Despite Rebuilding, Chicago Cubs Could Contend Thanks to Cards, Brewers Losses

Bob WarjaSenior Writer IFebruary 2, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 18:  President Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs helps new manager Dale Sveum with his jersey during a press conference at Wrigley Field on November 18, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Theo Epstein took the job as president of the Cubs baseball operations, he made it clear that he was going to rebuild the team the right way, "the Cubs way."

Yet despite the desire to get younger, more cost-controllable players and build from within while not spending big money on free agency, the Cubs just could sneak into contention in the NL Central this season on the basis of two things.

First off, the lack of expectations should make for less pressure on a club that had been expected to contend over the past few seasons.

Two, division rivals St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers got worse this winter.

Now, despite these facts, the Reds seemingly have improved, and both the Cards and Brewers still appear to be better on paper than Chicago.

Still, the Cardinals losing Albert Pujols is a huge subtraction, even if the addition of Carlos Beltran was a decent response.

Also, keep in mind that in addition to the losses on the field, the club also said goodbye to its manager, Tony LaRussa, and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, who stepped away voluntarily to address personal issues.

The Cardinals appeared to leave the door open for Duncan's return, but it was since discovered that it wasn't a leave of absence, and instead, he had resigned.

Those are big losses for a Cardinals team that won the World Series last season.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee also lost its big slugger, with fellow first baseman and free agent Prince Fielder signing with the Tigers.

The Brewers were also dealt an additional blow when NL MVP Ryan Braun failed a steroid test and was suspended for the first 50 games of the season.

Of course, there are those darn Cincinnati Reds to deal with. They went out and traded for pitcher Mat Latos and signed Ryan Madson to be their closer.   

The Cubs even helped out by sending them lefty set-up man Sean Marshall. The Reds still need Latos to perform like a legitimate No. 2 starter, bullpen improvements and bounce-back years from Scott Rolen and Drew Stubbs.

So while the Cubs certainly won't be the favorites to win the division this year, they just might fool everyone. Their starting rotation is a huge question mark, though they have depth, especially if they retain Matt Garza.

The offense lacks thump, of course, as a 3-4-5 of Marlon Byrd, Bryan LaHair and Alfonso Soriano won't remind anyone of a murderer's row.

Closer is another area of concern for the Cubs, assuming they might contend (if they don't contend, the closer really doesn't matter).

Carlos Marmol struggled in 2011, with a 4.01 ERA while walking 48 batters and leading the league with 10 blown saves.

So yes, the Cubs aren't looking great on paper, but stranger things have happened. The goal is not to win now, but if they do, it's gravy.

It could happen.