Cubs Reflections on Being in First Place
- Updated: July 28, 2009
Despite all my nay-saying and doom-daying, the Chicago Cubs woke up on July 27th and found themselves in first place in the NL Central. Outside of any performance by the Cubs, here are five reasons which this has happened:
5. The St. Louis Cardinals have no hitting. A month into the season, the Cardinals looked to have five legitimate, major-league-starter caliber outfielders. I even joked that maybe one of them could play first base. Now the Cardinals are trying to give these guys away (literally – they just traded away Chris Duncan, the son of their own pitching coach). The Cardinals have Albert Pujols and not much else on offense, though Ryan Ludwick is coming around, and it has undermined their pitching staff. Despite having three dynamite starters, the Cards staff’s won-loss percentage does not reflect their dominance.
4. The Milwaukee Brewers have no pitching. The Brewers have discovered this season that you can have two of the premier hitters in baseball (Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder), some talented support, and one of the greatest closers in baseball history in a renaissance season, and it won’t do anything to cover the sin of a bad rotation. After Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have four below-average pitchers in Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush (as much as it pains me to say that), Braden Looper, and Manny Parra. If you don’t have starters, you aren’t in the conversation.
3. The Cincinnati Reds have no coaching. Dusty Baker has taken a lot of criticism for a lot of things, but none so prescient as that leveled by Larry Dobrow of cbssportsline.com last year when, referring to Baker’s infatuation with Corey Patterson, he noted that Baker cannot accept the fact that speedy defensive minded centerfielders are not always the best leadoff men. Baker has made this point critically obvious in 2009, as he has refused to notice that Willy Taveras is a terrible leadoff hitter. To be fair, Baker doesn’t have a lot of options with this lineup period, but he has made the least of the situation. And frankly, everything else falls in from there.
2. The Houston Astros have no Lance. Or at least haven’t had Lance Berkman on track so far this season. But that seems to be changing – Lance’s OPS has been over 1.000 in each of the last two months, and his OBP is over .500 for July. The Astros lineup revolves around this guy, so when he is off, they are off. Now that he is back, could the Astros be making a run?
1. The Pittsburgh Pirates have no chance. Economists have a term called stagflation, in which there is high inflation without economic growth. In theory, this is worse than a recession or inflation, and can be much more difficult to break out of than either of the alternatives. The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a similar situation – they aren’t contenders, which makes them sellers approaching the trade deadline, but they also don’t have enough talent to bring in top name prospects from contending teams. So they are stuck.
It would appear, thus far, if my theory is correct, that the Cubs are in first place in the NL Central purely based upon the failings of the other teams in the division. To a certain extent this is correct. The Brewers, Astros and Cardinals are all either underachieving compared to the production of their players, or underperforming compared to the talent level of their teams. And Chicago has been the beneficiary.
Nevertheless, some credit must be given to the Cubs. Credit must start with Derrek Lee, whom I have been deriding all of this season and most of last season. Lee has stepped up his production dramatically in 2009, has already matched last year’s homerun total, and is hitting into way fewer double plays. But lest we get excited, he is still a home-field hero – he has a .757 road OPS and 15 of his 20 homeruns have come at home. He is better, but let’s not go celebrating to vehemently.
Aramis Ramirez also appears to be ready to contribute again, after an extended stint on the disabled list. He is hitting over .300 with an OPS over .900 in July, and will be a crucial factor in the second half.
The real story of the Chicago Cubs fall from grace in 2009 has been the horrendous play of Alfonso Soriano and Geovanny Soto. For Soto’s part, he looked like he was starting to turn things around before getting hurt earlier this month. He is a young guy and you might expect inconsistency. But for Soriano, the dropoff has been stunningly inexplicable. Soriano is the type of player that playoff teams have to be able to count on, a guy who can be penciled in for a certain level of performance, and he simply has not given it in 2009. Despite a recent return to form (.342/.383/.553/.935 in the month of July), Soriano is still on pace for the worst season of his career. Forget Derrek Lee – if the Cubs are going to the playoffs, Soriano has to be one of the top 15 outfielders in the National League.
Complain as we may about the bewilderingly inconsistent Cubs’ offense, the pitching staff is quietly having a good season. The encouraging news is that the Cubs have been led thus far by Randy Wells and Carlos Zambrano. Rich Harden is actually having the worst season of the five starters, and his ERA is only 4.55. If Harden can get it together and the Cubs offense can get these guys to the playoffs, the pitching should (should) be in a position to take the club deep.
Cheekiness aside, the Chicago Cubs really are in first place in the NL Central division by happenstance at this point. They are lucky to be there – their 52-45 record is the second worst among division leaders, and would be good for fourth place in the NL West and AL East – but they don’t have to relinquish the position. If their top performers can perform the way they are supposed to and their second tier talent can continue to produce, they have a real honest shot at fending off the Astros, Cards and Brewers.
Chicago Cubs Notes:
– The Cajun Connection, Cubs infielders Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot, who played together at LSU, got so much press in the pre-season I wondered whether these guys had retained their own PR firm. As a Cubs fan from Louisiana, I love these guys and wish them all the best, but they have struggled at the plate in 2009. But, look at the bright-side – Aaron Miles, who came to camp to compete for a middle infielder spot, has a 30 OPS+, and an OPS of .500.
– Cubs pitchers are second in baseball in strikeouts, but third in baseball in walks.
– No Cubs pitcher with 25 or more innings pitched has given up over a hit per inning this season. They are third in the NL in this category behind LA and San Francisco, which is remarkable – both the Dodgers and the Giants have outstanding pitching staffs and play in pitcher friendly parks, while the Cubs have a solid but not great staff and play in a hitter friendly park. The Cubs defense has to be part of this (maybe I was too quick to dawg the Cajun Connection).
– The Cubs offense has the fourth most homeruns and the fourth lowest batting average in the National League. Homeruns you can fake – all it takes is a small ballpark. Batting average can’t be faked. This is not a great hitting team.
– The Chicago Cubs are the sixth oldest team in baseball, behind the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, and Astros. Here’s the thing – the Phillies have Matt Stairs (41) and Jamie Moyer (46), which throws off their average age. The Red Sox have Tim Wakefield (42), John Smoltz (42), and Takashi Saito (39) tilting their age. The Yankees have seven guys aged 35 or older, many of whom are future Hall of Famers, and the Astros have a host of elder-statesmen veterans. What do the Cubs have? Their oldest player is Chad Fox (38), and then the next oldest guy is 33. This is just, across the board, an old team.
– Chicago White Sox starter Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game last week in which he struck out six batters. This is destined to spark a debate amongst Chicagoans as to the most dominant pitching performance in Chicago Baseball History – Buehrle’s perfecto or Wood’s 20 strikeout one-hitter on May 6, 1998. The only two base-runners in Wood’s game came on a hit and a hit batsman. Ironically, a great play by DeWayne Wise saved Buehrle’s game, while a lousy play marred Wood’s game – a miscue by third baseman Kevin Orie which could (should, by some accounts) have been called an error. For my part, I’ll take the guy against whom 20 of 27 batters couldn’t make contact with the ball.