Baseball by the numbers: Cubs prospects under the statistical microscope

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For the Sun-Times 

The Cubs’ streak of five consecutive sub-.500 seasons is their longest since a run of six in a row that started in 1978. That one ended when the 1984 club became the first Cubs team to reach the postseason since 1945.

Hopes that the 2015 team can make that kind of breakthrough center on a rare influx of young talent.

How good can the Cubs be?, using its Depth Chart projections for each player, projects the Cubs to finish 84-78. That’s not a prediction; it’s a calculation that a team with players performing at the Cubs’ projected levels normally would win about 84 games.

So how do the young hotshots project? Let’s check out Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant using Depth Chart — one of several systems at FanGraphs — PECOTA from and projections from the Bill James Handbook.

Baez: Expectations for the 22-year-old second baseman are dampened by his 95 strikeouts, which represented 41.5 percent of his 229 major-league plate appearances last season.

Baez struck out 30 percent of the time in 434 plate appearances at Class AAA Iowa before coming to Chicago last summer, and Depth Chart sees him cutting his strikeout rate to 31.6 percent in the majors in 2015. That’s not outlandish for a power hitter. The Orioles’ Chris Davis led major-league qualifiers last season at 33 percent.

A high strikeout rate leaves doubts about playing time. James projects a full season of 612 plate appearances with a .242 batting average, 32 home runs and a .754 OPS. PECOTA projects only 434 plate appearances with a .224 batting average, 25 homers and a .699 OPS. Depth Chart is in the middle at 560 plate appearances with a .228 batting average, 26 homers and a .714 OPS.

Soler: In a late-season call-up last season, Soler hit .292 with five homers and a .903 OPS in 97 plate appearances. His batting average was boosted by a .339 batting average on balls in play (BABiP), 36 points higher than his BABiP at Iowa, where he hit .282 in 127 plate appearances.

The BABiP can be expected to drop a bit, and given that Soler has a limited track record with 711 minor-league plate appearances, projections will reflect caution. PECOTA lists Soler with a .257 batting average, 24 homers and a .773 OPS in 584 plate appearances. Depth Chart is at .257, 22, .779 in 560 plate appearances and James at .246, 28, .813 in 542 plate appearances.

Bryant: With both power and plate discipline, Bryant has elements the projection systems love. Not only did his 43 homers last season — 22 at Class AA Tennessee, 21 at Iowa — lead the minors, but he walked 43 times in 297 plate appearances at Tennessee, then repeated it with 43 walks in 297 plate appearances at Iowa.

He might not start the season in Chicago, and the projections limit his plate appearances, if not his production. PECOTA projects Bryant with a .261 batting average, 23 homers and an .866 OPS in just 394 plate appearances. Depth Chart is at .258, 22, .835 in 420 plate appearances and James at .266, 30, .864 in 530 plate appearances.

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