If someone told you that on Aug. 4, 2009, the Chicago Cubs would be in first place in the NL Central division, you would probably think: “Well, yeah…and?”
I’m sure that most Cub fans would have thought it to be a given. But thus far, it’s been anything but a given.
What has made the 2009 season such a fight for the Chicago Cubs?
Let’s start with offseason acquisition Milton Bradley. Jim Hendry signed Bradley for three years at roughly $10 million a year over the winter.
Bradley, optimistic about his new start in Chicago, raked pitching in Spring Training. It’s probably not a coincidence. True staff aces don’t pitch six innings in a Cactus League game. More often than not, he was hitting younger kids that are trying out for their big league staff.
Needless to say, Bradley's hitting quickly cooled down, and his first half was abysmal. But since starting the second half of the season, his average has slowly crept back up towards .250, though he’s not quite there yet. He currently sits at .248 with eight home runs and 26 runs batted in—and that’s in 258 at-bats.
It’s not very shocking that his bench fill-in, Jake Fox, has a .289 batting average with 8 home runs and 27 RBI in less than half as many at-bats as Milton.
However, you can’t sit $10 million on the bench, especially if that $10 million is known to rip apart a clubhouse or two.
Let’s go across to the opposite outfield corner to teammate Alfonso Soriano. Soriano started out hotter than a pistol—he actually hit a home run to start the season off. He would hit six homers in the first month of the season before falling into a downward spiral for two months.
But since the All-Star break, Soriano has also picked up his game. Lou Piniella shifted him down in the lineup, where he has stayed for three weeks now, primarily in the sixth spot.
It’s been a good move thus far, as Soriano has been hitting around .340 since the All-Star break. His power has seemingly returned, his plate coverage is better, and he’s even running a little better.
Soriano is actually a reason for the Cubs' turnaround since the All-Star break, and it’s a good thing he is filling up the hole he dug in the first half.
Aramis Ramirez’s shoulder injury that put him on the 60-day disabled list was by far the biggest blow to the Cubs in the first half. It seemed unfair that Manny Ramirez returned before Aramis.
But to be honest, Ramirez returned early. I saw the last rehab game in Peoria before he returned to the club on July 6 versus Atlanta, where he supplied good opposite-field power by hitting into the teeth of the Peoria wind blowing in from right. He carried to the warning track in his last at-bat, and it was good to see that his extension was still there after the injury.
Losing one of the biggest RBI guys in the major leagues spells trouble for any team, so it’s a good thing the Cubs payroll was able to cover the void Ramirez left.
By far the biggest disappointment this season has been the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto. Soto has been on the DL for the past two to three weeks with a groin strain, and Koyie Hill has been filling his spot.
This hurts the Cubs in more ways than one. Not only do they not have their starting catcher (who wasn’t hitting anyway), but they can’t play Jake Fox, who is easily the second- or third-best overall hitter on the team, because he becomes the emergency catcher in case Hill goes down.
Soto wasn’t hitting the ball well prior to his injury—he was batting at a .230 clip with eight home runs and 27 RBI. Hill hits at an even lower clip, but he fortunately provides the same defense as Soto.
Despite Soto's slump this season, his return provides more attack to the resurging Cubs lineup.
The only major problem looming right now is the bullpen, as there isn’t much consistency with the Cubs' relief pitching right now.
Carlos Marmol continues to walk people despite having one of the five lowest opponent batting averages in the entire major leagues.
Kevin Gregg is starting to regress back to his start-of-the-season form after showing a brilliant 16-game stretch prior to the Marlins series last weekend. Gregg could have been having trouble pitching against his former team—and fans hope that that’s all.
Aaron Heilman hasn’t been stellar at all. He has the stuff for the job, but like Marmol, he hasn’t been finding the strike zone with efficiency.
Did you notice a theme in all of the above points? All of the problems listed above are self-fixing through improved play.
Bradley is slowly creeping back, batting average-wise, but he needs to show better power at the plate. The Cubs already have a left-handed on-base guy in Kosuke Fukudome. Bradley is here as a left-handed power hitter, but he isn’t producing from the left side as much as he is from the right.
Ramirez’s injury rehab has come along very nicely, and he is driving in runs, per usual. Soriano’s plate coverage has increased greatly, and he is starting to hit the low fastball again, as well as taking sliders off the plate to right field instead of his pull field.
The major concern I have is in the bullpen. The Cubs have the arms in Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, Marmol, Heilman, Angel Guzman, and Gregg. The additions of John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny—who will most likely stay when Lilly comes back, as I expect Jeff Samardzija to go back to Peoria to work on developing a third pitch and pinpointing location—provide two more lefties that can balance the bullpen a bit better. Marshall is the bright spot in the bullpen, and hopefully Grabow can eat innings without fans eating Tums.
If the Cubs' big-money guys continue to slowly increase that batting average, they will continue to score more runs. In turn, that takes stress off the starting pitchers and allows a little more error in the bullpen—though they would like to avoid that.
Since Ramirez’s return, the Cubs are averaging 1.1 more runs per game than they did without him. Combine that with the bullpen settling into their roles, now that Grabow provides Marshall bullpen protection, and I think fans have the team they want.
Injuries happen. Lilly will come back and be the All-Star he was in the first half. Soto will come back, and even if he doesn’t hit to his standards, he still provides more than a backup catcher can.
I like our chances going forward, even with the poor weekend in Florida.
Here’s my first of many weekly forecast (predictions) for the Cubs:
The Cubs will go 4-3 over the next seven games.
Colorado is a tough place to play, so I thoroughly expect the Cubs to take one of the next two games from Cincy before splitting the four games in Colorado.
The odd game out will be the first of three versus Philadelphia at Wrigley Field, which I will call a Cubs loss.
Going 4-3 over the next seven wouldn’t be bad at all. That would put the Cubs nine games over .500, and that would probably still be good enough for a share of the division lead.
For all of your Chicago Sports News go to www.chicitysports.com, as we're currently looking for Chicago sports writers!