It’s the All-Star break, and the Chicago Cubs are right where they were when they started the season – at .500. A half-year of sometimes wild, sometimes incredibly frustrating games has yielded 43 wins and 43 losses for the defending division champs and the team that was the consensus pick to once again claim the NL Central crown.
Any breakdown of those 86 games must begin with one word: injuries. As Lou Piniella pointed out in an interview on ESPN, the Cubs have had their opening day line-up on the field intact for exactly 2 games so far this year. Most costly of all, obviously, was the shoulder separation suffered by Aramis Ramirez, which put him out of action for the bulk of the first half. Other stars who’ve missed significant chunks of time due to physical issues this year include Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Milton Bradley, Geovany Soto and Rich Harden.
Next on the list of key phrases is “offensive inconsistency” …or just plan old “offensive ineptitude.” The team that led the majors in runs in 2008 has inexplicably become one of the more punchless teams in the entire league, despite Jim Hendry‘s off-season plan to shore up the major flaw in that offense, namely the lack of left-handed pop.
The two hitters who’ve garnered the most criticism, and fan backlash, have been Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley, whose batting averages have hovered at or below .230 most of the first half. Soriano spent much of the first half putting on a clinic in how not to approach the lead-off spot, until Piniella finally got fed up and dropped him in the order. Meanwhile, Bradley, who unaccountably was given a three-year contract, combined a total lack of production from the left side with a melodramatic tendency that got him suspended and, later, kicked out of the ballpark by his own manager.
Speaking of melodrama…it was also a roller coaster first half for the pitching staff, largely thanks to Carlos Zambrano, who made headlines all over baseball for an epic meltdown that ended with the senseless slaughter of a Gatorade dispenser. That episode won Carlos a short suspension, and plenty of sideways glances from teammates who had to be wondering if they weren’t in the presence of a lunatic. Thankfully, Zambrano was able to sprinkle in enough good performances on the mound to avoid sinking to Soriano/Bradley levels.
Zambrano may have been the ace of the staff going in, but the unquestioned best pitcher for the Cubs this year has been Ted Lilly, the team’s sole All-Star, and outside of Derrek Lee, probably the MVP. I shudder to think where the team would be right now without Lilly’s unflappable consistency in the face of a situation that has seemed ready to fly apart entirely on more than one occasion (and remember that Lilly was once a hot-head himself; he seems to have put those days behind him).
It is also frightening to ponder where the Cubs would stand right now without Derrek Lee, who got off to a slow start, but has been tearing it up the last month-and-a-half. With Ramirez on the shelf and Soriano and Bradley floundering, Lee has been the only reliable run producer in the line-up, and at times the only guy who seemed to still remember what that long wooden cylinder in his hands was supposed to be for.
There has been a smattering of other offensive bright-spots: Ryan Theriot‘s work as a table-setter, for instance, and Kosuke Fukudome’s couple of hot streaks. Unfortunately, guys the team was counting on, like Mike Fontenot and Geovany Soto, have been MIA for large chunks of time, and Fukudome himself has too often lapsed into the whirling whiff-machine pattern he dismayingly evinced after his torrid start in 2008. The slack has been somewhat picked up by unheralded youngsters Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir, both of whom have made cases for getting playing time ahead of high-priced starters.
As for the bullpen…again, the word that inevitably crops up is “inconsistent.” Kevin Gregg has been better lately after struggling sometimes as the closer; Carlos Marmol, meanwhile, seems to have locked down his command after a stretch where he was posting more walks than innings. Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall and the rest of the relief corps has shown mixed results, but has at times been pretty solid. Perhaps the most important point to make about the pen is that it hasn’t gotten nearly enough chances to hold leads, given the overall lack of offensive firepower.
It’s also been a spotty campaign for the front office, which got off to a bad start by giving away Mark DeRosa for nothing and not making a push for a real lefty power hitter like Adam Dunn or Raul Ibanez, preferring instead to gamble on the volatile Milton Bradley (who, by the way, was never much of an RBI man). Jim Hendry has also been utterly incapable of finding a serviceable infield utility man: Aaron Miles and Ryan Freel were both tried, with little success. Andres Blanco came up from the minors to flash good leather but do little with the stick. In the end, Hendry was forced to swing a trade for obscure Rockies infielder Jeff Baker, who hasn’t been on the team long enough for us to know if he was worth it.
Given everything that’s gone wrong for the team this year, from injuries to emotional eruptions to lack of front office support, you would have to give high marks to manager Lou Piniella just for being able to hold the thing together. If Lou deserves criticism anywhere it’s for his stubbornness in not giving up on Soriano as the lead-off man. But, give Lou credit for finally seeing the error of his ways, and for managing to hammer together a line-up good enough to keep the team in the division race, despite all the crap that’s been handed to him. Considering the way some of his players have behaved, maybe Lou’s greatest accomplishment this season has been not staging a repeat of his famous Rob Dibble locker room scrum.
In the end, the Cubs can count themselves lucky to be at .500, and only 3 1/2 games out in the division. That being said, they will have to play much more consistently, and intelligently, in the second half if they want a third straight shot at exorcising their post-season demons.
Topics: Aaron Heilman, Aaron Miles, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Marmol, Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs, Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto, Jake Fox, Jim Hendry, Kevin Gregg, Kosuke Fukudome, Lou Piniella, Mark Derosa, Micah Hoffpauir, Mike Fontenot, Milton Bradley, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ryan Theriot, Sean Marshall, Ted Lilly