Chicago Cubs 2010 preview

There isn’t an "under new management" sign hanging at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs finally have a new owner in place in Tom Ricketts. Ricketts has big plans for stadium improvements, with the clubhouse apparently first on the list in terms of upgrades. Players no longer will have to walk on eggshells now that the brief Milton Bradley era is history. The biggest question about the Cubs, of course, remains the same: Is this the year?

P Carlos Zambrano is one of two high-profile Cubs who shed weight in the offseason.
P Carlos Zambrano is one of two high-profile Cubs who shed weight in the offseason.

Three questions

1. Who will hit leadoff?
For the first time since 2007, it won’t be Alfonso Soriano, at least according to manager Lou Piniella. Miscast as the table-setter for several seasons — often out of necessity because of the team’s lack of alternatives — Soriano was dropped in the order during the 2009 season and now is penciled into the sixth spot. Soriano’s knee problems will limit the stolen-base ability that once made him attractive atop the order, and his power will result in better run production in the heart of the order.

One thing is clear: The team needs improvement from the 1-hole. Last season, Cubs leadoff hitters finished 27th in the majors with a .249 batting average and 21st with a .335 on-base percentage. Ryan Theriot is the front-runner for the job because, unlike Kosuke Fukudome, he will be an everyday fixture in the lineup. Theriot did a nice job — .283 average, .354 on-base percentage — in 194 plate appearances as the Cubs’ leadoff man in 2009.

2. Will less mean more?
Each trying to bounce back from a forgettable season, ace Carlos Zambrano and catcher Geovany Soto, the 2008 NL rookie of the year, worked hard to get into better shape over the offseason. Soto dropped close to 40 pounds, after dropping 67 points from his batting average last season. Zambrano, whose nine wins in 2009 were a career low for a full season, lost about 15 pounds.

Fitting into their skinny jeans is a nice payoff, but the main thing to glean here is the players’ dedication to improvement. Especially in the case of Zambrano, whose stuff and ability have been questioned far less than his drive. "I can tell you he’s got a lot of pride and he took to heart what happened last season," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. As for Soto, he might not hit 23 homers (as he did in 2008), but his .381 slugging percentage is bound to tick upward.

3. Is the ninth inning in safe hands?
The Cubs ended the Kevin Gregg experiment by mid-August last season, following his sixth blown save. Carlos Marmol assumed the ninth-inning duties at that point and went 11-for-11 in save opportunities to finish the season. However, he wasn’t always squeaky-clean in the process. The knock on Marmol — and perhaps the reason he didn’t begin the 2009 season in the closer role — is his questionable control. During his impressive end-of-season run, he walked 13 batters in 17 2/3 innings. For the season, he issued 65 free passes in 74 innings.

Not only does the recent shoulder injury to setup man Angel Guzman significantly weaken the team’s eighth-inning situation, it eliminates a potential Plan B if Marmol should struggle.

Projected lineup
1. SS Ryan Theriot: Averaged 24 SBs past three seasons.
2. RF Kosuke Fukudome: .164 AVG vs. lefties; .270 vs. righties.
3. 1B Derrek Lee: Career-high 111 RBIs in ’09; in contract year.
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez: Career-best .389 OBP in injury-marred ’09.
5. CF Marlon Byrd: Led Rangers with 89 RBIs last season.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano: Career-worst .726 OPS in ’09.
7. C Geovany Soto: Hit into 19 double plays (second among Cs).
8. 2B Mike Fontenot: .246 OBP vs. lefties.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano: 1.37 WHIP worst among Cubs’ 09 SPs.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster: 4.09 ERA in first half; 3.15 after break.
3. RHP Randy Wells: Rookie’s 3.05 ERA was rotation’s best in ’09.
4. LHP Tom Gorzelanny:5.19 ERA after trade to Cubs last season.
5. RHP Jeff Samardzija: 10.80 ERA in 2 starts in ’09.

Projected closer
RHP Carlos Marmol: Held hitters to a .170 AVG

Grades

Offense: B. The Cubs went from second to 22nd in runs scored and from third to 16th in OBP last season. If Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are healthy, the lineup compares favorably to any in the NL, especially after the offseason addition of Marlon Byrd. But those are big "ifs," as is the production at the bottom and top of the order.

Pitching: C. The big concern is Ted Lilly, who is expected to begin the season on the disabled list after offseason shoulder surgery and knee problems this spring. But the developing late-inning drama also is a worry.

Bench: A. Xavier Nady was signed as the fourth outfielder but should be no worse than a platoon player in right field (and perhaps the starter). On the infield, Jeff Baker is in a similar situation, as he could overtake Mike Fontenot for the starting job at second. Micah Hoffpauir provides pop and can play first base as well as the corner outfield spots.

Manager: B. Lou Piniella has guided the team to the postseason twice in his three seasons at the helm, but has no playoff wins to show for it. This could be his final season in a Cubs uniform, and he has enough talent – and doesn’t have the Bradley headache — for another postseason run.

Sporting News prediction: After winning back-to-back NL Central titles in 2007-08, the Cubs are destined for a second consecutive second-place finish. But they should be squarely in the mix for the NL wild card.

Coming Wednesday: Brewers preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

There isn’t an "under new management" sign hanging at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs finally have a new owner in place in Tom Ricketts. Ricketts has big plans for stadium improvements, with the clubhouse apparently first on the list in terms of upgrades. Players no longer will have to walk on eggshells now that the brief Milton Bradley era is history. The biggest question about the Cubs, of course, remains the same: Is this the year?

P Carlos Zambrano is one of two high-profile Cubs who shed weight in the offseason.
P Carlos Zambrano is one of two high-profile Cubs who shed weight in the offseason.

Three questions

1. Who will hit leadoff?
For the first time since 2007, it won’t be Alfonso Soriano, at least according to manager Lou Piniella. Miscast as the table-setter for several seasons — often out of necessity because of the team’s lack of alternatives — Soriano was dropped in the order during the 2009 season and now is penciled into the sixth spot. Soriano’s knee problems will limit the stolen-base ability that once made him attractive atop the order, and his power will result in better run production in the heart of the order.

One thing is clear: The team needs improvement from the 1-hole. Last season, Cubs leadoff hitters finished 27th in the majors with a .249 batting average and 21st with a .335 on-base percentage. Ryan Theriot is the front-runner for the job because, unlike Kosuke Fukudome, he will be an everyday fixture in the lineup. Theriot did a nice job — .283 average, .354 on-base percentage — in 194 plate appearances as the Cubs’ leadoff man in 2009.

2. Will less mean more?
Each trying to bounce back from a forgettable season, ace Carlos Zambrano and catcher Geovany Soto, the 2008 NL rookie of the year, worked hard to get into better shape over the offseason. Soto dropped close to 40 pounds, after dropping 67 points from his batting average last season. Zambrano, whose nine wins in 2009 were a career low for a full season, lost about 15 pounds.

Fitting into their skinny jeans is a nice payoff, but the main thing to glean here is the players’ dedication to improvement. Especially in the case of Zambrano, whose stuff and ability have been questioned far less than his drive. "I can tell you he’s got a lot of pride and he took to heart what happened last season," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. As for Soto, he might not hit 23 homers (as he did in 2008), but his .381 slugging percentage is bound to tick upward.

3. Is the ninth inning in safe hands?
The Cubs ended the Kevin Gregg experiment by mid-August last season, following his sixth blown save. Carlos Marmol assumed the ninth-inning duties at that point and went 11-for-11 in save opportunities to finish the season. However, he wasn’t always squeaky-clean in the process. The knock on Marmol — and perhaps the reason he didn’t begin the 2009 season in the closer role — is his questionable control. During his impressive end-of-season run, he walked 13 batters in 17 2/3 innings. For the season, he issued 65 free passes in 74 innings.

Not only does the recent shoulder injury to setup man Angel Guzman significantly weaken the team’s eighth-inning situation, it eliminates a potential Plan B if Marmol should struggle.

Projected lineup
1. SS Ryan Theriot: Averaged 24 SBs past three seasons.
2. RF Kosuke Fukudome: .164 AVG vs. lefties; .270 vs. righties.
3. 1B Derrek Lee: Career-high 111 RBIs in ’09; in contract year.
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez: Career-best .389 OBP in injury-marred ’09.
5. CF Marlon Byrd: Led Rangers with 89 RBIs last season.
6. LF Alfonso Soriano: Career-worst .726 OPS in ’09.
7. C Geovany Soto: Hit into 19 double plays (second among Cs).
8. 2B Mike Fontenot: .246 OBP vs. lefties.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano: 1.37 WHIP worst among Cubs’ 09 SPs.
2. RHP Ryan Dempster: 4.09 ERA in first half; 3.15 after break.
3. RHP Randy Wells: Rookie’s 3.05 ERA was rotation’s best in ’09.
4. LHP Tom Gorzelanny:5.19 ERA after trade to Cubs last season.
5. RHP Jeff Samardzija: 10.80 ERA in 2 starts in ’09.

Projected closer
RHP Carlos Marmol: Held hitters to a .170 AVG

Grades

Offense: B. The Cubs went from second to 22nd in runs scored and from third to 16th in OBP last season. If Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are healthy, the lineup compares favorably to any in the NL, especially after the offseason addition of Marlon Byrd. But those are big "ifs," as is the production at the bottom and top of the order.

Pitching: C. The big concern is Ted Lilly, who is expected to begin the season on the disabled list after offseason shoulder surgery and knee problems this spring. But the developing late-inning drama also is a worry.

Bench: A. Xavier Nady was signed as the fourth outfielder but should be no worse than a platoon player in right field (and perhaps the starter). On the infield, Jeff Baker is in a similar situation, as he could overtake Mike Fontenot for the starting job at second. Micah Hoffpauir provides pop and can play first base as well as the corner outfield spots.

Manager: B. Lou Piniella has guided the team to the postseason twice in his three seasons at the helm, but has no playoff wins to show for it. This could be his final season in a Cubs uniform, and he has enough talent – and doesn’t have the Bradley headache — for another postseason run.

Sporting News prediction: After winning back-to-back NL Central titles in 2007-08, the Cubs are destined for a second consecutive second-place finish. But they should be squarely in the mix for the NL wild card.

Coming Wednesday: Brewers preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

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