by Josh Cornwall

Having a “sports stat dominated mind”, people often ask for my opinion about who will win or play well before the season starts. Over the years I have tried to get farther away from making such bold predictions because half of the time they wind up miserably wrong.

Projections and predictions are a part of what we like to do as sports fans now-a-days. And lucky for us the people at Baseball Prospectus, led by the quiet Bill James, give us their calculated opinion so that I don’t have to bore you with mine.

Since the PECOTA projections debuted in the 2003 Baseball Prospectus Handbook, they have become a staple for baseball analysts and avid couch statistician during the month of sports purgatory in February. For those who don’t know, PECOTA stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimized Test Algorithm, developed by Nate Silver before he sold it to Bill James before the ’03 publishing of Baseball Prospectus. (Side note: I wish I was intelligent enough to create statistics algorithms to sell to others for mildly practical purposes. Unfortunately this isn’t the case.)

PECOTA takes into account a variety of stats and factors including but not limited to: age, batting average, WARP, VORP and career length. There are a whole bunch of other factors calculated into a player’s projected statistics using PECOTA, but for the sake of potentially losing readers before the meat of the article, I’ll refrain from listing all of them.

Without much adieu, let’s take a look at which Cubbies are hot and who is not going into Spring Training, according to the 2012 projections.

Who’s Hot

Marlon Byrd is one of the players expected to produce on a consistent basis for this Cubs team. Although this isn’t exactly a shocking development considering he has been efficient both at the plate and in the field during his two year stint on the North Side. His 2012 projections list him to slightly improve his batting average and OPS to .280/.332 respectively, while hitting twelve dingers and knocking in 65 RBI. Byrd also has the best WARP (Wins Above Replacement) out of any Cubs outfielder and third of any Cubs batter at 1.9. To be fair to Byrd, he probably would have put up these numbers last season had he not been destroyed by an Alfredo Aceves pitch to the face.

Geovany Soto is another player that has favorable projections for 2012. While we may not see 2008 and 2010 numbers from Soto, it’s not likely we’ll see the 2009 or 2011 forgettable numbers either. Soto has had off and on career at the plate and 2012 looks to be more on the “on” side. His projected .260/.345 aren’t close to his All-Star season in ’08, but are much improved to his sub Mendoza line stats in the odd years. Soto also projects the be the only regular aside from Ian Stewart to be a 20+ HR candidate, although Anthony Rizzo or Bryan LaHair could potentially reach that plateau with consistent playing time. Home runs are obviously not the end all be all for determining great players, but the Cubs will need some power from guys like Soto to have some offensive success in 2012.

Ryan Dempster is hoping to rebound from a tough season in 2011 and according to PECOTA should be able to achieve that feat. Dempster posted a 4.80 ERA last season, his worst since he became a full time starter for the Cubs in 2007. While he’s not projected to get back to his sub-four ERA at 4.18, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. His wins aren’t projected to improve (10.9) which is to be expected considering this will be an audition type season for many of the young Cubs. Dempster’s projected WARP is the second highest amongst pitchers, with only Matt Garza being higher. Bottom line is the Cubs will struggle to reach last year’s win total (71) if Dempster gets off to a similarly slow pace to start this season.

Who’s Not

I’d be lying if I was to say that it was easy to pick a few for this grouping, because as a whole the Cubs are projected to struggle to create runs once again.

Alfonso Soriano is an obvious candidate for this list. His projected collapse and attrition rates continue to rise as his play on the field continues to decline. There is not much to like about Soriano these days, although it has been awhile since there has really been anything positive to say about him. According to PECOTA we’ll see the usual .250/.300 line we’ve seen for three years, combined with a drop in isolated power, which leads to less home runs and RBI. If it explains anything, the player that Soriano best compares to this season is David Dellucci and that might be an insult to poor Mr. Dellucci. We know what we’re going to get out of a deteriorating Soriano: fewer games played, less power and more errors.

Chris Volstad is a guy that could be on the outside looking in at the starting rotation come April and for good reason. Volstad has been simply putrid in two of his three full time MLB seasons for the Marlins, so Theo must be hoping for more of 2010 for the 25-year-old. Volstad could realistically hit his projected value of 24 starts in 2012, whether that comes by earning a spot in the rotation or due to injury (a likely situation). With a project ERA hovering above five (5.19) and the lowest WARP out of any realistic starter at .2 (no Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez don’t count, at least for my sake I hope not). Here’s hoping that Volstad can kick start his career with a change of scenery, but the odds are not in his favor to do so.

In summary, there is no real way to project how the Cubs will be in 2012 from both an individual player and team aspect. Every year players around the league defy the odds of the low expectations placed upon them due to prior performance. However, even with a player or two breaking out in 2012 the Cubs chances of making the playoffs aren’t particularly high.

By the way, if you were wondering, the two most likely players to breakout in 2012 are Brett and Jay Jackson.

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