What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

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What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

Monday, Sept. 12, 2011
Posted: 9:58 p.m. Updated: 10:14 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
CINCINNATI The flood-the-zone Bears coverage has already begun, which probably means you have already stopped paying close attention as time runs out on this Cubs season.

There are now 15 games left after Mondays 12-8 win over the Reds. Then the real action will start.

When Tom Ricketts announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19 after the two kept it a secret for almost an entire month the chairman made it clear that the next general manager would come from outside the organization.

That person would be from a winning culture, committed to player development and fluent in statistical analysis. So Ricketts cant make direct contact until Sept. 29 at the earliest and may have to wait until the World Series winner is crowned.

Well just play the cards were dealt, Ricketts said at last months press conference.

So the Cubs could wait to see how the power struggle plays out in the American League East between Bostons Theo Epstein, Tampa Bays Andrew Friedman and New Yorks Brian Cashman. They could try to go Hollywood with Billy Beane the architect of Oaklands Moneyball organization or identify the next executive on the rise.

It did not go unnoticed in the clubhouse that Ricketts strongly endorsed several people in the front office, while saying the decision on manager Mike Quade and his coaching staff would be up to the next general manager.

Until then, heres what the Cubs will be hoping to get out of the next two-plus weeks:

Perception vs. reality

Where the media used to fixate on Tyler Colvin, reporters now question Quade when Bryan LaHair isnt in the lineup.

The Pacific Coast League MVP led all minor-league hitters with 38 homers and has hit safely in all seven games played since his call-up. That 1.515 OPS is weighed against LaHairs age (29 next season) and pedigree (39th-round pick).

We still have a lot of baseball to play, Quade said. Im not inclined to go nuts after watching a guy for four or five games. But the one thing Ive been completely impressed with (is his) at-bats, his takes, his pitch counts that hes running up. Hes doing a lot of good stuff. Well see if it continues.

The future

Heading into this season, the Cubs built their narrative around Colvin and Andrew Cashner, two homegrown players who were supposed to make the leap.

The entire logic behind the Kosuke Fukudome trade was to get the chance to see Colvin play every day. Colvin entered Monday hitting .198 with four homers and 12 RBI in 35 games since the deadline deal. Like LaHair, Colvin runs into Quades loyalty to veteran players, his tendency to play matchups and the natural desire to pad your record.

Its not easy to see someone just giving up on Colvins left-handed pop, but the next administration might not be as invested. It's on Colvin to put up some more numbers this month.

The Cubs will be watching closely any time Cashner steps onto the mound and tests the rotator cuff that derailed his season. He is the X-factor in their 2012 rotation, and perhaps their entire offseason plan.

The superstar

Starlin Castro isnt at that level yet, but hes closer than anyone could have predicted a little more than two years ago, when he was playing at Class-A Daytona.
Starlin Castro will likely reach 200 hits this season and is the Cubs' superstar of the future, but will Mike Quade be his manager much longer? (US PRESSWIRE)
On Monday night Castro returned to Great American Ball Park, where he finished with six RBI in his major-league debut last May. He sliced an RBI double into the right-field corner. He hammered another ball 425 feet to center for a two-run homer, his ninth of the year. It wont be long before the Cubs will be projecting him to hit 20-25 home runs a year.

I know that I have this kind of power, Castro said.

Castro needs only 10 more hits to reach 200, and the Cubs are rooting for him to do it at Wrigley Field. As Alfonso Soriano said: I hope that he can stay hot to finish the road trip with like six or seven more hits and get 200 at home.

Spoilers

History may have had an alternate ending if the Cubs hadnt won three of four games in San Diego during the final week of last season. The Giants snuck into the playoffs and ultimately celebrated their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco.

The remaining schedule is light on contenders, and the races are largely decided across baseball. The Brewers who come to Wrigley Field for a three-game series next week began Monday with a magic number of 10. Maybe theyll be spraying champagne in the cramped visiting clubhouse.

The Cardinals woke up that morning with flickering hopes of a wild card, 4.5 games behind the Braves. Perhaps the Cubs could put those out Sept. 23-25 in St. Louis and play spoilers again.

Way back at the beginning of spring training, club officials promised that the Cubs would draw three-million fans at Wrigley Field. With six home dates left, and attendance at 2,804,409, theyre on target to surpass that mark.

What will that mean for next years major-league payroll?

Ricketts has said that he will have no clue what that dollar amount will be until his staff does a full accounting at seasons end and the next general manager decides how to allocate those resources.

That means the Cubs will continue to be in a holding pattern on the big questions. Will an established executive take this job? Pursue Prince Fielder? Re-sign Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena?

Until then, there are games that have to be played.

You want to finish strong, catcher Koyie Hill said. No matter what youre doing, you dont want to drag across the finish line.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."