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2007 N.L. Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

Discussion of this article at Bleed Cubbie Blue

2006 W-L: 66-96
Runs Scored: 716
Runs Allowed: 834
Pythagenport W-L: 69.3 - 92.7

IN

1B Daryle Ward, 2B Mark DeRosa, OF Alfonso Soriano, OF Cliff Floyd, SP Ted Lilly, SP Jason Marquis, RP Neal Cotts

OUT

1B John Mabry, UT Freddie Bynum, OF Juan Pierre, P Jae Kuk Ryu, P Glendon Rusch, RP David Aardsma

DEFENSE

C Michael Barrett
1B Derrek Lee
2B Mark DeRosa
SS Cesar Izturis
3B Aramis Ramirez
OF Matt Murton / Cliff Floyd
CF Alfonso Soriano
OF Jacque Jones

ROTATION

RHP Carlos Zambrano
LHP Ted Lilly
RHP Jason Marquis
LHP Rich Hill
RHP Mark Prior

HOW WAS THE OFFSEASON?

The Cubs won 66 games in their embarrassing 2006 season, and spent their offseason frantically trying to make sure that doesn't happen again - they dropped a spectacular amount of money on free agents and replaced manager Dusty Baker with Lou Piniella. If you spend $300 million, your team had better improve, and the Cubs certainly did. That's the good news. The bad news is that they needed to improve by quite a lot to make any noise, even in a weak division like this one. The even worse news is that the enormous contract they handed Alfonso Soriano will likely hamstring them in the coming years, and their farm system isn't strong, so the future isn't especially bright. Still, the Cubs did enough to contend in 2007, and possibly win the division.

HOW'S THE OFFENSE?

The Cubs scored the third-fewest runs in the majors last year, but 2007 should be different. Soriano will upgrade the offense considerably - Cubs centerfielders only managed a .725 OPS last year -  but their biggest source of improvement should come from within. Derrek Lee posted a 1.080 OPS in 2005 but only appeared in 50 games last year. The time Lee spent on the DL was due to a fluky wrist injury that shouldn't affect him in 2007, and while it'd be unrealistic to expect him to return to his 2005 form, he's an athletic player for a first baseman and he's not terribly old, so he's not going to disappear.

The Cubs should also get improved production from shortstop - it isn't often that Cesar Izturis is described as an offensive improvement, but the Cubs managed only a .598 OPS from shortstop last year - and from their bench. The Cubs were ill-prepared to deal with the injuries they suffered last year and they made a number of midseason trades once they fell out of contention, and the result was that they gave at least 50 at bats to eighteen different offensive players. Among the bench players in that group of eighteen, Neifi Perez, John Mabry, Angel Pagan, Jerry Hairston and Tony Womack were all bad. When injuries happen in 2007, the Cubs should be better prepared to deal with them. The additions of Daryle Ward - a perfectly decent bench player - and Cliff Floyd improve their depth. Even though Michael Barrett and Jacque Jones are likely to regress, this should be a much improved offensive team.

HOW'S THE PITCHING?

It's better than it initially appears, even if you're (rightly) skeptical that Mark Prior (who has the first crack at the fifth starter job) will do anything at all this year. "Big Z" was worked hard by former manager Dusty Baker, and Cubs fans need to pray he doesn't break down as a result. Assuming he's healthy, though, this could be a pretty good rotation. Ted Lilly will benefit from a move out of the AL East, and Rich Hill, who amassed 225 strikeouts between Class AAA and the majors last year, should also be productive. Jason Marquis isn't the best bet - his peripherals have been sliding since 2004, and Wrigley Field shouldn't help him in his quest to allow fewer than the 35 jacks he gave up in 2006. But even if he and/or Prior don't work out, the Cubs have plenty of interesting backup options, including Wade Miller, Angel Guzman and, if he can get over his shoulder troubles, Sean Marshall.

The Cubs' bullpen is a little like their rotation - it's a bit thin at the top (the Cubs really need to stop having Ryan Dempster pitch high-leverage innings), but they have a ton of interesting options. The long-term deals the Cubs gave to Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry last offseason now look downright smart, as both those players are coming off strong seasons. Neal Cotts was a high-upside pickup for the Cubs this winter and could blossom into a top lefty out of the 'pen. Will Ohman and Mike Wuertz were quietly solid for the Cubs last year. Kerry Wood will be a very high-upside addition to the relief corps if he can somehow avoid injuries. And Carlos Marmol can help, too, if he can master his control problems, and so can Juan Mateo, who was rushed to the majors last year. Roberto Novoa is a lower-upside option than the rest, but he's not awful. In other words, the Cubs have a ton of options to sort through this spring, and if someone falters, they won't be left gasping.

Overall, this should be a decent pitching staff. If for some reason they can get a 2003-caliber season out of Prior, it could be formidable. I wouldn't count on that happening, but there's still a lot to like here.

OUTLOOK

It's hard to predict how the 2007 Cubs will do because they're so different from the 2006 Cubs and because so much could depend on the health of their pitchers. I'll hedge my bets by guessing that they'll finish second, though I wouldn't be surprised if they finished anywhere from first to fourth.

OTHER PREVIEWS:

3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Houston Astros
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Cincinnati Reds