The National League Central is a very interesting division that features the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and the forgotten Chicago Cubs. The Cubs last year witnessed their city counterparts, the Chicago White Sox who were also under a World Series drought win the World Series while the Cubs once again missed the playoffs. The key to their success will rely on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The question is: can these two pitchers finally stay healthy for a full season to lead them to the playoffs?
Mark Prior is the ace of this staff and is one of the best pitchers in the league when he is healthy. Last year to start the season he was on the IR list and never really seemed to put it together as he went 11-7 with a 3.67 ERA. In 166 innings he finished with 188 strikeouts which were still among the league leaders. Prior has an excellent fastball that is in the mid 90’s and a very good curve. The problem last year was his curveball hung over the plate and at times hitters hammered it over the fence. Hitters were also able to sit and wait for the fastball which really hurt Prior.
Kerry Wood is their other ace and he too was hurt last year and was really limited in the games he pitched last year. He only pitched in 66 innings and went 3-4 with a 4.23 ERA. While he did have 77 strikeouts which is more than 1 strikeout per inning, he did struggle with his control and that was largely due to injuries. Wood is a power pitched with a fastball in the upper 90s and a decent curveball. If he can stay healthy and regain his All Star form he can greatly help his team out.
Their third starter and pitcher who really has become one of the aces of the staff and one of the best pitchers in the National League is Carlos Zambrano. At only 24 years of age he is amazing and is only getting better. He went 14-6 with a 3.26 ERA. He has a great fastball in the mid 90s and a great splitt finger fastball and sinker. He averages a little less than 1 strikeout an inning with 202 K’s last year in 223 innings. His strikeout numbers and innings pitched were also among league leaders and he is still one of the best pitchers in the league and will only get better this upcoming season.
Their fourth pitcher is Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. At 39 years of age he is indeed on the decline but he is still a good pitcher. He went 13-15 last year but that was in part because of a lack of run support. He did post an un-Maddox like 4.24 ERA which was one of the highest in his career. Maddux relies on his pinpoint accuracy and control. He hits the corners and keeps the ball low in the strike zone. He gave the Cubs valuable innings from starting pitching instead of going to a shaky bullpen and pitched for 225 innings last year. I think this year he will have a similar ERA but I think he will have a slightly better overall record.
Their fifth pitcher is Jerome Williams who was awful last year going 6-10 with a 4.26 ERA last year. The Cubs are hoping he can be a much reliable pitcher for them this year. Williams has also had injury trouble and his fastball is very hittable in only the low 90’s and he doesn’t have many strikeouts.
The Chicago Cubs bullpen is average and they are hoping that former starring pitcher turned closer Ryan Dempster can finally settle in as closer and be the stopper they need at the end of games. Last year he had a decent season with 33 saves. He posted a good 3.13 ERA and he has a good deal of strikeouts with 89 in 92 innings pitched. His fastball is in the mid 90s and has good movement. With a year under his belt as closer, he should approach 40 saves this year and be that closer that the Cubs have sorely missed the past couple of years.
Can the Chicago Cubs make the playoffs? I don’t see it happening. The St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat and the Houston Astros, even without Roger Clemens still have a better starting pitching staff. If the Cubs want to have any shot at competing they need both Prior and Wood in their healthy All star forms to compete and compensate for a lack of offense.