Centrally Located

We are now 1/3rd through the 2006 season, and it is time to see what went wrong, what went right, and what is yet to come! About two weeks ago, you may have thought the Cubs didn’t have a prayer this season. Did you also think the Central Division was the best in all of MLB? You know better….

What went wrong?

Dusty kept pushing “aggressive” hitting with a team comprised of small ball players, which leads to more strikeouts, ground ball outs and double plays. Aggressive hitting works when your team is in the top 3 in HRs every year, but not when Derrek Lee goes down and you have lineups consisting of Neifi Perez, Cedeno, Murton, Pierre, Walker, and Barrett. With the exception of Jacque Jones and Aramis Ramirez, this lineup lacks power and needs to be taking more pitches, making the pitchers work, getting into the other teams’ bullpens, and using the walks to display your newfound team speed. Instead, Dusty’s philosophy allowed the Cubs to be beat by giving up walks, and not taking any.

Injuries also went wrong, and while that would normally not be anyone’s fault, as you can’t plan on injuries, when it comes to habitually injured pitchers, such as Prior and Wood, you would think a prudent GM would have had a better plan to start off this year. There was a great article in the Tribune that was saying Maddux was being wasted on this team, at this point in his career. He was originally brought in to be the 5th starter on what we thought would be a World Series team, and instead he has pitched more innings, and won more games, than any other pitcher since he has been here. He has held up his end of the bargain, and Jim Hendry rewarded him by starting him alongside the likes of Jerome Williams, Glendon Rusch, Rich Hill, Jae Kuk Ryu, and Angel Guzman. If Maddux expected his 2nd stint with the Cubs to be a championship run, then he must be scratching his head about what Hendry has done so far this year, and you know he is longing for the days of pitching alongside Smoltz, Glavine, Avery, and Millwood.

What went right?

In the beginning of the year, I said if Jacque Jones was anonymous all year, that would mean he was productive and did his job. Well….Jones has turned into a lightning rod for the frustration of the fans, instead. When Jones started poorly, fans vented at him, largely because that was their only way to boo Jim Hendry. After all, no one was booing Pierre or Ramirez, despite their slow starts. Quite simply, the fans all recognized that Hendry largely sat on his hands in the offseason, and didn’t pay big bucks for the premier free agents, and was hoping to once again sign players that would overachieve once they got to the Cubs….a frustrating habit he can’t seem to shake. He also had two star pitchers injured in Spring Training….his answer to that? Sign another injured pitcher, in Wade Miller. Miller makes sense, but he didn’t help us during May, and neither did Wood or Prior. Despite all of Hendry’s foolish follies in the offseason, he at least can now point to Jones as being a bright spot, as Jones is clearly overachieving right now, and has been a big part of the Cubs winning the last two series they played. Cedeno has been a pleasant surprise, and Murton has been adequate, although his power has been disappointing. Womack, while added late, has been a great pickup….even if only because his presence in the lineup keeps Neifi on the bench! The other bright spots to point out would be the Eyre and Howry signings….I feel more comfortable in the 8th inning, with those two on the mound, than I actually do in the 9th, with Dempster pitching!

What is yet to come?

I sense a newfound consistency and a return to a .500 record. There, I said it….and you can hold me to it. More specifically, I predict a .500 record for the Cubs by July 31st. This gives them 2 full months, or 1/3 of the season at that point, to overtake the wildcard lead. They will do so with a healthy rotation, with Wade Miller as insurance….5 solid starters, and a healthy Derrek Lee.

Things go in cycles, and I am happy to note that no Cub has a .375 avg, and no Cub pitcher is undefeated. I am happy about that because it would be statistically impossible to expect that to continue, so I have more reason to expect an upturn in batting averages by Ramirez and Pierre, than a downturn in averages by Cedeno or Jones. The very fact that Ramirez and Pierre are doing so poorly tells me that they will have an incredible run any day now, and if Prior is healthy when they start clicking, the Cubs can really go on a tear.

Jones won’t hit .300 all year….at least I don’t expect him to, nor does he have to in order to be productive and have a good year. Same with Cedeno and Barrett. Expect all three of those players to finish the year closer to .280 than to .300. That may sound like a bad thing, but not when you consider that we are expecting surges by Pierre and Ramirez, in which they should both see their averages climb from .240 to .280, and I would also look for a 2nd half surge in power by Murton, as he gets more at-bats under his belt. Add Derrek Lee into the equation, and you have an offense that will settle into the top 10 in batting average by the end of the year, and will also finish in the middle of the pack in HRs as well.

Maddux will be inconsistent all year. I got my hopes up in April, as did most of the Cubs Faithful, but the reality is that Maddux will likely finish with 11 to 13 victories, and at, or slightly above, .500. Zambrano will finish around 15-10, and I expect Marshall to be around .500 as well. Those three starters put the Cubs around 6 games over .500. Now that we can see light at the end of the tunnel with the return of Prior, and we no longer have the Rusch/rookie black-hole in the starting rotation, I expect to have Prior and Wood both pitch 4 games above .500 the rest of the year. That puts us at about 14 games above .500, and with 88 wins….and a wildcard berth!

What about this Central Division?

Houston has lost 4 in a row, and Oswalt is hurting. Milwaukee has lost 8 in a row, and both those teams are under .500. Pittsburgh is not yet owned by Mark Cuban, so no need to worry about them. Cincinnati always starts strong, but divisions and playoff berths are won largely with pitching, and Cincinnati still doesn’t have the pitching to maintain their current pace. The Cardinals just lost Pujols for 2-6 weeks, and Edmonds is eyeing a possible stint on the DL as well. Carpenter just went on the DL, and Rolen has had the injury bug the last two years. Even if Edmonds and others avoid the DL and tough it out, they won’t be at 100%, and the loss of Pujols WILL cost them victories they otherwise may have earned. I predicted in the beginning of the year that either the Astros or the Cardinals would implode, and I still believe it will happen. I like the Astros, due to their pitching, and I still think they will outlast the Cardinals. That leaves the Cubs and the Cardinals to fight it out for the wildcard, and when we have a healthy rotation, we are a better team then St. Louis, I really believe that.

Final Thoughts

We don’t need a 12 game winning streak. We just need to do what we did the past 6 games, which is win each series. Make that the focus….make that your only goal….to simply win 2 out of 3, and keep advancing in the standings. That will get us back to the playoffs, CCO readers! Until next time, have fun watching the Cubs play above .500, and let’s go Cubbies!

Quote of the Day

"When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all." – Theodore Roosevelt