Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Chicago Cubs

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-Digger's Daily-

The "Lovable Losers" continue tacking on years to their World Series drought with no end in sight. 1908 was the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series. It also marks the last time they won a playoff series. Chicago has another dubious streak in tact. 1935 was their last 100 win season. NL Central is up for grabs. Cubs find themselves legitimate contenders as no team has a stranglehold over foes. What's in store for the 2011 Chicago Cubs?

2011 begins with a new manager, Mike Quade. Quade energized the Cubs to 24-13 record after Piniella's early departure. Players realized they were trying out for '11. Limited off season payroll options turned Chicago into shrewd buyers. 2011 fate rests squarely on starting rotation. Matt Garza jumps into the NL fray after making his bones in Tampa Bay. He joins a talented staff featuring Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva. Keep an eye on both Carlos'. Zambrano's mid-season implosion was one of many distractions within Chicago's dugout contributing to their 5th place finish. Silva already exploded during spring training. If these hot heads can't control themselves then the season's over before it begins. However, if they're able to bring A games...? There's no dominant NL Central rotation placing the Cubs back in the race. Only downside is no left handed starter.

Bullpen looks as strong as ever. Kerry Wood is back! Wood returns to Chicago by choice and for less money than others were willing to pay. He becomes set up man to flame throwing closer Carlos Marmol (138 K's in 77 IP). Sean Marshall (90 K in 78 IP) delivers darts as left handed specialist. Middle relievers will be decided by the time camp breaks.

Cubs offense has the pieces but doesn't seem to take advantage of game changing situations. Clutch performances have been lacking. Mental errors, base running gaffe's and useless strikeouts often kill key moments. LF Soriano's health held up after back to back injury plagued years. '11 presents a golden opportunity for Soriano to prove his skills haven't diminished as stats suggest. Wrigley Field is perfect for CF Marlon Byrd who will see a spike in power numbers. RF Fukudome was a star in Japan who hasn't been able to live up to hype in USA. A Japanese League career .305 hitter who routinely smacked in excess of 30 2B's, 20 HR's has been anything but clutch during three Major League Baseball seasons. Batting .259, low RBI totals, high OBA suggest Fukudome being mis-used deeper in batting order. This guy should be given a shot leading off or in the two hole. Should Soriano and Fukudome put together respectable .280 averages their contributions will go a long way towards winning close games. 32 one-run losses were the most in baseball last year.

Cubs infield sports a new look. Only 3B Aramis Ramirez returns looking for redemption after battling nagging injuries. 1B Carlos Pena takes a stab at NL baseball. Strong range and solid glove guarding the RF line. It'll be interesting to see how he handles NL pitching in a great hitters park division. His only downside is 150-170 strikeouts. Blake DeWitt (2B) and Starlin Castro (SS) form the dp combo. Add backstop Geovany Soto's name to oft injured Cubs. He's a talented ball hacker vital to run production.

Chicago's lineup needs to avoid prolonged or nagging injuries. They've endured two consecutive season's of devastating hard knocks. This lineup can be dangerous when healthy. 2011 is also a year for players to prove they've still got it. Strikeouts are game killers for the Cubs. Runners fail to advance while hitters swing wildly at dirtballs. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has his hands full teaching these guys how to hit with two strikes and/or two outs. 2B is a weak area. Baker/DeWitt platoon hasn't provided stellar D. Lineup could use another left handed bat vs a right handed pitching rich division.

Keys to Cubs success. How well can Quade manage on and off the diamond? Quirky to volatile players in the dugout completely destroyed team moral last year. Tempers already sprouting during Cactus League games. Lack of discipline will doom Chicago. Jaramillo must teach these guys to cut down on strikeouts, put the ball in play and drive in runners. Can former stud Zambrano keep his cool and pitch effectively? Can Garza become an effective NLer? Is Silva's spring meltdown history or waiting to boil over? 2011 is a key year for most veteran players. Thin bench not ready for prime time if recurring injuries strike. Cubs need cosmic tumblers all to lineup. 100+ years of frustration.

NL Central division title well within their grasp if they wise up. A big IF.


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