Back in The Mix: Why The Chicago Cubs Can Compete in The NL Central in 2011

Randy HoltContributor IJanuary 4, 2011

CHICAGO - JUNE 30: Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs hits the ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on June 30, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Pirates defeated the Cubs 2-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There's no way to sugar coat it—the Chicago Cubs had a terrible year in 2010. Their stars disappeared for long stretches, the bullpen was a disaster, and their manager was mentally out of it before the season even started. In fact, 2010 was so bad that many Cubs fans are already pulling the plug on the 2011 campaign.

Don't throw in the towel just yet. While they may not be ready for the big time, this slightly improved Cubs squad might just surprise you in 2011.

Heading into the winter of 2010, Jim Hendry had a laundry list of things that Cubs fans would have liked him to do. Trade Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Carlos Zambrano. Trade for Matt Garza. Hire Ryne Sandberg. Hendry didn't do any of that. Instead, Cubs fans welcomed back Kerry Wood and shook their heads collectively at the signing of Carlos Pena.

On paper, this is a team that can compete with the best of them, offensively. The biggest key for the Cubs in their order will be Alfonso Soriano. While he spent the majority of the 2010 campaign healthy, unlike the previous two seasons, Soriano's .258 average was nothing to write home about. Even bringing that average up to .270 will do wonders for the left fielder in 2011.

The two big boppers are again at the corners of the infield for the Cubs, though Carlos Pena has replaced the long-tenured Derek Lee at first. For Pena and Aramis Ramirez, the biggest concern, even more than Pena's .196 batting average, is health. Ramirez spent much of the season nagged by injuries, resulting in spending much of the season below the Mendoza line. When he was finally healthy, Ramirez scorched through the summer months and brought that average back up to .241 and still knocked in over 80 runs.

For Pena, that below-.200 average may not be as much of a concern as many have made it out to be. If Pena can stay healthy, he's good for at least 30 big flies and somewhere near 100 RBIs. The former Ray should be a revelation from the left side of the plate, something the Cubs have lacked greatly in recent years. It's hard to believe his batting average will remain as low as it has been in the past couple of years with Rudy Jaramillo as the Cubs' hitting coach.

Even the Cubs' complementary bats are better than you will find on many teams throughout the league. Jaramillo's hiring may not have helped a hitter more than it helped catcher Geovany Soto. After a dreadful sophomore slump, Soto returned to his torrid rookie numbers, reaching the .280 mark and hitting 17 homers, despite playing in just 105 games. 

In Marlon Byrd and Starlin Castro, Chicago has a pair of players that are capable of hitting almost anywhere in the order. Byrd, the Cubs' lone All Star, hit .293 and drove in 66 runs while hitting in nearly every spot in the order. If Castro can avoid a sophomore slump, he should be able to build on his .300 average and 41 RBIs.

An improved bench should also help Chicago. While they still lack a quality backup behind the dish, Darwin Barney and Jeff Baker proved last year that they can be solid backups, at least defensively, on the infield. The big bat off the bench will most likely be Tyler Colvin. Despite putting up Rookie of the Year-type numbers, Kosuke Fukudome is still expected to be ahead of Colvin on the depth chart, mostly due to salary. If he makes the squad in the spring, fan favorite Sam Fuld will also provide nice outfield defense off the bench.

If the offense can remain healthy, they are going to put up runs. That leaves pitching as a major concern. And by pitching, I mean the bullpen.

The starting staff isn't so much of a concern. Ted Lilly is gone, but Tom Gorzelanny is the steady lefty in the rotation. Carlos Zambrano put up mind blowing numbers in the second half last season, going 8-0 and and ERA under two. Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells are consistent, though not spectacular. Carlos Silva proved to be much better than advertised after being sent to Chicago for Milton Bradley.

Starting the games wasn't the problem for the Cubs in 2010; it was finishing them. Comprised of a rag-tag group of minor leaguers who may not have been ready for the big time, the Cubs never could seem to hold leads, or even get them to Carlos Marmol to close them out.

The acquisition of Kerry Wood could change all that. 

On the surface, it doesn't seem like a major move given Wood's questionable health record. However, Wood will not only provide a solid right-handed setup man for Marmol, but serve as a mentor for a very young group that lacked a veteran presence outside of Sean Marshall. While those two will make up a fantastic late-inning pairing, the rest of the bullpen is in question.

There are several candidates to fill out the remaining bullpen arms, including youngsters Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner. It's these two that Wood may be able to help out the most. For Samardzija, his confidence is the key. Wood is a guy who knows a thing or two about trying to get back into the bigs, even if it was his health and not his struggles that caused him to miss time. Cashner is entering just his second year, but is a young fireballer that could benefit greatly from Wood's presence.

Much of the Cubs' success in 2011 will come back to coaching. On paper and if healthy, they can compete with anyone in the division, even the Brewers and Zack Greinke. Mike Quade led the club to a 24-13 finish, prompting the Cubs to remove the interim tag and keep him around.

Cubs' brass must have seen something in Quade to keep him over the fans' choice, Ryne Sandberg. Despite what can only be described as a pitiful season in 2010, the Cubs have the pieces to compete in 2011.