Chicago Cubs: 5 Reasons the Cubs Can Still Contend in Wide-Open NL Central

George DarkowCorrespondent IMay 23, 2011

Chicago Cubs: 5 Reasons the Cubs Can Still Contend in Wide-Open NL Central

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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 22:  Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated by manager Mike Quade #8 after Castro scored in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox on May 22, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  Before this series, the t
    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Chicago Cubs entered the 2011 season as a team in the midst of rebuilding.  Having finished 5th in the NL Central just one year ago and traded long-time cornerstone first baseman Derrek Lee, expectations for the Cubs were slim for 2011.

    Now, a little more than a quarter into the 2011 season, there may be hope for Cubs fans after all.  At 20-25 and just 6.5 games back in a wide-open NL Central, the Cubs are—believe it or not—still in contention.  

    Here's why Cubs fans shouldn't abandon hope just yet.

A Resurgent Alfonso Soriano

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    CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: Alfonso Soriano #12 of the Chicago Cubs hits the ball against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field on May 8, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Reds defeated the Cubs 2-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Soriano may still be one of the most overpaid and under-delivering players in baseball, but the Cubs left-fielder has had one of the more productive seasons in the National League.

    Soriano's 11 home runs is tied for second in the National League, which puts him on a pace to double his home run output of 2010 (24). 

Carlos Pena, Matt Garza—Positive Attitude

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    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 25:  Carlos Pena #23 talks to Matt Garza #22 of the Tampa Bay Rays during game three of the 2008 MLB World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies on October 25, 2008 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Though both have struggled somewhat since joining the Cubs, first baseman Carlos Pena and starting pitcher Matt Garza give the Cubs vocal, positive leadership they have not had in quite some time.  

    Both players are "team guys," and regardless of their personal performance, they never place their own priorities above those of the Cubs.  

    Pena struggled during a slow start in April, where he hit a lowly .159.  In May, Pena has been much better, hitting a solid .274.  Pena's four bunt singles—all against defensive shifts—prove Pena to be a team-first asset to the Cubs.

    Garza, though just 2-4, has the lowest ERA of all Cubs starters at 3.72 and has surrendered a mere one home run in 2011.

Darwin Barney

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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 21:  Darwin Barney #15 of the Chicago Cubs scores after Carlos Pena is walked with the bases loaded in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox on May 21, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Tonight the Chicago Cubs and the
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Most casual baseball fans have most likely never heard of Darwin Barney.  Barney was nothing more than a casual September call-up in 2010.  After beating out veteran second baseman Blake Dewitt for a starting position, Barney has been a catalyst for the Cubs in 2011.  

    The high energy that Barney expends, along with intelligence and fundamental soundness makes Barney seem less like a typical Cubs prospect and more like a young Derek Jeter.

    In Barney, the Cubs appear to have a tough-as-nails player they've lacked in quite some time.

Pitching Depth

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    CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20: Carlos Marmol #49 of the Chicago Cubs pitches in the 9th inning against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field on April 20, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Padres 2-1 in 11 innings. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty I
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Though the Cubs pitching staff has been less than stellar in 2011, pitching should be an area which will naturally improve as the season progresses.  With quality starters like Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs have a rotation that is capable of sustaining winning streaks.  

    The Cubs bullpen, anchored by electric closer Carlos Marmol, has the potential to perform at a high level as well.  With veteran setup man Kerry Wood and lefty specialist Sean Marshall, the Cubs bullpen should right itself as the season moves on.  

Starlin Castro Is the Real Deal

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    DENVER, CO - APRIL 17:  Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs slides home to score against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on April 17, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Starlin Castro may go down in history as the best homegrown Cubs player of all time.  The youngest active MLB player at 21, Castro has been the Cubs' most productive hitter in 2011, as well as one of the National League's best.  

    Castro is currently in the National League top 10 in four offensive categories and is tied for the most hits in the NL with 62.