To be fair, injuries did play a role in the Northsiders 2009 problems. Aramis Ramirez, one of the top all-around third basemen in the National League missed a good chunk of time, and solid shortstop Ryan Theriot was also out during the phase of the season when the team dug its hole. Both are healthy and are joined in the infield by first baseman Derek Lee. Even if Lee doesn’t duplicate his 2009 performance, his best all-around year since ’05, he’s still a consistent contributor who hits for both power and average.
In the outfield, Alfonso Soriano is overrated while Kosuke Fukodome is underrated and both for the same reason—the ability to draw walks. Fukodome does so, and is much better than his mediocre batting averages would suggest. Soriano doesn’t, and is a bigger liability than a surface glance at the numbers would indicate. A key wild-card in the attack is catcher Geovany Soto. He was great in ’08, and subpar last year, precisely tracking the fortunes of his team.
Starting pitching is solid, although there have to be caveats. Carlo Zambrano and Ryan Dempster are a good 1-2 punch, although Big Z’s temperament leaves a little question mark around him. Ted Lilly is steady at #3. He won’t be ready on Opening Day with a knee problem, but is expected back before April is out. Randy Wells was very effective last year at #4, winning 12 games with a 3.05 ERA. Bullpen is where the problem is going to be. Carlos Marmol should be okay finishing games, but moving out of the setup role, where he thrived, weakens that spot and there are no logical candidates to step in and stabilize it.
New additions can make a big difference in Wrigley. The Cubs went out and picked up Marlon Byrd to play centerfield. He always posted solid numbers in Texas and should do the same here. To fill out the pitching staff, they took a flier on veteran Carlos Silva. To be candid, the odds are against this working out, but the cost is minimal and it’s worth a shot. Former Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Smardzija is also a candidate for the final rotation spot.
The Cubs underachieved last year, but there’s no hangover coming into this year, the presence of Milton Bradley isn’t there to drag the clubhouse down and Lou Pinella remains in the dugout calling the shots. All of which suggests an exciting summer in Wrigleyville, a legitimate shot at dethroning the Cardinals in the NL Central and at least a puncher’s chance at that coveted World Series title.
Final NL Central Picks & Preview: March 30
Up Next: New York Yankees tomorrow
More Sweet 16 recaps from last night are over at The College Basketball Notebook, as regional final action starts up shortly.