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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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.