Kaplan: Five keys to 2011 Cubs season

Kaplan: Five keys to 2011 Cubs season
February 21, 2011, 5:11 pm
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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.