't have as great of a handle on his cutter as evidenced by the accidental beaning of White Sox 1b Paul Konerko. One other thing that should be mentioned is that in addition to finding the plate and not throwing such a flat fastball this year, Samardzija is generating a lot of ground balls.

W-Rod is the Trope Namer for my Wandy Rodriguez Hall of Fame, consisting of pitchers that I saw early in their careers who looked awful and then became good much more quickly than my first impression faded  away. It always drove me nuts when he beat the Cubs because I remembered just how shitty he was when I wrote him off as 5th starter material in 2005-2006. He's been the real deal for a while now though. His strikeout rate is down this year, but he's put up great numbers anyway by limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground.


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We're gonna make it.