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2B Todd Walker / Mark Grudzielanek
CF Corey Patterson
RF Sammy Sosa
LF Moises Alou
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
SS Alex Gonzalez
C Michael Barrett

Rotation

SP Kerry Wood
SP Greg Maddux
SP Mark Prior
SP Carlos Zambrano
SP Matt Clement

Closer

CL Joe Borowski

Now that the ball is gone and Jamaal The Goat is next in line for explosive therapy, the Cubs may be in line for a World Series win that would finally end all the curse talk. Despite Joe Sheehan’s protestations, most Cubs fans think all that stands between them and October glory is the Astros and cruel, cruel fate.

Despite the best work of PECOTA, many still see the rotation as something akin to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or choosing from amongst five recent Playmates. To opponents, it’s pick your poison; to fans, it’s a matter of personal taste with no bad choice. Only Clement, surprisingly, avoids the yellow light. Without giving too much away from Saving the Pitcher, Clement’s mechanics are extremely good. If you want one key, watch how his glove stays steady over his plant foot.

Wait… Prior and Maddux have among the purest mechanics that motion capture has, well, captured. Why the yellow on those two? The answer is age. For Prior, he’s crossing the injury nexus after the heaviest per-outing workload of his career last season. For Maddux, he’s in a rare age bracket, one where there’s not much of a sample size. Maddux had a few minor injuries last season, but he’s hardly overworked in any sense. The problem with any system of prediction is in capturing the outliers. The Cubs have two of the most extreme on one staff. Cautionary yellows hold, but these two aren’t your average yellow-light players.

The two other yellows are a bit more concerning. Kerry Wood is nearly five years out from Tommy John surgery. Few recurrences of elbow reconstruction are out there, and even those are, yes, outliers–Darren Dreifort and Jose Rijo. Wood’s effectiveness comes from his violent kinetics. He was clearly worn down at the end of the season, especially in the playoffs, but he came out uninjured. When fatigue does not lead to injury, it’s not desirable, but it’s far from negative, assuming adequate rest. Wood has been in the 200-inning club several times, and has been able to come back, so his yellow is earned, but not ominous.

For Carlos Zambrano, he wore down earlier in the season, but like Wood, didn’t come up injured under the load. Zambrano came into 2004 with a renewed commitment to fitness, showing up noticeably lighter. His relative youth makes him more likely to have repetitive stress injuries, but Zambrano is extremely strong–something that works heavily in his favor. His near ideal pitcher’s physique–what Tom House calls a “Tarzan”–is certainly another positive. If Dusty can ease back on the throttle slightly, Zambrano has more potential than any other young pitcher in the game not named Prior.

While looking at the rotation, it’s also important to look at what the Cubs have done in regard to their bullpen. When Dusty said that “eighty percent of Prior is better than one-hundred percent of what I had in the pen,” he certainly brings up a valid point. If Baker sees more to work with when he looks down to the pen, he may be more likely to pull his starter. While Joe Borowski may not be the most dominant of closers, he was effective enough. With the addition of Kent Mercker and LaTroy Hawkins to Borowski, Mike Remlinger, and Kyle Farnsworth, Dusty should certainly see something he likes no matter when he looks down there.

The Cubs’ outfield is all yellow. Alou’s healthy 2003 brings him down to a high yellow light, but Dusty’s tendency to regularly use his bench players protects players like Alou from overuse. Sosa comes off a season where both his head and heart were tested. His head took a brutal beaning, while the corked bat and a toe injury that lingered challenged his heart. He’ll also face continued speculation about what is or isn’t in his bloodstream.

Corey Patterson returns from ACL reconstruction and early reports have him at near full-go. At nine months post-surgery, he’s probably not as explosive as he once was. Research on football injuries shows that the “first step” is one of the last skills to return after ligament replacement. While Patterson has always been speedy, he’s never been solely a speed-based player. Defensively, there might be a small hit, but the Cubs did well last year despite being negative across the board according to Clay Davenport’s Fielding Runs.

The Cubs brought in a new leader for their medical staff this season. Dave Groeschner moves to the Northside from the Giants, and has an established relationship with Dusty Baker. Groeschner comes highly recommended and trained under the best in the business, but his impact may be muted since the Cubs were already among the leaders in most medhead categories.

The Cubs go into the 2004 season with something new–high expectations. If the last two seasons have taught us one thing, it’s that the best teams on paper don’t always win, and that anything can happen. If the Cubs want to move from watching the Marlins celebrate on their field to making a pile of their own, they’ll have to first make the playoffs. Injuries can add up to several wins, and the NL Central will once again be decided by less than that.