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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
4:48 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

While digging your car out of the snow, your mind drifts to Arizona sunshine. The end of the Super Bowl signals the beginning of baseball. Within days, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training.

There was yellow police tape around the sidewalk at Clark and Addison after the storm ripped off a Wrigley Field panel. By Sunday night, the graffiti had been removed from the side of the Harry Caray statue at Sheffield and Waveland.

Jim Hendry had a tight budget while remodeling the 2011 Cubs, but pulled off several accounting tricks to add a power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Carlos Pena), a bullpen game-changer (Kerry Wood) and a front-line starter (Matt Garza).

There is a certain segment of the fan base that will never trust what the Cubs general manager does. But those moves addressed the three biggest needs identified at the organizational meetings.

If you asked us back then in October (and) we knew (we) only had room for three big pieces, Hendry said, if wed have taken those three names around Halloween, wed have jumped up and down.

The Cubs also retained Mike Quade, a manager comfortable in the job and popular within the clubhouse. Overall this grades out as a B and should be enough to hang around in the National League Central, which hasnt won a playoff series since 2006. Heres a look at how the rest of the division rebuilt this winter.
Brewers: A-

This is a small-market team trying to win now. Milwaukee decided to keep Prince Fielder for his walk year and unloaded its farm system for two accomplished starters who wont be free agents until after the 2012 season.

The Brewers hope Zack Greinke will again pitch like a Cy Young Award winner, re-energized after moving out of Kansas City. Shaun Marcums numbers, like Garzas, should improve outside the brutal American League East. With Yovani Gallardo, already an All-Star at 24, this rotation could work into October.

A lineup anchored by Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee shouldnt have any trouble scoring runs. It will be up to a first-year manager Ron Roenicke, the former Angels bench coach to make it work. No pressure.

Reds: B

With a surplus of young pitchers and a good core of position players, the Reds should be a factor for years to come. The pieces are already in place. Cincinnati reached extensions with manager Dusty Baker, NL MVP Joey Votto, pitcher Bronson Arroyo and outfielder Jay Bruce. World Series MVP Edgar Renteria was added to the bench.

The defending division champion gets the benefit of the doubt.

Im an old-school guy that says Cincinnati is the favorite because they won it (last year), Quade said. Theyre young, theyre talented and theyve won it before. Dusty does such a good job why not? But Im also an underdog player, so well see how that all shakes out.

Astros: C-

Their identity began to change last July, when the Astros traded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two faces of the franchise. Those deals eventually produced players the Astros are trying to build around, like first baseman Brett Wallace and pitcher J.A. Happ. Houston remade its middle infield with Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, but didnt create much buzz.

The Astros, who havent made the playoffs since their run to the 2005 World Series, need a new direction. Their most crucial decisions will be made off the field in 2011, as chairman Drayton McLane has put the team up for sale.

Pirates: D

Credibility is a major issue when you lose 105 games and havent enjoyed a winning season since 1992. Pittsburgh wont be a destination for free agents, so its front office will be judged on what it does in the draft, international market and player development.

The Pirates made a good hire in Clint Hurdle, an experienced manager who once took the Rockies to the World Series. They did modest deals with first baseman Lyle Overbay and pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. It wont be enough to finish above .500.

The Pirates have a beautiful downtown ballpark, in a great sports city with teams that win Super Bowls and Stanley Cups. Those fans deserve better.

Cardinals: Incomplete

The Cubs rolled their eyes at Ryan Theriots comments, and from the right side of the rivalry the shortstop will get a chance to show that hes more than a one-dimensional singles hitter.

The Cardinals are also overlooking defense with Berkman, hoping that at the age of 35 he can play the outfield again. Yet in bringing Jake Westbrook back to a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, they should have the pitching depth to stay relevant into September.

All that ignores the Albert Pujols question that hangs over the franchise. This will be pass-fail: Either sign him to an extension before he reports to Jupiter, Fla., or he walks into free agency as the 300 million man everyones talking about next offseason.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.