The snow has melted, the days are getting noticeably longer, and the Cubs are playing spring training games in Arizona.
The addition of Kerry Wood to the Cubs' roster will help stabilize the back end of the bullpen and also adds character to the clubhouse atmosphere.
The thought of it lifts the spirits.
I am really looking forward to the 2011 season and don't see any reason why the Cubs can't continue to play as they did over the final six weeks of the 2010 campaign. Like Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster, I like the Cubs' chances. And I felt that way even before the Cardinals learned that they would be without Adam Wainwright this season.
The Cubs have the next eight months to try to prove me wrong.
As the San Francisco Giants proved last year a strong pitching staff can carry a team an awful long way. The Cubs pitching was terrific down the stretch last season and the additions of Matt Garza and Kerry Wood should make a decent staff even better.
If Zambrano performs as he did during the last two months of the 2010 schedule, then the Cubs have a bonafide ace. When Z is at his best, he's every bit as good as Chris Carpenter and Zack Greinke. Zambrano struggled big-time for close to two years as the velocity of his fastball dropped from the mid-90s to the upper-80s. When he returned from the restricted list in August, he was sensational and it was apparent that he had adjusted his repertoire. He won his final eight decisions and posted a 1.24 ERA in his last 10 starts
Instead of trying to blow hitters away, Z instead kept them off balance by masterfully mixing his fastball with a changeup, split-finger fastball and slider. He consistently got his breaking pitches over for strikes and got ahead in counts - although his walk total remained a bit too high for my taste (40 in his final 70 1/3 innings).
Since his return to the starting rotation in 2008, Dempster has averaged 207 1/3 innings and 14.3 wins per season. In 2010, Dempster led the Cubs in innings pitched with 215 1/3 and allowed just 198 hits. He struck out 208 (the most since he had 209 Ks in 2000) and walked 86. He worked seven or more innings 14 times.
The 27-year-old Garza was 34-31 with a 3.86 ERA in three years with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and figures to improve as he enters his prime years and shifts from the stacked AL East to the mediocre NL Central. Garza also is a proven postseason performer after winning each of his starts and posting a 1.38 ERA in Tampa Bay's four games to three victory over Boston in the 2008 AL Championship Series.
The back end of the Cubs' rotation isn't so clear but a robust competition between Randy Wells, Carlos Silva, Casey Coleman, Andrew Cashner, James Russell, Todd Wellemeyer, and Braden Looper should serve the team well.
The addition of Wood to the bullpen as the setup righty was a masterstroke and gives the Cubs one of the majors' best late-innning relief crews.
Wood was sensational in the same setup role with the New York Yankees late last season. He allowed just two earned runs and 14 hits in 26 innings with the Yanks.
Closer Carlos Marmol converted his final 17 save opportunities and averaged a major league record 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings (Eric Gagne, with a 14.98 ratio in 2003, formerly held the mark) in 2010. The 27-year-old Dominican right-hander did not allow a run in his last 18 2/3 innings. He allowed just two hits after Sept. 1 - both singles - and one of those did not make it out of the infield. Opponents hit just .147 against him on the season.
Sean Marshall, after years of listing at sea, finally found his identity last season as a left-handed setup man. He allowed just 58 hits and struck out 90 in 74 2/3 innings, and his 2.65 ERA was inflated by one memorable horrific outing in Colorado near the end of the Lou Piniella era.
Another thing that bodes well for the Cubs is the addition of "character" guys like Wood and non-roster invitee Reed Johnson. In discarding Wood and Mark DeRosa after the 2008 season, and Johnson after 2009, Jim Hendry made a major miscalcuation in regards to team chemistry. It's an intangible that can't be measured by statistics, but is directly related to a team's on-field performance.