What can the Chicago Cubs do for an encore in 2010?
2009 started off with the highest of expectations, but a season of hope and promise quickly turned into one of dismal performances and despair.
A team that was predicted to win the National League by most "experts" did not even qualify for the playoffs.
Their season was derailed by injuries early and often, and a manager, front office, and city of fans were left scratching their heads, wondering what the hell happened to a 97-win ball club.
Of course, injuries are just a cop-out—the good teams will win no matter what.
Poor performances (by such All-Stars as Alfonso Soriano, Geovanny Soto, and Carlos Zambrano) also contributed to a lost season, setting the stage for 2010.
Just like a night on the Jersey Shore, anything can happen with this Cubs team.
The bulk of the 97-win team remains, so one could make the argument that they are not far off from capturing a third National League Central Division title in four years.
However, the bulk of last year's team remains as well—and this team is certainly not getting any younger.
I want to touch on five key issues for this team.
The overall health of the club is the number one issue, for obvious reasons, but I won't address that here. Injuries are very unpredictable (just ask Aramis Ramirez and his dive last year that cost him two months).
Everyone comes to spring training "in the best shape of their lives" (see Zambrano, Carlos), but by July and August, that's all out the window as the 162-game grind begins to encompass your life.
Here are the five key issues I see for the 2010 Cubs.
1). Is there enough (quality) starting pitching on this club?
Gone are the days when the Cubs could brag about their five-deep starting rotation. Come to think of it, they can't really even brag about four top starting pitchers right now.
The starting rotation is a shell of its former self.
Lou Piniella is looking at two arms he can trust for the first six weeks of the season: Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano.
The fact that Carlos Zambrano is among the trusted arms should worry the skipper, and not knowing the status of Ted Lilly will absolutely worry him.
A rotation that carried the Cubs last year will be lucky to keep them at .500 in 2010.
Randy Wells came out of nowhere last year, but his history in the minors suggests he's more of a middle-of-the-road pitcher, and his innings were never as high as they were last year.
Carlos Silva, Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, and Tom Gorzelanny are the four candidates vying for the two open spots, but they are not the types of pitchers who belong on a playoff team, save for maybe Marshall.
Samardzija has not shown he can be a viable starting pitcher at the big league level, Gorzelanny has not looked good for two seasons, and Silva was the worst pitcher in North America over the last two seasons.
Marshall at the No. 5 spot makes sense, but not the No. 4 spot.
Of course, if you had a Tim Lincecum or Roy Halladay at the top, you could probably get away with some things; but not the Cubs.
If they can keep their head above water until All-Star Ted Lilly returns, they might be able to make a run at it.
Hurry back, Ted.
2). Will the big bats bounce back?
You remember 2008's fierce lineup: Soriano, Theriot, Lee, Ramirez, Fukudome, Soto, DeRosa, etc.
You remember how that group led the league in nearly every team batting category. But after last year's inept offense, who really knows what to expect from this bunch?
Soriano is hurt and old, Soto got fat and bad, Ramirez was, as always, hurt, and Fukudome continues to show that he is nowhere near a $48 million outfielder.
The loss of DeRosa hurt if for no other reason than the fact that there was a black hole at third base when Ramirez went down.
If Derrek Lee hadn't had his monster season (35 HRs, 111 RBI, .306 BA), the Cubs may not have scored a single run last year.
All kidding aside, there are some serious issues with this lineup.
For one, it lacks speed—and I'm not talking about the ability to swipe a bag.
I'm talking about the ability to stretch a double into a triple or take the extra base on a blooper. This lineup is slowly turning into a 30-and-over league softball team.
New hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has been praised for his work with the Texas Rangers, where he ignited the careers of several hitters.
In Chicago, his job will be to re-ignite that flame and keep it burning if/when he does.
3). Is Lou Piniella the right man to lead this team?
As the fourth year of the Piniella era kicks off, many around the windy city have to wonder if this man can lead a championship team.
He seems to have lost his fire, although he'll never admit it.
He seems to take a more lackadaisical approach to baseball—which works for some managers and teams. But in a market and city like this, every now and then the manager needs to take the bull by the horns and shake things up.
Granted, when injuries are ravaging a team, no manager can come up with a magical formula for winning.
But Piniella seems to have lost a step—not literally, of course—in his game management.
Giving the nod to Kevin Gregg last year as the team's closer blew up in his face like an errant Fourth of July firework, and his handling of Milton Bradley was likely not the right approach.
Ditto for Carlos Zambrano.
With hot-headed, volatile players like that, sometimes all it takes is a manager to get in their face and kick 'em in the caboose.
Ozzie Guillen is the perfect example of that, and, guess what, it seems to work.
His players know that they'll face his wrath if they don't perform, and he knows that he'll get the most out of his team or die trying.
The spark-plug that was Piniella has been replaced by an old, tired man.
4). We know who's on first, but what is on second?
When Aramis Ramirez went down with injury, third base became no man's land for the Cubs, but their second basemen were arguably the worst in the league for the first five months of the season.
Jeff Baker's arrival and hot bat turned the position into an eventual strength, but the collection of Mike Fontenot, Bobby Scales, and Andres Blanco were just awful.
Fontenot was expected to take the job and keep it and maybe be the type of player who could produce a 15/75/.270 line.
His actual numbers didn't come close to that.
Instead of making a move for a second baseman this offseason, the Cubs decided to play it safe and stick with Jeff Baker.
The problem with playing it safe with Baker is that it's Jeff Baker who you're playing it safe with—not Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, or Brian Roberts.
What has Jeff Baker really done to warrant the team's faith in him?
His .300 batting average was nice, but it came with little power and was accumulated in a third of the season.
For anyone to get a true gauge of where he is at, you'll need a full season of 500+ at-bats.
He has never had 300 at-bats in a season.
There is one player who could potentially fill the void at second base, but he is currently penciled in as the starting shortstop.
This brings me to my last key question of the 2010 Cubs.
5). Is there a Star(lin) in the making?
Starlin Castro is the new Corey Patterson and Felix Pie.
But luckily for Cubs fans, he still has time to avoid the previous two players' fates.
Both Patterson and Pie were can't-miss prospects who ultimately missed with the Cubs and the rest of the league.
Castro cannot legally drink yet, so it'll likely be a year or two before we see him on the north side, but the praise this young man has generated is nothing short of remarkable.
He was shot out of a cannon last year and tore through the minor league ranks.
His glove was suspect (39 errors), but how many teenagers do you know that will be vacuum cleaners on every play?
His power is not there yet, but again, the kid is still learning.
If his power develops as quickly as the rest of his game has, he'll be a September call-up that might stick.
The Cubs have been looking for a home-made superstar batter for too many years now, and the status of Starlin Castro will be one of the most talked about topics for the 2010 Cubs.
If Castro is what scouts says he is, he could re-open the window to success for the Chicago Cubs—a window that is all but shut after 2009's disastrous outcome.
More issues still exist, and more questions will emerge as camp wears on, but the five issues above could tell the tale of the 2010 Cubs.
Early April is fast approaching.
Let's hope the Cubs know which way to turn at the crossroads (cue Bone Thugz 'n' Harmony).