The Five Best and Worst Things About the Chicago Cubs
|There are five really good reasons why the Cubs are going to win the NL Central in '09, and there are five pretty good reasons why they won't. There are 100 reasons why this guy shouldn't be wearing that jersey.|
They've certainly not run away and hidden with the division so far the way many of the national analysts predicted; in fact, at the moment, they're not even leading the race. Of course, who is leading in May doesn't really mean all that much. So is Chicago still the team to beat?
Five Reasons Chicago Will Win the Central Division:
The Cubs still have the best overall base of talent in the NL Central. Whereas the other contenders all have strong and weak points, the Cubbies are strong on both sides of the ball. They haven't shown it yet, but it's only a matter of time until that talent all starts clicking at once.
Carlos Zambrano may still be the Cubs' staff ace, but Rich Harden, the oft-injured righty they acquired last year from Oakland, is the most talented pitcher in all of baseball. Harden is capable, each and every single time he takes the mound, of tossing a shutout. Stuff-wise, he's as good as anyone there is in the game, with a fastball that touches into the high-90s and a split-finger pitch that I personally don't think I've ever seen put into play. Harden isn't just a difference-maker, he is a potential game-breaker.
One of the biggest concerns for the Cubs this season has been the substandard performance of their first baseman, Derrek Lee, at the plate. His OPS so far in 2009 is a paltry .696; that's fine if you're a Gold Glove second baseman, but not if you play first, even with a Gold Glove. Lee is a much better hitter than he's shown this year, and he'll turn it around. After all, the man is a lifetime .281 hitter, compared to a .226 batting mark this season. His BABIP is low, at .260, so simple regression to a more normal mark will help him out a fair amount, improving an already potent Cub lineup.
We like to focus on how bad the Cardinals' luck with injuries has been, but the Cubs have been decidedly snake-bitten this year as well. Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley, and Carlos Zambrano, three of the biggest names on their roster, have all missed significant chunks of time in '09. There has been some speculation that Derrek Lee is struggling with wrist issues in the early going. As the summer goes on, and the Cubbies mend, they're going to get stronger.
I'm not a big Lou Pinella fan, but the man knows what he's doing with his histrionics and his temper tantrums. Back in 2007, just after the now-infamous Michael Barrett/ Carlos Zambrano fight in the dugout, Lou got himself tossed from a game, with a major, major blowup. The Cubs promptly went on a tear, and in fact were the hottest team in baseball the rest of the summer. How much a manager can actually affect the outcome of a game for the positive with strategy is up for debate, but I do think it's a fact that teams can benefit sometimes from a collective kick in the ass, and Pinella may be the best in all of baseball at figuring out just when to deliver that kick to his team.
This is not a young Cubs team, by really any stretch of the imagination. They do have some youngsters on the squad, yes, with guys like Micah Hoffpauir, Geovany Soto, and the middle infield duo of Fontenot and Theriot, but guys like Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Derrek Lee are all on the wrong side of 30. The Cubs have wrapped up an awful lot of resources in long-term contracts for veteran star players, and will be forced to live or die with their performances.
In 2005, Derrek Lee came in third place in the voting for Most Valuable Player, having actually contended for the Triple Crown most of the season. His OPS that year was 1.080. Those days, however, are likely long gone for the big first baseman. He broke his wrist early in 2006, and simply hasn't been the same hitter since. He hit 46 home runs in '05, hist third year in a row of over 30, but hasn't hit more than 22 since. His slugging percentage has dropped steadily the last three seasons, from .513 to .462 to just .396 this season. His wrist has continued to be a source of concern, and at 33, Lee certainly isn't getting any younger. What we're seeing from him this year may very well just be a player on the downside of his career. Oh, and that .260 BABIP I mentioned before, that should come up on its own? With a line drive percentage of only 14%, it may not regress all that much after all.
You know that old saying about death and taxes? Well, you could stick an injury to Rich Harden sometime during the season in there, and no one would blink an eye. For whatever reason, as talented as Harden is, he has never shown the ability to stay healthy for an entire season. Only once in his career has he stayed healthy for a whole season, in 2004. And even beyond the injury concerns, Harden has never been nearly as efficient as you would hope for from a pitcher with such absolutely dominating stuff. There are far too many 4 1/3 inning, 90 pitch outings on Harden's resume, and as Cardinal fans, we can certainly sympathize with the plight of a bullpen forced to get four or more innings on a regular basis.
Let's face it: Carlos Zambrano's arm has a lot of miles on it. In 2003, at the age of 22, Z threw 214 innings. He didn't dip below the 200 IP mark again until last season, when he threw 188.2. And remember, several of those years were under Dusty Baker, who routinely would ride his horses for 120+ pitches in an outing. That's a lot of wear and tear on a pitching arm, and it may be beginning to show. Zambrano's K/9 has fallen off in recent seasons, from a high of 8.8 in 2006 to just 6.2 last year. He is back up to 7.8 this season, but he's also been more hittable than ever this year, giving up more hits (40), than innings pitched (38), something he's never done over the course of a full season before. Zambrano has been a big, durable workhorse for the Cubs in his career, but all those innings come with a price. He may not be anywhere near a breakdown, but it certainly wouldn't be a complete shock if he were.