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2011 Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles:
Mirror, mirror...

Derrek Lee Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
February 21, 2011

The Baltimore Orioles were 32-73 (.305) before Buck Showalter took over as manager and finished the 2010 season 34-23 (.596).  The Chicago Cubs were 51-74 (.408) before Mike Quade took over as manager and finished the season 24-13 (.649).  The Orioles showed a little more improvement, but the Cubs were better overall. 

After watching similar 2010 seasons productive winters unfold, the fans of the most popular team in the Beltway region and the fans of the most popular team in Chicagoland should be about as excited as each other about their 2011 prospects, right?  Wrong.  One team's fan base is far more optimistic about their team's chances in 2011, and it's not the one you'd expect.

2010 Standings - AL East
East W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Tampa Bay Rays 96 66 .593 0 49-32 37-34 802 649 .596 60-46 36-20
New York Yankees* 95 67 .586 1 59-29 43-38 859 693 .597 64-40 31-27
Boston Red Sox 89 73 .549 7 46-35 43-38 818 734 .549 65-51 24-22
Toronto Blue Jays 85 77 .525 11 45-33 40-44 755 728 .517 72-54 13-23
Baltimore Orioles 66 96 .407 30 37-44 29-52 613 785 .389 48-63 18-33
2010 Standings - NL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Cincinnati Reds 91 71 .562 0 49-32 42-39 790 685 .565 58-49 33-22
St. Louis Cardinals 86 76 .531 5 52-29 34-47 736 641 .563 60-48 26-28
Milwaukee Brewers 77 85 .475 14 40-41 37-44 750 804 .468 52-60 25-25
Houston Astros 76 86 .469 15 42-39 34-47 611 729 .420 49-68 27-18
Chicago Cubs 75 87 .463 16 35-46 40-41 685 767 .448 49-59 26-28
Pittsburgh Pirates 57 105 .352 34 40-41 17-64 587 866 .329 38-80 19-25

How a team performs in the final month or two of a season is actually predicative of how they will perform the following year.  Take the Reds and Padres, for example.  They finished 2009 with only 78 and 75 wins, respectively.  But the Reds finished the season 26-14 (.650) and the Padres went 37-25 (.597), and both ranked among the National League's best and most surprising teams of 2010, each hitting the 90-win plateau.

Cubs Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Matt Garza SP
Carlos Pena 1B
Kerry Wood RP
Reed Johnson OF
Fernando Perez OF
Augie Ojeda IF
Todd Wellemeyer P
Departed Pos.
Xavier Nady OF/1B
Sam Fuld OF
Jeff Gray RP
Tom Gorzelanny P
Orioles Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Mark Reynolds 3B
Derrek Lee 1B
J.J. Hardy SS
Kevin Gregg RP
Jeremy Accardo RP
Justin Duchscherer SP
Departed Pos.
Kevin Millwood SP
Matt Albers RP
David Hernandez RP
Ty Wigginton 1B/3B
Garrett Atkins 1B
Julio Lugo IF
Corey Patterson LF

Given this recent history, would it be so hard to see the Cubs' 75-win team from a year ago turn around and win 90 games in 2011?  I wouldn't think so.  It's asking a bit more, however, for the Orioles to go from a 66-win club to a 90-win club.  On top of that, 90 wins stands a good chance of winning the NL Central, which promises to be an evenly-matched four team race.  What chance does 90 wins have of winning a division that features a young team that's won two out of the past three years, a team with a $200 million-plus payroll, and the best team on paper in recent memory?

Despite all of this, and the classification of Cubs fans as eternal optimists, it is Baltimore fans, not the North Siders, who go into 2011 the most excited.  Maybe the offseason acquisitions explain the phenomenon.  Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee, J.J. Hardy, and Kevin Gregg are all name players that fans can get excited about.  Unfortunately, none of them does a thing to help a starter's ERA that ranked 28th in the majors last year.

Fans are nevertheless excited because four-fifths of their projected rotation will be 25 or younger.  Unfortunately, other than Brian Matusz, who had a 2.18 over his final 11 starts, none of these four has even shown a hint that they are ready to excel at the major league level.  Brad Bergeson and Jake Arrieta each struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings last year, while Chris Tillman walked as many batters as he struck out.

As strange as it sounds, the Orioles are going to miss Kevin Millwood's 4-16 record and 5.10 ERA.  His 190-plus innings may not have been spectacular, but they saved even worse pitchers from throwing in the back of their rotation.  The best hope for this group is if Justin Duchscherer somehow manages to be healthy for more than a handful of starts.

Comeback Candidates
Mark Reynolds and Aramis Ramirez
Both had absurdly low BABIPs last season
Disappointment Candidates
Jeremy Guthrie and Carlos Silva
Remember, these were two of the worst pitchers of 2009

While Reynolds, Hardy, and Lee give the Orioles a significant offensive upgrade over Melvin Mora, Cesar Izturis, and Ty Wigginton, they don't do anything to bolster the defense.  A full season of Koji Uehara as the closer, the added depth that Kevin Gregg brings, and the return to health of Mike Gonzalez makes this a better bullpen than it was last year. They may be overtaxed, however, when this super-young rotation fails to take the ball deep into games.

Brian Matusz

Chicago's acquisitions match Baltimore's in terms of quality.  Like Lee and Reynolds, Carlos Pena is coming off a down year and should bounce back somewhat in 2011.  Kerry Wood has more upside than does Kevin Gregg, but certainly has more risk of injury as well.  Matt Garza is one of the better young pitchers in the game and figures to benefit from the AL East to NL Central transition, much as Ted Lilly did three years ago.

The balance of the acquisitions - one starter, one reliever, and one position player -  does appear to give the Cubs the edge.  Whereas the O's now have a strong lineup and bullpen but one of the weakest starting rotations in the American League, the Cubs have a balanced team across the board.

Even if you predict sophomore normalization for Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin,  the offense should have no weak points.  As overpaid as Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome are, they each had an OPS over .800 last year.  They flank Marlon Byrd, the team's lone All-Star representative in 2010, who struggled offensively in the second half of the season but played stellar defense all year long.  Just 25-years old, Blake DeWitt could be poised for a breakout year, but at the very least he gets on base enough to turn the lineup over from the #8 spot.   If Geovany Soto can stay healthy and Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena return to pre-2010 form, the Cubs might have one of the best lineups in the National League.

None of the Cubs' front three starters - Garza, Ryan Dempster, and Carlos Zambrano - has posted an ERA over 4.00 in the past three seasons, a truly remarkable stat.  The 28-year-old Randy Wells brings a career 3.65 ERA into the fourth spot of the rotation.  Carlos Silva, the likely fifth starter, famously began last season 8-0 before running into arm trouble.  For additional depth, promising youngsters Chris Carpenter, Jeff Samardzija, and Jay Jackson await an opportunity to start.

Kerry Wood

The bullpen behind them does not disappoint, either.  Wood, Sean Marshall, and Carlos Marmol are all good enough to close, though Mar-Man has been so dominant in the role (88.4% save percentage  and a record-setting 16 K/9 last year) that there is no controversy.  Samardzija and Andrew Cashner each possess closer-type stuff but get inconsistent results at this early stage of their careers.  Southpaw John Grabow tries to return to his '08-'09 form after a disastrous 2010 campaign. 

Top-to-bottom, this group ranks among the top five pitching staffs in all of baseball.

Final Word

Maybe it's the fact that the Cubs dipped from 97 wins in 2008 to 75 wins in 2010.  Maybe it's got something to do with all of the bad contracts the Cubs have.  Whatever the reason, Cubs fans are actually underestimating their team, which is somewhat refreshing after they overrated the Cubs these past two seasons.  This Cubs squad has as good of a chance of making the playoffs as any National League squad besides the stacked Philadelphia Phillies.

As for the Orioles, the veterans brought in to help lead a young core of position players that includes Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis should translate into more wins.  But at the end of the day, Jeremy Guthrie is their ace, Brad Bergeson is their third-best starter, and Felix Pie is their left fielder.  This team would be very fortunate to eclipse 80 wins and has no shot at postseason play.

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