Springtime Storylines: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: 102 years and counting…

The Big Question: Does this Cubs team have what it takes to change history?

The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Since that victory, two World Wars have been fought, women have gained the right to vote, radio and television have both been invented, the NFL, NHL and NBA have been formed, and 18 U.S. presidents have been elected. You’ve probably heard all of this before. Point is, it’s been a long, long time.

Most professional sports franchises wouldn’t survive over 100 years without a championship, let alone be flourishing. But the Cubs have packed Wrigley Field on a daily (and nightly) basis since the ‘90s and they operate quite comfortably under one of the top total payrolls in the major leagues. Heck, the team sold for a whopping $845 million in the summer of 2009.

So what’s wrong? And will the 2011 edition of the Cubbies be able to finally shed that “lovable losers” label?

The 25-man roster this season is far from mediocre and actually borders on being pretty darn good. Aramis Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, but he still has some pop and most teams can’t claim a third baseman with his kind of power potential. Alfonso Soriano might be overpaid, but he’ll rake on the right days and was decently productive last season under renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Even outfielder Kosuke Fukudome carries value with his typically high on-base percentages.

The list of quality baseball players goes on, and it gets even better when you hit the pitching staff. Ryan Dempster drew Cy Young Award votes in 2008 and has averaged 189 strikeouts per year for the past three seasons. Carlos Zambrano looked like the Big Z of old at the end of 2010, Matt Garza should greatly enjoy his move from the ever-tough American League East to the far less demanding National League Central, and Randy Wells was better than your run-of-the-mill innings eater last year.

If 24-year-old starter Andrew Cashner pans out the way scouts think he might, that’s a solid five-man group in a league that has no designated hitter and most of the sport’s smaller payrolls.

The Cubs don’t lack talent and they have the money to make big moves at any turn. But Chicago has been fielding good teams off and on for a full century and the Northsiders have not been able to accomplish Major League Baseball’s ultimate goal in the modern era. For that to change now in 2011, the Cubs’ veterans must stay healthy and the Cubs’ youngsters must progress. That might sound simple, but it’s the exact sort of thing that the franchise has struggled with for the previous 102 years.

So what else is going on?

  • Mike Quade wasn’t a sexy manager pick for what is usually a high profile job. The former Triple-A Iowa skipper had his interim tag removed at the end of the 2010 season after leading the Cubs to a surprising 23-14 finish in the wake Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement. He’s off to a smooth start record-wise and all reports were good from camp this spring, but the Cubs always seem to attract drama and Quade is going to have to guide his first major league team through a suddenly more dangerous Central division.
  • The story of Starlin Castro is just beginning, and Chapter One was fantastic. The young Dominican shortstop had more hits than Ike Davis, Andres Torres, Justin Upton, Scott Rolen and Brett Gardner last season as a 20-year-old rookie. Castro is probably never going to hit for much power and he has miles to go as a base-stealer, but he has already opened many eyes around the league at a wildly young age.
  • Former Cubs starter Kerry Wood is back in town. The veteran right-hander gave new life to his career last season as a late-innings reliever in New York, fanning 31 batters and allowing only two runs in 26 pinstriped frames. He took an inexpensive contract to return to the organization that brought him up and should act as a reliable setup man behind closer Carlos Marmol, who made a bunch of noise of his own last year with a major league record 15.99 K/9.

So how are they gonna do?

The Reds won the division last year with a young offense and will be challenging for the top spot again. The Brewers added two potential aces in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and slugger Prince Fielder is entering a contract year. The rival Cardinals will also be heavily involved in what should be a summer-long race. If the Cubs are going to win the division crown or play themselves into the hunt for the wild card, it might take 90 wins. And they’re just barely capable of that.

Diamondbacks place Shelby Miller on the 10-day disabled list

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The Diamondbacks announced on Monday that starter Shelby Miller has been placed on the 10-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation. Miller will get a second opinion on his elbow on Tuesday, per MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert. Pitcher Silvino Bracho has been called up from Triple-A Reno to take Miller’s spot on the roster.

Miller, 26, left Sunday’s start with what was described at the time as forearm tightness. Through his first four starts, Miller is carrying a 4.09 ERA with a 20/12 K/BB ratio in 22 innings.

Bracho, 24, has pitched quite well in 6 2/3 innings of relief at Reno. He’s given up just one unearned run on four hits and a walk (intentional) with 12 strikeouts.

Archie Bradley figures to take Miller’s spot in the starting rotation as Bracho will work middle relief.

Eric Thames hit two more homers

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And John Lackey is livid.

The Brewers’ first baseman homered in each of his first two plate appearances against Reds starter Amir Garrett on Monday evening, helping his team to a 6-1 lead after two frames. The first was a solo blast in the first inning, and the second was a two-run shot to the opposite field in the second inning.

According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, Thames has tied the Brewers’ record for home runs in April with 10. Carlos Lee also hit 10 homers in April 2006.

Seven of Thames’ 10 home runs have come against the Reds. Including his first two at-bats on Monday night, Thames is hitting .379/.474/.924 with 17 RBI along with the 10 dingers. Not too shabby from a guy the Brewers signed to a three-year, $16 million contract during the offseason.

Lackey and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio both recently implied Thames is using performance-enhancing drugs, but Thames was tested immediately after last Monday’s game against the Cubs.