Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

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Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
Posted 10:12 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt go out and sign the free agent that will automatically sell tickets, drive television ratings and change the direction of the franchise. And they didnt hire a celebrity manager to create more buzz.

Quietly, Jim Hendry and his staff executed their plan this winter. The general manager looked to the past by bringing Kerry Wood home, and not too far into the future with Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract. It was a coherent, disciplined approach at a roster that last year had too many mismatched parts.

Players have already begun to assemble in Mesa, Ariz., where on Sunday pitchers and catchers will officially report. The next day Matt Garza the teams biggest offseason get will go through his first formal workout in a Cubs uniform at Fitch Park. By then, a new deal for closer Carlos Marmol could be announced.

You cant guarantee that Wood wont go on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career. We dont know if Pena, who will turn 33 in May, will make us forget his .196 average last year, or how Garzas numbers will translate outside the American League East.

Those answers will come, as this season slowly reveals itself through baseballs relentless daily rhythms. But here are five big questions hanging over the Cubs this spring.

Who is Mike Quade?

A baseball lifer was given six weeks to audition for the job. That amount of time wont even take us to Opening Day. Quade earned the right to stay on as manager with a 24-13 finish, but he really won over the organization with the way he handled young pitchers and pushed the veterans. This is a chance for Quade to put his imprint on the team.

Its time to take over, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. He showed at the end of last season what he can do. (You) need the players and he has (them). Were going to go out there and do it for him.

Where does the rotation turn?

Amazingly, the Cubs led the National League in quality starts (96) last season, and yet never spent a minute above .500. The best competition in camp will be for the fourth- and fifth-starter spots behind Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Garza. Randy Wells could cement his place in the rotation, but knows several prospects are coming after it.

Casey Coleman, the third-generation big-leaguer, has impressed club officials with his poise. Carlos Silva looked like an All-Star at one point in 2010, but injuries limited him to only 5.1 innings combined in August and September. Braden Looper, a non-roster invitee, is trying to get back into baseball.

Can the kids handle the spotlight?

From ownership to baseball operations to the marketing department, the Cubs are heavily invested in the idea that Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin are about to become stars.
Starlin Castro certainly appears to have superstar potential, but can he handle the glaring spotlight and high expectations? The Cubs present, and certainly its future, rely heavily on the young shortstop. (AP)
Cashner will be given every opportunity to make the rotation. Castro and Colvin will need to make adjustments at the plate during their second year around the league. These three homegrown players have to show growth. Every level of the organization is counting on it.

Will an older core stay strong?

The effects of age cant be ignored. Aramis Ramirez has missed nearly 120 games the past two seasons. Byrd emerged as an All-Star last year, but faded in the second half. They will turn 33 and 34 this summer. At 35, Alfonso Soriano is only halfway through his 136 million contract.

A lot of times when people think hes not giving full effort, Hendry said, he really is trying to stay healthy and hit those home runs to stay productive. We all feel that Soris got some solid years left. Will he ever be the guy that can steal 45 bags again? Absolutely not. Hell never be that kind of guy as a threat, but I think hes very capable of still hitting 30 home runs.
Should Albert Pujols start looking at real estate in Chicago?

Once Pena signed a one-year deal, speculation immediately focused on Pujols heading to Wrigley Field in 2012. The rumors wont stop, not with the Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez), Yankees (Mark Teixeira) and White Sox (Paul KonerkoAdam Dunn) having long-term answers at first base.

Between the McCourt divorce and Bernie Madoffs Ponzi scheme, scandals have created long-term questions about ownership of the Dodgers and the Mets and their financial health.

That leaves the Cubs, with several big contracts coming off the books, as a team well-positioned to gather all of their large-market resources to sign the best player of his generation.

Tom Ricketts has stressed player development and repeatedly praised Hendry, but hes also mentioned that hed like his general manager to be smarter with contract structures. Its unclear whether the chairman has the appetite for the 250 to 300 million it might take to convince Pujols to leave St. Louis should he hit free agency.

But its certain that Cubs and Cardinals fans will be arguing over this for the next nine months.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

The Cubs gave Kyle Schwarber time to sort things out by sending him down to Triple-A Iowa, and Schwarber's first game back in the minors shows he may need some time.

Schwarber's first game with the Iowa Cubs was a forgettable one. He struck out in his first three plate appearances before singling in his last at-bat. He struck out looking in the first inning before striking out swinging his next two times up.

Schwarber batted third in the lineup and played left field. Iowa won 1-0 against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

He last played for Iowa in 2015, but only spent 17 games there. He hit .333 with three homers and a 1.036 OPS in that short stint. Before getting sent down Schwarber was hitting .171 with the Cubs with 12 home runs, but also 75 strikeouts in 64 games.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”