Chicago Cubs: 10 Burning Questions for 2010
The Cubs had high expectations going into 2009, but they were a disappointment coming out of it.
There were antics. There were injuries. There was poor performance.
They just didn't deliver.
Cubs' GM Jim Hendry set out to change all that, coordinating an exodus of 2009's goats and bringing in a few fresh faces this offseason.
There were plenty of things that were burning by the end of last season, some of them likely in effigy, but in the early goings of 2010, we just have questions.
You may have your own list that you would like to thoroughly go over with the Cubs brass, but (to quote Jim Rome) here's what I'm burning on.
10. Is this Lou Piniella's last season?
Two years after hanging 'em up as a player, Lou Piniella took the reigns of a major league team for the first time. In the 24 years that have passed, a lot has happened.
He went from being Billy Martin's predecessor as Yankee manager, to being his General Manager, to being his successor as Yankee manager in a calendar year.
He won a World Series in his first year with Cincinnati, which happened to be the last one he has appeared in.
He was at the helm when the Mariners tied the record for regular season wins with 116 and when the Devil Rays first stepped out of the AL East cellar with 70.
He brought the Cubs their first back-to-back playoff appearances since they appeared in three straight World Series from 1906 to 1908.
He's won 1,784 games, six division titles, three Manager of the Year awards, been ejected from over 60 ballgames, thrown a few bases, kicked some dirt, and done an Aquafina commercial that parodied his antics.
Oh, and he's in the final year of his contract.
At 66 years old, having managed a major league baseball team in 22 of the last 24 seasons, you couldn't really blame the guy if he decided to walk away after the season.
Right now, it seems to just be speculation, but Lou hasn't quelled the rumors by only saying "We'll see what happens."
Could the mere possibility of this scenario affect the players?
Would it deaden their spirits or inspire them to reach greater heights?
Would it change how Lou manages the game or how he manages the roster?
If this is Sweet Lou's swan song, what will be the tune: some uptempo jazz or some downtempo blues?
9. Are the young guys ready for the big leagues?
Tyler Colvin, Esmailin Caridad, James Russell, Justin Berg, Jeff Gray, John Gaub, Jeff Stevens, Andrew Cashner, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro.
Those are just some of the names that you will see this season, the first few having already made an appearance.
The big question here is what we can expect from them.
Colvin had a monster spring training and is entering into a veteran-laden rotation in the outfield.
Are two or three starts per week enough to keep him on his game and continue his development? Is he patient enough at the plate or will he swing his way into a slump?
Esmailin Caridad has taken over as a setup man in Angel Guzman's absence.
Is the hard-throwing 5'10" righty an injury risk with his arm at that size? Will he be able to handle the eighth inning in close games?
James Russell has pitched well in both the spring and in the action so far in the regular season.
Can he keep up this sort of production? Could he step in for Grabow on a regular basis if the situation presented itself?
And, of course, there's Starlin Castro.
Is he as good as all the hype? Can he handle big league pitchers now or will he be mostly a defensive asset this year? When can we expect him to get the call?
At some point this season, the Cubs are going to be leaning on each one of these guys. I know it.
What we do not know is how they will perform.
8. Will the rotation hold up?
In 2009, exactly one pitcher reached the 200 inning mark for the Cubs, and that was Ryan Dempster.
Each of the other pitchers had some circumstance that kept them from compiling that many innings.
Knee problems kept Ted Lilly from reaching the mark; hamstring, back, and suspension issues sidelined Carlos Zambrano; Rich Harden was having problems with his back and shoulder; and Randy Wells was in Triple-A for all of April.
Even Dempster missed some time after trying to hop the dugout railing and breaking his toe.
Those five pitchers combined for 852.2 (58%) of the Cubs total 1458.1 innings pitched last year. The four that remain with the team had 711.2 (49%) of those innings.
Obviously, since he is starting the season on a rehab assignment, Ted Lilly is already going to be behind on his innings this year.
With a bullpen as unproven and inexperienced as this one (something I'll get back to later), the ability of the starters to eat innings will be a huge part of the success or failure of this team.
If these four pitchers can perform well enough to go deep into games and stay healthy enough to do so on a fairly regular basis, then the Cubs could avoid overexposing the younger members of their bullpen and their eventual fifth starter.
Both Zambrano and Dempster have gone over 200 innings multiple times in their careers and have had some very solid seasons while doing so.
Lilly has also posted a few solid seasons, but he has only passed the mark twice. Although both of those seasons came recently (2007 and 2008), he will surely not reach it this year due to his late start.
Wells totaled nearly 200 innings between Triple-A and the major leagues last year during a great rookie season, but is not as established as the other three.
It's completely possible that all four of them could hold up and have successful seasons, but Cubs fans know the difference between what could happen and what will happen.
Of course, that brings up another question...
7. Will Carlos Zambrano be calmer AND more effective?
Carlos Zambrano is a fairly intense player.
In related news, water is wet and the pope is Christian.
I have heard a lot of conversations about this topic (Zambrano's temperament, not water or the pope) and there seems to be a basic dichotomy among Cubs fans.
The first camp believes that his intensity is the essence of what made him into the Cubs ace. Although his actions may be taking a good amount of energy, it is better to have someone who is that passionate about his craft than it is to have an emotionless robot of a player sucking the energy out of everyone around him.
The second camp believes that his tirades are a tired act, wasting energy that could be better spent on getting hitters out.
Zambrano has commented this spring that he has matured and will be more composed, so he at least recognizes the case made by the latter group.
But we're still left with two questions.
First, will Zambrano be able to maintain his composure?
Second, will an increase in composure translate into a decrease in intensity and, by extension, performance?
Obviously, it is possible to have a calm intensity. Many very successful pitchers have that exact demeanor about them.
The question basically boils down to whether or not it's in his makeup. Is that really a style that Zambrano can pull off?
6. In case of an injury, are the backup plans sufficient?
The bench consists of five players: Koyie Hill, Jeff Baker, Chad Tracy, Tyler Colvin, and Xavier Nady.
Hill is a catcher, Baker can play second or third, Tracy can play third or first, Colvin can play all three outfield positions, and Nady's recovery from Tommy John surgery will likely limit him to left field.
If the situation arises, their potential positions could be stretched a little further.
Hill has limited experience at each corner position; Baker has some in left field, right field, and at first base; Tracy has some in left and right field; and Xavier Nady might be able to play first base in a pinch.
To back up Ryan Theriot at shortstop, the plan is currently to move Mike Fontenot from second to short and to install Baker at the keystone.
Each of these players has shown promise offensively at some point in the not-so-distant past.
Tracy and Nady are easily the two most accomplished hitters of the group, both having shown the ability to hit for a good average and 20 or more homers in a starting role in the big leagues.
Baker has had a very successful minor league career offensively, but had his only significant major league success in his 224 plate appearances with the Cubs last season.
Colvin has put up some solid numbers in the minor leagues, but really turned heads in spring training this year.
Hill has had some success offensively in the minor leagues, but has never translated that to the larger stage of the big leagues.
With the exception of Tyler Colvin, none of these players are a defensive upgrade over any of the players they could end up replacing.
Although defensive replacements could come in the form of Starlin Castro, Sam Fuld, or Darwin Barney; adding Castro or Barney would require an extra roster move to make room for them on the 40-man roster.
Although the bench could end up being a very solid group of offensive replacements, there is still enough doubt with each of them that they could disappoint.
Hopefully this question won't even be tested, but if it is, we'll just have to wait and see.
5. Will the offense bounce back?
A huge part of the problem for the Cubs in 2009 was the lack of offense in what was supposed to be a stacked lineup.
The team as a whole finished 26th in batting average, 16th in on base percentage, 19th in slugging percentage, and 22nd in runs scored.
Kosuke Fukudome hit .259, Alfonso Soriano hit .241, Mike Fontenot hit .236, Geovany Soto hit .218, and Milton Bradley hit .257.
Where the problem may lie for 2010 is that the lineup remains largely unchanged.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. After all, it is quite possible that Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella are right in thinking that 2009 was simply a season of offensive underperformance by most of the lineup.
If so, the guys just need to bounce back to the levels that their capable of performing at and have performed at in the past.
This spring, the first four of the previously listed players hit .259, .259, .355, and .216, respectively.
Marlon Byrd, Tyler Colvin, and Xavier Nady, all of whom are replacing Bradley to some extent, hit .302, .468, and .176 this spring.
Although spring training stats aren't always indicative of true progression (or regression), they might provide some insight into which way the players are trending up to this point.
As you can tell, most of the averages are an improvement over last season, with only a few staying the same or regressing.
If Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez perform like they did last year stay healthy the whole season, the rest of the division will be sweating.
In truth, the entire offense could see a sizable surge in production if everyone else were to improve slightly and these two were to stay healthy all season.
Maybe there's hope or maybe I'm building a false sense of security.
Only time will tell which way is true.
4. What impact will Alfonso Soriano have?
Cubs fans have seen what Alfonso Soriano is capable of doing.
One moment the seven-time All-Star is hitting a clutch double or home run, and the next he's overrunning a fly ball or swinging at pitches in the other batter's box.
When he is on a hot streak, he is one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. When he goes cold at the plate, he doesn't seem to offer anything of any value to the team.
His knee problems have cost him what was once 40 steals worth of speed and good range in the outfield.
His arm is still strong and can keep runners from advancing after a hit, but it would be a lot better if he could reach more balls before they landed.
At best, he has been an unreliable outfielder.
But he did not just struggle in the field last season. His average dropped, he was not driving the ball with any regularity, and he was not pushing runs across the plate.
This offseason he had knee surgery and the Cubs hired Rudy Jaramillo, Soriano's former hitting coach with the Texas Rangers.
Right now, he claims that his legs feel very good. If that is true, maybe he will not struggle as much in left field this year.
If working with Jaramillo could get him back on track, maybe he could find something similar to his old levels of production once again, too.
Of course, now that he's hitting in the more RBI-friendly slot of sixth in the lineup, his chances of making an impact might have increased slightly over his old days in the leadoff spot.
This is just another case to wait on and see what happens.
3. What's the deal with the bullpen?
If you had to pick one part of the 2009 team that caused the most frustration, it would most likely be the bullpen.
Fortunately, this is the one part of the club that saw the most turnover.
Now it is a much younger looking group, filled with the potential to do good things. It is just hard to say that you can really count on any of these guys.
Sean Marshall and Jeff Samardzija will be coming out of the ‘pen to begin the season, though they might join the rotation at any time.
Marshall has done it all for the Cubs for the last four years and up to this point in the early goings of the year as well. In fact, he may very well cement his place as the fifth starter at some point before the All-Star break.
While his having success in the rotation would obviously be a good thing, it would also mean possibly losing the only dependable arm in the bullpen.
This is nothing against the other pitchers. I am just not completely sure what we can expect out of them.
Samardzija does not have a very extensive history in the big leagues, but the time he spent with the big league team last season was not the most successful stint he could have had.
Right now, fans are just hoping to once again see the promise that he showed in 2008.
Justin Berg and Esmailin Caridad were both successful with the Cubs last year and in spring training this year, but the sample size has been fairly small. We do not know if they can sustain what they've been doing yet.
James Russell falls into a similar boat. The only difference between him, Berg, and Caridad is that the latter two had regular season big league experience coming into this year.
Grabow is not bad, but he walks a few too many batters for me to be completely comfortable.
And then there’s the closer…
2. Which version of Carlos Marmol will show up?
The Cubs could really use a good season out of Carlos Marmol this year.
If he could be anything near the pitcher that wowed us in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs would have a huge burden lifted off of their shoulders.
If, on the other hand, he proves to be the pitcher that hit 12 batters in 74 innings last season, the club could be in big trouble.
There really is not much more to say about this.
When he is on and getting hitters swinging, he is nearly unhittable.
It is just that a team simply cannot succeed with a closer who puts runners on base at the rate that Carlos does at times.
This spring had its ups and downs for Marmol, but he finished with this line: 12.1 innings, seven hits, five earned runs, two home runs, three hit batsmen, seven walks, and 20 strikeouts.
I honestly have no idea what the future holds, I am just glad that I do not have to face him.
1. Is this year finally
You had to see this one coming.
It has been over a century since the last time they won the World Series and 65 years have passed since they last made it to one.
Black cats and billy goats. Steve Garvey. Leon Durham.
After this year, will all that be left behind us?
After this year, will Anno Catuli reset to zeroes?
After this year, will Cubs fans be "lovable winners?"
After this year, will Bartman just be Bart Simpson's alter ego?
After this year, will the words "next year" conjure up thoughts of a repeat?
Has "next year" finally come?