Season Preview: The Chicago Cubs

Finishing off our season preview of the National League Central is a look at everyone's favorite underdog, the Chicago Cubs.

Carlos Zambrano, 25, is the obvious choice for the club's Opening Day starter, coming off a 16-7 season in which he led the team in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. His 16 wins matched his career high, and impressed after beginning the season 0-2 in six April games. He made up for that with a 6-0 July, which resulted in the NL Pitcher of the Month honors.

Free agents Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis filled two empty spots in the starting five this offseason. Lefty Lilly was 15-13 with a 4.31 ERA with the Toronto Blue Jays, while righty Marquis was 14-16 with a 6.02 ERA with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It may be an uncomfortable feeling to not have Mark Prior guaranteed a spot, but that's what happens after an injury-filled season in which he made only nine starts totaling 43.2 innings. There's lots more ifs where that came from. Will Rich Hill be the pitcher he was in September (3-1, 1.93 ERA) or May (0-4, 9.31 ERA)? Can Sean Marshall stay healthy and come up with another pitch to complement his curve? Is Angel Guzman ready?

Closer Ryan Dempster led the National League in save percentage in his 2005 rookie year, but finished 14th in 2006. He was tied for second for the most blown saves (nine), and had the fewest 1-2-3 innings among Major League closers last season, which he will look to improve upon this year.

One new addition to the bullpen is versatile left-hander Neal Cotts, acquired in a December deal with the crosstown White Sox for right-hander David Aardsma. Scott Eyre and Bob Howry are back as the prime setup-men, with Will Ohman, Michael Wuertz and Roberto Novoa in the mix, as well.

The other new guy in the 'pen is Kerry Wood, who is coming off a difficult season (insert hot tub joke here) in which he was limited to four games because of an uncooperative right shoulder before being diagnosed with a partially torn rotator cuff. Rather than undergo another surgery, Wood chose to rehab and reported to camp more than 30 pounds lighter.

The club's new, $136 million center fielder, Alfonso Soriano, is expected to start in center field, which guarantees Matt Murton will get plenty of playing time in left, and Jacque Jones, the only lefty projected in the regular lineup, is secured a spot in right. Jones hit .285 in his first season with the Cubs with 27 homers and 81 RBIs, bat .234 against left-handers. Angel Pagan will likely be the fourth outfielder with utility player Cliff Floyd and lefty prospect Felix Pie also vying for a spot this spring.

Shortstop Cesar Izturis joined the team when the Cubs dealt Greg Maddux to the Dodgers last July, but played in only 22 games due to a hamstring injury. Second baseman Mark DeRosa is brand new and will try to bring some stability to his position. Signed as a free agent after two seasons in Texas and seven in Atlanta, DeRosa has actually played more games at third and short than at second in his career. He's eager to settle down in 2007 however, as he played six different positions last season.

The addition of DeRosa and Izturis means young infielders Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Theriot could be battling for jobs as backups. Theriot batted .328 in 53 games with the Cubs last season and Cedeno is coming off a disappointing season in which he hit .245 in 151 games.

The corners are set with Derrek Lee at first and Aramis Ramirez at third. Last year, Lee's season was interrupted by a collision with Rafael Furcal in mid-April that fractured his wrist when he was hitting .318 at the time. Then in September, he had to deal with the shock of learning that his 3-year-old daughter had lost her vision in one eye. Lee is ready to pound the ball once again and Ramirez is ready to make the most of his new $75 million, five-year deal.

The World Baseball Classic, an endless list of rookie pitchers, a potential batting title, a nasty foul tip, and an even nastier right-hook to A.J. Pierzynski's face highlighted Michael Barrett's 2006 season. The 30-year-old catcher is coming off an injury and suspension-shortened season, batting .307 in 107 games, his fewest at-bats and games since 2003 and will start his fourth consecutive year at backstop.

Henry Blanco will again play backup after signing a two-year, $5.25 million contract in November. He is coming off a career-high .266 season, in which he hit six home runs with 37 RBIs in 74 games. Youngster Geovany Soto and prospect Jake Fox will compete for a backup spot this spring.

The Cubs finished dead last in the NL Central last season with a terrible 66-96 record and an even .500 against their division, 17.5 games behind the division winning Birds. This year, we'll see if money can buy championships... or a winning record.

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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if they're everyone's favorite underdog, but Michael Barrett is definitely the toughest catcher out there.

Sooze said...

He'd definitely like to think so.