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Posted: Monday March 29, 2010 12:34PM; Updated: Monday March 29, 2010 1:10PM
Albert Chen
Albert Chen>INSIDE BASEBALL

Spring Postcard: Time may be running out on Cubs' title chances

Story Highlights

Manager Lou Piniella and star Derrek Lee are in the last year of their contracts

The Cubs were NL Central favorites last season but finished with just 83 wins

Rudy Jaramillo's arrival as hitting coach should help improve the offense

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Postcards From Camp
 
Location: Mesa, Ariz.
 

Alfosno Soriano
The Cubs need a much more productive season from Alfonso Soriano, who posted career-lows in batting average, on-base and slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs last year.
AP
MLB Team Page

This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.

Three Observations

1. The clock is ticking

Lou Piniella is in the last year of his contract. So are Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly. Injury-prone Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Ryan Dempster are entering their mid-30s. Reports are out there that GM Jim Hendry might be on the hot seat. What will the Cubs look like a year from now if they miss out on another postseason? No one knows. Last year Chicago finished 7 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, and the winter passed without the club making any significant moves to the roster, unless you believe that the improved clubhouse chemistry from throwing Milton Bradley -- the self-proclaimed Kanye West of baseball -- overboard will translate to wins on the North Side. "There are a lot of stars on this team, but they all seem to come with big question marks," says a scout.

2. The Bat Whisperer is here to save the Cubs

Chicago's most intriguing offseason acquisition? Rudy Jaramillo, the former Rangers hitting coach whose mission in Chicago is to inject some life to a sputtering offense, a unit that saw its run production drop 148 runs from 2008 to 2009. During Jaramillo's 15-year tenure in Texas, the Rangers led the majors in home runs and were the third highest scoring team in baseball. How much credit did Jaramillo deserve in Texas, where the Rangers moved into the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington around the time of Jaramillo's arrival? In Chicago the Jaramillo Effect will be tested much like the Mazzone Effect was when renowned pitching coach Leo Mazzone went from Atlanta to Baltimore (where he mostly failed to replicate his previous success). The coach's biggest challenge will be to save the career of Alfonso Soriano, who had the dreadful line of .241/.303/.423 with 20 home runs last season ... and still has five years remaining on the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs signed him to in November 2006. "Pitchers killed him with breaking balls," says a scout. "He likes to feast on fastballs, but he just isn't given any of them anymore." Good luck, Rudy.

3. The (slimmed down) Cubs plan on scoring more runs

Two players the Cubs are counting on to have big comeback seasons are Biggest Loser wannabes Geo Soto and Carlos Zambrano. Soto dropped 40 pounds. Zambrano lost 15. Zambrano believes the weight loss will keep him off the disabled list (he landed there twice last year). Soto believes shedding the weight was necessary to allow him to better turn on fastballs, which he had trouble doing last year. Soto's drop in production was due in part to bad luck: his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped from .331 to .251, fourth lowest in the league. Still, the Cubs hope their slimmed down catcher will boost the offense. "We went from scoring over 850 runs and leading the league [in 2008] to barely 700 last year," says Piniella. "We need to score at least 800 to be successful this year."

Prospect Creating A Buzz

Starlin Castro

After turning heads in the Arizona Fall League, the 20-year-old shortstop made a big impression in Mesa -- Piniella called Castro's spring "phenomenal" -- as he hit .423 before being assigned to minor league camp. Castro is a very good defender and possesses above average speed, and scouts believe he'll eventually develop more power to complement his high average. He'll start the year in Triple-A Iowa but count on him as a big part of Chicago's 2011 rebuilding effort, if there is one.

Team Weakness

Bullpen

Cubs fans, keep the Dramamine close. Chicago's 'pen, which ranked 11th in the league last year in ERA, now features three rookies. The Cubs began the spring thinking closer Carlos Marmol was the unit's one sure thing, but the 27-year-old has struggled with his mechanics this spring and has no one's confidence. "He's been all over the place with his control," says a scout. "The problem is, they have no one behind him."

Sleeper

Sean Marshall

The left-hander has had an outstanding spring by all accounts and has been one of the few bright spots in camp, but the Cubs have decided to go with Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny in the starting rotation behind Zambrano, Dempster, and Lilly, which means Marshall will pitch out of the bullpen. Look for the 27-year-old Marshall to get his chance at cracking the rotation when one of the starters ahead of him stumbles or falls to injury...which likely means very soon.

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