2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – Chicago Cubs

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro

Chicago Cubs (2010 record: 75-87)

Notable additions: RHP Matt Garza, 1B Carlos Peña, RHP Kerry Wood

Notable subtractions: 1B Xavier Nady

The Cubs suffered through a disappointing 75-87 campaign and a fourth-place finish in the NL Central last season. They looked on as the other clubs in the division improved this winter… then finally, after the Brewers obtained Zack Greinke from the Royals, the Cubs decided they needed to make a strong move before being relegated to also-ran status before the 2011 season got underway. So, they followed the lead of their division rival and acquired RHP Matt Garza (from Tampa Bay) in exchange for a bevy of good young prospects.

The offense:

Catcher: Geovany Soto

Infield: Carlos Pena (1B), Blake DeWitt (2B), Starlin Castro (SS), Aramis Ramirez (3B)

Outfield: Alfonso Soriano (LF), Marlon Byrd (CF), Kosuke Fukudome (RF)

On offense, the club finished tenth in the National League in runs scored last year and it seems likely that outcome isn’t going to change markedly in 2011, as the front office did little to upgrade the offense. The organization bid adieu to slugger Derek Lee, replacing him with Carlos Pena. The former Rays’ first baseman should enjoy hitting at Wrigley Field, but his power will be offset by a miserable OBP and a penchant for striking out.

Otherwise, the Cubs will return the same cast of characters that ended last year. The team will be dependent on improvement from its younger players and rebounds from its aging veterans if it is to improve on last season’s disappointing offensive output.

Cubs fans have invested a great measure of their collective hope in the team’s 20-year-old shortstop, Castro, who hit .300 as a rookie last season but didn’t steal bases to the extent that was expected when he was promoted to the big leagues (he stole 28 bases in the minors in 2009). 3B Aramis Ramirez had a rough first-half last year due to a pair of injuries, but played well after the all-star game… as he gets older you have to wonder whether he will become increasingly susceptible to injuries. And then there is C Geovany Soto – after a brutal sophomore season he again resembled the player he was in 2008, when he was the NL Rookie of the Year. Soto’s continued development would go a long was to offsetting the regression (or lack of performance) from the rest of the players on the roster.

LF Alfonso Soriano is two years removed from his last all-star game, and age appears to be catching up to him. While he can still supply decent power, his batting average (.250) and HR/F (12%) over the last two years are a far cry from his all-star seasons.

For the most part, Byrd, DeWitt and Fukudome are what they are – complementary parts who aren’t going to enhance a title run but who (hopefully) won’t detract from one either. DeWitt could find himself in a platoon situation and Fukudome is the focus of constant trade rumors, so it’s unclear how much they will contribute to the fortunes of the team in 2011.

The pitching staff:

Starting Rotation: Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva

Closer: Carlos Marmol

Garza joins a rotation that includes Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Tom Gorzelanny and Randy Wells. He posted a record of 34-31 with a 3.86 ERA over the last three years in the American League East, including 15-10 in 2010. He should make a run at 20 wins in 2011 in the NL Central, facing shallower NL lineups and not having to face the DH.

Zambrano, the one-time (and future?) ace of the staff, has developed a reputation for being a combustible element in the clubhouse and dugout. Last year, he struggled and was demoted to the bullpen, had another ugly outburst in public, found himself suspended and then subjected to mandatory anger management. When he returned to action, he showed flashes of brilliance, going 8-0, 1.41, over his last ten starts. In spite of all of the demons he battles, he has never finished a season with an ERA higher than 3.95 (last year he finished the year at 11-6, 3.33, despite starting only 20 games).

Dempster may not be a true No. 1 but he has evolved into the anchor of the rotation after stringing together three consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched, each with a sub-4.00 ERA. Wells was unable to repeat his outstanding 2009 campaign when, as a rookie, he went 12-10, 3.05… nonetheless, he still posted a 4.26 ERA last year so the bloom is not off the rose. I am not a fan of Carlos Silva – never have been – but the fact the Cubs owe him $11.5 million for this year suggests tro me they will go north with him as the No. 5 starter and give him a shot to earn his money.

Marmol was brilliant as the Cubs closer last year, saving 38 games, posting a 2.55 ERA and striking out 138 batters in 77.2 IP (an astounding rate of 15.9 K / 9 IP).

Kerry Wood returns to his original club after a brief detour to Cleveland and New York. He was especially outstanding in The Bronx last year, where he posted a 0.69 ERA with 31K in 26 IP. LHP Sean Marshall was finally left in the bullpen without being moved to and from the rotation… he responded with the best season of his brief career (7-5, 1 save, 2.65 ERA, 1.112 WHIP, 90 K in 74.2 IP).
Andrew Cashner, John Grabow and Jeff Samardzija should also have roles in the bullpen.

Prediction for 2011: 4th place (81-81)

The Cubbies will be better than they were a year ago, and while they COULD be good enough to make a run at the division title it seems to me that everything would have to go right for them to do so. I project Garza will win 15-17 games and Zambrano will be pretty darned good – but he’ll be unloaded as soon as the front office gets a viable trade offer for him. Aramis Ramirez will again struggle with a couple of nagging injuries that will sap his effectiveness – he’ll be very good when healthy and brutal when hobbled. Sound familiar, Cubs fans?

Cubs top prospect, Brett Jackson

Top Five Prospects:

1. Brett Jackson, OF
2. Trey McNutt, RHP
3. Chris Carpenter, RHP
4. Rafael Dolis, RHP
5. Josh Vitters, 3B

Brett Jackson was the Cubs’ first-round pick in the 2009 First Year Player Draft. He has been plagued by a series of nuisance injuries, but when he has played he has displayed a well-rounded set of tools. He has an extremely quick bat, makes solid contact and flashes plus-speed. The problem is he shows negligible patience at the plate and therefore doesn’t get on base enough to take full advantage of his speed – his strikeout rate in the minors is up around 25% so he needs to work on both discipline and pitch recognition in order to cut that rate in half.

Baseball America projects he will eventually hit for power and could be a 20-20 guy in the major leagues, but I don’t believe he is going to develop that kind of power… I see him as doubles machine who will hit 12-15 homers, at best.

Jackson can play all three outfield positions and shows good instincts in the field. He has an accurate arm with average strength. Based on his limited power potential and average arm strength, I think he will eventually make his home in center field.

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