- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Whoever had Ryan Dempster, collect your money.
Dempster became the first Cub to take out his frustrations on the intrusive new Gatorade dispenser in the home dugout during his lackluster outing Monday night as the Pittsburgh Pirates captured a wild 10-8 win.
Personally, I had Carlos Zambrano, Milton Bradley and Ted Lilly as my front-runners to demolish the machine. Of course, Lilly accomplished something much greater by getting tossed from a game he wasn't pitching in, for arguing balls and strikes Monday.
Yes, it's a frustrating time for the North Side team. Imagine that, consternation at Clark and Addison! So in honor of the Cubs' eight-game slide, here are eight reasons the Cubs are struggling, in no particular order, and none of them have to do with day games, Zambrano's bunting, 101 years of ineptitude or Kosuke Fukudome.
Soto slide: Geovany Soto is going through the sophomore slump at the worst possible time. The reigning National League rookie of the year is Exhibit A for why you shouldn't play as a backup in the World Baseball Classic. He got little playing time for Puerto Rico and wound up gaining some unnecessary weight chowing down late at night with his teammates. It was a lose-lose situation.
Soto has been coming along slowly from his sub.-200 start, and after getting two hits Monday, he's hitting a whopping .214 with a .608 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). At this time last season, he was hitting .307 with a .992 OPS. He has just one home run in 112 at-bats, but he's been working with injured slugger Aramis Ramirez to refine his hitting stroke. The Cubs need his power -- and soon.
Quiet The Riot: Speaking of home runs, remember when Ryan Theriot was hitting them? "The Riot" got hot in the beginning of May, homering in three of four games before hitting two in a game May 13. He was hitting .323 on May 4, but he quickly cooled off and is hitting .273 after smacking three doubles Monday. The Cubs don't pay Theriot to hit home runs, and hopefully he'll start swinging for doubles and singles again. (Don't believe these guys when they say they're not trying to hit home runs. They are, and sometimes they should.) Theriot is a great hitter, but the Cubs don't need him to replace Ramirez's pop.
Give him some Lee-way: Derrek Lee hasn't been able to deliver much pop the past three seasons, but that doesn't mean he can't clean up. After hitting 22 and 20 home runs in 2007 and 2008, respectively, he's at about that pace right now with five homers. There shouldn't be much argument that he's no longer a power-hitting first baseman, but he can still rake. Lee has added 54 points to his average since May 13 with 12 hits in his past seven games. Even though he doesn't have the power numbers, keep him hitting fourth for now, where he's hit all of his home runs in 74 at-bats. A lot of people want to see him benched for Micah Hoffpauir, and maybe that's coming at some point this season. But for now, let's see what Lee can do.
Players play, owners own: Who owns this team? Ask a dozen fans, and you'll get varied responses. Sam Zell and his Tribune Company still sign the paychecks, while Tom Ricketts supposedly is finalizing his financing plans as we speak. And I mean that literally. I just saw him at the North Avenue exit with a sign that says, "I want to own a baseball team. Please donate whatever you can." In all seriousness, the botched sale of this eminently valuable franchise finally affected the team this offseason. General manager Jim Hendry has a payroll of $135 million, but he wasn't able to pull the trigger on Jake Peavy's contract, which pays him $74 million (including a $22 million team option) through 2013, presumably because of cost restraints. Imagine Cubs fans' reactions if the White Sox had landed Peavy. Oh wait, it doesn't matter. They fill Wrigley regardless. Still, I wouldn't count out Hendry just yet. (Writer's note: Every columnist is obliged to say that to cover his you-know-what. You can count him out whenever you feel like it.)
The Cubs, and the Mark Cuban-hating folks at Major League Baseball, turned down a passel of $1 billion bids because Bud Selig & Co. liked Ricketts, and now the guy can't close a $900 million deal. I know some of the problems stem from the nebulous WGN deals, but this has dragged on long enough. If this guy didn't have the money, why did he win the bid? And if he's having trouble buying the team, how is he going to field a winner, renovate Wrigley Field and keep this team moving forward?
DeRo! DeRo!: Everyone misses Mark DeRosa. Reporters, teammates, female fans, cranky managers. His ability to move around the field and still hit with aplomb was underrated, and whether Hendry moved him for salary reasons or, as he put it, to "get more left-handed" doesn't matter. Neither is more important than what DeRosa brought to the team by providing stability when times were tough. His presence in the clubhouse wasn't limited to funny stories over scrambled eggs. DeRosa took media pressure off his teammates in the cramped confines by serving as an unofficial spokesman for the temperature of the team. Trust me, guys appreciated it.
Uncle Milty: In just two months, Bradley has hit five home runs and had beefs with both major newspapers covering the team. The Cubs need a better ratio from the emotional slugger, especially after paying him $30 million over three years. If he hits 10 home runs and has run-ins with five reporters, the Cubs will handle the fallout. Heck, he could stuff Vine Line writers in the garbage can if it meant a three-run homer once a week. Seriously, the Cubs had to expect he would bristle at the tight media coverage and miss time with nicks and bruises, as both were in his C.V. But they also figured on more production. Still, I think Bradley will wind up hitting .275 with home runs in the high 20s and drive in around 85 runs. This homestand should help him get started, and if tossing a reporter in a garbage can get him going, I volunteer Nick Friedell.
No relief: There's nothing Piniella hates more than a pitcher who can't throw strikes. He's not alone, of course. To most managers, a relief pitcher is like a field goal kicker. The Cubs' bullpen is full of wide-right guys. What's more amazing, that Aaron Heilman (5.49 ERA), Neal Cotts (7.36) and David Patton (6.91) are still on the team, or that the Cubs paid Luis Vizcaino $4 million to go away so they could keep these guys? At least Angel Guzman is finally showing his potential. Carlos Marmol hasn't been too bad, but he's walking way too many people (18 in 20 innings), and Kevin Gregg is no sure thing in the ninth, although he's doing better than Kerry Wood in Cleveland. It's hard to get good relief pitching in the offseason, and it's hard to win without it now.
Car Ram-Rod?: Ramirez's shoulder injury not only has crippled a lineup that depended on his stability at the plate, but also has exposed the Cubs' lack of depth, despite their plethora of undersized infielders. Hendry took a risk by dealing DeRosa, hoping Aaron Miles would repeat his career year at the plate. What Hendry didn't count on was a long-term injury to his best hitter. So instead of having DeRosa to spell Ramirez at third, Piniella had to jolt Mike Fontenot out of his comfort zone at second, and now, perhaps not coincidentally, he's a mess at the plate. Neither Fontenot nor Miles is hitting, and newcomer Ryan Freel hasn't hit much while playing some third. Piniella is getting so desperate for offense, he's thinking about playing Alfonso Soriano at second to get another bat in the lineup. The only good thing about Ramirez's injury is that feel-good story Bobby Scales finally made it to the majors. He's done well at third, and I think he's finally proving he's a legitimate major leaguer, but when Scales is your third baseman, you better be loaded everywhere else, and the Cubs aren't. June can't come fast enough.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
Eight reasons the Cubs' losing streak has hit eight