Chicago Cubs Predictions: 10 Things That Have To Go Right To End the Curse
The Cubs' 2010 season was so depressing that manager Lou Piniella retired six weeks early. No one pooped in the dugout this time around, but in all other ways the final chapter of Piniella's tenure mirrored that of Dusty Baker before him: Both men oversaw great teams their first season, equally great ones the second year, a mediocre squad for which much went wrong in their third year and a budget-saving fire sale in July of their final year after the team fell far from contention.
Hoping to break that cycle, GM Jim Hendry hired a non-celebrity manager for 2011, Mike Quade. Hendry also made several moves that could vault the team back into contention, or could do little to change the state of the organization. Only time will tell.
The Cubs have youth, upside risk at a number of positions and the chance for one of the best bullpens in Major League Baseball. Still, most pundits have them finishing third or fourth in the NL Central this season. They could certainly outperform those prognoses, and in the non-powerhouse that is the Central they could even emerge victorious. For that to happen, though, and certainly for the team to advance at all through the NL playoffs, these 10 things have to go right.
This is the fifth in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter
1. Starlin Castro Steadies Himself
Last March, the buzz about Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro (then a 19-year-old prospect whom few thought would be on the senior circuit by early May) was that his bat needed a bit more development, but that his glove was already big-league ready. He has tremendous quickness, a strong arm and quick hands on the double play.
Castro played 125 games with the Cubs after his May 7 debut, and in some senses he was a pleasant surprise: Few could have foreseen his .300/.347/.408 line with almost no adjustment period.
Defensively, though, Castro was not as advertised. His range and raw athleticism were always on display, but he committed 27 errors in three-quarters of a season. FanGraphs' UZR tells the story: Castro was 6.5 runs better than the average shortstop in terms of range and about one run better turning double plays, but his errors cost the team 9.5 runs against on average and he was a net negative defensively.
Castro may or may not become a top-shelf batter: He is an extreme line-drive and ground-ball hitter right now and his swing adjustments under Rudy Jaramillo suggest Jaramillo would like to see Castro develop along the lines of Michael Young. After the team traded Hak-Ju Lee, though, Castro will certainly be at shortstop for the foreseeable future, so his defense needs to be up to snuff. If it is, the Cubs have a budding star.
2. Matt Garza Throws His Fastball Less Often
The following is a list of the five qualifying starting pitches in baseball who threw their fastball most often in 2010:
1. Justin Masterson
2. David Price
3. Wade Davis
4. Clayton Kershaw
5. Matt Garza
Three of the top five were Tampa Bay Rays! Clearly, Tampa has an organizational pitching philosophy of extreme aggressiveness and throwing strikes with the fastball. It doesn't help that the team used offense-first rookie catcher John Jaso for much of last season behind the plate, and it doesn't hurt that all three of those pitchers throw very good fastballs with both velocity and movement.
Still, throwing the heat over seven times out of every 10 pitches (as all of these and Tigers youngster Rick Porcello did) has drawbacks. It is easy on catchers and on pitchers arms, but it also makes strikeouts much tougher to come by and can lead to more home runs.
Sure enough, Garza's biggest problems in 2010 were a drop in strikeout rate (from 8.68 to 6.60 per nine innings) and continued gopheritis (28 homers allowed).
Garza has a pair of plus breaking pitches that he under-utilized last season, as often by throwing them in non-critical situations as by throwing them too rarely altogether. The Cubs have always encouraged and developed slider pitchers well, so look for Garza to mix his pitches more effectively next season. Incidentally, Randy Wells led the Cubs by throwing his fastball 55.3 percent of the time in 2010.
3. Andrew Cashner Takes the Bull by the Horns
Reading between the lines, it seems the Cubs want Andrew Cashner to win the fifth spot in their starting rotation. If that wasn't true before Carlos Silva's ugly dugout incident last week, it certainly is now. Cashner throws a fastball that touched 100 miles per hour more than once in 2010 out of the bullpen, a changeup that has advanced on a steep curve since he was drafted in 2008 and a power slider that can be hell on right-handed hitters when he locates it well.
Cashner would likely have some growing pains, but he has an opportunity here and the Cubs need him to add a certain element of upside risk to their rotation. Randy Wells, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster are what they are: Each will be worth a solid three or four wins above replacement in 2011. For the Cubs to make a serious title run, though, Garza and Cashner need to be as good or better than that.
4. Mike Quade Uses His Depth
I wrote in the Boston Red Sox post in this series about the value of that team's offensive depth: In addition to a lineup of studs, Terry Francona can rely upon Jed Lowrie, Jason Varitek, Mike Cameron and Ryan Kalish to provide value in case of injuries or struggles.
The Cubs role players are a bit less well-known, but here is a breakdown of what Mike Quade could have with which to work:
Max Ramirez, C: If Jim Hendry ever falls out of love with the insufferably awful Koyie Hill, Ramirez (whom the team claimed off waivers over the winter) may be a solid backup option at catcher.
Jeff Baker, IF: He fields second and third base with about average aptitude, and has a .908 career OPS against left-handed pitching.
Tyler Colvin, OF: Colvin begins the season as a fourth outfielder again, but if Quade is wise enough to use him in left field against tough right-handed pitchers, the team will benefit from his skill set, which is essentially the same as that of Alfonso Soriano, but from the left side of the plate. Colvin is a ground-ball hitter while Soriano heavily favors flies, so Quade may also prefer to trot Colvin out on colder days when homers will be tough to achieve. Not only that, but Colvin should play more in the cold to keep Soriano's older and generally more fragile legs from tightening up.
Fernando Perez, OF: This is the most critical player from a managerial standpoint: Can Quade determine the right times to send in Perez as a pinch-runner and defensive sub and make use of the young outfielders blazing speed?
5. Kids Prove They Can Play
No number of breakout years from key players already on the roster can make the Cubs the class of the NL in 2011, though it certainly could propel them to a division title. To go further, though, the team needs help from its deep but not spectacular farm system. Here are five guys who make the right kind of impact:
Marquez Smith, IF: Smith is a younger and more athletic version of Baker, a good fielder at either second or third base. He has more power than Baker but is less polished all-around with the bat. He will start the season at Triple-A and will come up only if injuries to Aramis Ramirez or Baker dictate as much.
Welington Castillo, C: That the Cubs can keep Castillo in the minors without penalty or risk of losing him works against him in the battle for the backup catching role, but Castillo is a potential slugger with raw power and a good arm behind the plate.
Brett Jackson, OF: The top prospect in the organization, Jackson could be ready by mid-season if he plays well in an early audition at Double or Triple-A. This guy has the impact tools to change the face of the team the moment he arrives, with plus speed and power and good on-base skills.
Trey McNutt, RHP: McNutt is one year to the day younger than Jackson, but not that far behind him developmentally. He was a 32nd-round pick in 2009, but has already risen to the spot directly below Jackson on the team's top prospect hierarchy. It would take a lot for him to reach the big leagues in 2011, but he could be a very good arm at the back end of the rotation if Cashner lands in the bullpen, or if someone gets hurt.
Darwin Barney, 2B/SS: If the team decides they need defense up the middle for late-game substitutions or occasional days off, Barney should start the year with the parent club. Last season, he hit okay and showed a strong and sure glove at second base in limited time with the Cubs. He is a placeholder only, but could be just what a shaky infield defense needs every now and then.
6. Carlos's Control Themselves
Carlos Zambrano got the early headlines and Carlos Silva got the biggest ones, but Carlos Marmol's self-control is the most important such question for the 2011 Cubs.
Marmol is a smooth and easy-going guy off the diamond, and no risk to freak out the way Zambrano and Silva too often do. On the mound, though, he lacks command, and worse, he has more than once seemed to lose his nerve after a couple of walks or a hard-hit ball. Marmol has the best slider in recent memory and squaring him up is all but impossible, but if he could just control the pitch a bit, he would be utterly untouchable. Of course, last season he struck out nearly 16 batters per nine innings, an all-time record rate, so the Cubs will take the walks if he keeps missing bats the way he has recently.
For Zambrano's part, the worst may be over. He had a miserable time during Lou Piniella's tenure: Piniella and Zambrano were too much alike and the former mishandled the latter badly. Larry Rothschild is also gone, so Zambrano truly has a chance to start anew this season. He will not be relegated to the bullpen and Quade will not make an issue of his temper. If he has the sort of rebound season for which he seems poised, the Cubs rotation will be strong.
I do not care about Carlos Silva. That was just a part of the joke. Silva is a loser, a fat and fragile goon with a bad attitude and stuff too tepid to merit use out of the bullpen even though he is too injury-prone to start. With any luck, he will lose the battle for the fifth rotation slot and be traded or released by Opening Day.
7. Kerry Wood Proves You Can Come Home
Kerry Wood seems to be an assistant pitching coach of sorts so far this spring. He has spoken with heretofore unseen insight on pitching and some of the younger Cubs pitchers, and reportedly has worked hard with Andrew Cashner to gain the younger Texans trust, and in part wisdom.
Wood also happens to be the primary right-handed set-up man as the bullpen is currently constructed, so it sure would be nice to know he will apply some of what he has learned to pitching itself. He proved he still had it after being traded to the Yankees last summer, and returning to the team for whom he once closed and started as a middle reliever must be a bit bittersweet for Wood, but his performance in the bullpen will be crucial to the team's run prevention.
8. Geovany Soto Stays Healthy and Gets His Shot
Geovany Soto was a bust in 2006, a hot prospect in 2007, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2008, fat in 2009 and generally unfortunate in 2010. He battled injuries and organizational biases last season and managed only 387 plate appearances, despite leading all catchers in OPS. Yes, he was the best offensive catcher in baseball last season.
He struggled with shoulder and oblique problems, though. He also struggled to earn Lou Piniella's respect after a rough 2009. Piniella inexplicably and indefensibly preferred Koyie Hill, and so Hill played over Soto far too often. Soto also batted seventh or eighth in 78 of his 98 starts. He belongs fifth in the Cubs' order and should get more like 500 plate appearances from Mike Quade in 2011. If he does, his fully healthy shoulder should allow him to launch 20 homers and provide elite production from behind the plate.
9. Cardiac Cubs Get Back in Business
For a long time, the Cubs were a pitching-heavy team that played a ton of close games. That suited guys like Carlos Marmol and Aramis Ramirez just fine: They play very well in clutch situations.
Unfortunately, neither they nor anyone else got many chances to play the hero in 2010. 10 percent of the team's games were decided by 10 or more runs, and they lost 11 of those 16 contests. The pitching has to be better in 2011, especially with regard to command, and the depth lent to the bullpen by the arrivals of Kerry Wood and Matt Garza ought to help that happen. Too many times, the team seemed to quit when they fell three or four runs behind, and then it got ugly. That cannot happen again in 2011. Wood's leadership and the winning experience of Carlos Pena and Garza are key factors there.
10. Nothing Goes Wrong at U.S. Cellular Field
Two out of the past five seasons, the Cubs have won the division title. In the other three, their season began to unravel during their trip to U.S. Cellular Field to face the crosstown White Sox.
2006: The Cubs, already scuffling, misdirect their frustration by brawling with the White Sox. They gain no momentum from the altercation and go into a tailspin... but A.J. Pierzynski had this coming. As a Cubs fan, it was a great moment.
2009: Milton Bradley's frustration after a key out prompts Lou Piniella to send him home. The relationship between player and manager (between Bradley and everyone, really) is never the same. Bradley finishes the season on the restricted list.
2010: Infuriated by some very lazy defense, Carlos Zambrano goes off in the dugout after a rough first inning. Derrek Lee takes exception, becomes the Harvey Dent to Zambrano's Joker and the clubhouse chemistry stretches to its breaking point. Zambrano spends the next month of the restricted list, too, returning just 18 days before the hopeless Cubs trade Lee to Atlanta.
Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May.