Chicago Cubs "Iffy" Proposition: 10 "ifs" To a Cubs Division Title
I would love for nothing more than to be able to tell you that the Cubs are going to win the NL Central this season, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But that just isn't the case, of course.
Forget about the way the team finished last season for none of that matters, nor does it carry over into this season. Still, there is something gnawing at me that tells me this division is very winnable, despite the miserable 2010 season.
For one thing, Sweet Lou is no longer asleep at the wheel, and we have a manager who actually wants to do this and is even somewhat lucid.
For another, the moves made this offseason weren't bad, considering the limited funds that Jim Hendry had to work with.
Look, no one expects the Cubs to win anything this year, which is exactly why they just might. Flying under the radar may just be the best place for this team to be.
But, there are a few "ifs" that need to come true for a winning season.
"IF" Aramis Ramirez Is Healthy & Productive
As has been the case much of the time since he's been here, as Ramirez goes, so goes the offense. We used to say that about Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee but last year showed us just how valuable a healthy and productive A-Ram is to this lineup.
The problem is, not only was Ramirez hurt last year, but he also wasn't very good.
Another .294 OBP just won't cut it, Cubs fans. Sure, he came back to hit 25 homers, but his defense was awful and there is no certainty he will be healthy.
When Ramirez decided to stay with the team, bypassing a potential opt-out clause, I'll bet Hendry was both relieved and concerned at the same time.
While we need his bat, if it's better than 2010 that is, he is making $14.6 million this year.
Perhaps he knows he will be a free agent after the season, with the Cubs unlikely to pick up his $16 million club option, so he will be motivated to stay on the field and hit like he can.
A big "if" but probably less iffy than this next guy...
"IF" Kerry Wood Can Stay Off The Disabled List
Kerry Wood was a solid pickup on a one-year deal, as his presence in the clubhouse and set-up abilities combined with Carlos Marmol, would effectively shut down the eighth and ninth innings.
But we know he won't stay healthy for long. It is inevitable that another trip to the DL is in the offing. After all, Wood has been on the DL 14 times in his 13 year career.
But hopefully, this year's stint will be short, for if he can stay healthy (there's that "if" again) the bullpen should be much improved. The bullpen was a huge sore spot for the Cubs last year. Hell, it was an open wound.
But with Sean Marshall, Wood and Marmol, the Cubs have three fine arms in the pen for 2011.
As for the rotation, maybe the biggest "if" of all is this next guy.
"IF" Carlos Zambrano Doesn't Have Another Melt Down
There are so many "if"s with Zambrano that it takes up two slides. This one focuses on his ability to stay out of trouble.
No need to rehash everything that happened last year, it is well chronicled. But it is still a concern, especially when the man himself testily refuses to answer questions about it at the Cubs convention.
Is he on medication? Is he seeking counseling? Is he still an angry, immature time bomb ready to explode, or will he be the supposed changed man that everyone insisted he was when he returned from suspension?
The answers to those questions just may well be the deciding factor for the Cubs this season.
Cubs.com reports that Mike Quade wants to walk the fine line between a calm Zambrano and one whose passion seems to fuel his competitiveness on the mound.
"One thing I don't want to do is take all the passion out of Carlos Zambrano," Quade said. "If a little bit of overexcitement results in him pitching and performing well, we'll deal with that. There's no question Greg Maddux will benefit him and everybody else. But I don't want to make them roommates."
Because he not only needs to not implode, he also needs to pitch well, which brings us to the next big "if".
"IF" Big Z is the Pitcher we Saw After the Suspension
So who is the "new and improved" Carlos Zambrano? I'm talking about his ability on the mound, not his mindset.
We covered what Big Z needs to do with his emotions, but more than anything, he needs to earn his massive paycheck and pitch like a man.
He struggled a lot before the suspension, although the idiotic idea to put him in the bullpen probably would have set me off as well.
After he came back, he pitched like the "Z" of old. Zambrano went 8-0 with a 1.58 ERA after pitching to a 5.66 ERA prior to the incident.
Sample sizes can be deceiving but if he can pitch more like the 8-0 guy than the pre-meltdown one, the Cubs top three of Zambrano, Garza, and Dempster is pretty solid.
Personally, I have more confidence in the next "if"...
"IF" Geovany Soto Doesn't Revert Back To Sophomore Status
After a fine rookie season, Geo Soto got fat, rusted on the bench at the World Baseball Classic and smoked weed. He went on to have a miserable sophomore campaign for the Cubs, offensively and defensively.
But enter 2010 and it was a new, slimmed-down model catching for the Cubs. Soto had a great year last season, in case you didn't notice given all of the losing.
His OBP was above .400 for most of the season and his power returned. His slugging was only .07 of a percentage less than his rookie season when he hit 23 homers. Even his throwing was much improved, despite a sore shoulder.
In short, Soto was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dim year. Unless he reverts back to 2009 form, another season like last year will solidify the backstop position. It would be helpful if Soto can appear in more than 105 games.
But who will he be catching after the big three in the rotation? Well, that's the next "if".
"IF" Cubs Can Find a Fifth Starter
The Cubs foolishly traded Tom Gorzelanny, thus blowing their chance to have a lefty in the rotation. Plus, what's wrong with a little rotation depth in case of injuries?
I mean, why go after prospects when you just traded some away to get a veteran pitcher?
Hendry continues to confuse Cubs fans with his "back of the envelope" planning skills, but Gorz is not here and so the Cubs will likely go with Silva as their fifth starter, assuming Wells wins the fourth spot.
And that may spell trouble for the rotation. Forget the quick start from last year, this portly belly itcher can't be counted on to be an effective starting pitcher any more than I can.
The other idea peculating around the Cubs is that they may use Andrew Cashner as a starter. But I see his future in the bullpen.
The elephant in the room, besides Silva that is, is that hefty contract. Don't think that Hendry will be in a hurry to eat that $11.5 million owed to Silva. Heck, I bet even Silva couldn't stomach that much cabbage.
Hopefully, he will only be a fifth option for the rotation. That is "if' this next guy can pitch better.
"IF" Randy Wells Can Pitch Like 2009 Again
Wells never gave us much to expect in the minors but he busted onto the scene with a very nice rookie campaign. But he followed it up with a very inconsistent year in 2010.
Wells admitted that he wasn't focused last season.
“Last year I got caught up in a lot of stuff,” Wells said Wednesday at a Cubs Caravan luncheon at Harry Caray’s restaurant. “I maybe got too big for my britches.”
Focused or not, Wells just may not be a good starting pitcher. With his talent, or lack thereof, he needs to pitch almost perfectly to be effective, and so he had better be focused and ready for 2011 or else he may be pitching in Iowa.
But even if the rotation is solid, what about the offense at the top of the order? Hey, I bet it's our next "if"!
"IF" Cubs Find a Leadoff Hitter
I already devoted an entire article to this very subject so I won't go into a lot of detail. Suffice to say, a true leadoff hitter does not exist as the Cubs are constituted today.
Unless they get away from their love of Blake DeWitt, and go out and acquire a second baseman with on-base skills, there really is no one who has all the attributes that you would want in a leadoff hitter.
Speed is nice but above all, you need someone with a high OBP.
So who are the Cubs with the highest OBP from last year? Here they are:
Geo Soto .393
Kosuke Fukudome .371
Starlin Castro .347
Marlon Byrd .346
Soto won't bat leadoff to save his legs, so it may be Fukudome. The only problem there is that he may not even start in right field. Tyler Colvin and his .316 OBP may be the guy.
No help there. But speaking of "help," the Cubs are expecting lots of it from this next guy.
"IF" Carlos Pena Can Top The Mendoza Line
The new Cubs first baseman is good with the leather, but he'll have to do better than a .196 batting average in 2011 if he's going to help this team. He did draw 87 walks, however, and since OBP is more important than batting average, his offense was on a par withe the man he replaced, Derrek Lee (.335 OBP vs .325).
While he did hit 28 homers, his slugging percentage (.407) was his lowest mark of his career. But just one year before, he slugged .537 and two years prior to that slugged an other-worldly .627.
A one year, make-good contract was a good gamble by Hendry, even if he overpaid Pena. "If" he can return to form, his lefty power bat would be a welcome addition to the lineup.
But while Pena is a good defensive first baseman, there is a more critical defensive spot on the diamond and this next guy just happens to man that position. He's the final "if" in this slideshow.
"IF" Starlin Castro Improves His Defense
He showed good range at times, and has a strong arm, but you expect as he matures the errors will decrease. After all, he played 2010 at the tender age of 20.
And while defense can't be determined by errors, here's what the very respected FanGraphs site (Joe Pawlikowski) had to say about Castro's defense:
"In terms of range he had plenty of positive value, 6.5 runs above average. But his 27 errors ranked second in the Majors, and amounted to -9.5, or nearly a full win. He has a history of this, too, as he made 39 errors between two minor-league levels in 2009. Still, he was just 20 last year, and we saw another 20-year-old shortstop, Elvis Andrus, make a bunch of errors and then improve the next season.
But -9.5 runs? That’s pretty brutal for any age."
So a move to second base may eventually be necessary for Starlin, but for this season we need to hope for less mistakes from the kid. "If" the Cubs are going to contend, that is.