Behind Enemy Lines: A Cubs-Braves Series Q&A

As part of Talking Chop's preview of the opening series between the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs, I have exchanged some questions and answers with Cubs blogger Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue. These question exchanges will be an ongoing part of Talking Chop's previews for every series throughout the year. My answers to Al's questions can be found here.

Q:  Why should we fear the Cubs in 2010? Is there any reason to think that the Braves can't go 4-and-2 against the Cubs again this season?

A:  "Fear" the Cubs? Well, of course we'd like every team in baseball, including the AL champion in October, to "fear" the Cubs.

Instead of fear, I'd just like to see the Cubs go in and quietly take the first three games of the season. That could be doable because although the Braves' starting pitching seems to be one of the team's strong points, the Cubs can match up quite well against them even with Ted Lilly not ready until late April. Carlos Zambrano is on a mission to show he's finally grown up; he's lost 20 pounds and says he won't implode on the mound again. Ryan Dempster had an excellent second half and a fine spring training and Randy Wells looks like he's ready to repeat his 2009 season, which had him sixth in ROY voting.

Offensively, the Cubs will be the same as 2009, with the addition of Marlon Byrd to play CF. Byrd had two fine years in Texas under the tutelage of hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, who is now the Cubs' batting coach. Cubs who were injured and who had down years in 2009, including Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto, are healthy and ready to go.

More questions after the jump...

Q:  How is life without Milton Bradley? I mean, don't you miss Milton Bradley? Have you had anything to write about since Milton Bradley left? How excited are you about Carlos Silva being in the rotation, and why don't we get to face him?

A:  Carlos Silva has been a pleasant surprise in spring training. Of his six spring starts, four have been good to outstanding and he has posted a 3.80 spring ERA in 21 innings with only two walks, suggesting that he can get back to the form which had him be a capable starter with the Twins. That's all the Cubs really need from him -- to be an inning-eating fifth starter, and that's why he won't face the Braves; he'll start against the Reds in Cincinnati on the season's first weekend.

Milton Bradley is a member of the Seattle Mariners. The Cubs will face the Mariners in Seattle on June 22, 23 and 24. Until then, this player is of no interest to me.

Q:  Who would you rather have on your team, Josh Vitters (3rd-overall pick in 07) or Jason Heyward (14th-overall pick in 07), and why?

A:  Right now? Obviously, I'd take Heyward, since he's made the major league team and, based on what I've read about him, he's a combination of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays. Both players were drafted out of high school and are almost the same age (turned 20 last August).

This is a key year for Vitters, who has had some injury problems and needs to learn to take a walk every now and again. Actually, Cubs fans are much more excited about shortstop Starlin Castro, who is also 20 (turned 20 about two weeks ago) and who wowed everyone in camp by hitting .433 in 30 spring at-bats and played outstanding defense. He's played only 31 games above A ball, though, so isn't major-league ready. The Cubs are hoping he'll be their starting SS in 2011.

Q:  Who are the three most important players on your team? If any of those guys go down, how will you replace them on the roster?

A:  Last year, Aramis Ramirez missed half the season with a dislocated shoulder. The Cubs had no suitable backup, and missed the power bat who is the one player who you really want at the plate in key situations. Even so, Aramis drove in 65 runs in 82 games and hit .317/.389/.516. The Cubs need to keep him healthy, but now have a useful backup in Chad Tracy. Tracy has also been hurt the last couple of years, but had solid seasons in Arizona in 2005 and 2006.

Carlos Zambrano: "ace"? Well, maybe. And what's an "ace", anyway? After the first five turns in the rotation, does it really matter who's #1? Z clearly has the talent to be one of the top pitchers in the major leagues, if he can stay healthy in both body and mind. If he can do that, the Cubs will be right there contending.

But Cubs fans know that this team is driven by Alfonso Soriano. After playing 156 or more games five of the six years before he came to Chicago, he has spent extensive time on the DL each of his three Cub years. Last year he ran into a wall at Wrigley in April and hurt his knee -- but tried to play through it, having the worst year of his career. When Soriano is hot, he can carry a team, and the 2007 Cubs would not have made the playoffs without his hot September, when he set a team record with 14 September HR.

Q:  Is Lou Piniella still the right manager for the Cubs? Why or why not?

A:  Lou was not my first choice when the Cubs hired him. I only knew him as the base-throwing, tirade-prone guy who you'd always see screaming on Baseball Tonight. He did have such a tirade in June 2007 when the team was playing badly -- he said later it was calculated to fire the team up, and apparently, it worked.

Last year, Lou seemed asleep half the time and disinterested. Part of that might have been that the construction of the team was something he had wanted, and the roster he asked for failed. "Look, what do you want me to do?" was one of his favorite phrases at postgame press conferences after a loss.

But I do believe Lou knows how to motivate players, and even at age 66 still can command respect. His use of relief pitchers drives us nuts at times, and although everyone assumes he'll retire after this season (the last on his contract), you never know.

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