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Chicago Cubs 2011 Season Preview: Behind the Plate

Heading into the 2011 season, catcher is one of the last things that the Chicago Cubs will need to worry about, as long as Geovany Soto is lining up behind the dish.

Soto bounced back from a very poor sophomore season in 2010. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2008, Soto hit just .218 in 2009, with only 11 homers.

The 2010 season saw Soto bounce back from that sophomore slump, posting a .280 average and parking 17 big flies. 

Much of his success in 2010 can be traced back to his work off the field last winter. Soto showed up to spring training in much better shape than he had been playing in ’09. The addition of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo also appeared to have a strong effect on Soto, as evident by his .280 average.

The biggest concern surrounding Soto is his health. While he was much better in the games he did appear in, the catcher from Puerto Rico still played in just 105 games, three more than that ’09 campaign.

That concern relates directly to the shoulder that gave Soto problems over the summer, particularly in August and September. He had surgery to fix pain in his AC joint, but was expected to be completely healthy by the beginning of January.

Cubs fans should pray for health for Soto, given the options—or lack thereof—behind him.

Koyie Hill has proven to be one of the more frustrating players in a Cubs uniform over the past few seasons, despite the fact that there are minimal expectations from the former Arizona Diamondback.

Hill is entering his fifth season in the Chicago organization, after hitting just .214 last season. While Hill is a serviceable catcher off the bench, mostly due to his glove and his ability to work with the pitchers, his bat has rendered him nearly useless when he is in the lineup.

If Hill should falter, Welington Castillo appears to be the only other option for Chicago behind Soto. Castillo is just 23, but has very little experience at the big league level. He played in 69 games with Triple-A Iowa in ’09, with 13 homers and 59 RBI. He recorded six hits in 21 at-bats with the Cubs, but is best known for the bat that seriously injured outfielder Tyler Colvin

Soto should once again prove to be one of the better backstops in the bigs in 2011, as long as he can stay on the field. If his health should become an issue again, the Cubs would be wise to seek an outside solution to back up Soto, offensively.  

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Right To Bear Arms: Breaking Down the Chicago Cubs 2011 Starting Rotation

The Chicago Cubs made their biggest splash of the offseason when they landed Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays, in exchange for a package that included high-upside prospects like pitcher Chris Archer and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. 

While the move saw general manager Jim Hendry acquire the starter he craved and was accepted as a quality move by Cubs nation, it created a logjam in the Chicago rotation that has left the question of who will actually start for this Chicago team come April.

As of right now, there are three pitchers firmly cemented in the rotation. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza—all have spots locked down. That leaves roughly six or seven others to compete for those last two spots.

The biggest wild card in that group is Tom Gorzelanny. Gorzelanny was quietly one of the better pitchers for the Cubs, spending 2010 bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. He finished the season with a 4.09 ERA, much of which is due to his struggles at the end of the season. 

The biggest question with Gorzelanny is whether or not he will actually be with the club this season. As trade rumors continue to circulate, Gorzelanny’s name is often a source of those rumors. With the extra depth the Cubs do have, Hendry may be hard-pressed to deal Gorzelanny for a true reliever.

If Gorzelanny finds his way to another team, or the bullpen, the two most likely candidates for a rotation spot become Randy Wells and Carlos Silva. Wells may seem like a lock to many, but his summer struggles have called his spot into question. Still, it’s hard to imagine Wells not having that fourth or fifth spot in the rotation. He’s not flashy, but he’s a steady arm at the back end of the rotation.

One guy who seems to be forgotten in all of these talks is Carlos Silva. Acquired in the trade that sent away Milton Bradley to Seattle, Silva surprised everyone for the first half of the year, nearly pitching his way into an All-Star spot. Heading into the All-Star break, Silva had posted a 2.96 ERA and compiled a 9-2 record. His second half, however, was an injury-filled affair, with Silva starting just five games and giving up at least five earned runs in three of them.

If one of the three should falter, or be dealt, the Cubs have a pile of youngsters ready to compete for a spot at that back end. The first name that seems to come up in these talks is Andrew Cashner. Part of the reason the Garza trade was considered so successful was that it allowed the Cubs to retain Cashner, a young fireballer out of TCU. 

Cashner was very solid, overall, as a reliever for the Cubs in 2010. He had a pair of six-run meltdowns, but only gave up more than two on one other occasion. Many have labeled him a future starter, while the Cubs may be content to keep that power arm in the bullpen, especially with the addition of a mentor figure like Kerry Wood.

One name that may sound familiar to Cub fans is Jeff Samardzija. A former Notre Dame standout, Samardzija has been an overall disappointment to this point in his career. He is out of options and may be better suited for a bullpen role, but with the Cubs leaving the rotation open to so many pitchers, it’s hard to imagine Samardzija’s name not among them.

The only other name that has been mentioned for the rotation is a surprising one, with Mike Quade saying that James Russell will have a shot to compete for a spot. Russell, a lefty, is most likely competing due to the fact he is a southpaw. Whether or not he does have a real shot at the rotation is unclear, after spending all of last season in the bullpen.

In the end, the rotation may end up very similar to last year, with Wells and Silva holding onto those last two spots. Still, it’s an interesting move by Quade to open the competition up to so many, but it may end up being the right strategy if it gets everyone in a competitive state of mind right off the bat.

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Matt Garza to Chicago Cubs: Trade a Fine Move for a Desperate Jim Hendry

Quite similar to the way Jerry Angelo handled the offseason of the Chicago Bears, Jim Hendry has made every move at his disposal this offseason in the hopes of saving his job, albeit with considerably less money.

Heading into the winter of 2010-11, most fans and experts knew that the Cubs did not have much money to invest. They’d have to sign players on a budget and would have to do much of their improvement through trade.

Hendry’s first splash of the offseason was signing first baseman Carlos Pena. While many questioned the move due to Pena’s .196 batting average, Pena brings a presence to the left side of the plate that has been lacking in Wrigley Field for the last few seasons.

The other notable move for the Cubs’ general manager was the signing of fan-favorite Kerry Wood. After two years away from the Windy City, Hendry brought back his friend Wood on a bargain $1.5 million contract. 

While a pair of moves like that don’t scream division title, Friday’s deal for Matt Garza showed that Hendry still has a move or two left up his sleeve. While some felt that the Cubs traded away their future to get Garza from Tampa Bay, many experts feel that the package, which included pitcher Chris Archer and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, was unimpressive.

Make no mistake about it, Friday’s trade shows that the Cubs plan to contend in 2011. Jim Hendry knows what’s at stake this season and has acted accordingly, with three strong moves despite very little fiscal flexibility.

Garza is a pitcher who has performed well in his three seasons in Tampa Bay, despite the fact that he plays in, arguably, the toughest division in baseball. The fact that he’s kept his ERA under four in the three seasons pitching against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox shows the type of pitcher the Cubs acquired.

Whether or not Garza will be the missing piece for this Cubs team remains to be seen. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, and, if it pans out, may just be the move that saves Jim Hendry’s job.

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Chicago Cubs Potential Targets: New Trio of Names Emerges

If there’s any spot that will see a big difference in the Cubs’ lineup on Opening Day, it’s that infield’s right side.  While Starlin Castro and Aramis Ramirez are as locked in as it gets on the left, Blake DeWitt is still a question on second, along with the void at first that was left by the departure of Derrek Lee.  

There have been a number of potential candidates named as to who could fill these voids, primarily at first base.  However, with the payroll expected to be a little tighter than last season, the Cubs are expected to look more at trade to upgrade, rather than spend money on free agents. 

While names like Adam Dunn and Adam LaRoche are still possible targets, a trio of new names have come up in the discussion as the Cubs look to bolster their right side of the infield.

Much of the recent chatter has revolved around San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.  Now, I know the Padres are a small market team, but I’ve never fully understood why they’re so hell-bent on trading the San Diego native, for just that reason. 

Gonzalez has emerged as one of the premier offensive first basemen in the league, hitting at least 30 homers in four straight seasons, while playing his home games at notorious pitcher-friendly Petco Park.  While his ticket out of town is all but punched, he’s most often been linked to the Red Sox and White Sox, though the Cubs are reportedly interested in the Pads first sacker.

MLBTradeRumors also mentioned that Gordon Beckham may be available, listing the Cubs among the interested parties.  Beckham had a very impressive rookie year, hitting .270, but his glory on the South Side was short-lived.  He spent much of the 2010 season below the Mendoza Line, though he did scorch through the last couple of months of the season, driving his average up to over .250.  

While a trade for Beckham wouldn’t solve their first baseman woes, the Cubs could still elect to go with a lower tier guy like Nick Johnson, which would be a huge upgrade over a DeWitt/Micah Hoffpauir combination.

What exactly it would take for the Cubs to get either of these guys remains to be seen. The White Sox have been reluctant to trade Beckham, who by all accounts could be a future All Star.  Gonzalez is going to demand multiple top prospects, and most likely would require much more than it would take to get Beckham.

On the free agent front, Victor Martinez is a name that hasn’t been mentioned as often, but one that the Cubs still could be interested.  V-Mart has repeatedly said that he wants to catch, which would be difficult with Geovany Soto re-establishing himself behind the dish, but he may find more value as a first baseman. 

As with the majority of the first basemen the Cubs are looking at, his appeal is more his bat than his glove.  The former Indians and Red Sox catcher hit over .300, with 20 big flies in 2010.  Still, I have a hard time seeing Martinez demanding significantly less than Dunn on the market, which would allow the Cubs to sign him.

Let’s face it, the Cubs farm system is nowhere near the league’s best, like Boston, who could have the best shot at a trade for Gonzalez.  They’d have to pull some prospects together and trade most of what they have as far as real value, before extending Gonzalez’s contract becomes an issue following the 2011 season.

It’s going to be a very interesting winter.

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Should Reliever Kerry Wood Be Pursued by the Chicago Cubs?

Cubs nation was buzzing a bit last week—not because of a potential Adam Dunn signing or because they managed to trade Kosuke Fukudome for a bucket of balls, but because Jim Hendry hinted at the Cubs potentially taking a look at former closer, and fan favorite, Kerry Wood.

Wood was let go following the 2008 season, when he was replaced as the setup man following the trade for Kevin Gregg.

It was considered a mistake at the time, with Hendry giving away a pair of key role players, and class acts, in Wood and Mark DeRosa before replacing them in the clubhouse with Milton Bradley.

Wood signed with the Indians that winter on a two-year deal. His numbers were unimpressive, including an ERA over six in 2010, playing for a very poor squad in Cleveland.

However, Wood’s career may have been revived after a trade to the Yankees. Many were unsure as to how Wood would perform in a crucial situation after playing with only the Cubs and Indians in his career. The fireballer rose to the occasion for New York, posting an unbelievable 0.69 ERA over 26 innings in the regular season, including 31 strikeouts.

Jim Hendry can fix an old mistake by bringing back Wood.

The Cubs bullpen was a disaster last season, letting several close games get away. Outside of Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall, the Cubs lack reliable arms in the ‘pen. Wood could be a great mentor to a young pitcher like Andrew Cashner and could present Mike Quade with a right-hander to team with the lefty Marshall in the setup role.

Of course, all of this could be much ado about nothing. While we don’t expect any Blackhawks-type money issues, the Cubs have said on multiple occasions that their payroll will be lower, meaning a guy like Wood could be out of the equation when free agency is in full swing.

A fan favorite and reliable bullpen arm, if brought in at the right price, Wood presents Hendry with an option that he almost can’t afford to pass up.

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