Cubs facing another rough road
Cubs hope they are on their way to Easy Street, but pot holes will difficult to avoid in 2013
To get to the Cubs' Fitch Park facility in Arizona, you have to turn down 6th Place.
You can insert your own joke here.
Since 1999, the Cubs have finished in sixth place in the National League Central three times. Just down the road apiece is 5th Place, where the Cubs finished four times in that period, thanks to the Astros, Pirates or Brewers, who managed to be worse.
There's some good news already coming down the pike for the Cubs: Sixth place in the NL Central has been wiped off the map because the Astros have moved to the American League.
I don't believe that 5th Place runs anywhere near the Cubs' new spring-training complex, which will be open next year, but the Cubs are many people's preseason favorites to reside in fifth this season.
Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer enter Year 2 of their "parallel tracks" plan to be competitive now while building "a foundation for sustained success."
They said the same things last year and watched as the Cubs lost 101 games. It probably won't be that bad this year, but it's going to take time for the train on that second track to get chugging.
Let's look at how the division shakes out.
Maybe one of these days, manager Dusty Baker and his team can close out a deal in the postseason after taking a seemingly commanding series lead.
You know about the 2003 Cubs. Baker's 2002 Giants had a world championship within their grasp only to lose it to the Angels. Last year, the Reds were up two games to none over the Giants and needing to win only one of a possible three games at home.
The Giants took all three in Cincinnati on their way to a World Series title.
The Reds again look to be the class of the NL Central. One key question about the look of the team was answered last week, when the Reds announced that hard-throwing lefty Aroldis Chapman would return to his role of closer instead of going into the starting rotation.
"Like last year, it was a tough decision, but I think we felt what gave us the best opportunity as an organization to win this year would be to leave the rotation as is," GM Walt Jocketty told the local media. "We had four guys that pitched 200 innings. Hopefully we can do that again. We have another guy who is capable of pitching 200 innings in (Mike) Leake. That's a very strong rotation."
Leake will round out a rotation that includes Johnny Cueto (who had a poor spring), Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey.
Center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, acquired from the Indians, should give the Reds a nice jolt out of the leadoff spot. First baseman Joey Votto is a perennial MVP candidate.
This week's signing of right-hander Kyle Lohse by the Brewers to a three-year contract makes things much more interesting at the top of the Central.
"We're a better ballclub today than we were yesterday," Brewers GM Bob Melvin told the media.
Lohse, 34, is coming off a career year with the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP last season. He'll join veterans Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson as the veterans of the rotation.
Ryan Braun, another yearly MVP candidate, will anchor the middle of the lineup along with ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart, once he returns from another knee surgery, perhaps in early May.
St. Louis Cardinals:
The Cardinals were a fashionable preseason pick to win the division, but injuries threaten to end their season before it starts.
Most recently, closer Jason Motte was shut down because of an elbow strain. He's likely to open the season on the disabled list, with Mitchell Boggs sliding into the ninth-inning role.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal is out for the season because of Tommy John surgery. Ace pitcher Chris Carpenter may not pitch again because of a shoulder ailment. Third baseman David Freese is on the DL because of a back injury. And Carlos Beltran has been hobbled by a toe injury.
Still, these are the Cardinals, and they always seem a threat. The feeling in Cards camp is they have enough depth to cover the injuries.
The streak of winless seasons is 20. Recent seasons have promised to be the year when the Pirates post a winning season, but they've run out of gas.
Seeing will be believing.
The Pirates added former Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez to a starting rotation that has A.J. Burnett at the top. Burnett will start next Monday's season opener against the Cubs at PNC Park. He went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA last year.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen may be the most exciting player in the NL. The Pirates are moving Jason Grilli from setup man to closer.
Are the Pirates ready to take the next step or simply disappoint again?
Yes, the Cubs do appear to be on the right track, or tracks, with Theo Epstein's buzzwordy "parallel tracks" strategy.
The future looks promising with young players such as Javier Baez, (drafted in the last year of former GM Jim Hendry's regime), Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and the passel full of pitchers they drafted last year.
The Cubs already face challenges, with pitchers Matt Garza and Scott Baker unable to start the season on time because of injuries. There are legitimate questions about the on-base ability of the offense.
A couple of interesting questions will arise come July if the Cubs are far out of the race again: How many players from the opening-day roster will be traded, and how much patience will Cubs fans have after paying big bucks again for tickets?
But just as last year was as interesting as a 101-loss season could possibly be, it should be another fun ride again this season.