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2010 N.L. Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

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IN: OF Marlon Byrd, OF Xavier Nady, SP Carlos Silva, RP Jeff Gray

OUT: 2B Aaron Miles, 3B/OF Jake Fox, OF Milton Bradley, OF Reed Johnson, SP Rich Harden, RP Aaron Heilman, RP Kevin Gregg

2009 W-L: 83-78

PYTHAGOREAN W-L: 84-77

OFFENSE: You may have heard that the Cubs are down-and-out now after winning just 83 games in 2009, but this is still a talented team. Their lineup is aging, but solid when everyone's healthy. The Cubs can look forward to having more of 3B Aramis Ramirez, who missed half of last season, and if he and 1B Derrek Lee can stay on the field, they form one of the best corner infield combinations in baseball. Their middle infield isn't nearly as strong, but SS Ryan Theriot at least gets on base pretty reliably, and second basemen Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker have both shown flashes of hitting ability at times. 

In the outfield, Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady will take most of the at-bats Milton Bradley got last year. Bradley hurt the Cubs' public relations department much more than he actually hurt them with his actual playing, which was decent enough. Still, he was the kind of decent (.257/.378/.397, with mediocre defense) that Byrd and Nady should be able to approximate pretty regularly, and without the drama.

Kosuke Fukudome should start most of the time in right. His game is basically walks, defense and a little bit of power; he turns 33 in April and hasn't yet hit for average in the U.S. A slight decrease in his contact ability would turn him into a problem, but for now he's fine. Alfonso Soriano looked slow and washed up last season, and much of that was undoubtedly due to a balky knee. He had surgery on the knee in September, but he says it still isn't 100 percent, which raises questions about how well he'll play this year. He's 34 and was already slowing down before 2009, so it might not be wise to expect much.

Behind the plate, though, Geovany Soto is an excellent candidate to bounce back from a disappointing 2009--he had some very bad luck on balls in play last year, so he's a good bet to return to being one of baseball's better-hitting catchers.

PITCHING

The Cubs will miss Rich Harden, who pitched well down the stretch in an otherwise inconsistent 2009 season, but they also have to worry about Ted Lilly, who has shoulder and knee issues and will almost certainly begin the season on the DL. Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Ryan Dempster all are assured spots to start the season. Wells isn't as good as the 3.05 ERA he posted last year, but his minor league record convinces me that he's a legitimate major league starter. Dempster followed up a weirdly terrific 2008 campaign with a very good 2009 season, so maybe it's time to stop being skeptical--he's just having a late peak.

The other two rotation spots will be occupied by two of Sean Marshall, Carlos Silva, Jeff Samardzija and our old friend Tom Gorzelanny, with one of those players losing his spot when Lilly comes back. Putting Silva in the rotation would be a disaster for the Cubs, and Samardzija probably would be too; his performance record is so inconsistent that it's hard to know what to make of him. I like Marshall quite a bit better--he doesn't have Samardzija's fastball, but he knows how to pitch. It's hard for me to say anything kind about Gorzelanny, but he performed well in the minors last year and is probably a better option than Silva or Samardzija.

The Cubs' bullpen wasn't even particularly deep before a serious shoulder injury to setup man Angel Guzman and a less serious injury to potential middle reliever Jeff Gray. Now it's practically nonexistent. Carlos Marmol, John Grabow and Esmailin Caridad appear to be set, but they're the only ones. That leaves a bunch of spots for relative unknowns, like John Gaub, Blake Parker, Thomas Diamond, Andrew Cashner, Mitch Atkins and James Russell, along with the losers of the rotation competition. And it's worth pointing out that Caridad himself is hardly a known quantity, and while Marmol is one of the most talented relievers in baseball, he has serious control issues and walked almost a batter an inning last year. This has the potential to be a very, very bad bullpen, and Jim Hendry is wisely still seeking relief help.

PROGNOSIS

The injuries the Cubs are already dealing with demonstrates how fragile a team they really are. This is a team that could very easily win 90 games if everything goes right, or 70 if everything goes wrong. Their core of players is very talented, but there's no assurance they can stay healthy and productive. The Cubs will lean very heavily on their starting rotation to keep the ball out of the hands of their relievers, and if Lilly comes back sooner rather than later, that just might work. Their lineup has potential, but it's an old lineup; Soriano is a huge wild card. And with the exception of Starlin Castro, who shouldn't be rushed, there are no impact hitting prospects near the majors. (The Cubs have a pretty strong farm system right now, but most of their brightest lights are still in Class A.)

So, 90 if things go right, 70 if things go wrong. Lou Piniella is a smart, creative manager who should do a nice job with a talented, but very flawed team. I'll say he'll find his way past the midpoint.

2. Chicago Cubs 83-79

3. Cincinnati Reds 80-82

4. Milwaukee Brewers 76-84

5. Houston Astros 73-89

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 70-92