As temperatures warm ever so slowly throughout the country, the time for pitchers and catchers to report to the warm climates of Arizona and Florida is almost upon us.
With that in mind, a look at the Cubs pitching staff, and a comparison to their NL Central foes, seems in order.
We always, especially in the offseason, feel good about the arms we have taking the mound—more so than those other teams that we look down upon year-round.
A closer look does show quite a bit of promise, although questions and worries do lurk.
We've known for a while now that the stuff of Carlos Zambrano's is second to none—but then so is his propensity for melting down in the midst of any given moment.
Ryan Dempster was a huge surprise, going 17-6 with a paltry ERA of 2.96 and a robust 206.2 innings pitched and 187 strike-outs.
Ted Lilly had as quiet of a 17-9 record as you'll come across, and Rich Harden was spot on in his starts, going 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 89 Ks in just 71 innings.
Gone is Jason Marquis. Though he was an innings eater, most fans will view his departure as an addition by subtraction. Getting a veteran bullpen arm like Luis Vizcaino out of the deal is potential icing on the cake.
Then again, potential is one of the most cursed words that can come back to bite you. Let's face it, potential is a descriptor that comes up a lot when analyzing the Cubs staff for this upcoming season—starting and bullpen alike.
Harden has the potential to be lights out, as we evidenced—but his health history is always a question.
Zambrano's stuff is obviously unquestioned—then again, so is his emotional make-up.
Dempster wasn't really as much a surprise, in that he was a solid starter before arm troubles pushed him to the bullpen. Getting his arm back to where it was, he took the next step. He should be solid, if not strong, again.
Lilly keeps piling up the respectable numbers for a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. But who rounds out the rotation?
A few offseason trades and signings have brought in an arm or two, likeAaron Heilman, that could vie for the slot. Some familiar faces who keep shuttling back and forth between Iowa and the North Side, such as Kevin Hart and Angel Guzman, will also compete for the fifth spot
The bet is that lefty Sean Marshall will secure the position, balancing out the rotation with another lefty.
In the bullpen, there are plenty of quality arms, but as many questions, with that word, "potential," popping up again.
Kerry Wood was let go, so the closer's spot will be most likely handed to Carol Marmol.
Like Zambrano, he has electric stuff, and, unlike Big Z, he seems to keep things under control.
But the step to the ninth inning is never a sure thing—what worked in the eighth might not carry over. The pressure gets amped up a ton from one inning to the next, will his level of concentration and intensity?
Names that may be thrown into the mix for closer will be Kevin Gregg, acquired from Florida, and Jeff Samardzija, who showed a nice, live arm in middle relief last season.
Odds are, the layout will be Samardzija in the seventh, Gregg in the eighth and Marmol in the ninth, with Vizcaino mixed in there somewhere.
Samardzija is likely being groomed as a future starter, but it doesn't seem this will be the year to debut him there.
There is a potential problem brewing, however. With Marshall in the rotation, it leaves Neil Cotts as the only lefty in the pen.
Looking around the Central, the Cubs closest competitors last year, Milwaukee, saw their top-heavy staff decimated in the offseason with both CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets heading out of town. The only notable, or recognizable, addition to the staff was the signing of closer Trevor Hoffman, already a few years past his prime.
St. Louis also has plenty of " potential," with the injury-prone Chris Carpenter being asked to be a key ingredient to a decent-to-strong starting staff that includes Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, Joel Piniero, and former Cub Todd Wellemeyer.
Houston standout Roy Oswalt is back and will be, as usual, a dependable ace. Brandon Backe and all three starters following him, are, at best, No. 3 starters on a playoff team. Their closer, Jose Valverde, with his 44 saves and 83 Ks in 72 innings, gives them a very nice staff ace and closer combination. Houston is also taking a flyer on Mike Hampton, who never really has recovered from his days in Colorado.
Cincinnati actually may have one of the top rotations in the division, with Bronson Arroyo and the young, impressive arms of Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto backed up by Aaron Harang and Micah Owings.
Pittsburgh, at least, can savor their Super Bowl win all summer. While the likes of Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny might be solid, middle-to-end of rotation guys for a good team, you're not scaring too many front-runners with them as your entire staff.
From an ERA standpoint, the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds have the best pitching in the division. And while there are many bits of potential and questions to be answered for the Chicago staff, there seems to be just as many with their challengers for the divison title.