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MLB 2011 Preview: Can the Dark Horse Chicago Cubs Compete in the NL Central?

Previewing the 2011 MLB season, we’ve already named the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox the top World Series favorites. This week, we’re taking a look at the NL Central. Monday: St. Louis Cardinals; Tuesday: Cincinnati Reds; Wednesday: Milwaukee Brewers; Thursday: Chicago Cubs.

The Dark Horse: Chicago Cubs

Off-Season Moves: The Cubs traded prospects for flame-throwing right handed pitcher Matt Garza and brought back Kerry Wood on a one-year deal to bolster the bullpen.  They also replaced departing free agent Derrek Lee with Carlos Pena, whom they signed for one year.

Strengths: What makes this team an interesting dark horse candidate is their pitching.  Ryan Dempster, Garza, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva make up a pretty solid 1-5, with Andrew Cashner, waiting in the event of any injuries.  This is a rotation that stacks up with any other team in the division.  Their bullpen has a nice combination of different looks between the beast, Carlos Marmol, Cashner and Sean Marshall as seventh and eighth inning guys. Marshall really came into his own in 2010 pitching out of the bullpen full-time, striking out 10.85 per nine innings.

They have the pieces in the place to be somewhere between fringe and average offensively at every position, with no real, glaring weaknesses.  This team will also hit for some power between Pena, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto, who is their best offensive player. Soto needs to be healthy in order to produce.  Starlin Castro (pictured above) was impressive in his rookie season, holding his own at the major league level, despite being only 20.  I imagine consistency will be an issue for Castro, both at the plate and on the field, although there will be flashes of brilliance.  Carlos Pena, when he is right, will play both sides of the ball well, providing power, patience and good movements and hands around first.  He will also strike out a ton.

Weaknesses: While the Cubs have decent power, they lack on-base percentage at a number of critical offensive positions, and their offense will struggle because of it.  With Soriano (pictured) and Ramirez coming off well below-average seasons in terms of reaching base (.322 and .294 respectively), and Castro (.347), Blake DeWitt (.336) and Marlon Byrd (.346) as other, potential low OBP guys, there are going to be a lot of short innings in Chicago.  This lack of offense will be the Cubs’ downfall.

Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are absolute butchers defensively.  Marlon Byrd played a good center field last season, but he lacks range and is on the wrong side of 30 and that will probably catch up with him this season.

The Cubs manhandled Carlos Zambrano last season, making him into a $18 million middle reliever.  He managed to salvage his season, but screw-ball moves like this could affect Zambrano’s ability to pitch 200 innings this season and similar moves could certainly be in play again in 2011.

Summary: If the Cubs get good seasons out of Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, while guys like Marlon Byrd and Carlos Silva maintain what they did in 2010, this could be an interesting team, but those are a lot of ifs.  They have a new manager in Mike Quade and maybe he’ll bring out the best in his team.  I bet the under with the Cubs finishing with 78 wins, well below the other three contenders.



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