Hard to believe, as many of us watch the snow fall outside, that the Boys of Summer are almost back. But it’s true; teams have reported to 2010 Major League Baseball training camps and it’s time to start our team-by-team baseball gambling previews for the year.
Arguably, the Chicago Cubs taught us to expect the unexpected last season. Most betting experts saw them as the favorite to win the National League Central following 97 wins and a division title in 2008.
Instead, the Cubbies stumbled to 83 wins, struggling to score runs and support their strong pitching.
This year, with the pressure off, can the Cubs surprise us again – for the better?
There’s a decent chance that the offense will trend upward again simply because the entire lineup underperformed in 2009 save for Derek Lee, who had a monster year. Alfonso Soriano’s speed is gone and he’s wasting away from the waist down, enduring one leg injury after another, but he didn’t even play like an average major-league regular last season.
I have to think he has something left in the tank. Aramis Ramirez is among the game’s most talented third baseman, blessed with big power and a great batting eye, but he’s constantly nicked up too. Getting 500 at-bats from him would be a huge help.
Then there’s Geovany Soto.
The 2008 Rookie of the Year totally imploded last season, seeing his average drop from .285 to .218. While he may have overachieved as a rookie, he arrived at camp last month in vastly improved shape and should bounce back at least partially.
The rest of Chicago’s order is filled with team-first guys and role players like Marlon Byrd, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker. They’re all capable of being useful cogs if the talent around them performs up to snuff.
The Cubs’ offense looks like it will bounce back on paper, but that’s no guarantee.
The pitching staff looks a bit more reliable.
Carlos Zambrano is too wild to be an elite starter, but his electric stuff puts him one tier below. Ryan Dempster didn’t match his 2008 magic last season but he certainly pitched well enough to show he was no fluke. Randy Wells surprised last year but it may be too early to tell if he’s the real deal.
As for Ted Lilly, who arguably had his best season as a pro last year, he’s recovering from arthroscopic surgery to his throwing shoulder. Assuming he returns fully recovered, starting pitching shouldn’t be a problem for Chicago.
In the pen, it’s gut check time for Carlos Marmol.
The fireballing reliever had the excuse of “first time” or “competition with Kevin Gregg” for his early-season mishaps and ridiculous 65 walks in 74 innings. But he dominated down the stretch last season, saving his last 11 chances, and the Cubs desperately need him to be an All-Star caliber pitcher for an entire season this time.
It’s clear that the Cubs will compete in the National League Central, as they have too much talent to be a bottom dweller. But they also have plenty of question marks.
Given Lilly’s health, Soriano’s deterioration and Ramirez’s propensity to get hurt, I’m not convinced they can overtake St. Louis or even challenge year round for a Wild card berth.
Acquiring another big bat, however, would definitely change the prognosis.
Cubs Prediction: Third, National League Central
This article also appears on the Cappers Picks Baseball Handicapping Blog.