Kaplan: Five keys to 2011 Cubs season

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Kaplan: Five keys to 2011 Cubs season

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
10:57 a.m.

By David Kaplan
CSNChicago.com

With spring training now in full swing the Cubs are hoping to finally put the awful 2010 season behind them. With a new manager and a handful of players with something to prove the ingredients are there for a major turnaround from one of the most disappointing teams in baseball to one of the most surprising.

Here then are the five keys to the Cubs 2011 season:
1) Which Big Z shows up?

Carlos Zambrano had an up and down 2010 season. He was the Opening Day starter and then was forced to leave the team for several weeks in the middle of the season after another dugout meltdown led to a stay in anger management therapy. When he returned he was outstanding but most quality major league pitchers would be very good if they were given several weeks a season off to stay fresh. Year after year Zambrano comes to camp full of proclamations about he has changed his approach and mindset. This time he says he is done talking about changing; instead he wants his actions to speak louder than his words, which far too often have, rang hollow. If he truly is a changed man then the Cubs rotation just got a whole lot stronger.

PREDICTION: Zambrano's stuff is not as good as it once was but he is extremely motivated to quiet the multitude of critics who believe that he is a detriment to the team. Big Z wins 13 games and has a solid but unspectacular season.

2) Was Matt Garza worth the price?

Garza was a costly acquisition in terms of talent surrendered from the minor leagues. However, a conversation I had with Carlos Pena gives all Cubs fans hope that GM Jim Hendry may have made a great trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. "Cubs fans have no idea what they are getting in Garza. He is as competitive a guy as you will find and he is so excited to be pitching here. His stuff is outstanding and he will back down from no one. He is a great addition to the rotation."

PREDICTION: Garza will win 15 or more and will make the trade look like a very shrewd move by Hendry.

3) Will Aramis Ramirez stay healthy and return to form?

Ramirez has become a flash point for criticism because he seems to be unable to stay healthy and because he has lapses in concentration that seem to infuriate the fan base. However, there is no denying that he is a tremendously talented player who can be one of the best offensive threats in the game. He is in the final year of a huge contract and he is playing for his next deal whether that is staying with the Cubs or moving on. He must have a solid season if he wants another payday. That bodes well for a big season.

PREDICTION: Ramirez will have a very good season finishing with a batting average of .280 or better and he will slug 25 HR's and drive in 90-100.

4) Who solidifies the back end of the rotation?

The best candidate appears to be Randy Wells who must rebound from a terrible 2010 season, which heard his critics question his commitment and work ethic. He worked extremely hard on his conditioning during the off-season and comes to camp motivated. That is more often than not a good combination for a team to have. However, the Cubs expect more from him than just being an innings eater, which unfortunately is what he became in 2010. My other choice to pitch out of the rotation is Andrew Cashner who has outstanding velocity as well as a solid slider but the big question is can he be a starter with only two outstanding pitches? The wild card in this whole equation is Carlos Silva who is in the final year of his contract and is coming off a very up and down 2010 season that saw him start 8-0 but struggle the rest of the way. Can he rebound and become a factor in the rotation? With his contract expiring he is pitching for his next deal and that could help the Cubs catch lightning in a bottle. Other candidates include Casey Coleman, Jay Jackson, Braden Looper, and 25-year-old minor leaguer Chris Carpenter.

5) Is right field a strength or a liability?

Tyler Colvin is a fan favorite and is coming off of a very solid rookie season. However, while he is cheered, his main competition for a starting spot, Kosuke Fukudome is booed despite being statistically better in almost every category. Colvin makes the league minimum while Fukudome makes 14 million and therein lies the problem. Fans see the salary and demand better production while anything Colvin does is magnified because he came up from the farm system and he makes minimal money. Don't forget about Fukudome who is perhaps the best fundamental player on the roster and is also in the final year of his deal.
PREDICTION: Fukudome wins the Opening Day start and has another decent season but for him to return in 2012 it would have to be at a greatly reduced salary. Neither player is a huge offensive presence and this is an area that the Cubs need to upgrade as they improve.

David Kaplan is the host of Chicago Tribune Live on Comcast SportsNet. Follow him on Twitter @thekapman.

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

MESA, Ariz. — An agent sort of joked that this is where every big-leaguer wants to play — and no minor-league prospect wants to be. Of course, that is an oversimplification, but it sums up life around the Cubs, where the World Series champs are treated like kings and it can be difficult for the kids to see the path to Wrigley Field.

With no obvious blue-chip pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system yet — and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey positioned to become free agents after this season and the fifth-starter job up for grabs this spring — the Cubs are hoping for someone to take a big step forward.

Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff certainly have a long track record of committing to young talent and developing players at the major-league level. That open-minded philosophy will not change.

But if a frontline starting pitcher who makes sense in a pennant race and for the future suddenly becomes available — or the Cubs have to rebuild their bullpen on the fly again or respond to a different roster emergency — then Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez could be this year's Gleyber Torres.

"You know that's the reality of our business," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "But you also try to develop each guy and focus on each guy as if they're definitely going to come up and impact us.

"We didn't want to trade (Gleyber). We felt like we needed to do it. But certainly the way we have to think about these guys is that they're going to have a big impact on the Cubs someday. And both guys have the right makeup to do that."

While shipping their elite shortstop prospect to the New York Yankees in a blockbuster 4-for-1 deal for rental closer Aroldis Chapman last summer, the Cubs asked themselves: If not now, when?

Chapman joined a team that had a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. It would be almost impossible to do another deal on that kind of all-or-nothing scale — the 1908 stuff is over — but the Cubs have a reputation for being bold, creative and aggressive.

"It's out of your control," Happ said. "You have to go out and try to be better every day and work hard. The team is so good. We have so many good players to learn from here. It just really motivates you to continue to improve and try to get better every day."

Happ fits a Cubs Way demographic as a polished, fast-track switch-hitter who performed at the University of Cincinnati, in the Cape Cod League and in the classroom (first-team academic All-American). The potential to play second base and shift to the outfield would also fit on a Maddon team.

Happ — the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft — has already played a half-season at Double-A Tennessee, homered from both sides of the plate in an Arizona Fall League title game and appeared on top-prospects lists for MLB.com (No. 28), Baseball Prospectus (No. 54), ESPN (No. 63) and Baseball America (No. 63).

While the 2016 Cubs experienced that unforgettable playoff run, Happ and his Mesa Solar Sox teammates would hover around an iPad in the dugout in between innings. This is the next phase for a player-development system that used to revolve around the idea of "When It Happens."

"I think this team is going to be good for a long time," Happ said. "It's nice to be part of an organization that doesn't feel like it's a one-and-done situation. It feels like they're building something here and you're going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come. But just being able to be a part of the organization when that happened was special."

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known someday as one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, right up there with global brands like the New England Patriots, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But the most relevant blueprint for baseball operations right now might be the Atlanta Braves model that won 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, an unbelievable run that still only resulted in one World Series title.

In a "Chicks Dig The Long Ball" era, the Braves had 60 percent of a Hall of Fame rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and a manager (Bobby Cox) who would get his own Cooperstown plaque.

The Braves Way still didn't only revolve around baseball immortals. The churn of young talent and under-the-radar contributors makes big-time prospects Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ — and somehow finding a next wave of pitching — so important to The Plan.

"The Braves did such a great job during their run of always breaking in a guy or two," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "There's a lot of benefits to always trying to break in a guy every year, trying to add new blood every single year. Young guys are great even for a veteran team, because they provide the spark. They provide new energy.

"I thought Willson (Contreras) was a big part of that last year. Coming up in the middle of the season, it was like a great spark for our guys. Maybe one of these guys can provide that spark."

During that 15-year window, the Braves had 14 different players show up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting:  

1991: Brian Hunter, Mike Stanton
1992: Mark Wohlers
1993: Greg McMichael 
1994: Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez
1995: Chipper Jones
1996: Jermaine Dye 
1997: Andruw Jones 
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg 
1999: Kevin McGlinchy
2000: Rafael Furcal 
2001: –
2002: Damian Moss
2003: –
2004: –
2005: Jeff Francoeur

The Braves produced Rookie of the Year winners in 1990 (David Justice), 2000 (Furcal) and 2011 (Craig Kimbrel). That gap in the early 2000s foreshadowed a relative down cycle where the Braves averaged almost 82 losses between 2006 and 2009 and made zero playoff appearances.

Jason Heyward's big-league debut in 2010 coincided with a run of four straight seasons where the Braves averaged 90-plus wins and made the playoffs three times.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Baseball America put Jimenez (No. 14) and Happ (No. 63) on its preseason top-100 list of prospects. Whether it's making an impression on Joe Maddon's coaching staff, being showcased for a future trade or getting more comfortable in the spotlight, Jimenez and Happ will be two players to watch when the Cubs begin their Cactus League schedule on Saturday.

"Everyone thinks our future is here," Hoyer said. "It's really important to never get caught in that. You always want to have guys in the minor leagues ready to come up. Having organizational depth is really important. Those guys are good players and they're going to help us at some point."

Jimenez is a dynamic 6-foot-4 corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic who figures to begin his age-20 season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Happ, a 2015 first-round pick, finished last season at Double-A Tennessee and can switch-hit and move between the infield and the outfield.

Contreras is trying to make the leap from energizer to everyday frontline catcher. Albert Almora Jr. — who also contributed to a championship team as a rookie — is trying to earn the center-field job. The Cubs already trusted Carl Edwards Jr. in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 and now hope he can keep evolving into an Andrew Miller-type reliever.

The Cubs need the assembly line that's rolled out Anthony Rizzo (June 2012), Kyle Hendricks (July 2014), Javier Baez (August 2014), Kris Bryant and Addison Russell (April 2015) and Kyle Schwarber (June 2015) to keep delivering talent.

"It's something that we have to be really mindful of," Hoyer said, "to make sure that we continue to put a lot of focus on player development, the same kind of focus that we put on it when we were rebuilding, because those guys are going to have a huge impact on us."