Big Z is key

Carlos Zambrano averaged 15 wins over six seasons until last year's nine-win campaign. AP Photo/Paul Connors

In recent years, the saying on the North Side has been "As 'Z' goes, so goes the Cubs."

The 2010 pitching staff and their chances for success will be no different.

Winning just nine games in 2009, the 28-year-old Carlos Zambrano was one of the biggest pitching disappointments of the season after averaging 15 wins a year over the previous six seasons. Zambrano stayed in Chicago in the offseason, working on his conditioning, and after losing 15 pounds and toning down his hyperactive personality, the Cubs' ace appears ready to re-establish himself as one of the better pitchers in the game.

Zambrano has decided to discard the cut fastball from his repertoire and has fallen in love with his two-seam fastball (the sinker). From all indications during spring training, Zambrano would rather pitch to contact and get ground ball outs rather than waste eight or nine pitches going for a strikeout.

Certainly, another key to the Cubs' success is the return to health of left-hander Ted Lilly. Lilly must return in a timely fashion if the Cubs are going to unseat the 2009 Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals. Lilly's 44 victories since the 2007 season leads the Cubs, and after left shoulder surgery in November, Lilly appears to be on pace to return to the rotation by the third week of April. Barring any setbacks, you might want to pencil in April 23 in Milwaukee as a possible first start for Lilly. An indoor facility would be a good choice for his first start since September 2009.

Right-hander Ryan Dempster pitched through a very difficult personal situation with the birth of his daughter Riley in March 2009. The complications from Riley's birth consumed the Dempster family's time, which also impacted Dempster's locker-room presence. The normally gregarious and always-present Dempster was not available as often to his teammates last season because of the extra time needed to attend to Riley's needs. This spring, Dempster has looked great on the mound and focused. Although his personal challenges are still there, Dempster and his family have organized their time appropriately.

Right-hander Randy Wells, coming off of a solid rookie campaign, had 12 wins and will rely on the sinker and slider to try to repeat his 2009 season.

The fourth and fifth spots in the Cubs' rotation are huge question marks the first couple of times through. When Lilly returns, he will replace either left-hander Tom Gorzelanny or right-hander Carlos Silva. Both pitchers will try to re-establish their careers and get back to the form that they showed in 2007, when both won 14 games.

The Cubs' bullpen will be watched closely in the early going. Closer Carlos Marmol has had some issues recently with his pitching mechanics. Marmol saved 11 straight games for the Cubs in 2009, although they were out of contention. Walks have been Marmol's main problem. He led all relievers with 65 walks in 2009. Marmol has saved 23 games in 30 chances during his career.

Left-hander John Grabow is the graybeard of the bullpen at age 31. No one else is over 28 years old. Grabow may be called upon to save some games if Marmol is rested or ineffective during the season.

Left-hander Sean Marshall returns to the role of "Mr. Everything." Marshall can start, come in as a long man, or be a situational left-hander. That type of versatility is invaluable to manager Lou Piniella if he handles a very inexperienced staff.

The rest of the bullpen is a big question mark. Esmailin Caridad is being asked to be the eighth-inning set-up man from the right side. Jeff Samardzija may end up as the right-handed set-up man if Caridad up to the task. Rookies Justin Berg and James Russell round out a relatively unknown and unproven 'pen.

Pitching staff strengths: A veteran starting corps, anchored by Dempster, Lilly and Zambrano, could set the pace for a solid season.

Staff weaknesses: Question marks remain around Lilly's return and his effectiveness early on. A shaky bullpen will possibly keep Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild up at night.

Cubs Win! Cubs Win! Zambrano returns to form, Lilly, Dempster and Wells combine for 45 wins and a young bullpen pitches well out of the chute.

Cubs Lose! Cubs Lose! Zambrano loses focus and repeats 2009 performance. Lilly's rehab takes longer than anticipated and Marmol's mechanics continue to be a mystery to him and the coaching staff.

Bruce Levine covers baseball for ESPNChicago.com.