One inning. It took exactly one inning into the first game of the 2010 season for me to give up on the Chicago Cubs.
If you recall, the Cubs took a top of the first 3-0 lead on a Marlon Byrd home run -- his first at bat as a Cub -- off Derek Lowe of the Braves. In the bottom of the inning, Carlos Zambrano took it upon himself to surrender six runs, capped off by a Jason Heyward three run blast -- his first at bat as a big leaguer. The ball left the yard in two seconds. And in those two seconds, my hopes for the 2010 season left with it.
Last year was different though. The Cardinals, on paper, looked dominant. The Reds hopeful. Chicago just didn't add enough in the offseason -- outside of Byrd -- to make a significant improvements on their 83-78 2009 record. Too weak on the hill. Too feeble in the box. The 2010 Cubs were not an improved team, but an older one. There was little hope to begin with.
The 2011 season seemed different, promising. The NL Central appeared free for the taking. The champion Reds didn't improve their team, instead holding serve, awarding many multiple year extensions. With Adam Wainwright lost for the season, the Cardinals all of a sudden looked mediocre. Even with the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers seemed full of holes -- namely defense, bullpen and the back end of the rotation. The Cubs looked to fill the gaps left by the departures of Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee by trading away the system for Matt Garza and signing Carlos Pena to a one year deal. The young bullpen also had a year to grow up. If Mike Quade's 24-13 record after taking over as skipper meant anything, the Cubs had some hope in 2011.
Roughly a quarter way though the season, we have a better understanding of who the 2011 Cubs are and the mountain they will have to climb to claim the the Central as their own. I do believe they have a (slim) shot at making the playoffs this season. I think this for two reasons:
1. This year's Cubs team has that "IF" element typically reserved for teams on the cusp of something. The old hopeful, fan-fueled, positive outlook that makes the Pena signing and Garza trade more promising then they may really be. ("IF [something hopeful, but not likely, happens], then the [enter your favorite sports team] are totally going to be awesome!") But it is more than that with this team. Chicago actually could be good if lucky and a few Cubs play up to their contracts.
2. The NL Central has no dominant team. Each contender has flaws. Someone must stumble into the playoffs
(Before we begin, it should be noted the Northsiders are tied for fourth with the Pirates and are 6.0 games behind the front running Reds. Furthermore, Baseball Prospectus currently gives the Cubs a 3.8% chance of making the playoffs this year, predicting they finishing fourth in the Central with a 77-85 record.)
What we know
The loss of Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells have killed this team. The Cubs' starting rotation is ranked last in the NL with a 5.44 ERA (over .5 higher than the Astros). Given that Chicago is ranked eleventh in the NL in runs, it's somewhat of a miracle they are only five games under-.500 and 6.0 out in the division. We also know Starlin Castro is a wunderkind at the plate, but will struggle defensively. Darwin Barney and Reed Johnson will not hit like this. (Period. Don't even argue it.)
The question lies in whether Chicago's old men will regain their previous form. Aramis Ramirez needs to find his power stroke. Ryan Dempster needs his plus split and velocity to return. BIg Z needs to find his inner bull. Pena needs a live rooster. Alfonso Soriano needs to stay consistent. However, since these are aging players, in traditional regression years, none of that is anywhere near guaranteed (especially the Soriano thing).
The year started poorly for the Cardinals as co-ace Wainwright was shelved after tearing his UCL. The bad luck continued into the bullpen, as Ryan Franklin could not solidify the closer role. Yet, the Redbirds have taken an early lead in the division, riding unexpected fast starts from Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, hitting .373 and .344 respectively. St. Louis has also received Cy Young like numbers from starter Jaime Garcia and the reemergence of Kyle Lohse and transition of Kyle McClellan to a starter role has given the Cards one of the better rotations in the NL. All this despite Wainwright's injury and a slow start from Chris Carpenter (there should be an award named after Dave Duncan). I expect the hot starters to regress, particularly Berkman and Lohse, but trust Albert Pujols and Carpenter to kick it up a gear.
The Brewers were without surefire ace Zack Greinke to start the season, but his return gives the Brewers a top notch rotation 1-3. Their offense is expected to put up some impressive numbers, but has remained in the middle of the pack thus far. Milwaukee has maintained their strong tradition of poor defense and weak bullpen play. This team is tricky because their offense can turn it up to eleven without warning. However, the Brew Crew seem a few arms short and one too many Yunieski Betancourts to compete long term.
The Reds pitching has struggled early, ranking 14th in the NL. Part of the blame belongs to injuries, the other to a very young staff, expected to shoulder the majority of the workload. Their offense, on the other hand, led by the reigning NL MVP Joey Votto (who, by the bye, is OPSing a casual 1.028), is putting up big numbers. Despite Dusty Baker's best efforts, the Reds are running intelligently as well, stealing at an 80% (32/40) clip. I think the staff will settle down as the season progresses and should have the best shot to win NL Central crown (again).
What do the Cubs need to do to make a run at the post-season?
The Cubs can make a run at the playoffs IF...
- They stay healthy -- So far, not doing that. Four and five starters Wells and Cashner both hit the DL after their first starts, leaving a gaping hole in what was considered a position of depth in Spring Training. Geovany Soto has also been placed on the DL and will be missed, despite an early .226 batting average.
- Pena gets going -- Talk about a big IF. He seems to be regressing very fast for a 32-year-old. If he can get anywhere near .250 with 25 home runs, consider it a successful year.
- Someone other than Soriano hits home runs -- Soriano is responsible for just shy of 40% of Cubs home runs with 11 (29 total). Second is Pena, boasting a .219 average with those four home runs. I really look for Ramirez to fill a void here when the weather gets better.
- Get luckier -- The Cubs are fourth in OPS at .733 and second in average at .279 in the NL, yet are eleventh in scoring. This can be attributed to their .234 batting average with in runners in scoring position (and the lack of home runs). This should turn around soon to reflect more like their impressive team average.
- Wells and Cashner come off the DL and sure up the backend of the rotation -- If they look anything like they did in their first starts, the Cubs will have one of the better rotations in the NL (on paper). Right now the rotation ranks last in the NL with a 5.44 starter ERA.
- Dempster, Zambrano or Garza steps up and becomes a true ace -- Each has the potential and have done so in the past. Someone needs to be "the guy."
The Cardinals appear to be pretty good. The magician Dave Duncan continues to pull pitchers out of his hat. Their offense will need to find other outlets when Holliday and Berkman cool off.
The Reds are real. Once their rotation settles in, they should regain the label as "the favorite".
The Brewers are a shiny toy, but when it comes down to it, they lack the depth on the hill and gloves pretty much everywhere to prevent enough runs to stay in the race.
The Cubs are fighting injuries and age to stay upright in the battle of attrition that is the MLB season. They have a small shot at the playoffs in 2011 IF their older players can find some kind of semblance of their former selves and the starting rotation lives up to their potential.... If not, only 123 more games until the Albert Pujols vs. Prince Fielder debates begin.