The Yankees, Mets, Braves and Phillies were all in pursuit of Scott Hairston, and it wasn’t until last week that it appeared the Cubs even had a chance. Now the oft-wanted role player is joining the Chicago Cubs on a 2-year deal worth up to $6 million after incentives.
Hairston’s well-documented ability to hit left-handed pitching (119 wRC+ against lefties, 86 wRC+ against righties) has earned him quality playing time in the majors, but never a starting gig. That trend should continue as he joins a Cubs outfield alignment already featuring a pair of lefties in David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz.
Schierholtz has a career 96 wRC+ against righties and 90 wRC+ against his brother southpaws. On the merit of two consecutive strong seasons against right-handers (123 wRC+ in 2011, 126 wRC+ in 2012), Schierholtz figures to earn a hearty 500 PA as the Cubs anti-righty platoon mate.
DeJesus, meanwhile, owns a much more pronounced platoon split. His strong defense across the outfield and 117 wRC+ against righties keeps him in the lineup most days, but his 80 wRC+ against lefties may make him — despite being the more proven hitter — a possible platoon partner for Hairston as well.
All told, Hairston and his surprise suitors together make an increasingly interesting team, rich both in flaws and talents. With Hairston and a few other Scotts — Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Kyuji Fujikawa (“Scott,” to his friends, I believe) — the Cubs look like they may need a hunting cap in 2013. The playoffs may not be out of reach.
If it’s true that any MLB team has a chance to underplay or overplay their true-talent level by 10 wins in a season, then the minimum true-talent threshold for a lucky playoff team has to be the mid-to-high 70s. A 75-win team could, theoretically, win 85 or so. In a down season with a second Wild Card, that might be enough to reach the play-in game.
Fans in the comments of the 2013 Cubs ZiPS Projections post rightly noted there was a lot of talent on a team coming off a 61-101 seasons:
So when I add up all the WAR across all the positions in that graphic, I get 30. Even shaving off a couple wins for the inevitability of subs playing below replacement value for a few hundred innings, doesn’t this suggest that as constructed, the Cubs project out to a .500 team? This is assuming a replacement level team plays about .333 ball.
–chasfh711, Jan. 4, 2013
Why, there’s in fact an easy way to test notions of team WAR, if’n we have the desire to put together appropriate amounts of playing time. The undeterrable Sky Kalkman once made an adjustable team WAR calculator for just those purposes. I ran the numbers twice in December, using my best guesses for production (approximately a Marcels kind of prediction with an inevitable Cubs-fan twist) and came away with 77 wins and then later 79 wins after they added Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva.
Now we can create a third rendition, one using the aforementioned ZiPS projections and Mr. Hairston added as a high-quality fourth outfielder:
1) I pestered ZiPS Overlord Dan Szymborski for no less than two days, asking what league average wOBA would be. During a Fangraphs chat, he kindly informed me he does not calculate wOBA. I already knew this, but apparently forgot it. This means I had to guess on the league wOBA. I tried to adjust the wOBA so that the WAR totals in my spreadsheet came close to matching the WAR totals in Carson Cistulli’s ZiPS projection piece, but this resulted in a .312 wOBA, which seems prreeeeeettty low to me. If you don’t buy it, then change it back to the low-.320s (and watch that projected win total drop!).
2) So I had to drop the wOBA almost 10 points, but the ERA had to stay the same. It’s fishy. But stick with me.
3) Obviously this is a quick and dirty method. I’m not looking at the Cubs’ schedule or the Reds and Cardinals rosters. I’m looking at just the Cubs.
4) For defense and playing time, I used my best guesses. Well, I took input from ZiPS (defense) and MLB Depth Charts (playing time) and then made informed guesses. But hey, download this spreadsheet and tweak it yourself if you disagree with me so much! (Hit the green Excel logo to download the spreadsheet.)
5) It’s good to have lists of 3 or 5. A list of 4 is right out.
The Cubs fan in me still sees realistic room for improvement on this team, even without changing the roster. Jeff Samardzija showed the baseballing world he could pitch in 2012, and I expect his talent could grow even more in 2013. Alfonso Soriano is decidedly not a “human-shaped albatross” as Cistulli put it, but in fact — with a lighter bat and improved defense — Soriano should quietly continue to be the Cubs’ most underrated player, who smothers lefties (like Hairston) and fields his position with growing aplomb.
I think it’s also reasonable to expect one of the four similar-talent-level starters (Travis Wood, Scott Baker, Carlos Villanueva, and Scott Feldman) to stake a legitimate claim on the fourth starter spot. These four pitchers each have some interesting quirks that portend a break out season (in relative terms; think low 3.80s ERA).
But as it stands now, the Cubs appear to be around 77 to 79 wins (depending how we treat that pesky league wOBA issue). That certainly puts them in the crazy luck range. Sky’s calculation gives them a 3% chance of reaching 91 wins, which has historically been a playoff spot. Can the Cubs do it? I’m just saying there’s a chance.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.