How will playing time be distributed at second base, and what do you expect out of Darwin Barney this year?
It's not really clear how playing time will be distributed yet. When camp began it appeared the Cubs were going to platoon Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker at second, but Barney outplayed DeWitt, who has been relegated to a bench role. Baker rakes against LHP (.350/.395/.550 in 152 PA in 2010, .308/.363/.545 career), so he's likely to get most of the at-bats against lefthanders. Barney therefore will get the lion's share of the starts and because he's the Cubs' best defensive infielder, he could win the starting job. Barney's a winner - he was on an Oregon State College World Series-winning team, and bulked up his upper body last winter at an offseason camp. He could be a really pleasant surprise.
You wrote last week that Starlin Castro looks poised for a breakout season this year. Why do you think so?
Castro came up as the "speedy middle infield guy." He hit .300 last year - at age 20 - while playing somewhat shaky defense (27 errors). He's worked hard on the defense, and hit some monstrous home runs in spring training, including one over a 30-foot-high hitter's background 430 feet from the plate in Las Vegas. I could see him turning into Edgar Renteria in his prime, a 15-to-20-homer-a-year guy. And he just turned 21, an age at which a lot of guys are in Class AA, or juniors in college. He can only get better.
After struggling at the start of last season, Carlos Zambrano kept runs off the board down the stretch, although he still struggled with his control. What do you expect from him in 2011?
Big Z went through anger management with a psychologist after his incident last year in the dugout during a game vs. the White Sox. He was lights-out after his return, except, as you mention, for a few issues with command. He no longer has to worry about the pressure of starting on Opening Day, which in the past seemed to have him too amped up. (Last year, he got absolutely pounded by the Braves.) Ryan Dempster will start the game for the Cubs. I expect Zambrano to have an excellent season, one of his best - he's healthy and in great shape, and people forget he's not yet 30, because he's been around so long.
How much time do you expect 2010 20-homer hitter Tyler Colvin will get in the outfield?
All the Cubs' other outfielders - Kosuke Fukudome, Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano - will need breaks and days off. That's how Colvin will likely be slotted in, kind of a four-guys-for-three-positions situation. Fukudome can't really hit lefthanders, but since Colvin is also a left-handed hitter, it won't be a strict platoon. Last year Colvin played in 135 games with 398 plate appearances. He should be in nearly as many games, with close to the same number or more plate appearances.
Given all the salary they'll have coming off the books (Carlos Silva, Kosuke Fukudome, perhaps Aramis Ramirez), do you think the Cubs have what it takes to land Albert Pujols next offseason?
Ramirez has been in walk (or, more correctly, opt-out) years in the past and has always produced. The key for him is staying healthy. If he produces a year like that, the Cubs could decide to retain him for another year (or more). He hasn't had a fully healthy year since 2008. Between Ramirez, Silva, Fukudome and John Grabow ($4.7 million this year), the Cubs could easily have $30 million available for Albert Pujols. If I'm making the decision, I sign Pujols in a heartbeat, to whatever deal he wants (probably front-loading it so if the last years aren't that productive, at least you're not paying that much for them). He's going to end up the greatest righthanded hitter in baseball history. Some Cubs fans are afraid of "another Soriano deal." But the comps for Pujols are guys like Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb - first-tier Hall of Famers. He's absolutely worth it ... not to mention it would cause anguish for Cardinals fans.