Improved Cubs could contend in Central

If you’re a Cubs fan, you can probably already smell the foul, wafting aroma of fourth place.

After all, the reigning champ Reds are mostly intact, the Cardinals are poised to contend yet again, and the Brewers spent the winter upgrading the rotation by leaps and bounds. Sure, the Cubs will out-pace the rudderless Astros and eternally-suffering Pirates, but that constitutes their ceiling in 2011. Fourth place. Right?

The bad news for Cubs partisans: Yes, that’s probably the case. The good news for Cubs fans: Even so, contention, believe it or not, is a realistic possibility. They’ll need things to break their way on a number of fronts, but the Cubs have enough balance and upside to make things interesting in what should be a highly competitive NL Central.

Note, first of all, that "highly competitive" is not tantamount to greatness. There should be much compression in the Central this season, but it’s a division without a truly great team. It’s hard to envision any team winning, say, 95 or more games, and the belt and the title just might go to a club with a victory total in the high 80s. For the Cubs, that means opportunity. What will it take for the North Siders to seize that opportunity? Improvement, of course.

On offense, there’s cause for optimism. Last season the Cubs ranked 10th in the 16-team National League in runs scored and 10th in OPS. So while Chicago’s attack ranked in the bottom half of the league, it wasn’t an entirely miserable state of affairs. Plus, there’s hope for improvement in the upcoming season. For the most part, those hopes depend upon three reasonable assumptions: Carlos Pena will provide an upgrade at first base, Aramis Ramirez will rebound and Geovany Soto will be healthier.

In 2010, Pena tallied 28 homers, but he also batted just .196 (stated another way, roughly one out of every three of Pena’s hits last season was a home run). In spite of the regrettable batting average, Pena is a good bet for a productive 2011. Getting out of the ruthless AL East and into the decidedly weaker NL Central will help matters, as will playing his home games in a park that’s drastically more accommodating for left-handed power hitters. Pena boasts secondary skills like drawing walks and a keen ability to avoid the double play. As well, Pena’s steep drop in batting average on balls in play is at least partly attributable to luck, a fact that should help his overall batting average.

Given his supporting skills, Pena’s a very productive player if he hits in the .230s. In a related matter, the ZiPS projection system projects Pena will have a batting line of .239 AVG/.363 OBP/.508 SLG plus 31 homers and 81 walks. If he comes close to that, then he’ll give the Cubs a serious upgrade over what they got from Derrek Lee and company last season.

Ramirez battled a menu of nagging injuries last season — thumb, oblique, quad — and that no doubt played a role in his depressed production. Indeed, Ramirez hit like a house afire after returning from that thumb injury, which makes him a strong bet to rebound in 2011.

As for Soto, he’s among the best-hitting catchers in the NL when healthy, but staying healthy and flashing some durability have been the problems. Soto has proven that he can produce at a high level while answering the bell on a regular basis. The Cubs need that to happen again this season. Will it? In terms of what Soto needs to do (i.e., log a qualifying number of plate appearances and keep the hapless Koyie Hill on the bench), he’s perhaps a coin flip. Elsewhere, Chicago can expect league-average or better production from every other position, save second base. In other words, the offense may improve markedly in 2011.

On the run prevention front, the Cubs ranked 13th in the NL in runs allowed last season, so much improvement is needed. To that end, GM Jim Hendry dealt for Matt Garza, formerly of the mighty Rays. While the long-term wisdom of the deal can be debated, Garza absolutely helps the Cubs in the short term. Garza has topped 200 innings in each of the past two seasons, and he’s posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the past four. And like Pena, moving from the AL East to NL Central should help his numbers. Put him in the non-DH league and pit him against lesser competition at the onset of what should be his prime seasons, and it’s possible Garza will develop into an ace.

Also in the Cubs’ favor is the likely improvement of Carlos Zambrano. Last season team brass overreacted to Zambrano’s slow start and moved him to the bullpen. There he struggled at times but eventually found his sea legs. From that point forward and even after his return to the rotation, Zambrano dominated. His dubious contract and the occasional ritually abused Gatorade cooler notwithstanding, Zambrano is this: a durable and excellent starting pitcher. In 2011, he should resume being just that.

Obviously, he’ll give the Cubs more innings than he did last season, provided he’s left alone. Elsewhere in the rotation, Ryan Dempster is a safe bet to provide innings and a sub-4.00 ERA, and Randy Wells has a good chance to join him in those distinctions. At the very back end, Carlos Silva should be adequate by fifth-starter standards. All in all, the Cubs have a balanced rotation that should rank in the top quarter of the National League.

The problem with the bullpen in 2010 was mostly a lack of reliable setup innings. Outside of Sean Marshall, closer Carlos Marmol had no one to hand-deliver leads to him. In fact, remove Marmol’s and Marshall’s numbers from the calculus and the Cubs’ bullpen ERA in 2010 was 5.72, which is … bad, and not "bad" like the kids say.

Hope for improvement? Marmol and Marshall both return, and young gun Andrew Cashner, who absolutely has the stuff to thrive in the bullpen, figures to make lengthy strides. Also, prodigal right-hander Kerry Wood is back, and he brings with him a delivery retooled by former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland. In other words, that’s twice as many effective relievers as the Cubs had last season. Depth, however, will remain a concern.

So, a Cubs division title in 2011 … Likely? Of course not. Conceivable? Yep. They’ll need a number of X-factors and contingencies to go their way, but a winnable division in tandem with weaknesses that largely have been addressed give the Cubs a chance. It could happen.