Everybody's writing off the Cubs in the National League Central.
Some people like the Reds because they won last year, some people like the Brewers because they've added Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to their rotation, and some people like the Cardinals because they're the Cardinals.
Nobody likes the Cubs, though. Last season they finished behind the Astros, and this season perhaps the best that might be expected of them is finishing ahead of the Astros.
Still, if you're a Cubs fan -- and you know who you are -- you can't help harboring dreams of October, right?
When Lou Piniella finally resigned last August, the Cubs' record stood at 51-74. Under Mike Quade, though, the Cubs went 24-13. That wasn't quite impressive as what the Orioles did after Buck Showalter arrived, but it's still a massive improvement and has to be considered at least a nominally positive marker entering 2011.
The big question, though, is this: Will the Cubs making most of the money earn it?
Here are four veterans, with their 2011 salaries and their "value" -- as measured by FanGraphs -- in 2010:
Carlos Pena - $10M / $4M
Aramis Ramirez - $14.6M / $4M
Alfonso Soriano - $18M / $12M
Carlos Zambrano - $18M / $9.5M
I did some rounding, but the Cubs are paying roughly $60 million this season to those four players, who were actually "worth" only about $30 million.*
Now, when you see those figures above, your first reaction might be, "Hey, who's the idiot who spent so much money on those guys?!"
It's not mine, because my mom taught me to avoid calling people names on Web pages.
Plus, maybe all that money is a good thing.
Look, we all figured most of those contracts weren't going to work out brilliantly. Soriano's, in particular. But there's usually a reason why a player gets a long-term deal with huge numbers, and that reason is usually that they're pretty good players.
Before last season, Aramis Ramirez was one of the most consistent players in the majors. His OPS+'s from 2004 through 2009: 138, 134, 126, 128, 126, 130. Granted, he was never really a great player because his defense at third base was just adequate, at best. But what's more likely in 2011? Hitting stats like he put up for six straight seasons, or like he did last season when suffering from a variety of injuries?
If Ramirez is healthy -- and he says he is -- he figures to add four or five wins to the bottom line, all by himself.
Carlos Pena seems primed for a rebound, too. After two straight solid seasons with Tampa Bay in which he combined for a .237/.367/.515 line, Pena slumped last year to .196/.325/.407.
If it was my money, I probably wouldn't have bet $10 million on a .196 hitter. Especially one whose line-drive percentage dropped precipitously and ground-ball percentage rose alarmingly. Still, Pena does figure to hitter better than he did and what his predecessor (Derrek Lee) did last year. Oh, and when Derrek Lee didn't play first base last season, the position was usually filled by Xavier Nady or Micah Hoffpauir and they were execrable.
Figure an additional win or two with Pena at first base.
Alfonso Soriano ... Well, this might be where our analysis fails us, Cubbie fans. He was just so terrible in 2009 that his decent 2010 seems something like the upper limit of what we might reasonably expect. Granted, it wasn't that long ago that Soriano was actually an excellent player -- 2006 through 2008 -- but at this point he's just not to be relied upon for more than adequaciousness.
And then there's Carlos Zambrano, temporarily yanked from the rotation in April, then suspended for five weeks during the summer after berating his teammates. After beginning anger-management training, Zambrano returned to the rotation in August and went 8-0 with a 1.41 in 11 starts the rest of the way. There's no way of knowing if Zambrano has really slain his demons -- he says he's cured -- but you have to figure the Cubs are better with a full season of Zambrano in the rotation than without. Let's give them another couple of wins.
The Cubs won 75 games last season, but with the run differential of a 73-win team. It's not unreasonable to expect the better seasons from Ramirez, Pena and Zambrano to add eight wins.
Hey, we've got the Cubs at .500!
Sure, it's still fourth place. But now you can at least dream a little. Isn't that what the spring is all about?