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How will the new regime affect the North siders in 2011?
A day after the Cubs' 2010 season ended, Carlos Zambrano was leaving Wrigley Field when his car crashed into a garbage truck. It was that kind of season for the controversial pitcher — and the club — from Opening Day, when he gave up eight runs in 1.1 innings of work in a 16–5 loss to Atlanta.
It was a season of big expectations, and when it was over, manager Lou Piniella, first baseman Derrek Lee, left-handed pitcher Ted Lilly and infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot were gone. During the offseason, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who had been with the team since the 2002 campaign, bolted for the Yankees, and legendary broadcaster and former Cubs third baseman Ron Santo died. So on and off the field, 2011 will have some new faces in key places, starting with manager Mike Quade, who had a 24–13 record with the team after Piniella went 51–74.
Few believe that the Cubs will be able to capitalize on that hot finish and dominate in 2011. It’s not a rebuilding year in Chicago, but there are so many more questions than answers at this point that it’s hard to call the team a contender.
Zambrano becomes the X-factor among a question mark-filled starting five. He was the Opening Day starter for a franchise-record sixth year in a row, was demoted to the bullpen by late April, had what seems like his annual dugout outburst, was suspended by the team, entered anger management training and came back to dominate long after the Cubs were out of contention. If he continues to pitch the way he did toward the end of the season (8–0, 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts), the Cubs could be in decent shape. The Cubs acquired another volatile hurler in Matt Garza from Tampa Bay in January. Garza won 15 games — including a no-hitter against Detroit — last year, and the Cubs wanted him so badly that they parted with their 2010 Minor League Player of the Year (Brandon Guyer) and Pitcher of the Year (Chris Archer) as part of the deal. Ryan Dempster, who is more emotionally steady than Zambrano and Garza, has been reliable since returning to the rotation in 2008. He continuously logs 200 innings, and last year he struck out more than 200 batters for the first time since 2000. Randy Wells has had a Jekyll and Hyde career his first two seasons with the parent club. The Cubs are counting on him to rebound from an 8–14 season. Veteran Carlos Silva could head into spring training as the favorite for the fifth spot, but several young arms could challenge. Silva opened the season 8–0 last year but went 2–6 the rest of the way and was on the disabled list for cardiac evaluation in August and had elbow tendinitis in September.
Despite some wild moments with walks and hit batters, closer Carlos Marmol is one of the best in the business thanks to his ability to bail himself out with big strikeouts. But if the Cubs can’t bring leads into the ninth inning, his talents could be wasted. Former starter Kerry Wood, who struck out 20 Astros in a single game during his rookie season of 1998, is back with the club as the primary setup man and could be a closer if Marmol is injured or needs a break. Some of the better middle relievers on the roster could be eyed for starting roles. Lefthander Sean Marshall (7–5, 2.65 ERA in 80 appearances) and righthander Andrew Cashner (53 major league appearances after nine minor-league starts) will be gunning for a spot in the rotation.
Shortstop Starlin Castro burst onto the scene with six RBIs in his major league debut on May 7 and has been fun to watch ever since. On defense, some of his throws can fly all around the field, but he also has a knack for making spectacular plays and getting to hot grounders, liners and popups that seem impossible to field. Despite his major league record-breaking RBI debut, the 21-year-old Castro is not going to drive in huge amounts of runs and will likely serve as a leadoff hitter. Second baseman Blake DeWitt, who came in a trade-deadline deal for Lilly and Theriot, gives the team a solid presence, though he could share time with Darwin Barney and Jeff Baker.
Usually this is an area the Cubs don’t have to worry about. Not this season. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez has been losing some valuable time to injuries, and Lee, an anchor at first for seven years, was traded last August. Ramirez, who in the past was an RBI machine, hasn’t driven home more than 100 runs since 2008. Injuries have slowed him down, and he has averaged only 103 games in the past two seasons. The 32-year-old is in the final year of a contract and is hoping for a rebound before heading back to the free agent market. The Cubs paid $10 million this season for free agent Carlos Peña to take Lee’s spot. Peña hit just .196 for Tampa Bay in 2010 but still displayed some power with 28 homers and 84 RBIs. Critics and fans who are tired of big-ticket players underperforming believe the Cubs have once again overspent. Peña is determined to prove them wrong and wants to return to his 2007 form when he belted .282 with 46 homers and 121 RBIs.
This is Year 5 of left fielder Alfonso Soriano’s eight-year, $136 million deal. He came to the Cubs in 2007 after hitting more than 40 homers and stealing more than 40 bases for Washington the prior season. Through four years, he’s averaged 26.5 homers and 13 stolen bases. At age 35, it doesn’t appear in the cards that his offense will spike dramatically, although he has had some bursts of brilliance over the years. He lost his role as leadoff hitter and hit mostly sixth in the lineup last year, which is likely where he will spend most of his time again this season. Center fielder Marlon Byrd was the Cubs’ lone All-Star last year and has become a popular player with the fans. But he’s not a dominant hitter, and the Cubs already have a number of decent-but-not-great power hitters in the lineup. The early theory is that young Tyler Colvin will unseat Kosuke Fukudome in right. Colvin hit 20 homers in 358 at-bats, and the Cubs will likely want to see what he could do over the course of a full season.
Geovany Soto has been a puzzle. He was an All-Star as a rookie in 2008 and a bust his sophomore year. Last year was somewhere in between. He had shoulder surgery in September, and the Cubs are hoping that he can return to his rookie year form, when he hit .285 with 23 home runs.
Baker can play all over the infield and had a .333 average in 18 pinch-hit at-bats. The Cubs didn’t pay Fukudome $48 million over four years to sit on the bench, but if he loses his right field spot to Colvin, that’s where he will be. If it’s any consolation, he hit .350 in 20 pinch-hit at bats last year. Barney can be a solid middle infield reserve if he has a good spring training. The Cubs like switch-hitting veteran Koyie Hill as a backup behind the plate. In Hill’s last 10 starts, Cubs pitchers threw three shutouts. Rookie catcher Welington Castillo could also make a case to make the team.
This is the second year for owner Tom Ricketts and his family. This group has done a nice job with charity work and making improvements at Wrigley Field. But the product on the field is a work-in-progress. General manager Jim Hendry, who is on the hot seat, had brought in big-name managers Dusty Baker and Piniella with his first two hires, with mixed results. Now he is relying on Quade, a loyal and long-time member of the organization, to turn things around with a team that on paper doesn’t appear to be a powerhouse.
There are so many ‘ifs’ on this team that it’s hard to get excited about the fortunes on the North Side of town. However, there is some talent on this club. If a couple of veterans have career years or can rebound from recent slides and some of the young players emerge, the Cubs could hang around in the NL Central.