Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring
February 13, 2011, 4:12 am
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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.