This could be the year that the Cubs third baseman, Aramis Ramirez, finally returns to form.  The difference in 2011 is that Ramirez has the motivation he needs – a contract season.  This is the final year of a five year, $70 million contract that he inked before the 2007 season.  He is going to have to pick up the pace if he wants the Cubs to even think about picking up the $16 million club option on him for 2012, or if he wants another large payday on the free agent market.

If the Chicago Cubs are going to compete in the NL Central, they need Ramirez to produce offensively.  Mike Quade has penciled him in as the cleanup hitter, and the Cubs’ mediocre offense needs the big bats in the middle of the order to drive in runs if they want to be successful.  The rotation is solid, and the bullpen is much improved, but run scoring remains a question mark for the Northsiders.

At 32 years old, Ramirez should still have plenty of baseball left in him.  He has been held back by a shoulder injury the past few seasons, but should be 100 percent in 2011.  Last season Aramis hit just .241 with 25 homers and 83 RBI’s.  Those numbers will not cut it for an overpaid cleanup man.

His power numbers have been way down since signing the lucrative contract.  In the first four years of the deal, he has not reached 30 home runs.  Before he was signed long term, Aramis hit 30 or more bombs three straight seasons.  The last time he drove in over 100 runs was 2008.  Whether the monetary incentive is all it takes to allow Ramirez to duplicate his 2006 stats (38 homers, 119 RBIs) remains to be seen.

According to several media reports, Ramirez is working in the cages more this spring.  He has finally accepted the help of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who is respected around the game as one of the best in the business.  Aramis made his first trip to the Cubs Convention in January, after missing the previous seven.  He said that he wants to make the most of 2011 because it could be his final year in Chicago and he wants the fans to know that he appreciates them.

This spring, in 17 games, He is hitting .311 and has knocked in seven runs.  Defensively, he got off to a rocky start, as did most of the Cubs in an error-filled opening week.  Since then, he has calmed down and he has only made four errors, all of which were in the beginning of Cactus League games.

Ramirez’s glove at the hot corner is also important for the team.  After the 2007 campaign, his fielding percentage has entered a state of decline, paralleling his batting average.  In ’07 his fielding percentage was .972, and it has not been above .950 since.  If Aramis can make the routine plays, he will be doing his job defensively.

Since the Cubs do not have a lot of depth at third base or in the middle of the order, it is necessary for Ramirez to be in the lineup on a daily basis.  He must avoid stints on the disabled list, which have plagued him the last few seasons.

Baseball expert Bill James was not very generous to the former All-Star.  James’ 2011 projections were clearly influenced by the last two seasons, which Ramirez suffered due to injuries.  Aramis is projected at a .275 batting average, 24 homers and 89 RBIs.  Although that would be an improvement from 2010, the Cubs need more production than that. He is the X Factor for the 2011 Cubs.

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