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Sans Bradley, Cubs are a contender

The Cubs are going to be better in 2010 than they were in 2009.

And last season, despite the Milton Bradley vortex, they were good enough to be tied for first place on the morning of Aug. 7.

What does that tell you?

Last year's Cubs were a slightly saner version of the Mets. They were flawed and tragic and sometimes comical, all things the Cubs are known to be. But if Bradley had been a little less nutty, Carlos Zambrano a little less goofy, and the offense a little less erratic, they would have made the playoffs.

Now? Bradley is gone. Zambrano is (supposedly) more mature. Catcher Geovany Soto, overweight last year, is noticeably slimmer.

One year later, the Cubs have a chance to fulfill the promise they had.

I will be shocked if they're not contending into September.

Chicago won't be my pick to win the National League Central. (That burden will belong to Milwaukee. Sorry, Brewers fans.) But I believe that the Cubs' clubhouse dysfunction ended with Bradley's departure. They may now resume breaking hearts with their regularly scheduled failings.

Aside from the goat stuff, this is a regular team with regular problems. General manager Jim Hendry didn't have regular problems last year. He had Milton Bradley problems.

"I've said enough about Milton," Hendry reminded me on Wednesday.

And he's right. Bradley is a Mariner. A headache for someone else. So let's talk about the Cubs, shall we?

We will start with pitching, because we should always start with pitching. Left-hander Ted Lilly, the team's most reliable starter, won't be ready for Opening Day. He had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder during the offseason, then battled knee pain and a virus during spring training.

None of that sounds very good. But Hendry is optimistic that Lilly will return by the end of April. If that's the case, his absence won't have the disastrous consequences that many people (myself included) thought it would.

As long as he pitches well.

"A lot has to hinge on Ted Lilly's health, coming back and being effective," said Mark DeRosa, the former Cub, when asked about his old team's chances. "He's one of the better pitchers in the game, and he doesn't get a lot of publicity about it. For them, he's a huge piece."

The Cubs should have a respectable rotation, even while Lilly is out. Zambrano, unpredictable though he may be, should do better than the nine wins he had last year. Ryan Dempster can be counted on for 200 innings. Randy Wells will be a great help if he pitches even 80 percent as well as he did during his rookie year.

And Hendry sounds very content with the candidates for the fourth and fifth spots: Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Marshall and Jeff Samardzija.

One scout who has followed the Cubs recently believes that Silva and Gorzelanny will be in the rotation, with Marshall and Samardzija in the bullpen.

Silva signed a four-year, $48 million deal with Seattle in 2007. But he went 5-18 for the Mariners and came to Chicago for Bradley in a swap of big contracts gone bad.

"Maybe he needed a change of scenery," Hendry surmised. "Larry Rothschild (the Cubs' pitching coach) has tinkered with him a little bit. He's been throwing a good sinker and good slider. We don't want to get too profound about spring training, but it's been pleasant to see the sink on the ball that he hasn't had in a couple of years."

One thing to keep in mind, as long as Lilly ends up missing one month or less: The Cubs' early schedule is favorable.

Of their 24 games in April, only the first three (against Atlanta) are against a team that finished last season with a winning record. Imagine that: Good luck for the Cubs. They should be well over .500 by the middle of May, when they arrive at their first challenging stretch of the schedule.

"They should contend if they get out fast," one National League scout said.

If the Cubs swing a deal before Opening Day, it will probably be for a relief pitcher. (Angel Guzman, who had been slated for eighth-inning duty, sustained a career-threatening shoulder injury.) But it's easier to add a quality setup man at the trade deadline than in late March.

On that subject, remember one key difference between this year and last year: The sale of the Cubs has been finalized -- at last -- meaning it will be much less complicated for Hendry to add players (and payroll) in July. And there are enough good trade chips in the organization to deal for meaningful upgrades.

As long as the Cubs stay healthy, they should score plenty of runs. Their lineup underachieved badly in 2009, and it's hard to imagine that the same thing will happen again.

What would account for the fact that the Cubs scored the second-most runs in all of baseball in 2008, then dropped to 22nd last year? That's a decrease of 148 runs, with roughly the same roster. Now you know why Rudy Jaramillo is the new hitting coach.

Yes, Bradley deserved some of the blame for last year's dismal output. But Soto, Mike Fontenot, and Alfonso Soriano didn't hit like they were supposed to, either. And third baseman Aramis Ramirez, probably the team's most valuable player, only appeared in 82 games.

"I played with him for two years, so I'm biased," DeRosa said of Ramirez, "but I think he's the best clutch hitter in the game."

Ramirez has missed time this spring, too, with a right triceps injury. But he should be playing in the field again within the next few days. Hendry said Wednesday that he isn't concerned about Ramirez. "He's fine," the GM said.

Come to think of it, Hendry doesn't sound overly worried about anything right now. He likes his team. And I'm beginning to see why.

This may not be The Year. But it won't be Last Year. That counts for something, doesn't it?