Tonight, it begins.
What makes this particular series even more intriguing than the usual Cards-Cubs drama is the fact that this series will determine, for a day or two at least, first place in the National League Central.
Well, technically, the Brewers could always win a couple and get in there too, but it sort of ruins the epic quality of my analysis.
This is a very good Cubs team. I don't necessarily see them as a title contender; they're not the caliber of Arizona or the New York, at least not to my eyes. They are, however, probably the best team in the Central Division, at least on paper. Thankfully, that's not where the game is played, but there's still an awful lot to look out for with this year's Cubs team.
The good news, for the Cardinals anyway, is that they won't have to see Carlos Zambrano in this particular series. The rotation after Big Z isn't all that imposing, but it's at least solid.
Ted Lilly, whom the Cards will see, was one of the better pitchers in the National League last year. He's struggled badly to begin this season, but if there's anything we've learned from watching the Cards the past few years, it's that they do have a habit of busting left-handed pitchers out of whatever slump they may be in.
Rich Hill will take the mound for the Cubs tonight. A similar pitcher to Lilly, Hill has one of the nastiest curve balls in the game, and velocity on his fastball to boot. He's pitched well against the Cardinals in his short career. In fact, it was a start against the Cards in late 2006 that seemed to mark Hill's transition from dominant minor-league lefty to legitimate major-league pitcher. Like Lilly, Hill has had a rough start, being held out of the rotation the last time through to try and get some work in on the side. He'll present a solid test for the Cards, as they try to break a recent string of losing series openers and get off on the right foot against the North Siders.
Our old friend Jason Marquis will toe the rubber for Sunday's game. Let's hope Marquis got all of his need for revenge on the Cardinals out of his system last year, when he routinely shut the Redbirds down whenever he saw them.
The real star of this Cubs team is the offense. The starters have been just good enough so far to give the offense the chance to win games, which it has done quite well. The biggest story of the Cubs' season to this point has been their new international acquisition, Kosuke Fukudome. In years past, the Cubs' lineups have consisted largely of hackers; if they didn't slug a couple homers every game, you could beat them pretty handily. The addition of Fukudome in particular, as well as an emphasis on more selective at-bats, has resulted in a much more balanced attack. Fukudome brings an on-base percentage well north of .400 to the Cubs' lineup, as well as excellent defense and solid speed.
If Fukudome is the biggest story so far, the second probably has to be the play of Chicago's rookie catcher, Geovany Soto. After toiling in obscurity in the Cubs' system, Soto came into camp in 2007 a new man. He lost 30 pounds, and his newfound athleticism catapulted him to a monster season, ending all the way in Chicago. So far in 2008, he's carried his improvements forward, providing a level of offense one rarely sees from the backstop position.
Overall, the Cubs' offense is constructed a bit like the Cardinals'. They have a ton of power at the infield corners, with Aramis Ramirez and Derek Lee playing shadows to the Cards' Glaus and Pujols. Their outfield is very strong, with Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano providing the bulk of the danger. The middle infield is a little on the weak side, though Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot have both played very well so far this season. Both may be playing a bit over their heads, but the offense is plenty strong enough to make any contributions from the middle infield a bonus.
The catcher position is probably the biggest advantage on the field for the Cubs. The Cubs have Soto, a dynamic young talent just coming into his own. The Cards, on the other hand, have Yadier Molina, who throws really well. That's no insult to Yadi, mind you, but he simply doesn't offer the kind of overall upside his North Side counterpart does.
In years past, we've seen even the very strongest looking of Cubs teams undone by their bullpen, long the Achilles' Heel of the Chicago club. This year's iteration looks to be much stronger, even if Kerry Wood still seems a bit of a wild card. Their former closer, Ryan Dempster, has been moved to the starting rotation, leaving the endgame to others.
With Wood as closer, Bullet Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol, the latter one of the most terrifying young arms in the league, share setup duties. The only knock on Marmol, really, is the number of innings he absorbed last year, as Lou Piniella coaxed his team into the playoffs. So far the overuse doesn't look to have had too negative of an effect, but there's a definite concern whenever a young arm is ridden as hard as Marmol's was last year.
OK, let's review: The pitching? Solid, with a bona fide ace, a good, if struggling, No. 2 pitcher and a collection of inning-munching league averages. Probably the weakest part of the team, but the rotation will at least keep the Cubs in most games.
The offense? One of the best in the National League, with power, speed and a newfound ability to get on base. The Chicago offense this season may remind you a bit of the Cardinal offenses of the early- to mid-'00 teams; the Cubs have the same multifaceted, dangerous attack those teams did.
The bullpen? Much improved, with three very good arms at the back end. Still somewhat vulnerable to lefthanders, but overall, a group much stronger than recent editions.
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a very good baseball team. So far this year, the Cardinals have passed each test put before them; this is their stiffest examination yet. Of all the teams we've seen our Birds face this year, the Cubs are, so far, the most complete. They have no glaring weaknesses, and have definite strength in most areas.
The Cardinals have built up a very good record by beating weaker teams in April. May brings a new challenge; by the time this series is over, we'll have a much better idea of just how good this Cardinal team is. The Cubs are probably the class of the NL Central. Our boys are about to find out just how well they can hang with them.