Chicago Cubs: 10 Reasons for Cautious Optimism in 2011

Bob Warja@@bobwarjaSenior Writer IMarch 27, 2011

Chicago Cubs: 10 Reasons for Cautious Optimism in 2011

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    I know I've hardly been a beacon glowing in the otherwise dark night of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, you might say I'm much more of a realist than most Cubs fans.

    Still, always looking at the grim realities can become downright boring and so, in an attempt to liven up my day, allow me to put on the ol' rose-colored glasses and search out reasons to be hopeful that 2011 will be a better year than 2010 for us Cubs fans.

    For one, it can't be much worse. Sure, the season ended with a nice stretch run following the long overdue goodbye to Sweet Lou, but we all know that was too little, too late to save a dismal season.

    But I truly feel that GM Jim Hendry, who would be collecting unemployment if I owned the team, did a pretty fair job this winter given what he had to work with. Now, most of the limitations in terms of payroll were the result of his own previously bad decisions, but at least he did the best he could at saving face.

    Meanwhile, it also doesn't hurt that the division is there for the taking, with the most improved team, Milwaukee, struggling with injuries to their two new starters. Meanwhile, the Cards missing their ace for the season and the Reds also facing some injuries.

    So let's take a look at the top 10 reasons why this could be a surprisingly good season for the Cubs.  

10. Less Pressure

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    The Cubs no longer face the pressure of being the favorites in the division. The team seems to react better that way.

    Without the stress of being expected to win, things seem looser and hopefully that will translate into better results. Carlos Silva seems to be as good as gone and so his mini-meltdown will no longer continue, while Zambrano seems happier.

    The mood around the team is much more positive with Quade than with Piniella and the team seems to react better to his leadership. The communication is better and so is the level of optimism.

9. Ron Santo Is Rooting from Above

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    MIAMI - OCTOBER 10:  Kerry Wood #34 of the Chicago Cubs watches game three of the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins from the dugout as a uniform of Cub great Ron Santo #10 hangs beside him on October 10, 2003 at Pro Player St
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Alright, so the death of Harry Carey didn't do anything to help the Cubs win, but here's hoping the passing of Ron Santo means that he has some influence wherever he may be.

    There was no greater Cubs fan and it's easy to imagine Santo bugging the Good Lord to finally give Cubs fans a winner.

    If not, at least Starlin Castro can legally drink now so he can help us drown our sorrows!

8. Continued Maturation of Youth

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    SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 01:  Infielder Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs throws to first base attempting to turn a double play during the spring training game against the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium on March 1, 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizo
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Cubs traded away much of their top young talent to acquire Matt Garza, but plenty of younger players still dot the Cubs landscape.

    Starlin Castro is no longer a rookie and hopefully, will continue to get better. Offensively, he hit .300 last season but could learn to improve on his pitch recognition and take a few more walks, while defensively, he will hopefully cut down on his errors. Some additional power may be coming, too.

    Meanwhile, Darwin Barney could become a somewhat useful utility player with some much-needed speed. And, if Tyler Colvin proves his doubters wrong and does develop into an everyday player, his left-handed power will be a bright spot—if he can get playing time, that is.

    Andrew Cashner may not appear ready, but he is the team's fifth starter to open the season and if nothing else, would be a useful part in the bullpen if he fails as a starter. The team also has Chris Carpenter (no, not the Cardinals' ace), Casey Coleman and Trey McNutt waiting in the minors.

7. Injuries to Key Division Rivals

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    DENVER - SEPTEMBER 26:  Starting pitcher Adam Wainright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 26, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. Wainright earned the win as the Cardinals clinched the National League C
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Milwaukee Brewers went out and added two very solid starters over the winter in Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Greinke, we all know from his Cy Young days and Marcum is the more underrated of the two, yet still key.

    But both are hurting. Marcum is expected to start the season, but shoulder injuries are always tough. Meanwhile, Greinke is on the DL and may not be available until the end of April at the earliest.

    The Cardinals, too, are without one of their top pitchers. Adam Wainright is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

    The division champion Reds are also not without their share of pitching hurts. Bronson Arroyo has monoand while it won't keep him down for long, it can often take up to two months to fully regain strength.  

    Meanwhile, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto will both start the season on the DL.

    Maybe if the Cubs can just stay healthy it will be enough to win this division.

6. Kerry Wood Is Back!

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    MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 22:  Kerry Wood #34 of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait during media photo day at Finch Park on February 22, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The only reason I didn't rate this one higher on the optimism scale is that you just can't expect Kerry Wood to stay healthy all season.

    Yet the addition of Wood gives the Cubs a very good chance of victory if they lead going into the seventh inning. Because starting in the seventh, the trio of Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol is tough to beat.

5. A Wide-Awake Mike Quade Instead of a Sleepy Lou

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    SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 01:  Manager Mike Quade of the Chicago Cubs looks on during the spring training game against the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium on March 1, 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Lou Piniella was a big letdown as a manager in his time as a Cub, much in the same way Dusty Baker was a fraud when he managed the team. Perhaps all managers are blamed too much when they lose and given too much credit when they win, but in this case it was apparent that it was time for the Cubs to make a change.

    Sure, the Cubs won consecutive division titles for the first time ever under Piniella's tutelage, but they also failed to win a single playoff game.

    Meanwhile, Mike Quade has also never won a playoff game as a Cubs manager, but he's certainly paid his dues as a minor league manager and major league coach.

    I like what I saw from Quade last season, though I'm smart enough to recognize that the team had no pressure and was playing out the string. Still, he does seem willing to sit players at times and so far this spring, has taken younger players like Andrew Cashner and Darwin Barney over more established vets.

    Quade can't do anything about having Alfonso Soriano another four years. but here's hoping he sits his butt down when he needs to, unlike his predecessor.

    New blood can be good—and in this case, it may make the Cubs' heart started pumping again.  

4. A Kinder, Gentler Carlos Zambrano?

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    MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 22:  (EDITORS NOTE : THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN DIGITALLY DESATURATED.)  Carlos Zambrano #38 of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait during media photo day at Finch Park on February 22, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Image
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    I don't put much stock in the concept of momentum, especially from one season to another, so I realize that Big Z's performance after his return from the psychiatrist's couch last season doesn't guarantee success this year.

    Still, if Zambrano can pitch more like that guy, then the Cubs top three in the rotation will be as solid as almost anyone in the game (the Phillies not-withstanding).

    Zambrano seems to have learned that control of his temper is the key to maintaining poise on the mound, though it remains to be seen if that was an act or if there was truly any real change. But he also appears to have discovered that he doesn't have to throw hard to be successful.

    He gets a new start with Quade and pitching coach Mark Riggins, so we'll hope for the best. Remember, our glass is half full!

3. A Resurgent Carlos Pena

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    MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 22:  Carlos Pena of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait during media photo day at Finch Park on February 22, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Sure, Hendry overpaid for new Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena. But at least it was only for one season. Meanwhile, that one-season contract is good reason alone to expect a turnaround season for Pena.

    Last year, Pena hit only .196. Now, that could signal the start of a decline phase and since Pena will turn 33 in May, this conclusion would not be at all far-fetched.

    But optimists will point to Pena's batting-average-on-balls-in-play (BABIP) in 2010 of .222, which was 57 points below his career average. It also was the second-lowest BABIP in MLB last season.

    So his luck figures to change. But so does a return to normalcy of hitting more fly balls as opposed to ground balls. Last year, Pena hit more balls on the ground last season than he did in the air, the first time that has happened in his career.

    More fly balls, especially in Wrigley Field, could (and I repeat: could) lead to more balls leaving the yard.

    Nothing is certain, but all signs point to a resurgence for Pena and that would mean a lot for the Cubs in 2011.

2. A Healthy Aramis Ramirez

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    MESA, AZ - MARCH 09:  Aramis Ramirez #16 of the Chicago Cubs swings at a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the spring training baseball game at HoHoKam Stadium on March 9, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    There is no question that through the years, the Cubs offense goes as Aramis Ramirez goes. And last season was awful for the Cubs third baseman, especially in the first half of the season.

    Ramirez was bad offensively, with an OBP of .294 and he was terrible defensively. If he is healthy, that should help both phases of his game.

    Another reason for optimism is that he knows the Cubs are unlikely to pick up his option for next season unless he has a good year. He has financial incentive to perform better in 2011.

1. Matt Garza Moving to the Weaker NL

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    MESA, AZ - MARCH 09:  Matt Garza #17 pitcher of the Chicago Cubs throws a ptich against the Kansas City Royals during the spring training baseball game at HoHoKam Stadium on March 9, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Forget about Matt Garza having a bad spring, those stats don't really matter. What does matter is that this is a guy who has pitched well against two of the best teams in baseball—Red Sox and Yankees—and in the toughest division in baseball.

    Look at pitchers like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and how well they pitched when they came over form the stronger AL into the NL. Now Garza isn't quite in their class as a pitcher, but you get the feeling that he could be better this year than he has been in his career.

    Meanwhile, it hasn't been a bad career up to this point. They say he's emotional and that concerns Cubs fans thinking that we may have another Carlos Zambrano on our hands. But this is a guy who has won a game seven in the ALCS.

    Sure, it cost a lot in terms of young talent, but don't forget that Garza is only 27 himself.