By Paul Schmidt
The halfway point of the baseball season has been reached for the Chicago Cubs. Suffice it to say, things didn’t quite go as planned. What has happened? What will happen? Let’s take a brief, brief look back (mainly because that’s all I can stomach) and then a glance at the future as we try to figure out where this team is going to take us in this wild and wooly 2009 season.
The bats, as we all know and has been well documented, have been silent. Everything that Jim Hendry did in this offseason backfired, much as I and many others feared it might. Hendry overcompensated for a lineup that didn’t feature enough left-handers and dealt away one of the teams’ biggest strengths last season – defense (which we will get to).
Alfonso Soriano has been an unbelievable disappointment at the plate. Geovany Soto’s not been much better – but seems to be coming on ever so slightly after his positive marijuana test has come out. Mike Fontenot is proving why he isn’t an every-day player in the majors. Milton Bradley’s not hitting for power or average (but, in all sincerity, he is getting on base with an OBP of near .380 – exceedingly high for someone only hitting .245). Fukudome is coming back to earth after a torrid start again this spring, but at least is still drawing walks.
Derrek Lee has been absolutely raking, and is deserving of an All Star berth mainly because he’s had to carry this whole mess on his shoulders for the last six weeks. Ryan Theriot also has been a nice sparkplug at the plate, and, thank goodness, has stopped running the bases with the reckless abandon of past seasons.
The starters have been the anchor of the team. Ted Lilly has been an unsung hero this season – and worthy of an All-Star bid. Randy Wells probably should be getting mentions as a Rookie of the Year candidate, as hard as that might be to believe. Carlos Zambrano has been his usual up and down self, and Ryan Dempster has had to deal with a lot of personal tragedy in his life this season, yet continues to take the ball every five days (until landing on the DL today
with a mysterious broken toe). Only Rich Harden has been completely inconsistent, as no one seems to know which pitcher is going to hit the mound on any given day.
The bullpen has spent much of the season looking sketchy, but might have turned a corner. Kevin Gregg – Known to Chicago Comcast On-Demand subscribers as the Pout-Pout Fish – has thrown very well over the past couple of weeks. Carlos Marmol seems to – THANK GOD – have turned a corner and should again be considered as a possible closer. With Angel Guzman headed back into the mix as the 7th or 8th inning guy, the bullpen, once thought to be a weakness, could become a big strength.
Or lack thereof. With Milton Bradley and Alfonso Soriano on the corners, the outfield struggles to be adequate. Ryan Theriot is generally viewed, in MLB circles, as a picture-perfect example of how NOT to play shortstop. The bench is devoid of anyone who can come in and be a marked improvement defensively, save for Andres Blanco, who unfortunately can’t hit or bunt. One thing saving both Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir in this area is that when the starting OF is as bad defensively as it is, really, there’s no reason to criticize their defense.
To put things in perspective, in the second three-game series against the White Sox, Alfonso Soriano lost a pop fly in the sun and played an out into a hit on three consecutive days…and this received virtually no mention because Milton Bradley’s unfortunate “counting” incident was so very bad. That’s an awful defensive outfield.
The Second Half
Here’s five big subplots to the rest of the season for Cubs fans to be watching:
1) Off days. The Cubs, as mentioned earlier, just hit the midway point of the season at 81 games, and were the last team in all of baseball to hit that barrier. They have four games played less than the division-leading Cardinals, and obviously that gap has to be made up prior to the end of the year, which means the Cubs will have four less off days due to, mostly, inclement weather at the beginning of the year. How Lou Piniella manages the roster and gets everyone enough rest as the season goes along will be a big part of how far the Cubs can go this season
2) Injuries. The boys in blue received a big boost Monday in getting Aramis Ramirez, Angel Guzman and Reed Johnson back from injury, but then lost Ryan Dempster to the DL with a broken toe on Tuesday, with no immediate timetable for his return. If injuries continue to mount, with so few off days, the Cubs will be in real trouble trying to field an adequate roster.
3) The rotation. This goes hand-in-hand with the last item, with Dempster headed to the DL. From an immediate standpoint, Carlos Zambrano moves up one day to make the start on Tuesday, and then Kevin Hart, only sent to the
minors yesterday, will make his first major league start on Wednesday. Hart, barring a miracle, can’t be a permanent solution in that role, and Sean Marshall has to stay in the bullpen as the only lefty out there, so it leaves questions of who fills that spot in the rotation should Dempster miss any length of time – which, if the toe broken is his big toe on his plant foot, could actually happen. Watch Hart’s Wednesday start closely, and possibly pray a little that he looks like Cy Young.
4) The ownership. Just as soon as it looked like things might get resolved on Monday, things got way less clear on Tuesday. It looked as though Tom Ricketts’ bid was going forward on Monday, but Tuesday it became public that though the Ricketts deal seemed to be agreed to in principal, the Tribune continued to negotiate with the group led by equity investor Marc Utay and reached an agreement for more money overall – but less cash up front. While the particulars of how and why are relevant to the sale of the team, only one thing is important to the fans at this point – it doesn’t look like the sale will be completed in time before the trade deadline, as had been previously speculated upon. With that being the case, it goes from being extremely difficult for Jim Hendry to get a trade together to being near impossible for him.
5) The team to beat. Who is that team, to be more specific. Is it the Cardinals, with their solid rotation and best player on earth, Albert Pujols? Is it the Brewers with their other-worldly offense and a pitching staff that ranges from Yovani Gallardo (awesome) to…Seth freaking McClung (to quote the Hebrew Hammer, oy vais). Could it be the up-and-coming (and getting healthier themselves) Reds?
Perhaps any of those teams could pull the division off…but I imagine that it will be the Cubs themselves as the team to beat. I mean that in one of two ways, though – Maybe they will distance themselves from the pack and become the team to beat.
Or perhaps they will be the team that beats themselves.
With 81 down and 81 to go, we’re closer, rather than further, from the answer.