The keys to the Chicago Cubs' season begin to unfold on Sunday as the pitchers and catcher report to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training. Let's look at four keys to the teams' success this season:
1. Carlos Zambrano: It could be said as Zambrano goes so goes the Cubs' chances of contending in what appears to be a very strong National League Central. From August 2008 until August 2010, Zambrano was a below-.500 pitcher with an ERA of 4.50 and an average of 5 2/3 innings per start. Those numbers were certainly a far cry from the ace status that he had attained early in his career. From Aug. 9 until the end of the season, Zambrano was 8-0, including a 4-0 record with a 0.78 ERA in five September starts. After pitching out of the bullpen from late April until late May, Zambrano was suspended by the Cubs after a memorable meltdown at U.S. Cellular Field on June 25. Zambrano then went on the restricted list until returning in August. The addition of Matt Garza should take some of the pressure off Zambrano and Ryan Dempster. Those three are considered the elite starters in the rotation. Zambrano must regain full form and throw at least 200 innings for the first time since 2007 if the Cubs are going to stay on top in the NL Central.
2. Aramis Ramirez: The Cubs' top run producer must put two solid halves together in 2011. Ramirez hit under .200 while driving in just 23 runs in the first three months of 2010. Most observers of the game were even more surprised by his poor play at third base during the slump. He has always been considered an above average if not spectacular third baseman. To his credit, Ramirez had a better second half as he made adjustments with the bat and played a shade deeper at third. He led the Cubs with 25 home runs and 83 RBIs. This could be his last season on the North Side as the Cubs hold a 2012 option at $15 million or they can buy out the contract for $2 million. At age 32, Ramirez must prove he is an elite player in the league again and drive in important runs. As a side note, Ramirez is a .257 career April hitter, his lowest average for any month during the season.
3. The bullpen: After blowing countless games in the first half of 2010, the bullpen became a strength for the Cubs after Mike Quade took over as manager in late August. Kerry Wood will replace Andrew Cashner in the right-handed setup role while veteran Sean Marshall will handle it from the left side, getting to formidable closer Carlos Marmol. Others such as Jeff Samardzija and Casey Coleman must step it up to try to win a bullpen spot if Cashner is moved to the rotation as anticipated. Scott Maine, who pitched well late in the season, may be asked to be the second left-handed reliever if second-year pitcher James Russell also gets a rotation spot. The Cubs have plenty of other candidates if Russell and Cashner are the starters, including Carlos Silva, Randy Wells, Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper. All four will also be in contention for rotation spots.
4. Outfield run production: By the end of the season, the Cubs were as unproductive collectively as any outfield in baseball. After a good start to the season, Alfonso Soriano faded in August and September with a total of six home runs and 24 RBIs. Marlon Byrd, playing hurt, hit .269 in August and .247 in September after being the Cubs' lone All-Star representative. Kosuke Fukudome hit a torrid .365 in August but faded in September, hitting .210. If the Cubs have a realistic hope of improving run production in the outfield, Tyler Colvin will be the answer. Colvin will get a shot to be an everyday player somewhere in the outfield after hitting 20 home runs in his rookie season, second in baseball to Florida's Mike Stanton, who hit 22. A broken bat struck Colvin in the chest on Sept. 19 , ending his season early. Colvin has been in Mesa since Jan. 1 and is expected to be 100 percent when spring training begins. The Cubs must hope for more RBIs and scoring ability from their outfield mix if they are expected to support the rest of the run producers in Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Geovany Soto.