In NL Central, injuries could shift balance of power

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In NL Central, injuries could shift balance of power

Monday, March 28, 2011
Posted 6:31 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Talk to enough Cubs people in Arizona and you notice they return to the same point: As long as we stay healthy

It will take months before anyone can finish that thought. But there is a sense of guarded optimism around camp, especially when you take a look at the rest of the National League Central.

The Cardinals have already lost 20-game winner Adam Wainwright, who will spend this year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Brewers are waiting for their Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke to heal from a fractured left rib suffered while playing pickup basketball. Milwaukee could begin the season with five players on the disabled list: Greinke; outfielder Corey Hart; catcher Jonathan Lucroy; and pitchers Manny Parra and LaTroy Hawkins.

The Reds rotation has also taken a hit, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey expected to be placed on the disabled list this week.

Through the course of 162 games, my guess is we will all have to deal with these situations from time to time, Cubs manager Mike Quade said. A couple of (teams) are going to have to deal with it early. If youre fortunate enough to stay healthy knock on wood we have all spring and I hope we do all summer then, yeah, thats a good thing.

But rarely does that happen. So whether its pitchers or regulars, during the course of (a season) youre usually going to be down some of your prime people.

Sure, injuries could shred what looks to be a very solid bullpen on paper. Check back in September to see if Kerry Wood wound up on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career, and confirm that John Grabows left knee held up for an entire season.

Both Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza have made at least 30 starts in each of the past three years. During that time, Carlos Marmol has averaged 79 appearances per season.

That means they are extremely durable or you could argue that theyre eventually due for a physical breakdown, given all the collective stress on their right arms.

But this close to Opening Day, the Cubs are going to focus on the positives.

Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano worked out extensively at the teams facility in the Dominican Republic this winter. Not only are they in better shape, they say they were energized by being around all those hungry, young players.

Marlon Byrd took up boxing and didnt sprint as much in the offseason in order to save his legs. He feels his body is better prepared for all the day games at Wrigley Field. He vows to stay strong in the outfield and through the second half.

Catcher Geovany Soto hasnt felt this good in years, and has no restrictions after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last September.

Carlos Zambrano was joking when he said that the psychologist gave him approval to be alone by himself. Either way the Cubs will be reminded of these two words: Im cured.

Zambranos mental health is a major issue in a division where the margins could be very thin.

Baseball Prospectus rates the Cubs as an 80-win team though thats not far behind the Brewers, projected to be in first place at 85-77.

Even without Wainwright, it would be foolish to dismiss the Cardinals, who have had one losing season in the past 11 years. Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols could be free agents at seasons end, but they wont make that a distraction.

The Reds are still the defending champions in the Central. Their core of young players should make them a factor for years to come.

But it wont take an unbelievable season to contend in a division without an overwhelming favorite. An NL Central team hasnt won a postseason series since the Cardinals won it all in 2006. To get in the tournament, the key could just be staying healthy.

We fully expect to be in contention in the National League Central. (I) dont have any doubt we can do that, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. We won two divisions in a row and then we were supposed to kind of cruise and St. Louis won easily (in 2009). Then they were supposed to cruise and Cincinnati had a great year. The division (got) better.

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

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana is grateful for his defense and offense picking him up.

That's not something he's used to feeling after years of borderline-laughable run support from the White Sox in games he started.

But as he made his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform Sunday night, Quintana served up three rockets in a row to the heart of the Cardinals order and all three wound up as outs.

First it was a lineout to Jason Heyward in right field where the Gold Glover leapt in the air and did something of a karate kick while catching the ball.

Another hard liner at Heyward followed before Jedd Gyorko laced a double into the left-centerfield gap. But Kyle Schwarber retrieved it quickly, made a perfect throw to Addison Russell who spun and made a quick throw to Willson Contreras at the plate to nab Matt Carpenter by a mile.

Thus endeth the first top of the first inning for Quintana at "The Friendly Confines."

"At the beginning of the game, he might've been a little overexcited," Joe Maddon said. "He was too quick with all of his actions. The pitches weren't going where he wanted them to go.

"And then I thought he settled in very well. He wasn't as sharp as in Baltimore, but he was good. He was very good."

Quintana allowed three runs on five hits and a pair of walks in six innings, recording the bare minimum requirements for a quality start. He also picked up his second win in as many outings with the Cubs when batterymate Willson Contreras hit a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

Quintana agreed with Maddon that he was a little over-exuberant in this one.

"Too many emotions for me," he said. "It was one I enjoyed a lot. I was just trying to focus on inning by inning."

This is the first time Quintana has been on a team in the playoff hunt since his rookie season in 2012 when the Sox went 85-77 and missed the playoffs.

With Sunday's win, the Cubs have moved back into a share of first place and Quintana is all about the success.

"That's awesome," he said. "First time. To come into a team like this one and get to first place, that's amazing. I want to keep doing my job."

Now Quintana will have four days to sit back, relax, strap it down and watch the Crosstown Series knowing he won't have to go in and face a bunch of guys who he called teammates just two weeks ago. 

Quintana's next start will come Friday in Milwaukee.

"He's as advertised," Anthony Rizzo said. "Really didn't enjoy facing him. When we played the White Sox, he was the guy I always hoped to miss. To have him here and his demeanor on the mound is awesome."