With Opening Day a few weeks away, we here at Cubbies Crib are now setting our focus on the regular season for the Chicago Cubs. Over the course of the next three weeks we will be running a series of posts in relation to our Season Preview. We will preview every angle of the 2011 season. First up is our Season Preview series are bold predictions. Joe, Luke, and myself have connected with “psychic” within us and we each came up with two bold predictions for the 2011 season.
Take a look, at what the future has in store for the Chicago Cubs.
- The Chicago Cubs Will Be In Contention
Despite the additions of Matt Garza, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Pena most of the national media has been down on the Cubs this off-season. The most common place that reporters have the Cubs finishing in the National League Central is fourth place. Behind the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnatti Reds, and St Louis Cardinals.
However, ever since the Cubs acquired Matt Garza I have been fully convinced that they will be contenders this season. The injuries to Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, and Zack Greinke of the Brewers have also furthered my belief that the Cubs will be in contention for the division crown this season.
No offense to the Brewers, but any team can look good paper. That is what I love about professional sports, there is no such thing as paper champions. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports brought up an excellent comparison to the 2011 Brewers, as he put them in the same category as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. The team that went out and traded for Cliff Lee, and signed Chone Figgins in addition to already having Ichiro Suzuki.
When I look at the Cubs, I see a team whose pitching staff has the potential to be one of the best in the majors. The top three of the rotation in Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano , and Matt Garza should definitely put the Cubs in a position to win most of their games. Randy Wells is not to be overlooked either, as if you were to look deeper into his 2010 numbers, you could argue that he was better than Garza. But, where the Cubs pitching staff will really earn their reputation is in the bullpen. Assuming Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, Sean Marshall, and John Grabow are all relatively healthy for the entire season, there is no doubt in my mind that the Cubs’ bullpen will be one of the best in the majors.
While the Cubs may still have an inept offense, they will be a team that is led by their pitching. If the 2010 San Diego Padres are any indicator, the Cubs may have a chance to win 85+ games this season.
- Carlos Zambrano will be a Cy Young Candidate
Let me repeat that…”Carlos Zambrano will be a Cy Young candidate.” Prior to this season, Zambrano has entered his past seasons with the Cy Young Award on his mind. However, this season may be the most realistic chance that Zambrano has at being a legitimate candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Of course, when a pitcher is in the same league with both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, said pitcher may have a hard time coming away with the prize. But, there is no reason why Zambrano can’t at least be in consideration for the award.
Unlike past seasons, Zambrano is entering his first season where he is not being depended on as the ace of the team. That is reason enough as to why Zambrano will be more effective this season. But, the biggest reason to be optimistic for Zambrano in the 2011 season is because he is a physically and mentally changed pitcher.
Obviously, whenever Zambrano’s name is mentioned it is usually in association with the word temperamental. Call me a sucker, but this time I actually am buying into the new version of Zambrano. At least up to this point, Zambrano has said and done all the correct things. In fact, some reports have penned Zambrano as being one of the leaders on the team.
While Zambrano may not be completely changed mentally, he is at least a physically changed pitcher. Prior to his late-season streak in 2010, Zambrano put too much emphasis on the power aspect of his pitching. Zambrano tried too much to be a dominant pitcher, who blows his fastball by hitters. But, the velocity on his fastball was missing. Which is why when he went 8-0 to end the season, he became more of a finesse pitcher. He incorporated more breaking pitches into his repertoire, and used his fastball when need to be instead of by force.
Assuming Zambrano continues those efforts, he should pick up right where he left off at the end of the 2010 season. We may finally see, Zambrano live up to the hype that has surrounded him the past several seasons.
- Randy Wells Will Win 15+ Games
If Randy Wells was coming off of his rookie season that featured 12 wins and a 3.05 ERA, this would not seem like much of a bold prediction at all. But after suffering through the proverbial sophomore slump in 2010, Wells has shown so far this Spring that he is looking to get back on track. He admitted earlier on in camp that he may have put things on cruise control after his successful first season in the Majors.
This is a bit a of a bold prediction because the Cubs still do not quite know what they have in their hands. Wells was originally drafted as a catcher, and was only converted to pitcher once it became a reality that he would not be able to hit enough to make his way up the system. As a result of his relatively short time as a professional starting pitcher compared to a player drafted as a pitcher, it would not be a surprise to see the other end of the spectrum in which Wells’ first season was a fluke rather than a glimpse of things to come.
Many Cub fans may also remember that Wells had a stretch of stellar outings in his rookie season where the Cubs offense could not even support him with a run or two. Wells could have easily won 15 games his rookie season with a little more punch out of the line up. While the 2011 offense on paper may not look better than the regular line up in 2009, based on the focused attitude and Spring Training results so far out of Wells, in addition to the strong and deep bullpen the Cubs will feature this season, I boldly predict that the Cubs fourth starter will win at least 15 games and put the North Siders in line with Jordan’s bold prediction that our beloved Cubs will be in playoff contention for the 2011 season.
- Alfonso Soriano Will Hit 30+ HRs
On one hand a 30+ home run season out of Alfonso Soriano may not quite sound like I am going out on a limb very much, considering the left fielder hit 24 home runs last season and 29 bombs in an injury shortened 2008 season. But on the other hand, he has not hit 30+ home runs for the Cubs since his first season calling Wrigley Field home. It has been well discussed in Chicago how Soriano has been a far cry from the 40-40 All Star Jim Hendry thought he was getting for at least a few years when he offered the former Washington National a mega millions contract over eight years. Factor in the injury history while with Chicago and the reality that he will lose a few at bats due to being replaced late in games with a defensive substitution over the course of a season, and suddenly 30+ home runs does not quite seem like a walk in the park.
But what Soriano does have going for him is the fact that he has proclaimed that he is feeling the best health wise since has been a Cub, and that announcement has coincided with his productive Spring so far. He is also in his second year of being reunited with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, with whom he worked with during his days as a Texas Ranger. On days when Tyler Colvin is inserted into the line up by manager Mike Quade, one potential configuration could see Soriano sandwiched in between leftys Carlos Pena and Colvin in the order. Not only would Colvin provide Soriano some protection from the left side, but teams that only have one left handed reliever in the bullpen would be inclined to leave the southpaw on the mound to face lefty killer Soriano so that the same pitcher could also face Colvin. All these factors lead me to boldly predict that the overpriced left fielder will hit at least 30 home runs.
- The Cubs Will Spend $10+ Million On The Draft
Under the ownership of the Ricketts family, the Cubs have shown a renewed focus on scouting and player development. While the major league budget has gone down, the savings has been redirected into finding and developing the future of the team. That’s not just talk, either. Already this winter we have seen plenty of evidence that the Cubs are serious when they talk about spending money to develop talent.
In addition to the new state of the art spring training facility that is being planned for Mesa, Arizona the Cubs have also begun work on a significant new player development complex in the Dominican Republic. The Cubs this winter made their most significant investment in Cuban talent ever when they spent over one million dollars to land two promising prospects. On top of that, when the time came convince Matt Szczur, the best outfield prospect in the Cubs system after Brett Jackson, to play baseball, Tom Ricketts opened up the wallet once again and increased his signing bonus into the seven digit range. Under the new management, the Cubs are very serious about building a perennial championship contender from within, and the key to that strategy is the draft.
Last season the Cubs spent $4.7 million on signing bonuses for draft picks, according to Baseball America. That’s not bad, but compared to the $7.2 million spent by Tampa or the $6.7 million spent by the Yankees, $4.7 million looks a little weak. One way to stock your farm system with top talent is to draft talent in the middle rounds that could be hard to sign, then spend what it takes to sign them. The Cubs have the resources to do that, and I think they have the commitment as well. For that reason alone I would expect that $4.7 million dollar number to go up.
But there’s more. The 2011 draft is deep and talented. Very deep, and very talented. Don’t take it from me, ask Jim Callis of Baseball America. A deeper draft means more guys who would be higher picks in other years and will be looking for the type of money they think they could get if they wait a year or two to come out. In other words, if Player X thinks he would be a second – fourth round pick in 2012, then someone may have to pay him that kind of money to get him to sign as a sixth round pick in 2011. The Cubs are in position to do just that.
But there is still more. The current collective bargaining agreement ends at the end of 2011, and I will be surprised if the new agreement does not include some changes to the draft. That uncertainty is expected to encourage some of the top high school talent who might otherwise go to college to go ahead and turn pro. The new CBA could be less friendly to large signing bonuses for draft picks, so the smart play might be to get in now while the cash is available. This, again, works in the Cubs favor.
Total it all up and I see a huge growth in the amount of money the Cubs spend on the 2011 draft, and I expect that the Cubs will get a great deal for that money. Ten million certainly isn’t out of reach. Fifteen million wouldn’t surprise me, and I’d be thrilled if they spend twenty million, so long as they get a good return. This should be one of the best drafts in years for the Cubs.
- Josh Vitters Arrives
Coming into camp, the only question on Vitters was whether or not his offensive production would ever live up to his talents. It’s easy to forget that this guy is just 21 years old and that two of his three seasons have been marred by injuries. While some observers have already dismissed him as a failure, the simple truth is that Vitters hasn’t had much of a chance to show what he can do.
Unless you count spring training as a chance. At the time of this writing, he is hitting .333 with an OPS of .842 with just one strikeout to go with one walk in fifteen at bats. That’s a pretty good start.
The math is simple. If Vitters can hold down third, the Cubs can save $16 million. Unless the Cubs really do believe that Marquez Smith is an everyday player, something I seriously doubt, then they just about have to take a look at Vitters this season, just to see how he handles major league pitching. If the Cubs decide Vitters needs more time, then they can bring back Ramirez. If he is ready, though, there is no reason not to let him have the job in 2012. It is because of that 2012 contract situation that I think he will get a 2011 audition. It’s up to him to be ready for it.
I think Vitters will be ready. He has the talent, he certainly seems to have the right attitude, and he has recently shown a very good work ethic. If he can just stay healthy, I think he will make the jump. The arrival of Josh Vitters on the major league roster sometime in the second half of the season could be one of the biggest stories of the year for the Cubs.