The Cubs’ roster is almost set:

C: Soto/Blanco

1B: Lee/Ward

2B: DeRosa/Fontenot

SS: Theriot/Cedeño

3B: Ramirez

LF: Soriano

CF: Pie/Johnson

RF: Fukudome

SP: Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Dempster, Marquis

RP: Lieber, Wuertz, Hart, Howry, Marmol, Wood, (Marshall or Pignatiello)

That, ladies and gents, is a solid team. It is not a great team, and it may not even be a good team, but it has the potential to be a good team. What needs to happen for the Cubs to be a good (i.e., 90 wins or more) team in 2008?

1) Ramirez, Lee, Soriano, and Zambrano need to stay healthy. This should be pretty obvious. The Cubs’ offense is largely built around Ramirez, Lee, and Soriano, and the Cubs can ill afford to lose any of them for any extended period. Zambrano is even more important.

2) Two of Soto, Fukudome, and Pie need to live up to their projections. PECOTA has Soto at .273/.352/.470, Pie at .291/.344/.479, and Fukudome at .281/.401/.504 for 2008. If all three of those guys meet or exceed those numbers and stay healthy (and #1 happens), the Brewers may as well pack it up—the Cubs will cruise to the division title. However, I think that even if only two of those three live up to their projections the Cubs are in good shape.

3) Lilly and Hill can’t backslide too much. A large part of the Cubs’ success last year was built on having three solidly above average starters in Zambrano, Hill, and Lilly make 100 starts. None of the three had a great year—in fact, it was the worst year of Zambrano’s career since 2002—but it’s amazing how useful 100 starts worth of merely good pitching is. Now, like a lot of people, I fully expect Zambrano to have a better year this year than last, but what about Hill and Lilly? Lilly had the best year of his career last year, and, while a lot of that was the result of coming to a weaker division/league, some was probably not. I think we should expect Lilly to have a worse year this year—not a lot worse, but worse. Hill, I think, should be better than he was last year, but his spring performance hasn’t really made me feel so confident. If Lilly and Hill combine for the kind of year they had collectively last year, the Cubs will be fine. Even if they backslide a little, things will probably be OK. But if both take a step back, the Cubs’ rotation suddenly looks…crappy.

4) Two of Wood, Marmol, and Howry need to have good years. The Cubs’ bullpen is built around these three power arms, and they need at least two of them to live up to expectations. The rest of the Cubs’ bullpen is solid but unremarkable, but these three have the potential to be one of the best late inning trios since Piniella’s Nasty Boys in the early 90s. Given Wood’s injury history and Marmol’s youth and tendency towards wildness, I think it’s pretty unlikely that all three have good years.

That’s it. I’m fully expecting Theriot to suck and DeRosa to be slightly above average, and I know Marquis/Dempster/Lieber will be frustrating and terrible and maddening, just like most #4 and #5 starters. The Cubs’ bench is pretty good, but it’s not going to change them from an 85-win team to a 95-win team. If all four of the things above happen, the Cubs could win 95 games easily. They won’t, though; someone will get hurt, and someone else will underperform, and someone else will get hurt, etc., etc. etc.

I predicted earlier that the Cubs would win 88 games this year, and I’m sticking to that. Unlike last year, though, when I picked them to win 86 but knew they had no chance of winning many more, I fully acknowledge that I may be off by quite a few games on the low side this year. This year’s team has tremendous potential: will they realize it?