Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Cubs Make Zero Sense

The Cubs are 24-31 and laying 6.5 games behind NL Central leaders Milwaukee, who themselves have hit a tough stretch after bursting through the gates to a 24-10 start.

If you've seen the statistics for their starting pitchers and top hitters, you would be shocked to see such a record.

In fact, the team's three most talked-about hitters - Derrek Lee (.357), Alfonso Soriano (.316), and Aramis Ramirez (.302) - all enter today's play with batting averages above .300. While there are the lowlights such as Jacque Jones and Michael Barrett (.243 each) batting below .250, the Cubs are batting .269 as a team, which currently ranks third among NL teams. Despite these numbers, the Cubs rank just seventh in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored.

On the pitching end, three of the Cubs' top four starters have an ERA below 4.00 and two (Jason Marquis and Rich Hill) have sub-3 ERAs. Shockingly, Carlos Zambrano carries a hefty 5.62 ERA, which is nearly two runs higher than any season in which Zambrano has logged more than 100 innings ( 3.66 ERA in 2002). Unfortunately, to call the Cubs bullpen disappointment would be an understatement. While Michael Wuertz has been his consistent self and Ryan Dempster continues to be effective in the closer role (11 of 12 in save opportunities), three of the teams' top five relievers (in appearances) have sky-high ERAs of 5.04, 5.14, and 7.85. Excluding Dempster, the Cubs are 0-for-9 in save opportunities.

Effective starting pitching and solid hitting usually play the trump card over a mistake-laden bullpen. Nevertheless, the Cubs find themselves 7 games below .500. Why? In short, they find a way to lose close games, whether it's by poor decisions on the bases, anemic situational hitting ( i.e. batting average with runners in scoring position) or having a bullpen that cannot keep leads between the 7th and 8th innings. The intangibles result in a 2-12 record for the Cubs in one-run games.

Looking ahead, the Cubs will need to resolve their bullpen struggles from within, as the three major culprits - Bob Howry, Will Ohman and Scott Eyre - have proven major league credibility and earn $9.4 million in salary this season. Should they decide to part ways with members of their current bullpen, the Cubs will have the ammunition both in their farm system and in their crowded outfield, which contains five major league veterans (Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones, Matt Murton, Cliff Floyd and Daryle Ward) as well as talented upstarts Felix Pie and Angel Pagan.

Of course, there remains the issue of situational hitting and pitching. This responsibility rests upon the shoulders of manager Lou Piniella, who must use his foresight, knowledge and vast experience in order to place his players in situations that they can exploit. Piniella and the team's veterans must also take an active stand in squashing on the internal strife which will have ruinous effects on team chemistry if not addressed. Or else, their season will end on the July 31 trading deadline and a $100 million team salary will have gone to waste.

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