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Strong finish to '10 gives Cubs hope for '11

Strong finish to '10 gives Cubs hope for '11

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Strong finish to '10 gives Cubs hope for '11
CHICAGO -- In 2009, both the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres ended disappointing seasons with a winning record in the final month. That surge carried over into 2010 with the Reds winning the National League Central and the Padres just falling short of a postseason berth.

Keep that in mind, Cubs fans, as you flip the calendar to 2011.

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Chicago posted a 19-10 record in the final month of the 2010 season. It's the first time in 117 years the team has managed a winning record in the last month after sub .500 records in every other month.

The Cubs responded to Mike Quade when he took over as manager on Aug. 23 for Lou Piniella, and Quade will have a chance to put his stamp on the ballclub when Spring Training camp opens in mid-February. Quade directed the Cubs to a 24-13 record in the final six weeks, including an 8-1 trip in September.

"I hope it did something for the confidence of the club as a group and a lot of individuals," said Quade, who was given a two-year contract to stay as manager for his efforts. "Now we have to build on that."

The Cubs had the highest payroll in the National League in 2010 but that will come down in '11. General manager Jim Hendry has needed to be creative. For example, free agent Carlos Pena's $10 million contract will be paid over 13 months, and the first baseman won't get $5 million of the deal until January '12.

It helped that Kerry Wood was willing to give the Cubs a family discount and re-signed for one year at $1.5 million. The Cubs also are counting on the good vibe generated at the end of 2010.

"I like the way our young people developed," Hendry said of the 2010 season. "I have a lot of confidence in our veteran guys, who maybe didn't have as good a year as they could have had. I like the coaching staff Mike put together, I like the young pitching that's coming, and I think with a few additions we could be right back in the thick of things.

"We won two divisions [in 2007 and '08], and everybody was handing us the division the next year in '09, and St. Louis won," Hendry said. "Everybody handed the division before we started ['10] to St. Louis and Cincinnati won. That's baseball. The difference between 10, 13 games a year with the right guys getting after it, things can be fixed rather quickly."

Here are 10 issues that will be key for the Cubs in 2011.

1. Is Carlos Pena really a .196 hitter?

Pena, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs in December, has seen his average dip each of the last four seasons. However, he's averaged 36 homers over that span. Teams have effectively utilized a shift on the left-handed hitter. Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo feels Pena needs work on his pitch recognition. Will it work? We'll see. One thing is certain, Pena, 32, was the best defensive free-agent first baseman available, and that was one of the main reasons the Cubs wanted him.

2. Can Aramis Ramirez bounce back?

Ramirez did have problems with his thumb, but he needs to show his .241 average was a fluke and he can still deliver in the clutch. The middle of the order simply didn't produce. In 2009, Ramirez batted .425 with runners in scoring position; he hit .278 in those situations last year. He did reach 25 homers but hasn't driven in 100 runs in the last two seasons. This is the last year of his contract, and the Cubs are hoping that helps to motivate him.

3. Can Quade keep four outfielders happy?

Quade will have to rotate Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Tyler Colvin in the three outfield spots. The Cubs manager does his lineups a few days in advance and knows Soriano and Byrd need days off now and then. Convincing them to take a breather is another thing. Colvin did sputter at the end, batting .215 in August, and his strikeouts increased each month. Pitchers seemed to figure him out and he needs to make the adjustments. He did miss the last two weeks after being struck in the chest by a bat, but he was back in Mesa, Ariz., in December to train at what's been dubbed "Camp Colvin." He benefited from the workouts last season and has been joined by other players who hope to get a head start on Spring Training, too.

4. Which Carlos Silva shows up?

The Cubs didn't know what to expect from Silva, who had won five games total in 2008-09. Nobody predicted an 8-0 start. He was the first Cubs starter to open a season that well since Ken Holtzman was 9-0 in 1967. But Silva appeared in only four games after the All-Star break as he had to deal with a heart problem and elbow issues. He's one of the reasons the Cubs want to make sure they have plenty of pitching depth heading into '11.

5. Which Carlos Zambrano shows up?

The Cubs also aren't sure what to expect from Zambrano. He went from Opening Day starter to the bullpen, then back to the rotation, then threw a fit which resulted in him missing five weeks on the restricted list. The anger management therapy seemed to work. Zambrano returned on July 31 to the bullpen but was back in the rotation Aug. 9 and went 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts. New pitching coach Mark Riggins' biggest challenge will be to get the emotional right-hander to perform for an entire season as he did in the final two months.

6. Can Starlin Castro cut down on the errors?

Castro could be dazzling on defense and also puzzling. He committed 27 errors in 125 games, most of them on throws to first. Infield coach Ivan DeJesus and Minor League coordinator Franklin Font both spent time in the Dominican Republic this offseason to work with the young shortstop, who turns 21 in March. Castro can hit as he showed in his Major League debut with a three-run homer and three-run double on May 7. He also needs to show he can keep his concentration on the game and make the plays.

7. Who's the leadoff man?

Nine different batters led off for the Cubs, and they combined for 81 runs in 2010, lowest in the NL. When Pena signed, Quade didn't want to predict where he would bat in the order because he needed to start with the No. 1 spot first. Candidates include Fukudome and Blake DeWitt, although Quade may change depending on the pitching matchups. He used Jeff Baker as the leadoff man in seven games against lefties. It's been a problem for the Cubs since first-base coach Bobby Dernier was the leadoff man for four straight season openers from 1984-87. The best answer may be in the Minors in Brett Jackson.

8. Can Fukudome finish strong?

When the Cubs signed Fukudome in December 2007, they imagined he would post similar numbers to what he did in Japan. Fukudome won a batting title in '06, hitting .351. The closest he's come to that was in August '10, when he hit .365. After compiling a .305 average in nine seasons in Japan, he has posted a .259 average in three years in the Major Leagues. This is the last year of his contract, and the outfielder's last chance to save face.

9. Was Quade the right choice?

Cubs fans assumed Ryne Sandberg would be the next manager after Piniella left. After all, Sandberg had done what the team asked by managing in the Minor Leagues for four years, beginning with two years at Class A Peoria. But the Hall of Fame second baseman will be managing the Phillies' Triple-A team in 2011. Quade impressed the players and management by his performance in the final six weeks, and showed he could handle the veterans and the kids. He earned the job. However, the Cubs need a good start to show fans Quade was the right choice.

10. Who replaces Ron Santo?

We had to make this No. 10 in honor of the legendary Cubs broadcaster. Santo showed his passion for the team in the radio broadcasts with partner Pat Hughes. He may not have been the best at describing what was actually happening on the field, but you knew how the team was doing by his moans, groans and cheers. "If you think we miss him now," Monsignor Daniel Mayall said at Santo's funeral on Dec. 3 in Chicago, "wait until we turn on the radio for that first Spring Training game from Mesa in March."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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