The Cubs Faithful have their eyes on the big prize for 2006. “It’s Our Turn” or any other number of catch phrases have been uttered in an attempt to let all of the other teams know it is the Cubs turn to win the World Series. O.K., Boston took care of business in 2004, the Wrongsiders took care of business in 2005….so it is only fitting that the Cubs would do it this year, but to that I say….”Don’t get ahead of yourself”.
To make it to the World Series you first have to make it to the playoffs and winning your division is the best way to do so, don’t depend on the Wild Card….go win the division. In Atlanta they are going for division crown number 15 this season. In Atlanta they expect to win….they do not hope to win, on the Northside of Chicago it is just the opposite. While I do not put any stock into a Spring Training win or a Spring Training loss, much less the record. I do believe that winning is an attitude, it is a state of mind and you play the games like you practice. The Cubs did improve on the fundamentals this spring; they committed fewer errors and had half as many sacrifice flies as they did all of last year.
As we all know the Cubs finished 21 games behind the Cardinals last season and the preseason predictions for the Cubs have ranged from first place finish to a fourth place finish, even in Sunday’s Cincinnati Enquirer. The Central Division should be one of, if not the most, competitive divisions in all of baseball. Every team has the same question marks that the Cubs do.
The St. Louis Cardinals – They lost Julian Tavarez and Ray King from their bullpen, Larry Walker retired and the health of Scott Rolen is a big concern of the Cardinals. They replaced Mark Grudzielanek with Junior Spivey in the off-season; he had a horrible spring and lost his job to Aaron Miles. They lost Matt Morris to free agency and while his second half numbers (4-8/5.32 ERA, 88 innings pitched) were not great, he was a big reason they got of to a great start in ’05. (10-2/3.10 ERA, 104.2 innings pitched). Can Chris Carpenter repeat his Cy Young season? Albert Pujols will hit, there is no doubt but with an aging Jim Edmonds and an outfield of Juan Encarnacion, John Rodriguez, So Taguchi and Larry Bigbie (who will miss the first 2-3 weeks of the season) will the Cardinals be able to win 90 games this season? They will need good years from Jason Marquis, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Sidney Ponson. They added Braden Looper in the off-season and pitching will be the key in St. Louis.
The Milwaukee Brewers – This is the team that all of the experts are picking as their ‘sleeper pick’, but I have a question. If all of the experts are picking them as their sleeper pick, then wouldn’t that make them a favorite and not a sleeper? The Brewers have a young, exciting team and is coming off a good season, but with Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, the offense will be there but their defense is questionable at best….they are the reason the Brewers brought Robin Yount back. The Brewers defense cost them games last season and it was not improved in the off-season. Ben Sheets is starting the year out on the DL and he is the only proven starter they have. How will a young talented team perform with all of the expectations that now exist in Milwaukee? The Brewers do have Cub Killer, Carlos Lee, and a good closer in Derrick Turnbow. But can Chris Capuano and Doug Davis lead a team that is no longer expected to lose?
The Houston Astros – Jeff Bagwell is gone, Roger Clemens cannot return until May 1st and while Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe and Andy Pettitte remain, where will the offense come from in 2006? Preston Wilson was added in the off-season to help with the offense that showed its weaknesses during last year’s World Series. But can Morgan Ensberg have a repeat performance in ’06? What can Jason Lane add to the mix? And then there is Brad Lidge. Lidge did not look good in the WBC and the Astros have to wonder what effect last post-season will have on him. The Astros have gotten off to a slow start the past two seasons, without Clemens it will be harder to climb out of a slow start this season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates made good moves in the off-season by bringing in Jim Tracy, Joe Randa, Sean Casey and Jeromy Burnitz to go along with Jason Bay. The Pirates are depending on a young pitching staff that could have a sophomore slump. Zach Duke looked like the real deal last season, but his second time around will not be that easy. Duke had a rough spring and from all accounts did not look good while compiling a 0-4 record with a 7.62 ERA in 7 games. Oliver Perez will get the Opening Day start for the Pirates against the Brewers. This team could surprise a lot of people with the mix of experienced vets, good coaching and a good young pitching staff.
The Cincinnati Reds – The offense of the Reds has not been a question in years….this team will score runs, the question marks in Cincinnati are all centered around the pitching. The Reds paid a lot of money last off-season (2005) for Eric Milton and that was a nightmare for Reds fans. They just traded Wily Mo Pena for Bronson Arroyo and he should help, but the holes in this pitching staff are too many to count. Once the Reds figure out how to pitch, look out because the offense is already in place.
Baseball is the hardest sport to do pre-season predictions. With 162 games and all the trades that take place, plus the lack of a salary cap, teams can change within a blink of an eye.
So while the Cubs Faithful have visions of trophies dancing in our head, winning the division should be the top priority on the Northside of Chicago. It is a long season full of streaks, both good and bad. The Central Division Title is there for the taking. The Cardinals will come back to the pack the only question is, who will be there to take the crown from them in September?