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.

No lease extension, but Orioles and governor tout partnership

orioles camden yards
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
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The Baltimore Orioles and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announced a joint commitment to what they called a “multi-decade, public-private partnership” to revitalize the Camden Yards sports complex.

The statement from the team and the state’s new governor came Wednesday, the deadline for the Orioles to exercise a one-time, five-year extension to their lease at Camden Yards. The team was not planning to exercise that option, according to a person with knowledge of the decision. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the club hadn’t announced its decision.

With no extension, the lease is set to expire at the end of this year, but the team and the Maryland Stadium Authority can keep negotiating. Wednesday’s joint release seemed to be an attempt to calm any nerves in Baltimore about the team’s future.

“I am looking forward to continuing to collaborate with Governor Moore, his administration, and the Maryland Stadium Authority in order to bring to Baltimore the modern, sustainable, and electrifying sports and entertainment destination the state of Maryland deserves,” Orioles CEO John Angelos said.

“We greatly appreciate Governor Moore’s vision and commitment as we seize the tremendous opportunity to redefine the paradigm of what a Major League Baseball venue represents and thereby revitalize downtown Baltimore. It is my hope and expectation that, together with Governor Moore and the new members and new chairman of the MSA board, we can again fully realize the potential of Camden Yards to serve as a catalyst for Baltimore’s second renaissance.”

Republican Larry Hogan, the state’s previous governor, signed a bill last year increasing bond authorization for M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, and Camden Yards. The measure allowed borrowing of up to $600 million for each stadium.

“When Camden Yards opened 30 years ago, the Baltimore Orioles revolutionized baseball and set the bar for the fan experience,” Moore, a Democrat, said Wednesday. “We share the commitment of the Orioles organization to ensuring that the team is playing in a world-class facility at Camden Yards for decades to come and are excited to advance our public-private partnership.”

Angelos recently reaffirmed that the Orioles would stay in Baltimore, although he dressed down a reporter who asked for more clarity on the future of the team’s ownership situation. Angelos was sued last year by his brother Lou, who claimed John Angelos seized control of the Orioles at his expense.