The first half of the 2008 campaign is over and the Cubs posted a 57-38 record, tied for the best in the bigs with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Lou Piniella’s crew will begin the second half on Friday in Houston with at least a four game lead over the Cardinals….with the Brewers not far behind. The Cubs must improve on the way they closed out the first 95 games and improve their play away from the Friendly Confines.
The Cubs needed the time off the break afforded them and should come back more energized….ready to play on Friday. Alfonso Soriano is scheduled to begin batting practice this weekend and if all goes well should begin a minor league rehab while the rest of his teammates are in Arizona battling the Diamondbacks. Reports after the All-Star game indicated Soriano is targeting to return on July 24th when the Cubs kick-off their first homestand of the second half against the Florida Marlins.
Over the next two days, the CCO will look at keys to the Cubs success in the second half. First up, the pitching staff and backstops….
Like every team in the big leagues, the Cubs can sustain minor injuries, even short stints on the DL, but major injuries to key players must be avoided. The Cubs survived without Carlos Zambrano and have kept their head above water without Alfonso Soriano….and both have proved how important they are to this team. Lou Piniella must have a full, healthy roster throughout the second half in order to keep players as fresh as possible in late August and September.
Good Pitching Beats a Good Offense
The Cubs have a lot of games (43 of the final 67) left against the Central Division and while the Pirates, Astros and Reds struggle in the pitching department, each of those teams have a better than average offense. Throw in the Brewers and the Cardinals and the central, offensively, is the best in the National League from top to bottom.
Carlos Zambrano must take the mound every fifth day….and Rich Harden every six, when possible. Zambrano is the leader of the staff and the Cubs must figure out how to get Ryan Dempster a win on the road. Zambrano is much easier to predict, if he can control himself, he typically posts a win….but Dempster is a little bit more difficult. He has pitched just as good on the road, except for the start on the South Side, as he has at Wrigley, but Dempster has been a victim of either the bullpen or bad defense.
Ted Lilly, while it is easier said than done, must keep the ball down. Lilly served up too many long balls in the first half (21 in 20 games, 115 1/3 innings) and that seemed to be his downfall. The less Lilly hops on the mound, the more his team will win his starts.
Jason Marquis is starting the second half in the rotation and this is as uncertain as they come. Marquis has not been the same pitcher after the break throughout his career and could find himself in the bullpen if he is not careful….or on a different team. Marquis had a great outing against the Giants and has been a little more consistent this season than last. If Marquis can keep his team in each of his starts, Lou Piniella might have found a replacement for the innings he lost when Rich Hill could not find the strike zone.
Rich Harden….this one is easy. One of the best pitchers in the Majors, when healthy. If Harden can stay off the DL and make at least 13 starts for the Cubs, his ability will take care of the rest.
Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin and Jon Lieber are the wild cards. All three can give Piniella innings and can make spot starts when necessary….but Piniella has to use them. After the first two months, Lieber has been the forgotten man (2-3 in 25 games, 1 start, with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP in 44 2/3 innings. Only 7 games in June and 2 in July….14 total innings in last 9 outings). Lieber can give Piniella innings and keep him from over using the bullpen down the stretch. Piniella likes to play match-ups but he must realize he cannot win every game. Using his long relievers effectively will help keep Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood fresh for the games they are needed. Besides, the Cubs’ offense has the knack for mounting comebacks and the long relievers are key to pulling out wins that looked like losses.
The Cubs must have a healthy Scott Eyre, or better yet, Stevie Ire down the stretch. Neal Cotts has done a solid job filling in for Eyre but Cotts has not been as consistent on the North Side as he was on the South Side. Cotts should help reduce the workload once the rosters are expanded.
The backend of the bullpen is as big a key as Carlos Zambrano. Bobby Howry, Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood must be as consistent as possible down the stretch….and throw strikes. Howry as been inconsistent, but finished strong a year ago. Marmol has struggled of late, but looked very Marmol-like during the All-Star game. Piniella must resist the urge to use Marmol on a daily basis and when he is called upon must forget about his last month. Kerry Wood was one of the biggest surprises in the first half. He was healthy and very effective. The Cubs need Wood healthy and the backend of the bullpen to be lights out for the remaining 67 games.
The Other Halves of the Battery
Geovany Soto had a tremendous first half….not only offensively but defensively. The Cubs have found themselves one of the best catchers in the game but just ask Randy Hundley how important days off are in July and August at Wrigley Field. While Soto is the starter, one of the most important players in the second half of the season is Henry Blanco.
Blanco has never been an offensive catcher but he must be able to produce enough in the second half to keep Piniella from using Geovany Soto day in and day out. Soto played in 88 of the 95 games and not only is he going through the grind of his first full season in the big leagues but putting on the gear on a daily basis has worn down the best, much less a rookie.
Hank White must make teams ‘Fear the Blanco‘.
On deck…. Keys for the Second Half – The Infielders and Outfielders