Eight games, 10 errors, nine home runs, and a .257 batting average...
Just a few team stats about the Chicago Cubs so far in the 2008 season. Ten errors in eight games. There aren't many teams that can average an error or more a game (Cubs average 1.25) and win. Even fewer can win four straight this early in the season while hurting themselves so badly.
Their start has been a positive one, and that is definitely saying something. The Cubs played in Arizona during Spring Training in 80 degree weather for a month and a half, then flew to Chicago, where temperatures were in the upper-30s, for a practice the day before their season opener at Wrigley. They ended up losing two out of three to their NL Central rival Milwaukee Brewers, though they did save themselves from being swept on getaway day with a 6-3 win.
They also had to grow accustomed to the new playing surface of Wrigley. The last crown infield in the MLB was taken out during the offseason, lowering the infield by 17 inches. This could help explain why the Cubs have committed seven errors in their own ballpark.
The biggest welcome so far is Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome (Koss-kay Foo-koo-DOH-may). He has been a dream for the Cubs; he took his first major league pitch, against Ben Sheets, and hammered a line drive over the head of Brewers center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., coasting into second for a stand-up double.
He later hit a game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth as part of his three-for-three debut. Scouts have acclaimed Fukudome as a hybrid of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Those attributions were showcased all in the last week as Fukudome kept nailing the ball, earning himself a .419 average.
He's also been patient at the plate (seven walks), stole two bases, and struck out six times. He has a .526 on-base percentage, an important dynamic to a Cubs lineup that sometimes struggles to reach base.
Derrek Lee turned around his performance from a small season opening slump. He's lifted his average to .333 and has three home runs, four RBI, and five walks. Mark DeRosa is the only other player who's really been solid at the plate. He's hitting .290 but has three doubles, one home run, and four RBI.
Lee and DeRosa are three of the five players who have had 30 or more at-bats; Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano are the other two. Alas, for the Cubs and their followers, they have not been anything close to their norm.
Ramirez is batting a mediocre .250 with a double, two home runs, five RBI, and five walks. His on base percentage (.342) should be his batting average—but at least he's getting on base.
Soriano hasn't done much of anything. He's batting .132 with a home run, three RBIs, and eight—count them, eight—strikeouts out of 38 at bats. Not to mention he is struggling to get on base with a .214 OBP.
Ramirez and Soriano are All-Stars. They will lift their production to help the Cubs try to win the division for the second straight year. When's the earliest you can look to see their production boost?
For the rest of April, the Cubs face pitching that's decent at best. As long as Soriano isn't swinging at almost every pitch as he has been, he will find his groove soon enough.
Ramirez has been hitting the ball, it's just that he's hitting the ball where there's defense. A player's average will always play itself out. Ramirez's numbers will pick up to around his career average. If he can get on a hot streak for a while, he can pick it up a lot quicker.
The Cubs are considered a contender for the NL Pennant this year, the first time they've reached that plateau since they came within five outs of winning it in 2003. They need every bat they can take to get there again.
This is the National League, folks. There is no DH and the pitcher's spot in the lineup is usually considered an automatic out.
But when that pitcher is Carlos Zambrano, the lineup is above most others in the NL. Zambrano won a 2006 Silver Slugger award for hitting six home runs, and he's a switch hitter!
He's just as frightening on the mound. The 6-foot-5, 255 pound right-hander is fire. He's also the surefire ace for the Cubs.
He started the season with a strong outing, going seven innings before he was taken out due to forearm cramps. During workouts since, he's been eating bananas and is under close watch by trainers to make sure he keeps eating them. Zambrano corrected reporters noting him as a "workhorse," saying he felt more "like a monkey."
The next start was a gem for Zambrano. He went seven innings against the Houston Astros and gave up seven hits with only two runs and no walks. It was the first game Zambrano pitched without giving up a walk since April 28, 2007 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
So far he has a 1.32 ERA and his low potassium level is an easy condition to treat. He just has to drink less Red Bull and more water, and eat more bananas. Don't expect forearm cramps to happen to him again...ever. The Cubs can't afford Zambrano leaving the game early for any reason.
If he can give you eight innings per start, why settle for less? Especially from your ace.
The rest of the rotation has been solid as well. One of the better stories is starter-turned-closer-turned-starter-again Ryan Dempster. He started two games and gave up only four hits (one run) in 13 innings. His ERA is the rotation's lowest at 0.69.
Ted Lilly, on the other hand, has not started off so hot. The southpaw went 4 2/3, giving up five hits and four runs—all earned. Jason Marquis went 5 1/3 in his first start, giving up eight hits and five runs (four earned), striking out only two batters and walking one.
Honestly, I expect starters to struggle more than batters in Chicago's cold. Last year Lilly and Marquis both had solid seasons for the Cubs, winning 27 games between the two. Their next starts should be an improvement as they'll get a handle on the Cubs new infield and mound, as well as the cold weather and its effects on pitching.
With Dempster moving back to a starter, the Cubs needed someone to rack up saves from the bullpen. What better than to give that job to longtime Cub Kerry Wood? This move gave Cubs fans a good story, as Wood was having a hard time starting with several injuries. Last year he moved to the bullpen.
It was impossible for Wood to ever start a game and see the ninth inning. He has the stuff to shut down batters, just not the stamina. He's good for two innings, maybe three, but with regards to his injury history and his role as a closer, he's best for one inning.
He now has the kind of arm that will handle 20-30 pitches an inning, and it's not too much for him. Piniella showed that he believes Wood still has the pitch command and enough of an arm to be a major leaguer. After converting three save opportunities, Wood proved so far that he belongs on the Cubs' roster as a closer and Piniella proved that he made the right move.
A strong defensive core has been an elusive organizational goal for the Cubs in the last five seasons. Notable holes have always been up the middle—second base, shortstop and center field.
Like I've mentioned previously, the Cubs have already committed 10 errors—three in Monday's game alone in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. I'll let that speak for itself.
Noteworthy is shortstop Ryan Theriot. This fan-favorite has been a Cubs utility man-type player the last couple of years. He's been used primarily as a bench player and pinch runner, but last year earned his starting job at shortstop when the Cubs traded Cesar Izturis.
Second base is shared between Mike Fontenot and DeRosa, but the Cubs could improve there.
Many Cubs fans are happy to finally see longtime prospect and minor leaguer Felix Pie get his chance as center fielder. After being touted as the Cubs' top prospect the last few years, he earned his everyday job in Spring Training. He's not doing badly as a young starter, but the Cubs are hoping he can raise his .200 average and cut down on his strikeouts.
The NL Central Race
The Cubs sit in third place in the NL Central behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. All teams in the central division have won and lost close games, showing a sign of closer competition compared to years past.
The Cubs have one of the stronger rosters and, as long as each player can perform, they can take sole possession and win the division for a second straight year. With the season more like an endurance race, the Cubs don't have to be in a hurry to grab first place.
Meanwhile, they can't get too far behind. As long as the Cubs stick to their own business and win their games they have nothing to worry about. At the pace they're at, the Cubs could take first place either at the end of the month or sometime in May.
If they aren't there in that span, they should be a close second, but they need their lineup to step up their productivity.
To the surprise of many, the St. Louis Cardinals have played to a tie for the best record in the Majors at 7-2. The Brewers are second with six wins and the Cubs are in third with five wins.
I don't think the Cardinals have enough pitching to keep their streak from sinking, though it might be one to three weeks before they do start to sink, as they gear up for a four game series against the weak San Francisco Giants.
The Brewers can stay at the top because they have pitching, defense and, of course, the bats. The only reason the Cubs overcame them was the Brewers lackadaisical defense, committing brainless errors and blowing late leads.
One of their biggest blown saves was a game I attended, an 8-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 5. The Brewers were ahead 5-1 in the top of the ninth with two outs when Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer, making it 5-3. There were two strikes on a few different batters, but the Brewers just couldn't shut them down.
If they blow as many games as last season, they'll repeat history. Either that or the Cubs will hit a streak hotter and rise to the top because they'd simply be playing better than the Brewers.
The Houston Astros have an amazing lineup—study their roster one day. To avoid an eyesore, don't look at their pitching. It's why they aren't considered anything special.
The Reds are on the verge of the kind of resurgence that the Brewers have experienced the last two seasons. They're incorporating young talent with talented veterans. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Reds finish third or second if any team on top slips far enough during the season.
Pittsburgh is trying to reel in talent, but they're just not attractive. They have a few good prospects in their lineup—some nice gems—but it's not enough to be noticed. However, they can rise up to play against superior teams. Both games against the Cubs this week have gone into extra innings; Wednesday night's game went to 15.
If they can sign one or two good players and trade for a couple more while they improve their record, they'll become more appealing to free agents and could be another resurgent team.