Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011
By Patrick Mooney
The marketing department can put up billboards highlighting the new faces of the franchise. And you will no doubt see more Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro jerseys this summer.
But in so many ways the 2011 Cubs will hinge upon Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez, who combined have spent 20-plus years in the organization. Follow the money: Together they will make more than 33 million this season.
When healthy and focused, they are supposed to be anchors. Another transition year could be successful if Zambrano accounts for 200 innings - something he hasn't done since 2007 - and Ramirez generates close to 30 homers and 100 RBI in what could be his final season in a Cubs uniform.
"We need Aramis to be the guy that he has been most of his career here," general manager Jim Hendry said. "We need to get Aramis to play 135, 140 games and the numbers will take care of itself. (He's) as clutch an RBI guy as we've had here in a long time. And the rest of the league respects that."
Reconnecting with Zambrano will be a priority for manager Mike Quade, who watched him go 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA down the stretch. Last month at the Cubs Convention, Quade laughed off a fan's suggestion that a 29-year-old husband and father could use Greg Maddux as a kind of personal life coach.
"I expect Carlos to handle himself the way he finished up last year," Quade said. "Whether he explodes or whatever...all right, so he explodes. Take a walk, see you in five days, pitch well. If it becomes a reoccurring thing, yeah, we have a problem. But if we're going to have individual guys taking care of each guy that has some emotional issues, man, we're not going to have a big enough plane."
Zambrano and Ramirez will be flying north at the end of camp. Here are five other Cubs who will be watched closely in spring training, whether or not they get seats on the team charter.
Everyone agrees that Cashner has a high ceiling, though the organization has been split on whether he projects as a front-line starter or closer. The 2008 first-round pick could end that debate with a good spring. The plan for now is to stretch Cashner out and have him compete for one of the two open spots in the rotation. It will be interesting to see just how committed the Cubs are to this idea, because Cashner's confidence soared after Quade took over last season, and the rookie began to dominate out of the bullpen (1.40 ERA in his final 18 games).
Did you know that he used to play football? Samardzija is tired of those questions and may never again have this kind of leverage. Now entering his fifth full professional season after an All-American career at Notre Dame, Samardzija is out of minor-league options. So this is probably his last chance to justify the 10 million the Cubs gave him to bypass the NFL. There is a new pitching coach to impress, and Mark Riggins could have some unique insight into Samardzija after his work in the minor-league system.
At some point expectations outran a converted catcher drafted in the 38th round. Across the past two seasons Wells has accounted for 20 wins, a 3.70 ERA and almost 360 innings - at a cost of less than 1 million. Yet that still leaves him fighting for a rotation spot, and dismissing questions about his maturity and consistency. Maybe it's time to appreciate Wells for who he is - and not force him as a No. 3 starter. At 28, Wells could either really establish himself as a Cub, or begin drifting back toward Triple-A Iowa.
At this time last year, the Cubs hoped Esmailin Caridad would emerge as a primary setup man, and he wound up giving them only four innings in 2010 because of arm issues. The bullpen now appears to be a point of strength with Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall in front of closer Carlos Marmol. They still need a bridge to get there, and that's why Grabow is being paid 4.8 million. The veteran left-hander tried to pitch through a knee injury (7.36 ERA) and was eventually shut down last summer. The preliminary reports on his health have been good.
In a lineup filled with hitters on the wrong side of 30, trying to match numbers from the past, Soto is one with growth potential. The 28-year-old profiled as one of the best offensive catchers in the game last season (.890 OPS) before undergoing shoulder surgery in late September. How he responds physically - and handles a huge raise to 3 million - will be worth monitoring. The pitchers seem to enjoy working with Soto, who takes his defensive responsibilities seriously and could step up into a more visible leadership role.
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.