Lesterday, Today, and Montero: What Can We Expect from the Cubs’ High-Priced New Battery?

With the Winter Meetings concluded, the flurry of activity in Major League Baseball has slowed but the conversation continues to come down in sheets. For their part, the Cubs did all they could to make it rain, dropping enough money on three players in a little less than two days to fund an entire Marvel movie production (sans Robert Downey Jr, of course).

The Cubs brass had spent the past three seasons systematically rebuilding the team from the ground up. That front office euphemism is particularly fitting in this case too, since they truly did strip the team down to brass tacks. And in setting an NL Central title as the goal for 2015, Theo Epstein displayed balls of an alloy made from zinc and copper.

Because accomplishing that goal meant spending a pretty penny, many believed that Epstein didn’t really mean it, that he was just trying to sell tickets. Well, first things first, that’s not the man’s job. And say what you will about the veiled meaning of Epstein’s words, but disingenuous isn’t a descriptor that should enter the conversation.

Re-signing Jason Hammel, last year’s flip du jour, to a two-year deal worth a guaranteed $20 million was the first significant step the Cubs took this offseason (sorry, Tommy La Stella) in the effort to accelerate the rebuild. That was followed closely by a trade for veteran framer Miguel Montero, a man with $40 million remaining on the final three years of his deal.

Those two moves, however, were dwarfed by the early-morning news of Jon Lester’s decision to come to Chicago and anchor the Cubs’ rotation, all for the pittance of $155 million over the next 6 years. This was the move, the prize fish of the free agent market. And where Cubs fans had seen the big one get away too often in recent years, they finally had a trophy catch to admire.

But what kind of production will the Cubs get in return for their $215 million? After all, you can’t run a baseball team on sunshine and rainbows alone. Once the warm fuzzies of the big offseason fade, these new toys are going to have to go out on the field and produce results.

Prognostication is a tricky task in any sport, but baseball in particular has an almost infinite number of variables. For a mouth-breathing troglodyte like me, an attempt to compile all the necessary date and then use that to extrapolate a given player’s future performance will likely result in a frontal lobotomy and a really nasty charlie horse.

Thankfully, there are people in the world who are much smarter than I, and some of them are baseball fans to boot. The fine gentlemen at Steamer Projections are just such people and they have seen fit to model out the 2015 stats for this trio of Cubs, as found on FanGraphs. They have actually done this for every other player, but I felt it would be just a little tedious to list everyone.

Jason Hammel put up some pretty solid numbers in 2014 and the Cubs are hoping he can continue down that same path in the coming season. There are, however, some concerns with workload, which our Gunther Dabynsky detailed recently. After exceeding the 170 IP mark in 4 of the last 6 seasons, Steamer projects that Hammel will pitch only 153 innings for the Cubs in 2015.

They don’t expect such a marked drop-off in overall performance though, as Hammel would start 26 games and put up a 9-9 record with a 3.85/3.76 ERA/FIP split. That’s good for a 1.7 WAR total, which, if we assume a value of about $7 million per win, would make the righty about $12 million.

Some of Hammel’s decreased performance expectation can be traced to an increase in his BB/9 ratio (2.25 to 2.59) and his BABIP against (.272 to .290), not to mention the relatively low number of innings pitched. Given the numbers above, Hammel’s average start is expected to be just over 5 2/3 innings. That means that an extra 20 innings pitched could mean another 3+ starts, ostensibly adding to his value.

But how does he exceed those (somewhat conservative) projections? Certainly, a return to a more ground-ball-centric pitch selection will help him at Wrigley Field (again, see Dabs’ piece). But perhaps a new battery mate who’s better able to frame balls into strikes and preserve more pitcher’s pitches will help extend outings and suppress BB/9 and BABIP.

Naturally, that’s where Miguel Montero comes in. It’s no secret that the Cubs sought a defense-first catcher who could also provide an upgrade in terms of OBP, and after losing out on Russell Martin they turned to the veteran D-back. In terms of offense, Montero really isn’t projected to do anything spectacular; in fact, he’s expected to have a perfectly mediocre wRC+ of 100.

His projected slash line of .250/.340/.379 is nothing to write home about, nor is his -1.8 oWAR, which is actually worse than Welington Castillo’s -1.2. Montero’s OBP is expected to be about 29 points higher than Beef Castle’s, but that’s not the real reason the Cubs were willing to pony up for the last three years of his deal.

While Montero isn’t a whiz with the bat (though even that paltry projection above is significantly better than the last two seasons, as Mark Jablonowski explained), it’s his defensive savvy the Cubs coveted. A dWar of 11.8 brings his overall value to 2.6 additional wins, or $18.2 million. If he’s able to live up to that, Montero will look like a steal next season.

One guy who is unlikely to look like a steal, however, is Jon Lester. I don’t say that because I don’t think his signing was a great thing for the Cubs, but because it’s going to be almost impossible for his numbers to tell the story of what he means to the ballclub. That said, let’s take a look at them anyway.

According to Steamer, Lester should start 30 games, compiling a 13-10 record on the strength of a 3.28 ERA and FIP. His 8.67 K/9 and 2.40 BB/9 are both a little worse than his 2014 totals, but still better than his respective career averages of 8.22 and 3.07.

Known as a bit of a workhorse, Lester has topped 200 IP in all but one of the past seven seasons (the lone exception being a 191.2-inning campaign in 2011) and has started no fewer than 31 games over that stretch. Capping that run was a career-high 219.2 innings in 32 starts between Boston and Oakland last season.

Steamer predicts a slight drop in those totals in 2015, though 192 innings over 30 starts would still put Lester nearly 30 IP higher than the next-most-used Cubs pitcher for 2015 (Jake Arrieta, 163 IP). With a projected WAR of 2.6, Lester again leads the staff (Arrieta is at 2.4) and would be worth around $18.2 million.

But as I’ve said too many times already, Jon Lester’s value goes beyond the box score and can’t be expressed in a series of prognostications that won’t be completely validated for another 10 months or so. When it’s all said and done, the value of any player, or group of players, is measured in wins and losses and whether they were able to reach the goals their organization set forth.

As far as those odds go, Vegas sure seems to like what the Cubs have done with this trio. Prior to bringing Joe Maddon on board to lead their team, the Cubs were a 40-1 longshot to win the World Series; shortly after the announcement of his hiring, they dropped to 20-1. After Jon Lester announced that he was coming to Chicago, they dropped again, to 12-1.

As of publishing, those odds were fourth-best behind the Dodgers at 8-1, Red Sox at 17-2, and Nationals at 10-1, according to Bovada.net’s baseball futures. VegasInsider.com’s MLB page likes the Cubs even more and has them at 10-1 odds for the World Series and 5-1 odds to win the NL pennant, behind the aforementioned teams at 13-4.

There’s a reason they’ve been able to build several billion-dollar monuments to hedonism in the middle of the Nevada desert though, and it isn’t because of altruism. Vegas oddsmakers exist to make money and those lines are established to do just that; as one might imagine, the Cubs have been drawing a lot of bets from giddy fans.

It’s been very easy over the last few days to feel like a starry-eyed Pollyanna when reviewing the Cubs moves this offseason, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But all this talk of great odds seem to be a bit premature to me and I wanted to do my small part to temper expectations a bit.

A quick look at the FanGraphs projections for 2015 will do exactly that, as they have the Cubs putting up a record of 83-79; that’s good for a third-place finish in the Central behind the Cardinals (88-74) and the Pirates (87-73). If that sounds disappointing, consider that it would put the Cubs in a tie with the Giants for the final Wild Card spot.

Anyone else seeing shades of Gary Gaetti? All hail The Rat!

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether those projections actually include the new acquisitions. Even if they don’t, I think 83 wins and a shot at the playoffs is a very realistic expectation for the Cubs, particularly given their overall youth and inexperience.

And given the strengthened rotation and the fact that those young guys won’t really be rookies anymore by the time the season closes, the Cubs would have a good chance to make some noise if they make it to October baseball. That 162-game season is a fickle mistress though, and projections are far from perfect.

I’m as excited as the rest of you about what the Cubs are doing, but I do think people need to take it all with a grain of salt. The sun is getting ready to peek out from behind the clouds here, but I don’t think it’s time to break out the rose-colored sunglasses just yet.

Even so, I can’t wait for next year.

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