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, White Sox react to news of Jose Fernandez's death

Cubs, White Sox react to news of Jose Fernandez's death

The baseball world was rocked Sunday morning by the news that Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident at the age of 24.

"All of baseball is shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez," Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "He was one of our game's great young stars who made a dramatic impact on and off the field since his debut in 2013. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, the Miami Marlins organization and all of the people he touched in his life."

Chicago baseball teams and players shared their own messages on Twitter after the news broke.

Born in Cuba, Fernandez had a long and dangerous journey defecting to the United States. Unsuccessful attempts to defects were followed by prison terms, and during his successful attempt, he rescued his mother from drowning after she fell overboard. He was only 15 years old at the time.

Fernandez, who won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, was twice named an NL All Star, including this season. He had a sparkling 2.58 ERA in his four big league seasons. After dealing with injuries that limited him to 19 combined starts during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Fernandez was stellar this season, posting a 2.86 ERA and striking out a whopping 253 batters in 182 1/3 innings.

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.