Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Chicago Cubs

This offseason, the Cubs must consider filling a hole that hasn’t been an issue for them for over five years. Since 2004, Derrek Lee has held down first base for the Lovable Losers. However, after moving Lee to the Braves on August 18th for three prospects, the Cubs were left with Xavier Nady and Micah Hoffpauir as first-base options. Nady entered free agency this offseason, leaving Hoffpauir penciled in as the starter. After a strong showing in AAA, the 30-year-old produced –0.5 WAR in 24 games between first base and the outfield. He’s been mediocre defensively in his limited time at first, putting up a –4.3 UZR in 45 games (30 starts) over the last 3 years. Though the sample size is small, he certainly doesn’t seem spectacular with the leather, and his bat hasn’t done much to make up for his defensive shortcomings. He had a .222 wOBA last year, and although his low BABIP and HR/FB may suggest a bounce-back, it probably won’t be enough to make him a productive first baseman on a large-market and big-money club like the Cubs. If Chicago wants to compete, they’ll need to add a first baseman who can anchor the middle of the order along with Marlon Byrd and Aramis Ramirez.

For me, they’ve got two main options, and which one they take really depends on where they feel they are as a franchise. If they truly believe they’re one big acquisition away, which they very well might, they should work to bring Adam Dunn to Wrigley. Dunn has consistently been among the top power producers in the league over the past seven years, with “consistently” being the operative word. Dunn had 46 home runs in 2004, then put up 4 straight seasons of exactly 40 home runs. Now, he’s just finished his second straight season with 38 bombs. Dunn has managed all this while playing 150 games or more in each of those seven years, so he’s been a model of consistency. With Dunn, you’re going to get a ton of strikeouts and the low batting average may be a turn-off for many fans, but he keeps his walks high enough to put up a career .381 OBP. Dunn’s walk rate actually dropped to a career low last year, at 11.9% (compared to a career 16.3%). This was mostly due to a career high O-Swing of 28.5%, over 10% more than his career 18.4%. If Dunn can cut back on the cuts he takes on balls outside the zone, he can get his walk rate back in line with his career totals and provide the menacing presence in the heart of the lineup he’s known to be.

Last year also brought another revelation for Dunn, as he played his first year as a regular first baseman, marking the first time he’s played more games at first than in the outfield. Possibly somewhat surprisingly, the defensive returns were actually pretty reasonable, as he put up a UZR of –3.3 in 153 games. His career first-base UZR is –14.4 in 347 games, so we’ll have to see whether this trend holds up, but it’s certainly possible that Dunn has been able to focus on playing first, having been relieved of outfield duties, and has been able to improve his glove through that increased focus.

However, if they believe they’re going to need a huge offseason to be a contender, they’ll need to limit their spending in free agency on any one position and instead take some big-risk, big-reward fliers that they believe could pay off huge, to the tune of Aubrey Huff’s 2010. For me, that conversation begins and ends with Carlos Peña. Peña is coming off his worst year as a Ray, in which he had neither skill (.326 wOBA, career .360) or luck (.222 BABIP, career .279, second worst to only Aaron Hill among hitters with >300 ABs) on his side. If the Cubs decide they believe in a bounce-back from the 32-year-old Peña, they will be hoping he returns to the form he had with the Rays from 2007-2009, when he put up 4.2 WAR per year. He has two skills in his toolbox; the ability to hit for a ton of power, and the defense that won him the 2008 AL Gold Glove at first. He’s hovered around average in UZR for the past few seasons, but a strong season with the glove and bat (and one that he’s certainly capable of) could make him a huge bargain for the Cubs.

If the Cubs decide they need an upgrade at first (and in my estimation, they could certainly use one), Peña and Dunn will best be able to provide the production they need in the middle of the lineup. For that reason, depending on the front office’s perspective and future outlook for the franchise, either Peña or Dunn are the Cubs’ Perfect Pickup. I still believe that they’re far enough away from being a true contender that I’m going to pick Peña, but I wouldn’t fault Jim Hendry and his staff for taking the optimistic path and going with Dunn. Or trading for Adrian Gonzalez. That’d work too.

I'd also like to stop for a moment and congratulate my former employers at Octagon for working out what looks like a great deal for both club and player in sending Victor Martinez to Detroit on a 4-year deal. Additionally, a big welcome back to the Bay to Aubrey Huff. Glad to have Huff-Daddy on board for the title defense.

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