The Five Best and Worst Things About the Chicago Cubs

Categories: Cardinals
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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.
The Cardinals are in full free-fall mode, having just been swept by the Milwaukee Brewers, and now they get to host the Chicago Cubs, defending division champs, as a reward. The longest streak without a championship continues into 2009 -- any drunk Cardinal fans can be heard squawking "1908!" during this series -- but is this the Cubs' year? 

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:

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1. They're the Most Talented
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. 

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2. Rich Harden is the Scariest Pitcher in Baseball
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. 

3. Derrek Lee is Better Than This
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. 

4. Their Health Will Improve
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. 

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5. Sweet Lou Will Figure Something Out
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. 

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...and Five Reasons They Won't

1. They Got Old in a Hurry
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. 

2. Derrek Lee May Not, in Fact, be Better Than This
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. 

3. Rich Harden is Also the Game's Biggest Enigma
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. 

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4. Big Z's Odometer is Just About to Turn Over Again
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. 

5. The Bullpen is a Real Problem- One of the biggest strengths of the Cubbies last year was their bullpen, with Kerry Wood closing out games, Carlos Marmol throwing absolute shutdown ball in a setup/ fireman role, and Jeff Samardzija doing yeoman's work in the earlier innings. This year, Wood is closing games for Cleveland, Samarzija is back in the minors, attempting to become a starting pitcher, and Marmol, while still occasionally dominant, hasn't been nearly the force he was in 2008. Kevin Gregg, acquired in the offseason from the Marlins to serve as primary closer, has been hit and miss so far, coming nowhere near replacing Wood's level of dominance. Add in some very questionable middle relief, and suddenly what was a huge strength in 2008 has become a definite question mark for the Cubs this year. We've seen firsthand what a bad bullpen can do to an otherwise good team here in St. Louis; how well the Cubs can finish out games is going to key to whether their season ends up being yet another in a string of recent success, or just one more frustrating season in Chicago. 

Bottom line, the Cubs are still the defending champs, and that does mean something. How much is tough to say, but at the very least, the road to winning the division runs through Wrigley Field. If the Cardinals, or the Brewers, or the Reds, or anyone else wants to win this division, they're going to have to take it from the Cubs. All the same, though, there are some definite cracks beginning to show in this Cub team, a result of a team that's aging rather quickly, and still has an awfully large amount of money tied up in those aging players. 
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