Alright, as expected I’ve got a baseball season preview under my belt and have nowhere to go but up.  It’s tough to write a preview of the White Sox and not mention the Jake Peavy injury situation, the whole starting rotation in general, and drop my first Ozzie Guillen reference in the second to last sentence of a 1,400 odyssey.  That’s just good, efficient work right there.

So with room to grow like the ivy on the walls, let’s fill in the gaps of your 2011 Chicago Cubs shall we?

The Plain Truth

Let’s get this out there now.  I think the Cubs are going to stink this year.  In all honesty this is the earliest I’ve ever come to this conclusion and you know what, I’m actually ok with it.  This time last year I was sitting on the grassy knoll in left field of HoHoKam Park with Animal Style sauce stained into my shorts (I swear that’s what it was) talking myself into Theriot-Lee-Ramirez-Soto-Soriano-Byrd that’s a pretty solid 2 thru 7.  Well a cold dose of reality splashed over me this winter and I get it.  The Cubs are in an awkward spot this year where they want to rebuild and bring up the kids, but like awkward dinner guests that open a new bottle of (expensive) wine after the dishes have been cleaned and the board games put away, there are a handful of contracts the club is waiting to clear off the books but they just won’t go away.  At the end of this season Fukudome and his $14.5M, Aramis Ramirez’s $14.6M, Carlos Pena’s $10M, and Jeff Samardzija’s $3.5M clear the books (Carlos Silva’s $11.5M couldn’t wait for the season to begin before it jumped ship) and then the club can begin anew.  Luckily we still have four more years of the Alfonso Soriano Experience ahead of us and Dempster’s contract ($14.5M) ends this year but I’m not opposed to bringing him back at the right price.

So let’s just admit that with the first pitch out of Dempster’s hand on Friday the Cubs are playing for next year.  This year is designed to begin establishing a new core and will be defined by the performance of the next generation of Cubs – i.e. Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner, and the sooner Brett Jackson and the rest of the crew can start taking major league swings the better. 

The Infield

Carlos Pena please allow me to introduce you to Fred McGriff.  Fred can you take Carlos over to meet Oh Henry Rodriguez out back by the grill? I need to go get Jeremy Burnitz’s coat off the bed upstairs because I think he and Jacque Jones are getting ready to leave the party.  Can you think of a larger collection of dullards than the Cubs imported left-handed power bats over the past twenty years?  They’re a step above a group of power bottoms over that same period, but it’s a small step. 

Ok, that was mean but I’m still not impressed.  Carlos Pena seems to be a good guy and I like everything I know about his defense and clubhouse demeanor, but batting under .200 over the course of a full season is just inexcusable in this day and age no matter what league you play in.  Even if he hits his career average of .250 with 30 HR and 95 RBI and somehow the Cubs make the playoffs, guess what, if Soriano has taught us anything, it’s that good pitching in the post season will exploit weak hitters and end a series before it begins.  So Carlos, welcome to the team, do your best, but I’d rent rather than buy if I were you because you’re not the long term solution here.

At second, well… Let’s start by saying I’m a child of the Ryne Sandburg generation.  I’m a firm believe that second base is perhaps the most underrated position on the field.  It’s one of the few spots that you can get away with a fill-in or an all field-no stick player that you bat eighth in the lineup, but the good teams?  Well I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Utley, Cano, Pedroia, Kinsler, et al. play for teams that are in the upper echelon.  It’s like safety in football.  Name me an All-Pro safety and I’ll show you a quality team he plays for.  The Baker-Dewitt-Barney combo?  Not so much.  This will need to be addressed in the future and we can only hope DJ LeMahieu  lives up to the hype and washes the LSU stink off him somewhere between Tennessee and Iowa. 

Starlin Castro, we’re expecting big things from you kid.  Anyone drawing Hanley Ramirez comparisons at age 21 can play on my team.

 Aramis Ramirez – I’m looking forward to your contract season.  Put up number that make us at least consider that mutual player/team option won’t you?

Outfield

Kosuke Fukudome – there’s a Japanese joke to be made here but in the name of good taste even I’ll admit it’s too soon in light of all the tragedy they’ve endured.  If only Gilbert Gottfried had the same level of restraint.  162 more games Kosuke, 162 more games…

Marlon Byrd – Marlon, I like your style, I really do but guess what, in July you’re probably our most tradable asset and we’ve got this kid Brett Jackson you see… Thanks for being so understanding.  I’ve got nothing but good things to say about you and will happily write a reference letter for you.  I’m willing to bet it will carry a bit more weight than one from your trainer.

Alfonso Soriano – All I’ve heard is great things about how healthy he is this spring and how well he’s driving the ball to all fields.  That’s great to hear.  Wanna know why?  Because we’re stuck with this guy at $19M per year for the next four no matter what so he might as well mash for us.  Soriano is exhibits A-J for why, no matter how good he is now, Albert Pujols is not worth $300M over the next 10 years.  I want no part of paying someone seven figures into their forties regardless of their pedigree.  Getting old sucks, it doesn’t mean you have to pay for it.

Tyler Colvin – Patience my precious, you’ll get your opportunity.  You’re a year at worst or an injury at best (not cheering for it but these things do happen) from showing the world what your capable of.  It does concern me however that he hasn’t just taken one of the outfield spots from one of the three above yet.  The club showed they’re willing to eat $11.5 of Carlos Silva already so if Colvin is really that good why can’t we give Fukudome away to somebody or just give him a permanent spot on the bench?  There’s a chance Colvin just doesn’t have it and the Cubs know it so he may become a trade chip by July.  Keep your eye on the situation.

Pitching

I don’t have much to say here other than it will define our season.  I’m a fan of the rotation with Dempster-Zambrano-Garza being solid but not spectacular and Wells seems to have his head on straight this year.  Giving the fifth spot to Cashner was the right move as I noted above, this year is a year to figure out what we’ve got going forward.  I think we can expect Cashner to have a year like the Tampa young aces have had in the first go in the rotation (see David Price and Wade Davis) where they show glimpses but are not spectacular the first year and then round into shape in the second.  I think this year boils down to how well Randy Wells performs.  If he’s a legit 4th starter that wins his head to head match-ups with other teams 2nd and 3rd starters then the Cubs will be playing meaningful games in August and September.  If not then you might want to start reading up on Casey Coleman and Trey McNutt prior to Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day (August 8th – duh) or at the very least by More Herbs, Less Salt Day (August 29th).

As for the bullpen, who really knows?  I like what it looks like on paper but bullpens are as streaky as my toilet bowl after I consume chorizo.  Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood (welcome back – class act by the way with the hometown discount), and Carlos Marmol sound as good as it gets for a last three but only time will tell.  Jeff Smardzija – enjoy your time down there because I believe it to be your last year walking down the left field line at Wrigley.  Anything we get out of John Grabow and the rest of the crew is gravy.

Best Case Scenario

The Cubs take advantage of a weakened Central Division after Wainwright’s injury in STL, Marcum and Grienke’s early season issues in Milwaukee, and the Dusty Baker effect takes a firm hold in Cincinnati.  Starlin Castro becomes bonafide and Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner, and anyone else that come up proves that they will return next spring.  Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena need to over achieve and Soriano will need to join them if we’re going to make a serious run.  Regardless of all of that happening plus everyone else staying healthy, this club will be luck to clear the 81.5 wins Vegas has them down for (I may or may not have put $100 on the under there if gambling were sanctioned) and will not get out of the first round of Fall Ball.

Worst Case Scenario

In all honesty the worst thing would be for the Best Case Scenario to come true.  This team needs to lose this year to ensure better draft positioning, sell off anything deemed an asset at the deadline: Byrd, Ramirez (has a no trade though), Fukudome, any of the 2nd basemen, etc. and get at-bats and innings for the kids.

I think the Cubs get to 80 wins and I’d call it a win (both for the club and my pocket book – allegedly).  Jim Hendry has created this team and actually I believe he’s learned on the job right in front of our eyes as he hasn’t given out any no trade clauses since that fateful winter of 2007.  The organization has bought into the farm and the future and so have I.  Now it just can’t get here soon enough.