Commentary

Cubs' offense often inept in many ways

Despite season-long struggles, Cubs just two games back of first place in NL Central

Originally Published: July 21, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The Chicago Cubs arrived in Philadelphia on Monday flush with the enthusiasm that only a four-game sweep over Washington can bring. The upbeat tone lasted long enough for shortstop Ryan Theriot to get smoked in the hip by a line drive while standing at his position during batting practice.

Theriot pronounced himself OK to play after a brief consult with the trainer, but starting pitcher Ted Lilly's fastball location stayed behind in the clubhouse with the iPhones and the dirty socks, and the Cubs absorbed a 10-1 beating at the hands of the Phillies.

[+] EnlargeMilton Bradley
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Cubs, who scored an NL-best 855 runs last season, rank 13th in the NL (382) this season.

All is right in the world of the defending champions. Pedro Martinez was scheduled to pitch a simulated game Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla., J.A. Happ is suddenly a rookie of the year candidate, and Brett Myers might be ready to return from hip surgery and join the bullpen by late August. At this point, Roy Halladay is looking less like a necessity and more like a $23 million cherry on top.

Things are not so good for the Cubs in their 101-year sojourn in the championship wilderness. Here we are, smack between the All-Star Game and the trade deadline, and Chicago is three games over .500 at 47-44, and clinging to hope of a second-half surge just because nobody in the National League Central is good enough to open up a gap.

"We're fortunate that a team like St. Louis didn't play scalding baseball and build like an eight- or 10-game lead," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "We were basically .500 the whole first half and two or three games out the whole time. The way we played, a team could have run away with it. We're still in striking distance, so we'll take it."

In a season of pleasant surprises (the Rangers, Mariners, Giants and Rockies, to name a few) and unexpected disasters (that means you, Cleveland Indians), the Cubs are muddling along in that middle ground between waiting to erupt and going nowhere fast.

Their longest win streak, five games, came in mid-May and was immediately followed by an eight-game losing streak. They have a campus-police-like flair for killing a party mood.

With each new fit and start, it's natural to draw comparisons to last season, when the Cubs won the NL Central with a league-leading 97 victories:

• The Cubs sent eight players to the All-Star Game a year ago. This year, Lilly was the team's only representative in St. Louis. Fittingly, he had to stand and watch President Barack Obama show up for the ceremonial first pitch in a Chicago White Sox warm-up jacket.

• The 2008 Cubs ranked second in the majors with 855 runs scored. This year, they're on a pace to score 680.

• The Cubs are 20-26 on the road after going 42-38 away from Wrigley last year. They were 16-25 before sweeping the sad-sack Nationals.

• Did we mention they can't hit? Lee is the only player on the roster with more than 50 RBIs. Nobody else has 40. Although the Cubs hit their share of home runs, they rank 11th in the National League in walks and on-base percentage, 13th in doubles, 14th in stolen bases and last in triples.

The numbers tell only part of the story. In too many games, the Cubs go three or four innings without making hard contact. They've wasted too many strong pitching performances from a staff that's tied for the major league lead with 56 quality starts.

Lou Piniella If we don't hit any better than we have the first half, we're going nowhere. We have to score more runs -- period. And if not, the results are going to be the same.

-- Cubs manager Lou Piniella

"If we don't hit any better than we have the first half, we're going nowhere," manager Lou Piniella said Monday. "We have to score more runs -- period. And if not, the results are going to be the same."

Injuries haven't helped the continuity. Catcher Geovany Soto, the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year, hurt his shoulder in the second game of the season, and Piniella has had his Opening Day lineup intact for only one other day this season. It was July 6, for those keeping score at home.

Still, the New York Mets have lost half a borough's worth of talent to injury, yet they've outscored Chicago 390 runs to 382 in one more game than the Cubs. The Cubs' plight is just as attributable to bad decisions and underperformance from pivotal players as the names on the disabled list.

Outfielder Milton Bradley, signed to a three-year, $30 million deal in December, has given the Cubs mood swings, the obligatory theatrics, a smorgasbord of leg-muscle pulls and strains and a .201 batting average from the left side. By all accounts, he's put a damper on clubhouse chemistry and been a square peg in a round hole. Hitting coach Gerald Perry, who was supposed to be the guy who could "get through" to Bradley, was fired in June and replaced by Von Joshua.

During this week's series in Philadelphia, Piniella has stepped in, and he's giving Bradley a one-on-one tutorial in the cage at Citizens Bank Park. After sitting out two games, Bradley probably will return to the lineup Wednesday afternoon.

"He's gotten himself into some bad habits that he needs to clean up a little bit," Piniella said. "And he needs to relax and not fight it."

In hindsight, the Cubs appear guilty of overreacting to a bad three-game series against the Dodgers in October and outthinking themselves. This has not been a good year for general manager Jim Hendry.

Aaron Miles, currently on the DL, has given the Cubs a .500 OPS in 46 games at second base. A day doesn't go by without Cubs fans lamenting the departure of Mark DeRosa, who was traded to Cleveland to save payroll and help the Cubs get more left-handed.

Heck, even 39-year-old Jim Edmonds would look pretty good in a Chicago uniform about now. Edmonds didn't get a sniff from Chicago or anybody else in free agency after hitting 19 homers and slugging .568 in 85 games with the Cubs last season.

Chicago's leadoff hitters rank 25th in the majors in on-base percentage, and the Cubs have officially punted on Alfonso Soriano as a top-of-the-order guy and inserted Kosuke Fukudome at leadoff. It's easy to see how they could make a run in the winter at a high-energy catalyst-type player in free agency. Orlando Hudson and Chone Figgins -- who are the kind of versatile players Piniella loves -- are two names that spring to mind.

In the meantime, the Cubs are hoping for something, anything to kick-start the offense. They spent much of the first half anxiously awaiting the return of third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who went down in early May with a dislocated left shoulder. But Ramirez concedes the shoulder could hinder his power production during the next two months.

"It's probably not going to be 100 percent until next year, but it's something I'm gonna have to deal with," Ramirez said. "I finish my swing with my left shoulder high, so it's kind of sore. It does bother me."

Even at 80 percent, Ramirez is a positive presence in the order because he relishes hitting with men on base and knows how to work a count. Although Ramirez's name doesn't generally spring to mind in a rundown of the game's elite power hitters, he ranks 14th in the majors in RBIs since the start of 2003 and has a higher slugging percentage (.537) than Carlos Lee, Adam Dunn and Justin Morneau, to name a few.

"Barring injury, he's a 25- to 30-homer, 100-RBI dude," Theriot said. "He goes the other way better than he's given credit for, and if you make a mistake, he makes you pay. He doesn't miss those mistake pitches."

Too often these days, opposing pitchers carve up the Chicago lineup with precision, and strong efforts from Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells & Co. result in losses or no-decisions. It's beginning to take an emotional toll.

"I don't think the chemistry here is nearly as good as it was last year, but I'm not going to blame the wins and losses on that," Piniella said. "You win enough games, and the chemistry gets good in a hurry."

Or you continue to flail at the plate, and the season becomes a long, excruciating exercise in wheel spinning. The Cubs have 71 games and 2½ months left to figure out which story line they're going to be.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer