Well we've got 25 days left until Opening Day, which means it's season preview time. We'll be running it down team by team, with an added new wrinkle this time around: the beer of choice for fans of the team to enjoy whilst watching their team take the field! Nothing like that to help get you through a baseball season, especially if you're from Pittsburgh. Up next: the Chicago Cubs
Lineup: A lot depends on how well Geovany Soto responds to his disappointing 2009 season. He's reportedly showed up 40 pounds lighter to camp - must've found a new way to curtail the munchies! - and if he can return to his RoY form from 2008, then he, Derrek Lee, and a healthy Aramis Ramirez make for a talented middle of the lineup. Alfonso Soriano was terrible last year, and is far from a sure bet to be healthy this year, but since he'll be keeping Sam Fuld on the bench via the power of a bloated contract, he might as well try to hit like a big leaguer this year. Ryan Theriot is a 3 WAR shortstop, which is always a nice piece to have, but Mike Fontenot and Marlon Byrd ensure that he's the only above-average asset that the Cubs have up the middle. Kosuke Fukudome has good OBP skills, but isn't a great hitter, so a platoon with Xavier Nady makes sense. RF could very well be the most productive OF spot on the team for the first time since Sammy Sosa left.
Rotation: Carlos Zambrano is the nominal ace, but has been trending downward in recent years, perhaps as a result of his enormous workload as a youngster (expect a full post on him shortly). Ted Lilly has been hampered with injuries in Spring Training, and may or may not be fully ready/healthy for the regular season, which would be a severe blow dealt to a group that needs to stay healthy. Ryan Dempster was a bit of a disappointment last year, but that's because his HR/9 normalized (it was an unsustainably low .6 in his banner 2008 season), so Cubs fans should expect more of the same going forward. Beyond those three, who are all potential All-Stars if a few things break right, there's Randy Wells, who was outstanding in his rookie year, but figures to regress a bit this season as the gap between his ERA and FIP was .83 runs, and then a platter of Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Silva, and Jeff Samardzija, whom we are convinced was rushed up to the Majors on name only. That was a long sentence. And while Carlos Silva is terrible, he's also the last manifestation of the utter debacle that was the Cubs/Milton Bradley relationship. So hopefully we can close the book on that.
Bullpen: It's really sort of incredible how Carlos Marmol does what he does. He's got an electric fastball/slider combo that neither he nor batters can figure out (11.31 K/9 last year...and 7.91 BB/9). Plus, he hits a ton of guys (an eye-popping 12 in just 74 innings). Essentially, every time he came into the game, he was allowing a baserunner. Fortunately, he's nigh-unhittable, and is one of the elite strikeout artists in the game. Quite the high-wire act, that guy. Angel Guzman, a former top prospect, is hurt again, but he's a valuable bullpen piece if he can make it to the team. John Grabow is a skilled lefty who should be an excellent bridge to Marmol, and Sean Marshall can eat up plenty of innings as a swingman. David Patton can get the K's (just short of 9 per 9 last year) but, like Marmol, has some control issues. But he's a ginger, so don't count on him getting it right. Then whoever doesn't make the rotation out of the Silva/Samardzija/Gorzelanny group will be biding their time in here, which isn't a bad thing. Pretty talented group, this.
Overall: Many people had pegged the Cubs for big things last season (ahem), which made their above-average season seem like a massive disappointment. In reality, and especially considering the injuries to Soriano and Ramirez, the Cubs performed about as well as we should've expected them to...it's just that the Cardinals far overshot expectations and ran away with the division. Anyway, this club is very similar to last year's, with the additions of Marlon "The Very Definition of Your Average" Byrd and Xavier Nady the primary differences. If Soriano can miraculously put together a healthy season and Derrek Lee doesn't fall off too far from his heroic efforts last season, this team should be right back in divisional contention.
Predicted Record: 84-78, 2nd place NL Central
Beer: Not to repeat a joke, but while Old Style seems to be the natural choice here, we're going to go with Lumpy Dog Light Lager. With all the weight loss on this team, a light beer seems fitting. Plus, it's flavorful enough to be interesting despite being a light beer, much in the same way that the Cubs are interesting despite having been lightly competitive in the past century.