In Search of Absolution….

From all of us here at the CCO we hope that everyone had a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend, don’t forget to check all of the articles throughout the weekend for all the Cubs news you may have missed, and judging by the traffic, most of you did. There were roster moves, injury updates on Lee, Miller and Pagan, a huge comeback that fell short, a rehab start from Mark Prior and a big win on Monday….now to a Tuesday edition of “You Know Better….”

Almost one-third of the baseball season has now passed. A transition is near for our beloved Chicago Cubs….a calm reprieve from the chaos, not unlike the eye of a hurricane. Over the next few weeks there will be a lessening of the Blame Game, as the collective mind of the Cubs Faithful focuses its complete attention on the DL purge that has already begun with the return of Kerry Wood. Soon we will see Mark Prior on the mound again, and Derrek Lee will be occupying his familiar space around the 1st base bag. Our bench may even see a boost, with the return of Angel Pagan, and possibly a bullpen spot for Wade Miller. Armed with a full complement of healthy players, Dusty Baker, and his staff, will find themselves suddenly disarmed of all excuses for not winning. As sure as the beer flows in the Wrigley bleachers, and bikini-clad women get better looking with each passing inning, equally true is the need for absolution by a manager of a failing team in a contract year.

How we arrived here….

Except for the absence of Derrek Lee, Monday’s win had all the ingredients of the feel-good weekend victory recipe that has seemingly eluded the Cubs for over a month now. We saw one of our “aces” back on the mound, and in fairly dominant form. Our closer regained his confidence, and the box score was completely devoid of Neifi Perez. The convergence of these factors gives all CCO readers an idea of the potential of this club, when healthy.

Jim Hendry is another soul that is seeking absolution. What were his transgressions? Simply put, Jim Hendry decided that the Cubs team he assembled, when healthy, would be good enough to climb out of a 2-month self-inflicted tailspin. So sure of his roster, Hendry made no changes to the Cubs ball club, despite seemingly catastrophic injuries to his starting rotation, and the loss of his offensive MVP. The result is a Cubs team that is finally starting to heal, but finds itself saddled with a 19-31 record after the first 50 games of the season. Will the ongoing healing of physical injuries be enough to justify the arrogance of Hendry, or will it become apparent to all that the season was lost during the first two months of the season, when the GM sat contentedly on his hands?

How we get from A to B….

The Cubs will not win 100 games this year. That shouldn’t shock you, but I need to state the obvious to prove a larger point. There are 112 games remaining in the season, and if the Cubs were to win 100 games this year, they would have to play .893 the rest of the way. The Cardinals are on pace to win 103 games….so, once again, Hendry has positioned the Cubs to try and win the Wild Card, effectively ending all hopes of a division title before June 1st. My goal here is not to make you cry in your coffee, but rather to set some realistic hopes and expectations for the rest of the season.

We are playing for the wildcard….simple as that.

So how do we get there? I can’t predict the exact amount of victories needed to win the wildcard, but I thought it would be good to interject some uplifting nostalgia into the equation, and I am going to assume we will win, or be very close to winning, the wildcard with 88 wins. In case any of you have forgotten, that is the same number of wins that led to our division title in 2003. I believe the Cubs need to focus on constantly climbing in the standings, and keeping their goals specific to the teams directly in front of them. Focus on passing the 4th place team, then the 3rd place team, etc…. Running the numbers is an unemotional exercise, which can help confirm or deny the likelihood that we still have a chance to win the wildcard this season, so here are the basics:

Current record is 19-31. There are 112 games left. In order to reach 88 victories, the Cubs need to play .616 baseball all the way through October 1st. Is it unrealistic to expect any team to play .616 ball? A team that plays .616 ball, all year, will win 100 games….a great record, but not impossible to achieve. In fact, the Cardinals are currently playing better than that, so it is definitely an attainable goal. Are the Cubs, when healthy, as good as the Cardinals currently are?

Cubs vs Cardinals….

Albert Pujols is a special player. I do not think you can even put Derrek Lee in his category, but Lee is a very good player as well. The Cards may have an edge with Pujols, but did you know that there is not another player on the Cards with more than 6 HRs? The Cubs have Barrett, Jones, and Ramirez all with 6 or more HRs, and with Lee back in the lineup, you imagine that they would all pick up their games, and see better pitches. Mulder and Carpenter are great pitchers, but Marquis, Suppan, and Ponson should hardly strike fear into any of the Cubs Faithful. I would take a healthy rotation of Prior, Wood, Zambrano, Maddux, and Marshall (or Miller) over the Cardinals rotation any day. The difference in a playoff series is pitching, and we have 3 big guns, while most of the league only has 1 or 2….keep that in mind.

Before the season started, I more or less declared that the Cardinals and Astros were on the demise. I predicted that one of those teams would implode, and wind up below .500. With some good young pitching, I believe the Astros will outlast the Cardinals this year, and I still feel that the Cardinals are a house of cards. Perhaps the news that Carpenter may be injured will be the catalyst that helps to bring the Cardinals down. The law of averages also says that Pujols can’t keep this pace up. When looking at the Cardinals lineup, I believe that opposing teams will soon start simply intentionally walking Pujols all the time, ala Barry Bonds the past few years. If you face Mulder and Carpenter twice in a series, if you win one of those two games, that is all you need, as you can beat their 3rd through 5th starters easily. Sidney Ponson will come down to Earth very soon….trust me.

The Reds start strong every year, but they don’t have the pitching yet. Do you really think Bronson Arroyo is that good? He pitched against the Cubs with Rusch on the mound, remember? The Brewers are stacked with youth and sluggers, and will be above .500, but they also do not have the pitching, even with Ben Sheets, to scare the Cubs. The Cubs of 2004 proved that you can stack the lineup with power hitters, and it doesn’t necessarily make you a better team when you face top pitchers. Houston scares me a bit, as Oswalt is always tough, and if they get Clemens back, that could be really tough….but, remember, we don’t have to win the division….we only need to win the wildcard!

Final Thoughts

Enjoy this upcoming calm period, CCO Readers….and enjoy the “W” flags flying at Wrigley more and more often. I have no doubt that this team will play better than .500, with all their injured players healthy….it is just a matter of how much better than .500 they will be. Every winning team has to have a few standout seasons from a couple of key players. If the Cubs finish with 88 victories, here are my predictions of who will have helped the most:

Zambrano with 18 wins
Ramirez with 40 or more HRs
Pierre finishes with a .280 avg or better
Wood and Prior both record 10-11 victories
Murton finds his HR stroke in the 2nd half of the year, and finishes with 20 or more.

Let me know what you think, CCO readers….can we win the wildcard, can we get to 88 victories, and if we do, who will be the keys to the season? Keep the faith, and let’s go Cubs!

Quote of the Day

"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." - Albert Einstein