Every season Chicago Cubs fans start spring training the same way; with much anticipation and hope for a breakthrough into the promised land of postseason glory. But, in order for the Cubs to succeed this spring, summer and hopefully fall, many facets of the team must shine. Off-season acquisitions, rookies and long-time veterans must all produce for this season to be considered a successful one.
There is no doubting that this may very well be a rebuilding year for the Cubs, but they still do have many of the tools necessary to win in the National League Central. Also, from the front office to new manager Mike Quade, and the veteran leadership of Marlon Byrd, the Chicago Cubs must be a coherent and solid group from April through September, and if we are lucky, on to October as well.
Carlos Zambrano needs to prove himself after a very inconsistent 2010 season.
The Chicago Cubs starting rotation during their 2010 campaign was anything but consistent. Perceived ace, Carlos Zambrano, was moved back and forth between the bullpen and starting all while dealing with numerous anger management issues. Their best pitcher in terms of performance, Ted Lilly, was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Ryan Dempster was a solid 15-12, but was never totally in command on the bump.
This winter, the Cubs acquired starter, Matt Garza, in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. Garza is absolutely an upgrade for the rotation and he rounds out a solid "top three," along with Zambrano and Dempster. But the biggest question mark for the rotation, aside from the consistency of Zambrano, is who will fill out the starting staff?
Carlos Silva and Randy Wells are currently slotted to be the No. 4 and No. 5 starters, but Mike Quade could also opt to go with a youngster like Andrew Cashner, who showed some promise as a call-up from Triple-A Iowa last summer. He also showed some issues with his command. Overall, the Cubs should have an adequate starting rotation that will, at times, need a lot of help from their offense.
In a dismal season for Cubs outfielders last year, there is a bright side leading into 2011: as a group, they cannot really hit much worse than they did a season ago. Only Marlon Byrd had posted a batting average over .270, no outfielder had over 80 RBI and no outfielder recorded more than 90 runs scored.
This year's outfield group remains unchanged from last year with Tyler Colvin, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano.
Colvin showed promise last year. As a rookie he did flash some power with 20 home runs, but was also sidelined during September due to a freak injury where a piece of a broken bat pierced his chest while he was running from third base to home. Byrd was the Cubs' only All-Star after an impressive start to the season, but like Fukudome, he collapsed in July, August and September.
Although Alfonso Soriano hit his most home runs since 2008 with 24, he also struck out 123 times, his most since 2007. At 35, Soriano only has a few more solid seasons in him, so keeping him hitting in the sixth spot in the order will be beneficial to him and the club.
This group does show promise, but without them, the Cubs will struggle to support a pitching staff with their fair share of holes.
Aramis Ramirez's talent has never been in question, but will he be able to hit a consistent pace in 2011?
Last season, the 32-year-old third baseman hit for his lowest average since 2002. He never seemed to find a consistent rhythm last season. Although Ramirez did hit 25 home runs and 83 RBI, it was clear that he never was truly comfortable at the dish. New hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo will need to be ready to fix the former All-Star and get him back to being one of the most productive third basemen in the National League.
Even Ramirez's fielding was subpar as he committed the second-most errors on the club with 16 in 142 games. As a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, Ramirez must continue to hit runners in during clutch situations for the Cubs to be a factor in the much-improved NL Central.
The Cubs hope that Carlos Peña's left handed bat will help them continue to improve.
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays had a bounce-back year, reaching the World Series. One of their many catalysts was first baseman Carlos Peña, who hit 31 home runs and had 102 RBI. This winter he was let go by the Rays after a disappointing season in 2010 where he struck out almost 160 times. The 33-year-old first baseman was signed by the Cubs in early December to just a one-year contract. Peña, a hard worker, should play with a chip on his shoulder after being let go by the team he played so well for just two seasons prior.
After the Chicago Cubs traded away Derek Lee to the Atlanta Braves, a huge void needed to be filled at first base, Peña will hopefully be that guy. If Peña, the winner of the 2007 Comeback Player of the Year award, even comes close to his 2007 numbers (46 HR, 121 RBI and .282 AVG), the Chicago Cubs will have had one of their best free-agent signings in years. Overall, Peña should quickly develop into one of the leaders of this young team in manager Mike Quade's first full season.
Manager Mike Quade has a tough decision to make about who should lead-off for the Cubs in 2011.
As spring training for the Chicago Cubs begins in Mesa, Arizona in just a few days, manager Mike Quade has a major issue with his ball club. That issue is the lack of leadoff man. Former manager, Lou Pinella, tried Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome at the spot without much success, so it is up to Quade to find the right guy to bat first for the Cubs.
It is rumored that second-year outfielder, Tyler Colvin, or second baseman, Blake DeWitt, will get an opportunity to take over that role. But, what is more likely is that Quade goes with a strategy of "leadoff by committee." A few guys may ultimately be the collective leadoff man as the season progresses.
It does not matter who is the leadoff man, but how they produce in that role. It hasn't been since Juan Pierre that the Cubs enjoyed the virtue of a true leadoff man atop the lineup. For the most part, whoever takes over this role must be able to get on base for Carlos Peña, Marlon Byrd and Aramis Ramirez, who make up the middle of the lineup.
There is little doubt that the Chicago Cubs will look different this season after the losses of many of their key pieces, such as Ryan Theriot, Ted Lilly and Derek Lee. But in this, a transitional year, Cubs fans should learn a lot about their team going forward. Geovanny Soto, Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin make up a young, talented nucleus that should grow and mature together as they lead the Cubs into the future. The biggest thing about this group is that they are all very humble and enjoy being out on the field every day.
The hiring of interim manager Mike Quade was a great move by Jim Hendry and the Cubs because he was well liked by the players, but is not a pushover like former manager Dusty Baker. Quade is not afraid to use his managerial powers to instill responsibility in the clubhouse.
Overall, the Cubs should probably exceed expectations this year and surprise some teams in the National League and maybe make a run at the playoffs. And who knows, this may even be our year.