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.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In their never-ending search for young pitching, the Cubs discussed a Matt Moore deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but wouldn’t consider trading Kyle Schwarber. To get Moore at the Aug. 1 deadline, the San Francisco Giants had to surrender the runner-up to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), plus two more prospects.

Moore finished one out short of a no-hitter on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, throwing 133 pitches against a deep Los Angeles lineup, two-plus years after having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Whether or not Moore helps shift the balance of power in the National League West, the Cubs should still have enough pitching.

To get through October. As long as John Lackey (shoulder) comes off the disabled list in early September and the rest of the rotation stays healthy. Surviving next season and beyond could be a different story, if Jake Arrieta becomes another team’s 2018 Opening Day starter, if Jon Lester breaks down in the middle of that $155 million megadeal and assuming Lackey finally retires around the 3,000-inning mark.

All that makes Mike Montgomery an interesting lefty swingman if the Cubs are going to maintain The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“I think he is a major-league starter, regardless of what happens tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s wild 6-4 comeback win that took 10 innings at Dodger Stadium. “This guy has the ability to be a solid major-league starter based on his strength level, his delivery, the variety of pitches that he throws. The strike-throwing ability is exceptional. He’s got all those different things going on.

“Just be a little bit patient with (him) and let him get his feet on the ground somewhere, because he’s the kind of guy that can take off if he gets comfortable in his environment.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If Montgomery didn’t ace this audition, he also didn’t bomb against a first-place team in front of a big crowd (48,609), either, showing the potential the Cubs saw in making last month’s trade with the Seattle Mariners.

Montgomery kept the Cubs in the game before Bryant’s clutch performance, allowing three runs in five innings and minimizing the damage on a night where he didn’t have pinpoint control (four walks, hit batter, wild pitch, 49 strikes across 91 pitches).

The Cubs are in trouble if Montgomery somehow winds up in this year’s playoff rotation, but he checks a lot of boxes for the future as someone with youth (27), size (6-foot-5), first-round/top-prospect pedigree, a high groundball rate and a service-time clock that won’t make him a free agent until after the 2021 season.

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – There will never be another Vin Scully, who joined the Dodgers in Brooklyn as a kid out of Fordham University, moved to Los Angeles and became a face of the franchise, doing the one-man show that still connects and entertains generations of baseball fans.

The Cubs paid their respects to the legendary broadcaster before Friday night’s game at Dodger Stadium, with manager Joe Maddon and catcher David Ross visiting the Vin Scully Press Box for another photo op before the lyrical voice retires at the end of this season, at the age of 88.

“You’re ascending into the clouds to meet Mr. Scully,” Maddon said. “That’s like the window to the world up there when you sit in his booth and he talks about the purple mountain majesties on a clear day beyond the outfield fences here.”

The Cubs presented Scully with a green “67” scoreboard panel – to mark the number of seasons he’s worked Dodger games – as well as a Dodger banner from Wrigley Field. Maddon also gave Scully, who rocks the conservative coat-and-tie look on TV, several T-shirts from his collection, including “Try Not to Suck.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon said he told Scully: “Maybe at the end of the year, sitting by your pool with the sandals on, you can put a T-shirt on where no one can see you and just be Vin.”

As the tributes pour in from around baseball, CSN Chicago will carry Scully’s third-inning call live during Sunday’s broadcast from Chavez Ravine.

“He makes you feel like he’s known you for the last 50 years,” Maddon said. “Just really kind and gracious. And you have to be all of that to survive that many years. Besides being good, it’s his authenticity and how he interacts with people that really (keeps) you on that stage that long.”