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2011 Cubs Season Preview: Steady Revival In A Weakened NL Central?

Positive signs abound for the Cubs in 2011 -- but it's too risky yet to predict a breakthrough season.

You just can't pick the Cubs in the NL Central. All logic states you can't, but who else can you pick?

Not the St. Louis Cardinals. Not without Adam Wainwright -- and with Lance Berkman in right field and Ryan Theriot (hello, stranger!) at shortstop weakening the defense. And where is Ryan Ludwick? The Redbirds' lineup took an abrupt nosedive when right fielder Ludwick was dealt away to the San Diego Padres at mid-season last year.

Not the Cincinnati Reds. Yeah, their younger players, led by MVP Joey Votto, all looked impressive in 2010 after years of percolation. But the league will inevitably adjust to several before they adjust back. Besides, something bad always seems to happen to a Dusty Baker-managed pitching staff, given recent injuries to Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey.

By default, the pick here is the Milwaukee Brewers, even factoring in season-opening injuries to Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum. I've never liked the way the Brewers lineup was too power-heavy -- something always was missing. But given an alternative, who else is out there?

By June 1, we'll find out if it's the Cubs. Something about this team has attracted the attention of pundits ranging from Baseball Prospectus to MLB Network. "Sleeper" and "surprise" are words bandied about. Right now the common-sense side of this typist says no, not now.

Yet two factors make you itchy on the finger to suggest the Cubs will be in the thick of it.

First, the division should be weak given the flaws of the three teams supposedly ahead of the Cubs. The best guess is four teams finish between 82 and 89 victories. A lot of stumbling to the finish line.

Second, the feeling leaking out of Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz. was almost all positive in the spring. The one blip was the grumpy Carlos Silva, rebuked by suddenly leadership-embracing Aramis Ramirez at the start of games, then shipped out at the cost of $11.5 million to Tom Ricketts' bottom line when Silva handled the news of his not making the 25-man roster going north with no shred of class.  In between, you heard of positive chemistry bubbling up, with Ramirez, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Pena joining old standbys Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood  as role models for others. And Reed Johnson, another positive clubhouse presence back in 2008-09, is back as a reserve outfielder.

"These are guys are not shy to talk to us about the game," rookie infielder Darwin Barney, a surprise achiever who came to the forefront in playing time at second base. "They're not too good (to share their knowledge). Here's Pena talking to Koyie Hill about hitting, and I'm not afraid to walk up to them to listen in."

Barney talked on the phone from Mesa the other day. He returned the call 10 minutes after a message was left for him. The good phone manners are the product of a good person, and a self-professed "student of baseball," in Barney's words. The Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins, masters of player development in recent decades,  thrived on guys like Barney, not flashy prospects, but high -character guys who pushed themselves to be better than the scouting reports originally reported.

Another part of good chemistry is younger players like Barney pushing veterans. It's the never-ending cycle of baseball cut off at the pass too often in the Cubs organization, which has struggled to produce its own position players for the better part of two decades (and the majority of team history so long as farm systems existed). If Barney and Tyler Colvin start, the Cubs will field four home-grown regulars (also catcher Geovany Soto and shortstop Starlin Castro) in the lineup for the first time since 1997 (Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Doug Glanville, Kevin Orie). Eight of the 12 pitchers going north are Cubs products. The more qualified farm products, the more the "Cubs Way" filters up to the majors and the less chance the big boss has to make mistakes and incur sunk costs in free agents like Milton Bradley... and in turn, Silva. And the more kids coming up to take jobs, the fresher the attitude, the crisper the hustle, the greater the hunger.

"We wanted to get our organization stronger," Barney said of the the results drafts the past five years under scouting chief Tim Wilken and a beefed-up Latin scouting operation. "We wanted to win together, build chemistry. Let's not only focus on player development, but also winning. These teams in the minor leagues were about winning. But none of thise works without a good core group of veterans."

The Cubs can't climb out of the ditch into which they fell the last season-plus under Lou Piniella without those veterans playing a good game in addition to talking it to the kids. Ramirez, Pena and Alfonso Soriano must have a semblance of comeback seasons. Byrd has to prove he's a legit No. 3 hitter. Someone has to succeed leading off to let Starlin Castro hit behind him to right field. And Carlos Zambrano must finally mature and keep his head in stressful situations. Youth is no excuse any more for Big Z -- he turns 30 this season.

Potentially, the Cubs have enough pitching to contend. Traditionally, three solid starters meant the Cubs slipped into contention. Randy Wells' excellent spring provides the prospect for four, given Zambrano achieving a state of zen. Andrew Cashner is still a project at No. 5 that the Cubs must see through all the lumps and bumps of a fireballer's on-field education. Meanwhile, the back of the bullpen, led by closer Carlos Marmol and setup men Kerry Wood (now by far the most popular Cub) and Sean Marshall further advances the confidence level.

At the leadership level, the Cubs will be better-served than any other time since Piniella's first season in 2007. Successor Mike Quade won the team over in his 37-game trial at the end of last season, while establishing his authority behind the scenes. That sense of direction has continued through the spring, with the first Silva eruption defused almost after it started.

So amid the cocoon of negativity that has enveloped the Cubs since the first week of Oct. 2008, positive signs are sprouting. But until they translate into performance on the field, they can't be picked to take over the NL Central. The logical pick says they'll finish fourth, just behind a Cardinals team that has dropped further in the standings, with the Reds the runner-up to the Brewers.

But be aware, history offers up a pattern here. With the exception of 2008, the Cubs teams that have reached the playoffs since 1984 were not picked to achieve anything near to glory. They were all surprises. Meanwhile, the ballyhooed teams in 1985, 1991 and 2004 -- the latter picked outright by Sports Illustrated, with cover boys Wood and Mark Prior, to win the World Series -- flopped. In baseball, better a surprise than a stinging disappointment, and never more so for the Cubs.