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Is this the year? Chicago Cubs 2011 Season Preview

Will Matt Garza lead the Cubs to the promised land?

For the last 10 years of my life I’ve heard this question asked at the beginning of the MLB season: Is this the year the Cubs finally win the World Series?

The short answer here is “probably not”.

After coming off of a horrific 75-87 year in 2010, the Cubs are looking to rebound with the additions of starting pitcher Matt Garza, first basemen Carlos Peña, and relief pitcher Kerry Wood. But are these newcomers enough to get us a division title?

The answer, once again, is “probably not”.

Notice a trend here? General Manager Jim Hendry seems to have dug a hole for the Cubbies in his recent years with the franchise. Currently, we are in a bind financially due to the overpaying of players like Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Aramis Ramirez. Thankfully, most of these contracts are up at the end of this season. That means no more double play balls from Aramis Ramirez. No more .260 seasons from Kosuke Fukudome. Hopefully in 2012 we can witness Pujols in Cubby blue. But we can all dream right?

But this isn’t about next year. This is about this year.

On the bright side, the Cubs took a 14.6 percent decrease in payroll this season, the first cut since 2005. Also, (not to celebrate an injury) the injury to Cardinals’ ace pitcher Adam Wainwright only helps the rest of the division. Now we only have to deal with Chris Carpenter, who is 35 years old and isn’t the most durable. A division title is definitely attainable if all things go our way.

Another roadblock that stands in our way is the Milwaukee Brewers, who seemed to benefit the most from the Wainwright injury. They are debatably the favorites in the NL Central, after adding pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum through trades. Offensively, the Brewers pack power with first basemen Prince Fielder and outfielder Ryan Braun, in addition to third basemen Casey McGehee and Rickie Weeks, who combined for 52 home runs last year.

On another note, the Cubs have a bright future in shortstop Starlin Castro and outfielder Tyler Colvin. Castro, at 20 years old, hit .300 and got 31 doubles and 5 triples. Colvin hit 20 home runs as a rookie last season. Hopefully the sophomore slump doesn’t affect either of these guys, or the Cubs will be in big trouble.

We should be seeing a lot of this from Castro

The X-factor for the Cubs has to be Aramis Ramirez. A former 38 home run hitter, the Cubs success seems to revolve around his play. When he’s on, the Cubs are on. Recently he hasn’t been hitting at all, which seems to correlate directly to the Cubs lack of success in the past few seasons. In a contract year, Ramirez needs to get back in form if he wants a job next season or he will be remembered as one Jim Hendry’s many questionable signings.

Pitching is still a question mark. Will Carlos Zambrano remain inconsistent? Will Matt Garza rebound from his less-than-mediocre spring training play? Great pitching for the Cubs seems to be as rare as great quarterbacking for the Bears. Garza should be able to easily dominate in the National League, considering he’s coming from the stacked American League East, where he had to face teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees more than most pitchers. Moving down to the bottom of the rotation is where the Cubs will likely struggle the  most. Randy Wells is coming off of a 8-14, 4.26 ERA season. 2008 first round pick Andrew Cashner will anchor the fifth spot in the rotation, after the Cubs released the other fat, angry Venezuelan. Cashner possesses a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a hard breaking slider that resembles a curveball. He’s a former closer and pitched in relief for the Cubs last season. It will be interesting to see how he pans out as a starter at the major league level.

The bullpen may be a pleasant surprise for Cubs fans this season. Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall, and rookie Marcos Matteo all look like solid middle-inning options. The acquisition of set-up man Kerry Wood certainly helps. Carlos Marmol may end up as one of the game’s best closers at the end of the year, barring a lack of run support. If the Cubs somehow make a playoff push, I can see him with upwards of 50 saves. Realistically, he’ll get around 30-35.

Overall, 2011 looks like it’ll be year 103 in the longest drought in sports. As a Cub fan it hurts me to say it, but sorry to have to break it to you: we aren’t winning it this year. To make it all up I made a predictions list below:

2011 Predicted Record: 72-90, fifth in the central

Cubs’ MVP: Starlin Castro

X-factor: Aramis Ramirez

Home run leader: Carlos Peña

Breakout player: Jeff Samardzija

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