Race to the Top: 5 Keys for the Cubs to Win the NL Central
Last week I wrote about my hope for the 2011 Cubs. For the first time in a long time, I look at the Cubs organization and see reasons to be optimistic about their short and long-term future.
Almost immediately after posting that story to Facebook, I got a message from one of my college buddies—and fellow long-suffering Cubs fan—that was, uh, not so optimistic. He stopped short of calling me a total idiot, but did suggest rather strongly that I needed to immediately go outside, turn around three times and spit.
It’s not that he thought I was an idiot for being hopeful, just for saying it publicly.
This is how most Cubs fans are wired. They are like that girl in high school who had her heart broken one too many times and overreacts at even the smallest male indiscretion. Everyone understands, but no one wants to be the next person to cross her.
Logic says I should be more guarded like my college buddy, but for me, hope springs eternal.
They won’t be on anyone’s list of favorites this season, but I think the Cubs can win the NL Central.
Here are five things that will help get the Cubs back on top.
Consistency from the Front End of the Rotation
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The Cubs starting rotation is the topic of much disagreement among baseball analysts. Absent a genuine ace on staff, the Cubs will rely heavily on Ryan Dempster and Carols Zambrano to deliver solid performances all season.
Dempster won’t overwhelm opposing lineups, but does a good job managing games, sticking to his strengths and getting out of jams. As long as he can stay healthy, look for him to best his wins total (15) and ERA (3.85) from last season.
With Zambrano, it’s hard to predict who you’re going to get from day-to-day. 2010 was a roller coaster ride for big Z, and the Cubs need him stay on the path that helped him finish last season 8-0 with eight quality starts. Although 15-18 wins isn’t out of the question, he will have to keep his emotions in check and his head in the game.
Looking at the rest of the rotation, the questions abound. Matt Garza was shaky all spring, but delivered a 12-strikeout win in his first start of the season. Randy Wells was average at best last season, and can’t be counted on to deliver more than 10-12 wins. Andrew Cashner is a first-year starter, and thus a bit of a wild card.
I think Garza will benefit greatly from moving out of the AL East, and could be in line for a breakout season, but this is a pitching staff that will need a lot out of Dempster and Zambrano for the Cubs to be in the division hunt.
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Staying healthy is important for every time this time of year, but for this Cubs team, it is especially true.
Aramis Ramirez fought injuries last season, but hit the ball well when he was in the lineup. The Cubs need him to come back strong this year and drive in 100 runs from the No. 4 spot.
I love that Mike Quade seems committed to using his bench in ways that Lou Piniella never did. It’s important for guys like Tyler Colvin, Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker to see consistent action early so they can step in and fill a need if an injury occurs.
But without a ton of depth on the bench and in the rotation, the Cubs need to stay healthy to contend.
A Big Season from Alfonso Soriano
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When the Cubs signed Soriano before the 2007 season, I remember thinking that surely he was the missing ingredient for the Cubs’ World Series chances.
Obviously, that hasn’t happened.
Soriano has been brilliant at times, but his streakiness at the plate and sub-par play in the field have made him a player many Cubs fans love to hate.
He’s gotten off to a hot start this season with two HR’s in the Cubs’ first four games, but he needs to prove that he can hit the ball consistently to be moved up in the order.
If not, he will continue to be a $136 million disappointment.
Production from the Young Players
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The one storyline for the Cubs that everyone wants to talk about so far this season is the emergence and potential of youngsters Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney.
Castro is a star in the making, and has been drawing comparisons to a young Hanley Ramirez. He is a versatile hitter from the leadoff or No. 2 spot, and has shown pop in his bat early this season. When you combine his age, speed and hitting ability I think it’s safe to say that the Cubs may have hit the jackpot.
He needs to tighten up his defense, but has incredible range at shortstop and will be a cornerstone of the Cubs’ roster for years to come.
It’s still unclear how exactly Mike Quade plans to use Darwin Barney, but the young 2nd baseman has huge upside potential. His glove is incredible, and if he can get his bat to catch up, he’ll be an everyday starter.
For now, it looks like he will split time with Jeff Baker, with Blake DeWitt seeing some action as well. There is no doubt that his season will be filled with ups and downs, but He could be a major upgrade for the future at 2nd base.
If the Cubs can get the kind of production they are hoping for out of Castro, and maybe a surprise or two from Barney, their lineup will give headaches to opposing pitchers.
A Great Season from the Bullpen
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Looking at the Cubs this season, one of their obvious strengths is their bullpen. Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol are as good a closing trio as you’ll find in the majors.
Christmas came nine days early for the Cubs last year when Kerry Wood turned down several long-term deals worth more money to sign a 1-year, $1.5 million contract that brought him back to Wrigley. His experience will bring much needed stability to the bullpen, and I fully expect him to be one of the top set-up men in the league this season.
If the Cubs truly want to contend in the NL Central this year, they need Carlos Marmol to be great. He control problems have already reared their ugly head this season, and he needs to eliminate the early 9th inning walk from his repertoire.
When he is on, however, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. His slider, maybe the most unhittable pitch this side of Mariano Rivera, is the stuff dreams are made of. He used it last season to set a K’s per nine-inning ratio of 16, the all-time record.
The key for Marmol this season will be his ability to use his fastball effectively to set up the slider. There is no doubt he is a special talent, and if he has a strong season, the Cubs can win 90 games and contend for the NL Central title.