The Chicago Cubs are NOT GOOD at baseball

Hello, good day, hope you are all doing fantastic. It is Friday, and as well all know, that means it is time for some ramblings. It is time to just throw some thoughts out there, see what sticks, then ask some hopefully intriguing questions and create some debate. That is what we do here, so let’s get it on. The trade deadline is Sunday, and a certain third baseman might be changing his tune.

So, without further ado …

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50% of 162 is…uhh…Where’s my Calculator?

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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.

Offense
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.

Pitching
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

Presumably, he didn't break his toe after throwing this pitch...

Presumably, he didn't break his toe after throwing this pitch...

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.

Defense
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

Oh...Kevin Hart looks dejected...let's hope that isn't a sign.

Oh...Kevin Hart looks dejected...let's hope that isn't a sign.

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.

Catching Up with the Cubs

by: David K.

Anytime I have written anything about Carlos Zambrano, I always half-jokingly mention his craziness and habit of taking out his anger out on helpless Gatorade jugs.  Now you know why.

Big Z lost it Wednesday afternoon, throwing an impressive tantrum by bumping the home plate umpire then throwing HIM out of the game, whipping the ball into the outfield, slamming his glove on the ground, and then taking a bat to the new Gatorade dispenser in the Cubs dug-out like it was the copier in Office Space after disagreeing with a close play at the plate.  Cue up the Geto Boys, “Die Mother F@!&ers, Die Mother F@!&ers, Still!”

The thing that really irks me about another Los blow-up is that it came in the seventh inning of a tied game when the Cubs needed him to finish out his solid performance.  Way to have the team’s best interest in mind, Z.  You make Milton Bradley and Lindsey Lohan’s relationship with Samantha Ronson look sane.  Now, you will likely see a hefty fine and multi-game suspension.  Just what the Cubs need.

A friend recently pointed out to me that since his power out-burst of hitting three home runs during a four-game span, Ryan Theriot, who only hit one longball in 2008, hit two more jacks, but just five singles in his next 17 games and saw his average dip fifty-points.  That is what happens when a 5-11, 175 pound shortstop who makes his living using the opposite field and getting on base for the big bats behind him suddenly hits a couple bombs and thinks he is a home run threat.  Thankfully, The Riot has gone back to his old ways in the Pirates’ series in which he was 7-11 with three doubles and ZERO home runs.

Now I know how Brewers’ fans felt last season whenever Eric Gagne toed the rubber in the ninth inning to try and close out a game.  I trust Kevin Gregg as much as I would trust Michael Jackson with my first born child.  Gregg is not quite in Brad Lidge territory (8.85 ERA, 2.07 WHIP), but he certainly doesn’t put Cubs fans at ease in the ninth inning, as he has allowed at least one base runner in all but one of his save opportunities.  What is it going to take for Carlos Marmol to get the closer job?  Maybe Gregg needs shoulder stiffness and a short stint on the DL.

By the way, this rule needs to change.  On May 16th against the Astros, Gregg came in to close things out in the ninth with the Cubs leading 4-0.  He proceeded to give up back-to-back solo home runs, two singles, and then a hit batsman.  Aaron Heilman then relieved Gregg with the bases loaded and gave-up a two-run single to tie the game at four.  So Gregg allowed four earned runs without recording a single out, but did not get credited with the blown save.  Heilman did.  That’s just not fair.

The Cubs are hurting worse than the Cavs NBA Title hopes.  Los comes off the disabled list just as Rich Harden is sidelined with a back strain.  (At least it’s not his shoulder this time.)  Aramis Ramirez has been on the DL since May 10th with a shoulder injury and still is not close to partaking in baseball activities.  Aaron Miles was just put on the shelf with a sore shoulder.  Ryan Freel left Wednesday’s game with a lingering hamstring injury and will likely be placed on the DL as well.  Bobby Scales was recently suffering from flu-like symptoms and sent down to Triple-A because the Cubs need healthy bodies on their roster, but could be called back up if Freel is indeed placed on the DL.  Derrek Lee has been banged up as well, most recently missing a few games due to the flu.  No wonder the Cubs are four games back in the Central and recently went on an eight-game skid.

Thankfully, they won their last two so I can un-quit them for the 298, 714th time in my Cub fandom.

One…Two…Three…Let’s All Step Back From the Ledge

By Paul Schmidt

So as a general rule I have been the most pessimistic Cub fan I know.  Outside of the loss of Mark DeRosa (which every Cub fan hated this past offseason), I hated every single move the Cubs made both with their offense and with their pitching staff.  I felt as though they completely weakened the team from a season ago in a reaction that could only be described as knee-jerk.

Not to bite former Arizona Cardinals head coach Denny Green, but the Cubs are who I thought they were.  They are who I thought they were.  This isn’t the same team that won 95 games last season.  They aren’t as good.  Now, it’s not going to matter a lick, because the rest of the division is worse this year as well, probably even more so.

And while the Cardinals are dominating early, and the Brewers are showing a little bit of life, it would seem that they don’t have the talent to hang in the long run.
Even still…what is wrong with this team so far?

Overcompensation – I figured I’d get my last gripe (for the length of this article) about the mismanagement of the franchise by GM Jim Hendry while I’m trying to get this noose off from around my neck.

Look, I love Jim Hendry.  I do.  But the things he did this offseason…he just tried too hard.
It sort of reminds me of the new White Castle commercial.  You know, the one with the stripper pig, dancing around on stage?  Then getting doused by barbeque sauce?  It’s a push for everyone to learn about their new pulled pork sandwich…but it turns out just being really creepy.  Excessively skeevy. 

And the worst part was it was completely unnecessary.  Everyone already loves White Castle.  They will never lose business.  And hey, if I’m in the mood, I might try some pulled pork sliders.  Why not?  I like sliders.  I like pulled pork.  I might give it a shot.  But probably not if you show me a stripper pig pole dancing, getting doused by Sweet Baby Ray’s and then slopping it all over the audience.  I’m just saying.
The point is, Jim Hendry did much the same thing this past offseason (without the gross imagery). Not enough lefty bats off the bench?  Let’s ship out solid fielders and good right handed bats for subpar fielders and hitters, just because they hit from the left side of the plate.

The lineup is too right-handed?  Let’s ship out the most versatile player on the team (Mark DeRosa)  and get quite literally nothing of value in return.  Hey, while we’re at it, let’s sign an injury-prone, temperamental, stone-handed designated hitter to replace him (Milton Bradley).  Great call.
Point being, sometimes you can over-compensate for perceived problems.  And really make me mad/skeeved out by doing so.

BULLPEN: This is a really bad problem.  Bad, very bad. Going-to-cause-heart-attacks-across Chicago-before-the-end-of-the-season bad.  Naming Kevin Gregg the closer over Carlos Marmol not only sent millions of fantasy baseball players scrambling to the waiver wire, it immediately weakened the ‘pen (the combination of Gregg-Marmol in the 8th and 9th instead of….say…Marmol-Wood is already a step down, why just flip the two and make the problem worse??).

Then you have a situation where you have too many pitchers for roster spots, so obviously, you keep the rule 5 draftee who has never played above High A ball (David Patton) instead of the established long reliever who can spot start for you (Chad Gaudin).  Because why would you need a spot starter for the North Siders’ rotation, when, historically, they’ve been sooooo healthy, and have a pitcher named Rich Harden whose arm could detach at the shoulder on any pitch.

Plus you have Angel Guzman pitching as though he is bringing gasoline and matches to the mound and lighting himself on fire ever time he pitches.  PLUS you have Neal Cotts – the only lefty in the pen, mind you – throwing as though he has money against the Cubs every time he pitches.  I hate this bullpen.  I need a drink.

OFFENSE: Perhaps a lot of the offensive woes could be attributed to injuries to Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto and Milton Bradley.  I get that.  It does make sense, as two of them, along with Alfonso Soriano, are your teams’ biggest three weapons.
It doesn’t excuse the following stats, though: Derrek Lee, 1 HR, .205 AVG; Soto .143 AVG 0 HR; Bradley 2 HR, 2 RBI, .128 AVG; Aaron Miles .167 AVG;  Mike Fontenot, .250 AVG.

The offense has been, at times, putrid, and is being carried for long stretches by Kosuke Fukudome (one thing I was right about) and freakin’ Ryan Theriot (I LOVE The Riot, I do, but when you’re relying on him to hit a grand slam for you to win a game…well, that’s not a good sign folks.  Not a good sign…).

STARTING ROTATION: These guys cannot be blameless either. Everyone thought Ryan Dempster would take a step back, but at 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA and a K:BB ratio of 25:14, he’s been downright awful.

Rich Harden is another matter.  He’s striking out a ton of guys, leading the team in Ks despite averaging less than 5 innings per start. When healthy, Harden is one of the best pitchers in the major leagues, but he absolutely does not look good so far this season.  The Cubs need him to turn things around quickly, especially if Ryan Dempster is turning into the Ryan Dumpster of Cincinnati fame.

All in all, things could be worse.  The offense will get better quickly as everyone GETS healthy, meaning the pitching staff won’t need to be great to keep the team in games.     However, the larger issue is that, at 11-11 after 22 games into the season, we as a fandom should probably scale back our expectations of running away with the division. Maybe 87 or 88 wins, and a fight to the finish against the Cards and/or the Brewers.

I’m as big of fan as anyone, I swear to you, but when my friends and I took a Vegas trip in mid-March, we made some future bets on win totals in baseball.  We saw the Cubs number at 92.5, my buddy Mark and I did, and we looked at each other.

“The under?” Mark, another die-hard Cub fan, asked.
“The under,” I agreed.
They are who we thought they were.

NL Central Predictions

By: David K.

17 of the 21 “experts” on ESPN.com predicted the Cubs to take home the NL Central for a third straight year.  The other four “experts” think the Cardinals will dethrone the Lovable Losers.  I say “experts” because one writer actually picked the Reds to represent the National League in the World Series.  Really, Enrique Rojas?  Anyway, here are my “expert” predictions on how the NL Central will play out this year.

1. Chicago Cubs
I am not convinced the Cubs are going to run away with this division like everyone seems to think.  Chicago led the National League in runs last season and the much needed addition of Milton Bradley’s left handed bat in the middle of the line-up should help them maintain their offensive output   What concerns me is the starting pitching.  Most talking heads are predicting a down year from Carlos Zambrano.  Can Rich Harden stay healthy?  Will Ryan Dempster be able to re-create his career year from last season?  Is Sean Marshall truly the answer as the number five starter?  Maybe it is just the cynical Cub fan coming out of me, but there are concerns with this team.  And let’s be honest; after being swept out of the Playoffs in the first round the past two post-seasons, just winning the Central will not be enough this year.

2. St. Louis Cardinals
Injuries really plagued the Cards last season, especially on the mound.  If their rotation can stay healthy and rookie closer Jason Motte can successfully fill that role, St. Louis should keep the division close.  The Redbirds will start the year with a pair of rookies in their line-up, LF Colby Rasmus and 3B David Freese (until Troy Glaus returns from the DL), but the rest of the order knows how to produce.  It is very unlikely that the NL Wild Card team will come out of the Central, so winning the division will be essential for any team wanting to see October.

3. Houston Astros
The ‘Stros have pop in the middle of their order with Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada returning.  The continued growth of young outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn should only add to the line-up.  Ivan Rodriguez, who signed a one-year deal with Houston, could be the x-factor.  If Pudge can be productive at the bottom of the order, this team may surprise some people.  Pitching will likely be the downfall in Houston.  You know Roy Oswalt will be solid and Wandy Rodriguez should continue to develop, but the health of Mike Hampton and production of veterans Brian Moehler and Russ Ortiz are certainly question marks.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers waited 25 years to make the post-season; one year later, they are trotting out Jeff Suppan as their opening day starter.  Can any team really feel good about their starting rotation when Sup’ is taking the bump on Opening Day?  With CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets both gone, Yovani Gallardo will likely be the true ace of this staff, but he only has 24 career starts.  40-year old Trevor Hoffman was brought in during the off-season to solidify the bullpen, but he starts the ’09 campaign on the 15-day disabled list, leaving a major hole to be filled early in the year.  Offensively, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun will put up major power numbers, but the Crew need Bill Hall, Mike Cameron, and Rickie Weeks to get on base (which was not a strength last season as they all hit below .245.)  Sorry Brewer backers, do not expect to re-live the magic of 2008.

5. Cincinnati Reds
Dusty Baker’s team is certainly an up-and-coming group, but is probably a year or two away from competing for the top spot in the division.  Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez are young, live arms in the rotation and should build off solid 2008 seasons.  A lot of people are excited about youngsters Jay Bruce and Joey Votto in the middle of the order, and deservingly so.  But outside of Bruce, Votto, Brandon Phillips, and maybe Edwin Encarnacion, there really is not a lot of pop in the line-up.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Before I looked up the Pirates roster, I could only name three guys.  Seriously, try it.  It should be another typical season of cellar dwelling for the Bucs.  Their starting rotation is pretty much a mess and the position players are a bunch of over-achievers.  I hear their new stadium is really nice though…