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Has The Curse Run Its Course?
By Rob Letterly, contributing editor of Goatriders Of The Apocalypse.
[ February 14, 2009 at 1:01 AM ] [ ] [ Full Story ]  [ Filed under: Cubs | Features ]

http://www.springtraining09.com/img/cubs_curse_021409.jpgUntouched (at least, as of this writing) by P. E. D. allegations, lawsuits, contentious negotiations, and all other player misconduct, your two-time National League Central champion Chicago Cubs prepare for the coming season in relative bliss at HoHoKam Park. The Cubs possess arguably the deepest pitching staff in the majors, including the strongest rotation, on paper, in the National League. The Cubs braintrust, led by G. M. Jim Hendry and Field Manager Lou Piniella, have chosen to be extremely active this Hot Stove season, assembling a versatile, balanced lineup that should prove foolproof against left-handed as well as right-handed opposition pitchers. Therefore, except for a couple of minor exceptions, Spring Training in Mesa will lack the drama that currently grips other teams in Major League Baseball.

There. Nearly 100 words about the Cubs, and nary a mention about The Curse.

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Forgive Cub fans if they seem out of sorts, for their franchise is sailing on uncharted waters. Electricity was a novelty the last time the team visited the postseason two years in a row. The key word, however, is "visited." Twice the club has suffered the indignity of being swept out of the NLDS. After it happened against Arizona in 2007, it could be said that the 85-win Cubs needed to "learn to win" in the playoffs. After last year's runaway dominance of the Central, however, any offered excuses for the Dodgers'sweep fell on deaf ears in the North Side of Chicago. Outsiders might expect the endlessly loyal Cub fans to be giddy for the division-winning seasons. This is most certainly not the case - the storied patience of their fanbase may be finally running out. This spring, Cub fans will settle for nothing less than performance, at least by their everyday players.

Hendry made it a point to construct a versatile, balanced everyday lineup and pitching staff while minimizing impact to the core of the team. However, Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood are now Cleveland Indians, which is great news, if you live near Lake Erie. Otherwise, the core remains intact, and management and fans alike are counting on the Cubs coming out strong and keeping momentum going all year.

Winter moves started with retaining Ryan Dempster, who trained like a beast last winter and made good on his boasts of returning to the rotation from the bullpen. A former flamethrower, Dempster has seemingly learned the finer points of his craft, and the Cubs are heavily relying on him to match his All-Star performance. The biggest new name in camp is switch-hitting slugger Milton Bradley, who led all human beings in the AL in OPS last year for Texas. Naturally, most folks are concerned about his various anger-related incidents during his career. What should be a greater concern is whether Bradley's outstanding 2008 numbers are the result of The Bandbox of Arlington? Fans will be anxious to see if Bradley's athleticism and, frankly, his attitude provides the boost over the karmic hump that is known variously as The Drought, The Curse, 100 Years and Counting...

Other questions concerning holdover players include: is this the year of a finally healthy Alfonso Soriano? He has met his power expectations the past two years, but his wiry legs have failed him and the Cubs as a basepath threat. Can Ryan Theriot match his .307 batting average and .387 on-base percentage near the top of the order? Is catcher Geovany Soto too good to be true? The 2008 NL Rookie-of-the-Year will be counted on to carry an even larger offensive load, this year without the guidance of his former backup and mentor, Henry Blanco, who is now in San Diego. Carlos Zambrano must be mentioned, because for all his potential, he has never been able to put together a strong end-to-end season. Is this the year he learns to channel his enthusiasm, and become a 20-game winner? There are also concerns about the newly anointed closer, Carlos Marmol, but those questions will linger until the regular season. Spring training is not the place where closers are made.

Platoons have been set up at second base between "pocket rocket" Mike Fontenot and ex-Cardinal Aaron Miles, as well as in center field between daredevil Reed Johnson and last year's SI cover boy and second-half pinwheel, Kosuke Fukudome. Both arrangements will be sure to make versatility-minded manager Piniella happy, if not necessarily the participants themselves. Will everyone accept their role and produce when called upon?

The big battle royale at HoHoKam this spring will be for the coveted position of Fourth Starter. Fifth starter seems to be the domain of Rich Harden, he of the filthy stuff and the tender tendons. The contestants include: good sport Sean Marshall, who has functioned well as a left-handed swingman the past two years; former Notre Dame All-American wideout Jeff Samardzija, who will hold a position in a starting rotation somewhere when camp breaks, most likely in Iowa; and two reluctant relievers recently acquired by trade. Chad Gaudin compiled a 11-13 record as a starter for Oakland in 2007. Aaron Heilman endured a disastrous run as a set-up man for Billy Wagner in Queens. Both men claim to have 3 or 4 pitches in their personal arsenal, but only have the opportunity to develop 2 as often-used relievers. Piniella would probably prefer to leave Marshall in the swing role. Barring a late-spring Peavy miracle, Heilman and Gaudin will remain to conduct the best battle in camp, in which the loser will be relegated either to the pen or as trade bait for a LOOGY.

Even with the pressure of a century of futility, the Cubs camp will be one of preparation rather than upheaval. Other than the Gaudin/Heilman duel, the most intriguing stories are whether existing players will round into shape as expected. Fukudome in particular will be closely watched to see if he has adjusted his swing for 2009. The end of the bench is ripe for picking, with speedster Joey Gathright and all hit/no field Micah Hofpauir working to stay as far away from Des Moines as possible. This may be the year when the Cubs fish or cut bait with the perpetually promising Angel Guzman, on year six or seven on his rehab, but who's counting, besides Hendry, of course? There is enough at stake in Mesa this spring to keep the attention of this veteran club, and Piniella certainly knows how to prepare his teams in the spring. Of course, the final exam is held in October, but it is entirely too soon to know if the Cubs will finally pass this year.

Rob Letterly is a contributing editor of Goatriders Of The Apocalypse, bringing you Cubs news and humor from now until the end of the world.



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