Anatomy of a Rebound – 2006-2007 vs 2011

One thing that hasn’t been discussed much is how the Cubs went from a similarly unwatchable team in 2006 to the playoffs in 2007.  Just like the 2011 Cubs, the 2006 Cubs had some major black holes on their roster, trotted out numerous awful pitchers in the 5th starter spot, and were completely unwatchable and awful.

Somehow they managed to go from that trainwreck into a playoff team the next year.  I was curious how they did it, and curious if that success could be duplicated.

Free Agent Improvements

Of course the lazy answer here is that they spent their way into the playoffs, and that is partly true.  Here’s a table of who they brought on, who that person replaced, and what the marginal gain was in WAR:

Player added Position WAR Replaced WAR Net gain
Soriano LF 7 Pierre 3 4
Derosa 2b 3 Neifi / Walker 0.5 2.5
Lily SP 3.6 Maddux 3 0.6
Ward BN 1.1 Mabry -0.6 1.7
Marquis SP 1.7 Marmol / Mateo / Guzman 0 1.7

The Ward / Mabry improvement is a little exaggerated here, mainly because Mabry accumulated that negative WAR largely by playing first.  He’d probably have been a 0 WAR player if Lee hadn’t forced him into increased playing time, so that should probably be closer to just Ward’s 1.1.  Still – that’s a 10 WAR improvement through free agency alone.


Like the 2011 Cubs, the narrative for the 2006 Cubs is that they were a bad team made worse by injuries and underperformance.  In particular, the Lee injury cost them dearly. 

Really though – the injury card is a little overplayed for both teams.  When I dug into the numbers, I just didn’t see as much of a bounceback year over year from players as I was expecting – here’s what there was:

Comeback player Position WAR Problem Previous WAR Net gain
Lee 1b 3.9 Hurt 0.9 3
Ramirez 3b 5.1 Sucked 4.2 0.9
Mabry and Nevin basically combine for a 0 or negative WAR, and Lee put up .9 before he went down.  Ramirez was better in 2006 than I remembered, but definitely bounced back a bit for 2007.  Really though – bouncebacks were a non-factor here, since there was almost as much regression:
Player   2007 WAR   2006 WAR   Net Loss
Blanco -0.5   1 -1.5
Zambrano   2.8   3.9 -1.1
Zambrano and Blanco canceled out most of that improvement.  So that’s a bit of a net-net.  In terms of single players making a marginal benefit though – Lee’s return was right up there in terms of the Lily and Soriano signings though.

The 2007 Cubs got a lot of major improvement from a handful of young players who developed into contributors at the same time.  A lot of them had been on the 2006 team but were better used in 2007 (Marmol went from an awful starter to the best reliever in baseball; Theriot actually had a worse WAR in 2007 but was moved to SS to replace Cedeno and his -1.6 WAR).
Player  Pos 2007 WAR    Replaced  Net Gain
Marmol RP 1.7     1.7
Hill SP 3.1   1.3 1.8
Soto C 0.8   2.6 -1.8
Theriot SS 1.3   -1.6 2.9
Note that the Cubs actually got worse at Catcher in 2007 – Barrett was a 2.6 win player in 2006, but fell off the map in 2007.  Kendall replaced him and was worse.  Soto came in for one torrid month to salvage some value there, but again it just shows you can bounce back even if you lost some value here and there.
Overall, the changes between 2006 and 2007 accounted for a roughtly 16 WAR improvement.  Most of that came through free agency.  How can the Cubs duplicate that success?  
Finding Black Holes

One of the reasons the Cubs were able to improve so dramatically is that there were some major, major black holes on the team, value-wise:
SS: -1.6 WAR
2b: 0 WAR (Neifi / Walker / Theriot)
SP: 0 (5th starter spot – Mateo / Marmol / Guzman)
1b: 0  (Lee / Mabry / Nevin)
When talking marginal improvements, this is an ideal situation – there’s no warm body there already, and you’re starting from nothing – so really anything, even a 1.3 WAR shortstop like Theriot, can net you a multi-win improvement.  So where can we improve?
Black holes – 2011   Best candidate Proj 2011 WAR
RF: -.4 WAR   Beltran 6
1B: 1 WAR   Fielder 6.8
SP: .7 WAR   Wilson 6
SP: -.2 WAR    
The column on the left is the total WAR at each position for 2011 so far. The first SP spot there is Stephens / Lopez / Davis.  Davis, surprisingly, buoys that WAR figure a bit with his surprisingly positive WAR (.7).  The second SP spot is Wells.  I’ll get to him in a minute.
In the column to the right, I’ve identified the free agents who would provide the largest net improvement, based on their current pace for total WAR in 2011.  Now, I don’t believe that Beltran will actually be able to duplicate his pace next year, but again you’re starting from nothing – if he can give you a 4-win season next year that’s a big step towards a double-digit improvement in WAR.
Wells should be a bounceback candidate.  If he can get back on track, he’s good for a 2-win improvement alone.
Based on all this, if you were to try and duplicate the 2007 success story (big spending + good use of developing players) here’s you’re recipe for success:
  • Sign Prince Fielder and CJ Wilson
  • Sign Carlos Beltran
  • Trade Marlon Byrd to clear his salary; replace him with Jackson
  • Get bounceback years from Geovany Soto and, to a lesser extent, Soriano
  • Get Randy Wells to stop sucking