Commentary

Prediction: Cubs will finish strong

Forty wins in second half will have them falling short of a playoff berth

Originally Published: July 13, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

So it's the All-Star break, or it is when I'm writing this. And for the Cubs, the emphasis should be on break, vacation, respite -- not All-Star, because just a year after being represented by eight players and one Lou Piniella at Yankee Stadium, Ted Lilly stands alone at Busch Stadium.

The Cubs have been anything but All-Stars this season. In fact, a few of their stars, the everyday ones at the very least, have been as disappointing as any players in baseball. And it's not really up for debate.

[+] EnlargeAramis Tamirez
AP Photo/David BanksAramis Ramirez is the Cubs' most valuable player.
I'm writing this from Flagstaff, Ariz., where the elevation already makes my head ache and nose bleed. And because I'm a glutton for punishment, I'm thinking about a baseball team that for most of the past century has been the No. 1 cause for migraines, ulcers and -- in the case of some Cubs fans who meet cute in the bleachers -- mono. (If potential Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who supposedly met his wife in the bleachers, is reading this, it's just a joke. Please don't revoke my credentials.)

After splitting a doubleheader Sunday with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs are 43-43, perfectly mediocre and, in some ways, very fortunate to be within bunting distance of the Cardinals at just 3½ games back of a third straight division title.

Three-and-the-hook isn't just a great betting line for football; it's also a pretty good place to be if you're a team that got its lunch eaten in October after front-running all season.

In 2008, the Cubs' season-long lead was false cover for the team's problems -- mainly, a dearth of left-handed hitting and unavoidable overconfidence. (I say "unavoidable" because every conversation between reporters and players had a variation of this exchange: Reporter: So, how excited will you be to win the World Series in four games? Player: Well, we still have a long season left, but yeah, I can't wait.)

Last year at this time, Cubs chairman Crane Kenney probably was consulting with feng shui experts on where to put his, I mean, the team's World Series trophy. Eight Cubs, and one Lou Piniella, were selected to show up at the All-Star Game in New York, and the team had the best record in baseball at 57-38, giving it a 4½-game lead on St. Louis.

So last year, you felt great, like Michael Barrett after he punched A.J. Pierzynski in the grill, and now, with the Cubs stumbling, you feel like Barrett after getting punched by Carlos Zambrano. By September, you might be feeling like Barrett after his unfortunate scrotum injury -- queasy and bed-ridden. (Why all the Barrett references? I don't know. I'm feeling nostalgic for bumbling Cubs, I guess.)

I am very interested to see how this second half plays out for the North Siders, a team on the precipice in some ways. A new ownership group will be anointed soon, and said multimillionaires will have to deal with a bloated payroll, a ballpark in need of major, costly renovations, an increasingly restless fan base that pays top dollar for tickets and, in the near future, the decision on who should replace Piniella.

We have no idea where this team will be come October, but here are five players, or positions, who might give you hope or pause for the second half:

Derrek Lee:

Beer glass half-empty: In case you missed it, Derrek Lee's power is BACK.

Lee has 17 homers and 57 RBIs at the break, picking up the slack left by Aramis Ramirez's two-month absence and the combined malaise of Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley. Do you know how many home runs Lee had at the break last year? Fifteen.

He hit eight in April 2008, which means his decline was gradual. Lee has hit six homers since July 1, prompting Piniella to admit that Lee has been carrying the team. While he's had good second halves before, like in 2005, when he hit 27 homers before the break and 19 afterward, Lee's still suffering from neck and back problems, which could make a second-half power surge tougher.

Beer glass half-full: Well, you can't argue that Lee hasn't been the offensive savior of the first half. Not that you'd want to brag about it, considering how pitiful the team has been at the plate. But Lee can hold his head high, if his neck allows him.

Earlier this season, fans were clamoring for more Micah Hoffpauir and less Lee. But Lee looks more like the 2005 edition, when he was a first-half Frank Robinson. He's only three homers shy of last year's total and he's got a long, hot summer left, with 20 home games through the end of August. With Ramirez back and Milton Bradley supposedly ready to explode, Lee's going to have some serious protection behind him.

Aramis Ramirez

Beer glass half-empty: Ramirez's shoulder injury was no joke. After dislocating his shoulder in early May, some close to him say he had every right to get surgery and forget about this season but that he didn't want to leave his teammates and, in particular, his manager out to dry. So he went to work to rehab the shoulder and tried to be a bat whisperer for his slumping teammates. When he came off the DL, he figured he was about 80 percent, which is still pretty good, but don't expect him to hit 20 homers in the second half. At best, the Cubs should hope he can provide gap power and just help the team win a few road games (The Cubs are 16-25 on the road). He had a little power shortage in 2008. After the break last year, he hit .294 (compared to .285 before), but he had just 10 homers (17 before) and 45 RBIs (66). Still, he actually had a slightly better slugging percentage after the break.

Beer glass half-full: Well, Ramirez is fresh. So he's got that going for him, right? The Cubs' third baseman was off to a strong start before going on the DL. He's hit in five of six games since coming back, albeit with just one RBI, but no one expects much until he starts to get comfortable. He had only nine at-bats in a brief minor league rehab assignment.

As evidenced by the Cubs' underachieving record and spotty offensive performance, he's the most valuable player on the team, an informal designation to be sure, but one earned through statistical snapshots, like his 1.20 "clutch performance" numbers in 2007. Clutch is a fangraphs.com number that measures how a player performs in defined clutch situations, compared to a "context-neutral environment." Ramirez was 11th in the league in "clutch" in 2007, which was impressive given his strong across-the-board numbers that season. His numbers dipped a bit last season, but it's not as if the Cubs suffered. They need the '07 Ramirez back -- and quick.

[+] EnlargeKevin Gregg
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKevin Gregg is as likely to get booed off the field as high-fived.
The Bull(bleep)pen

Beer glass half-empty: Where to start? The bullpen was the one question mark anyone could point to entering the season, and the questions have held up. Carlos Marmol was the closest thing to a sure thing, and he's been maddening. Through 45 games, Marmol walked 42 in 42 innings. Last year, in 82 games, he walked 41 in 87 1/3 innings. Marmol, who has four blown saves already, has struck out 46 and given up only 24 hits and 18 runs, numbers that have kept him in a set-up role and out of Piniella's doghouse.

Jeff Samardzija is back up from Iowa, but despite his potential and showcase "stuff," he hasn't shown he can be a reliable cog in the bullpen. Aaron Heilman is showing why he drove Mets fans crazy. Luis Vizcaino and Neal Cotts were outright disasters, and Kevin Gregg is as likely to get booed off the field as high-fived. Mediocre teams often have bad bullpens, and this team is no different.

Beer glass half-full: Well, Marmol's control should improve in the second half, because it can't get worse. Gregg has converted five straight save opportunities and hasn't given up an earned run in his past eight outings. He was even mentioned by Piniella as being All-Star worthy. Left-hander Sean Marshall has accepted his move to the bullpen with consideration and aplomb, and he has given up only one earned run in 12 2/3 innings over 16 appearances since June 12.

Seventh-inning type Angel Guzman was solid before missing a couple weeks with a triceps injury. The Cubs are reportedly in the market for former Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan, who was released last week.

Starting rotation

Beer glass half-empty: Carlos Zambrano seems insistent on proving his naysayers correct in that he won't learn how to channel his valuable emotions until he's on the downward arc of what could've been a Hall of Fame career. Zambrano (5-4, 3.53 ERA) is one of the few athletes I'd pay to watch. The ERA is solid and the Cubs haven't hit enough to give any pitcher a winning record, but he needs to be the ace in the second half.

Ryan Dempster hasn't been nearly as good as last year, but he certainly deserves your respect after working through a precarious health situation with his baby girl. That certainly put his odd toe injury in perspective, didn't it? He'll be back in a couple weeks and hopefully not scaling any pesky dugout fences.

Rich Harden has been a disappointment to say the least. The oft-injured pitcher has given up 78 hits in 74 innings. After coming over to the Cubs last summer, he gave up 39 hits in 71 innings. I guess that's one reason he's 5-6 with a 5.47 ERA.

Beer glass half-full: Randy Wells thought he was just going to get a few starts when the Cubs brought him up this spring, but he's turning into the second-most reliable pitcher on the staff. He's 4-4 with a 2.72 ERA in 12 starts, and the former Triple-A swingman is having a career-defining season. Piniella likes him because he throws strikes (64 percent) and has 53 strikeouts compared to 17 walks in 76 innings.

Outfield of nightmares

Beer glass half-empty: The Philadelphia Phillies' entire starting outfield was named to the All-Star Game, the first time that's happened since the 1995 Cleveland Indians. The Cubs' starting outfield would be named only to the All-Overpaid Game. Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley will make approximately $36.5 million this season (counting Bradley's $4 million signing bonus), and I don't think you'd find another team in the league that would want any of them.

The three of them are hitting a combined .241 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs. Sadly, Fukudome has the best slugging percentage of the trio at .421, and he's hitting a whopping .251 with seven homers and 17 doubles. How bad has it gotten for Soriano (.416) and Bradley (.374)? They're being out-slugged by Ryan Theriot (.423) and Juan Pierre (.417).

Beer glass half-full: Soriano has proven time and time again that he can get hot and carry a team on his lithe shoulders. He was smoking the ball in April and then fell into a Batcave-like hole from mid-May on. Bradley has yet to get comfortable in a Cubs uniform, especially hitting from the left-handed side (.192 average against right-handers), which is kind of why he was signed in the first place. New hitting coach Von Joshua has been working with Bradley since replacing the slugger's friend, Gerald Perry, earlier this summer. And it has been said that it takes a while for a new hitting coach to pay dividends.

Bradley was one of the most dangerous hitters in the AL last year, thanks to a hitting-friendly home ballpark in Texas. He's been similarly successful at Wrigley Field this season, hitting .303 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 35 games, compared to .178/2/6 in 36 road games.

Bradley, who is turning into the most quotable player on the North Side, told reporters after Sunday's doubleheader that he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in the second half. "When I tell you that I'm back, I'm back," he said. "You can mark it down: I'm gonna be hitting for the rest of the year."

If Bradley proves correct, he won't have to worry about the boo birds at Wrigley anymore.

Fukudome's performance has dipped since a strong spring start, but his numbers haven't plummeted like they did last season. And he's the only outfielder you can count on defensively, aside from sub Reed Johnson. Expect slugger Jake Fox (.313 average, .550 slugging, 15 RBIs in 80 at-bats) to keep getting at-bats while filling in at the corner spots.

Greenberg's prediction: Despite my reluctance and general uneasiness about this team's chances for continued success, I think the Cubs, a team that already has scraped the bottom so many times these past 3½ months, can legitimately make a run.

With Geovany Soto sidelined for maybe a month with his oblique, (which happened after I wrote this story) I don't see how he's going to rediscover his power stroke at the plate. Along with Dempster being out, I think the Cubs lose ground in August and run out of time to make it up. (Note: If the Cubs trade for Roy Halladay, forget about this.) I'm predicting a 40-36 second half record, which won't be good enough to win the division or the wild card.

The stats guys at coolstandings.com only give the Cubs a 17.3 percent chance of winning the division and a 19.7 percent shot at making the playoffs. That sounds about right. Should they eke into the post-season, not to worry, things will remain blissfully consistent in the baseball universe with a first round bounce, and a half-hearted belief that waiting til next year will one day pay dividends.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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