Ninety-seven wins. Back-to-back Division titles. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly, and either Aaron Heilman or Sean Marshall look to round out the starting rotation in 2009 that looks to build on a very successful regular season in 2008.
The success of the Cubs pitching staff translates directly to the success of the team. If the rotation is able to replicate and possibly even build on their 2008 successes, the "North Siders" will win their third straight Central Division title.
Big Z: The ace of the staff. Despite the depth of the pitching staff with Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin, and Jeff Samardzija all having the ability to either start or work out of the bullpen, if Zambrano goes down for an extended period of time, the Cubs championship aspirations likely go with him. Zambrano missed some time last season, and didn't eclipse the 200 inning pitched mark for the first time since 2002. On the bright side, however, Carlos drastically cut down on his walks last season, and has started to pitch more to contact, resulting in going deeper into games.
Dempster: The No. 2 guy. With Ryan's return to the rotation full-time for the first time since 2001 with the Florida Marlins, the Cubs' experiment was a resounding success in 2008.
However, all the success Dempster had in the '08 season was quickly erased with a seven-walk debacle in Game One of the NLDS against the Dodgers.
At Wrigley, Dempster was as good as anyone's ever been at the "Friendly Confines", going 14-3 in 20 starts, while going a lackluster 3-3 on the road in 13 starts. For the Cubs to build on last season's success, it's imperative that Dempster improve his performance on the road.
Rich Harden. Ace 1A. A key acquisition by Cubs GM Jim Hendry during the 2008 season, Harden made more than 20 starts in a season for the first time since 2004.
With arguably some of the best "stuff" in the game, Harden's health has been the only shortcoming in his game since coming into the league in 2003 with the Oakland A's.
Look for the Cubs to be very careful with Harden early in the season, but if Harden can stay healthy again this season, I look for him to seriously contend for the National League Cy Young Award.
Lilly. The Lefty. Ted Lilly is coming off his two best seasons in his career—both with the Cubs, finishing 15-8 and 17-9 respectively. If Lilly could find a way to cut down on the number of home runs he allows, his ERA would see a huge jump...in a good way.
Owning a career 4.40 ERA, and only twice in 11 seasons posting an ERA under 4.00, Lilly has allowed 20 or more HR's in a season seven times.
That number climbed to a career worst, 32 HR's allowed last season. Sure, Wrigley's a hitters park, but Lilly really needs to cut down on that number in '09.
No. 5. Heilman or Marshall? Both pitchers are very capable of filling the No. 5 spot in the rotation; however, I think Heilman has the edge as the Cubs still need Marshall as that "lefty specialist" in the 'pen with Cotts. Marshall seemed to make strides last season, but still had his struggles.
Whether it turns out being Heilman or Marshall, I think the Cubs are still in great shape either way, because if either or both struggle, they have Jeff Samardzija and others to plug into the No. 5 spot if necessary.
There are so many factors that go into a teams success year-in and year-out, but with the Chicago Cubs returning four of five (or 5-of-5 if Marshall wins the No. 5 spot) starters to the rotation, there's no reason the Cubs should not repeat, once again, as NL Central champions.
CC's gone. Sheets is gone. There's only one Albert Pujols.
Outside of the Cardinals, Brewers and Astros, the NL Central is rather weak from top-to-bottom. Which can only help the Cubs in their quest for a division three-peat.
It's time for the Cubs to forget about any goats, black cats, or curses. Play sound defense, fundamental baseball, with good pitching and timely hitting, and all that stuff doesn't matter, because you'll be playing winning baseball.