Two years ago this month, Cubs fans were in misery. Despite a gut-wrenching end to the '04 season and in spite of a depressing '05 season, Jim Hendry had insisted on letting Dusty Baker play through his contract with the Cubs. Well before August 19th, 2006 rolled around, Cubs fans had known that it was a hopeless, futile cause.
On that day in that season, the Cubs beat the Cardinals in 10 innings to, uh, improve to 53-69 on the season. Yep, the Cubs were 16 games under .500, and it was about to get a lot worse. Apparently satisfied with their late-inning triumph, the team proceeded to flop over and die. They'd lose 18 of their next 21. That's right, they'd go 3-18 following that win. Kind of makes you wonder how in the hell Carlos Zambrano had managed to win 16 that year.
"Oh, we suck. We suck mightily, we are flawed and we are very harmless to the rest of the league," lamented Goat Writer Rob in a post on August 17th of that year. "It can be said in some quarters without immediate fear of rousing the Manteno Whitecoats that with the speed and fielding up the gut, the power on the corners, and the surprising level of success of some of the baby pitchers we've been casting out there as bait, that there is Hope for Next Year, given the Right Trades and Free Agent Signings. (Like either or those will ever happen, but bear with me here)." Turns out he was right, even as he expressed his skepticism.
Jim Hendry would somehow keep his job, even while Dusty Baker was chased out of town by angry fans wielding weaponry. I was not alone in expressing tremendous disappointment in Hendry's return. However, driven by the go-get-'em philosophy of a new team president and the never-to-be-underestimated desire to save his own skin, Hendry and the Cubs opened the coffers and proceeded to acquire players who would almost immediately turn the Cubs into contenders. Meanwhile, Dusty - the guy Hendry wouldn't fire - sat behind a desk with ESPN for a season, spouting wisdom that even befuddled certified geniuses like John Kruk. And yet, despite exposing an entire country to his keen baseball mind, Baker managed to land another managing job.
Now, we are taken full circle. Baker has returned to Chicago for the last time this season, and he will be facing a team that is, in many ways, the antithesis of the group of losers he managed. Where Baker favored veterans at the expense of promising rookies, the Cubs are now a team where every player makes meaningful contributions. Where Baker made decisions that baffled, the Cubs now play with precision and order. Most importantly, where Baker brought out the worst in his team and failed to make the slightest positive contribution, the Cubs are now managed by a guy who seems to do everything right.
Dusty Baker, Cubs past, meet Lou Piniella, Cubs present and future. It took Lou a couple of months to fix the mess you left him, but since June 2nd, 2007, the Cubs have gone 139-94, which is the best record of any team in baseball in that time. Meanwhile, in their first season under Baker's leadership, the Reds are whatdoyaknow, 55-70. Pretty much on par for Baker.
Two years ago today, the Cubs - an already bad team - embarked upon a losing streak that was epic, but not unexpected. They narrowly avoided a 100-loss season. This year, the Cubs - an already great team - may very well be on the brink of a winning streak that is epic, but not unexpected. If they do, if they can, then this time they should not fall short of 100.
Now that the Cubs have hit 26 games over .500, I thought it would be appropriate to look back on the recent schedule, and to look ahead to what remains.
With 42 games remaining, the Cubs are 73-47. Over the course of the season, the Cubs have a .726 winning percentage at home - that's 118 wins over 162 games, folks. On the road, however, the Cubs haven't been so good. They're 28-30, which projects out to 78 wins in 162 games. In their defense, however, here's the road records of every other possible playoff team:
Red Sox 28-35
White Sox 26-33
It's not exactly a who's-who of dominating teams. In fact, we can segment it down to four teams: the Brewers, Cardinals, Phillies, and Angels. These are the only four teams in all of Major League Baseball to have winning road records at this time, and only the Angels look outright scary on the road.
Then again, the Angels play in a division in which the second-place Rangers are 61-60. Contrast that with the Cubs, whose second - and third! - place division rivals would be at the top of half the divisions in baseball.
For those reasons and more, I'm not worried about the Cubs and their mediocre road record. My concern decreases additionally when we look at the Cubs road record since the All Star Break: 9-4.
The Cubs hardly have an easy schedule here on out, but they're playing like that isn't a concern to them. I already mentioned that they have 42 games remaining, they play 12 more in total against the Cardinals and Brewers - a sweet 29% - including half of those games in their opponent's home ballparks. I mention this figure not to worry you, but instead because I believe that the Cubs very strongly control their own destiny. Short of being routed by them, it will be difficult-if-not-nearly-impossible for either team to gain ground on the Cubs.
In fact, I'll take it a step further. With the way Chicago has been playing, with their remaining schedule ahead of them, and with the momentum that they've been gaining, I think it is well within the realm of possibility that they will win 100 this season. It's not a big deal if they do, apart from our natural fascination with that lovely, round number - and all Cubs fans have to be fascinated, if not disgusted with it by now - but it does appear to be a strongly possible event. But as I mentioned yesterday, what's more important is entering the playoffs with the best record in the National League.
After all, not many teams are good on the road this year, and I would have to guess that no playoff rival wants to play the majority of their October games in Wrigley Field.
There has been some worrying as of late because those pesky Brewers have refused to go away. Well, sure, they're playing great baseball right now, but so are the Cubs. Here's a little comparrison between the two:
On July 12th, the Cubs were 57-37. The Brewers were 6 games out in the loss column at 51-43. Since that time, Milwaukee has had an 8 game winning streak, they are presently riding a 7 game winning streak, and with a few road bumps excepted, they've been one of the best teams in baseball.
And yet, they are still 3 games out of 1st. Maybe we should be nervous that they are closing the gap, but as Andy Dolan noted at Desipio, they haven't exactly had the toughest schedule during their recent run. Since July 1st, they've accomplished their great surge by beating on teams like Pittsburgh, Colorado, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati again, Washington, and now San Diego.
Hey, the American Legion softball team could probably go .500 against those teams. It's not shocking that the Brewers are beating the teams they should be beating. But how are they doing against good teams?
Including their series against Arizona, since their recent run, Milwaukee is 6-6 against teams that are competing for the playoffs right now, including the Cardinals, D-Backs, and Cubs. They aren't exactly world breakers.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have played 17 games against teams of similar stature in the same time frame, and they are 11-6 against those teams. They include the Cardinals, D-Backs, Cardinals again, Marlins, and Brewers.
In other words, I feel good about the Cubs. They've lost ground, but they've done better against good teams. They will, in all likelihood, continue to play well, and I'll be very surprised if Chicago's not the first place squad in the NL Central, and the Brewers are not the Wild Card team.
Four years ago this month, I went on a road trip with my fiancee. The year previous, 2003, we had driven out west - from Toronto to Golden, B.C. (look it up on a map, it's a long, loooong haul) before swinging back east and stopping in Chicago on the way home. The 2003 trip had taken 2 weeks. In 2004, we chose to go about half the distance in the opposite direction, also in 2 weeks.
That 2 week trip can best be described as a time in which I desperately spent every moment trying to find an internet connection in order to learn about how the Cubs were playing. Every minute on the road entailed me looking for sports stations to tune into, and every moment in which we'd stopped at rest stations or information centers consisted of me logging onto the internet to see the latest box score.
At the end of the month, on our way home, we paid a visit to Montreal where we saw Greg Maddux and the Cubs take on - and defeat - the Expos. It was Greg's 13th win of the season, and, if only briefly, the Cubs looked like a World Series was inevitable.
As we watch the Cubs surge toward another possible playoff appearance, as we observe a Cubs team that is perhaps the most dominating of any of our life-times, let's remember that there are no real promises in baseball, only hopes. Nothing is ever guaranteed, and while Chicago may very well be reversing the curse this season, they may also implode again in the last week of the season and fall apart in epic and heartbreaking fashion.
But whether they do or don't, I have fond memories of 2004, and I will have fond memories of '08, as well. And as I sit here in an office with the world moving forward just outside my window, I can't help but wish to be on the road again, desperately searching for a sports station with the latest scores while my fiancee reads me another passage from The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, waiting for an October that would arrive differently than any of us had planned.
Goat Reader Alex Walsh wrote us recently with the following: I'd love to read your take on what the Cubs' 12-man pitching roster ought to be, both now and in the future. You could talk about the 5th starter's spot, as well as the bullpen roles of each guy, etc. etc.
Alex, as promised, this article will answer that request. Of course, Lou Piniella has yet to return one of my phone calls, but even if this isn't what the Cubs will do, I will submit that it's what the Cubs should do.
First and foremost, it's almost certain that this will be the Cubs rotation the rest of the way:
SP Carlos Zambrano
That's the easy part, although it's debatable if Marquis is the best 5th starter.
In terms of the bullpen, these are the likeliest options:
Mop-Up: Bob Howry 53 IP, 5.09 ERA
Scott Eyre 11.1 IP 7.15 ERA
Middle Relief: Jon Lieber 44.2 IP 3.43 ERA
Neal Cotts 20.2 IP 3.48 ERA
Sean Marshall 32.2 IP 4.13 ERA
Michael Wuertz 38 IP 3.55 ERA
Set Up: Carlos Marmol 61.1 IP 3.52 ERA
Jeff Samardzija 8.1 IP 2.16 ERA
Chad Gaudin 12.2 IP 2.13 ERA
Closer: Kerry Wood 44.2 IP 3.02 ERA
That's 10 options for 7 positions. If I'm Jim Hendry, the first move is to re-evaluate the #5 starter. Jason Marquis just isn't cutting it. Here are the options:
Jason Marquis 6-7 4.68 ERA
Sean Marshall 1-2, 4.38 ERA as a starter
Jeff Samardzija 0 starts so far, but damn good so far
Chad Gaudin 3-2, 3.75 ERA in 6 starts
Jon Lieber let's ignore his 1 start this year and still argue he's better
I'd submit that any of these guys are better options than Marquis, but the bullpen is hugely important to the Cubs. Of this group, Samardzija has perhaps the best future as a starter, however, at this point he's been huge to the Cubs as a set-up guy. Lou's going to probably want to keep him in that role this year. Marshall, while respectable as a starter, also serves an important role as a lefty pitcher. Lieber and Gaudin are perhaps the best two options, although I'd probably be most inclined to try Gaudin first, as he's had more success as a starter this year. Therefore, I'd turn Marquis into the long-inning mop-up guy, and Gaudin would become the new #5 starter.
For the pen, first and foremost I would call Bob Howry and Scott Eyre into a room, shake their hands, thank them for their 2.5 years of work, and send them on their merry way.
Next, while I would like to return Wuertz to the pen, as I believe he's a very competent middle reliever, at this point I'm hard pressed to be convinced that he's any better than Lieber. For that reason, Wuertz stays in Iowa until the Cubs can unload Marquis. I dunno, maybe they can waive him, let somebody claim him, and wave him goodbye. Maybe they can find a taker, although it's unlikely at this stage that he has any trade value. Regardless, my bullpen will look like this the rest of the year:
Mop Up: Marquis, RHP
Middle Relief: Sean Marshall, LHP, Jon Lieber, RHP, Neal Cotts, LHP
Set Up: Marmol, RHP, Samardzija, RHP
Closer: Wood RHP.
If Marquis stays in the rotation, I move Lieber to mop up and Gaudin to middle relief. If Lieber stays injured, I return Wuertz from Iowa. But none of this is possible so long as the Cubs keep Howry and Eyre. One way or the other, those dead-weights need to be tossed overboard. The Cubs need to move forward and think about winning, rather than loyalty.
It has become habit at this point for me to look ahead to the coming month's schedule in order to make some kind of prediction as to the play of the team. I sort of did this for July - while noting that it would be a tough schedule, I predicted that the Cubs would "lay waste" to many of their opponents. Well, I suppose I was right when I needed to be.
The Cubs play 28 games in August. They start out with 9 at home against the Pirates, Astros, and Cardinals, before going on the road for 6 against the Braves and hated Marlins. On August 19th, they return to Chicago to play 6, 3 against the Reds, 3 against the Nationals. They then will take a 3-game detour to Pittsburgh before returning home for a 4-game series against the Phillies in order to finish the month.
All told, the Cubs play 19 at home and 11 on the road. 10 of their games are against teams I would currently label as being competitive.
If the Cubs are the team we hope and believe them to be, then they should pull away from the pack in August as they have a much easier schedule than what they've seen up to this point.
Point of fact, in their 28 games played, I believe the Cubs are capable of going 17-11 without breaking much of a sweat. I'd submit that if they do worse than that, even to the tune of 16-12 or 15-13, then it will be a tight race until the last day of the season. However, if the Cubs can win their 17 - and they truly should be capable of winning as many as 20 - then it might not be as much a race in September as it is a victory lap, because I don't think Milwaukee or St. Louis will be able to keep up.
Looking Back on Yesterday
I'm just going to tack something to the end of this because it drives me nuts -
I'm looking at Chicago Sports and I see not one but two headlines that have probably increased my blood pressure. The first:
Cubs on verge of sweeping Brewers. I know that, while this article was written by Sullivan, he almost certainly didn't write the headline so he gets a pass. However, unless this headline was written later today, with the Cubs epically leading the Brewers in the box score and with only a few outs remaining in the game, then it is incredibly too soon to proclaim that they are on verge of sweeping the Brew Crew.
Buyer beware: Cubs fans can be rapid - literally. Maybe I use a different dictionary than Mike Downy - or that same jackass headline writer - but to me, the word "literally" means "exactly as described." So, unless that article literally features details about the tragic Wrigley '08 rabies pandemic, then, no, Cub fans are not literally rabid.
I usually don't get so ridiculously annoyed by headlines, but to see these two on the same front page at the same time really irked me. C'mon, you guys are professionals, you can do better.
As somebody going crazy for Cubs content these days, I was given an inspiring idea that I had to look into. You see, Brewers fans are ecstatic because C.C. Sabathia is a talented arm who will fortify their eventually - and now almost certain - playoff run.
Sabathia, however, wasn't always good in '08. In fact, his first 4 starts were ridiculously bad. Point of fact, the Cubs have a lefty starter who's followed a similar path. Theodore Roosevelt Lilly is another guy who started out horribly and picked up the slack later. So, because I'm a curious bugger with time on my hands, I've basically drawn up a comparison chart for your consumption as to how they've done their previous 15 games:
While Sabathia is the clear winner, Lilly has been a tremendous pitcher for the Cubs. None of Ted's numbers are bad, and, considering that we're comparing the Brewers #2 pitcher to the Cubs #4 guy, it gives you a little bit of perspective on how deep our rotation is now.
All told, the Cubs are rolling with the following four pitchers in a short series, and here's how they look:
Carlos Zambrano: 17GS, 112.1IP, 37ER, 9-3, 73K, 38BB, 2.96ERA
Dick Harden: 13GS, 77IP, 20ER, 5-1 92K, 31BB, 2.34ERA
Ryan Dempster: 19GS, 118IP, 41ER, 10-3, 98K, 47BB, 3.13ERA
Ted Lilly: 19GS, 112.2IP, 56ER, 9-5, 105K, 39BB, 4.47ERA (who, as we know, has done far better in his last 15)
Total IP: 420
Total SO: 368
Total BB: 155
Total W-L: 33-12
Total ER: 154
Comparatively, the other competitive teams in the NL look like the following:
Ben Sheets: 17GS, 117IP, 36ER, 10-2, 97K, 26BB, 2.77ERA
CC Sabathia: 19GS, 128.1IP, 54ER, 7-8, 128K, 39BB, 3.79ERA
Manny Parra: 17GS, 93.2IP, 38ER, 8-2, 72K, 49BB, 3.65ERA
Jeff Suppan: 18GS, 101.1IP, 53ER, 5-6, 55K, 44BB, 4.71ERA
Total IP: 440.1
Total SO: 352
Total BB: 158
Total W-L: 30-18
Total ER: 181
Cole Hamels: 19GS, 135.2IP, 48ER, 9-6, 118K, 33BB, 3.18ERA
Jamie Moyer: 18GS, 107IP, 49ER, 7-6, 66K, 31BB, 4.12ERA
Kyle Kendrick: 18GS, 98.2IP, 48ER, 8-3, 43K, 32BB, 4.39ERA
Adam Eaton: 18GS, 100.1IP, 58ER, 3-7, 52K, 40BB, 5.20ERA
Total IP: 441.2
Total SO: 279
Total BB: 136
Total W-L: 27-22
Total ER: 203
Brandon Webb: 19GS, 124IP, 45ER, 13-4, 106K, 33BB, 3.27ERA
Dan Haren: 18GS, 117.2IP, 37ER, 8-5, 103K, 20BB, 2.83ERA
Doug Davis: 11GS, 65IP, 27ER, 3-4, 92K, 27BB, 3.74ERA
Micah Owings: 16GS, 92.2IP, 53ER, 6-7, 80K, 29BB, 5.15
Total IP: 399.1
Total SO: 381
Total BB: 109
Total W-L: 30-20
Total ER: 162
I'd include St. Louis, but let's be fair - even if they acquire Burnett, which they may do, they are sad participants. They might as well kiss their place in the NL Central goodbye as they spiral down into mediocrity.
Regardless, the Cubs look good compared with these other guys. Nobody has as much depth, and even if Zambrano gets out-dueled, at this stage we have to feel confident that Harden or Dempster - or even Lilly - can outpitch the other guys these teams are putting out there.
It's still early - it'll be early until somebody clinches - but things are looking good for the Cubs.
Editor's Note: this post was compiled over about 3 hours, so if it is at all disjointed, that may be why
I'm sitting here entirely charged up, although my energies aren't directed toward blogging right now. Actually, I feel a podcast coming on, so you should stay tuned for that this weekend as it will certainly be interesting and amusing.
As far as the Cubs go ... meh. Look, I'm so sick and tired of panicking - and of panicking people - every time the Cubs hit a bump in the road. We know that this is a solid team with good pitching and offense. We know that even the best teams in baseball lose and lose often. On any given week in any given season, the World Series champions can look like absolute tools. And before we spout our inherent concerns and fears about our shaky set-up man, or our lack of starting pitching depth, I would heartily recommend that all Cub fans study the best teams in the NL and AL. They all have holes, they all have flaws, and they all suffer from ridiculous losing streaks.
Now, the Cubs are headed into St. Louis, where they will be doing battle with the second place team in the division, the Cardinals. It won't be an easy series, but I submit to you that it actually doesn't mean all that much one way or the other. Put it to you another way - if the Cubs sweep the Cardinals, who here thinks that St. Louis is as good as dead and buried in the division? Anybody? Anybody at all? I mean, sure, you'll feel a hell of a lot better about things and you won't be dancing on the ledge anymore, but I think we're all smart enough to recognize that a Cubs sweep of the Cardinals means nothing right up until the Cubs win the division in late September by 3 games.
Therefore, if the worst case scenario happens and the Cubs are swept straight into second place, I'd recommend that you maintain some perspective. If you wouldn't be ready to declare the Cardinals dead and buried if they get swept, then you shouldn't proclaim that viewpoint if the Cubs get swept.
Cub fans are fickle and live precarious lives.
Let's pretend that we don't know they've been playing like refried shiz the last week plus. Let's pretend that you woke up from a five-month coma this morning and discovered the following -
The Chicago Cubs have the best record in the National League. Shocked and awed, you do some research and uncover that they've achieved this best record in the National League despite the absence of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. Upon doing some deeper research, you also discover that the second and third place teams in the Central have better records than any other team in the rest of the league, and yet, the Cubs were on top of the heap.
You might be pretty excited to learn those figures. I know I would be.
And yet, we have realistic, caustic, honest Cub fans who say things like "we'll never win anything with this pitching rotation," or "there are too many holes/concerns for any series in October." Naturally, this is either ignoring or forgetting that no team is built to perfection, no team is without flaws, and no team is a sure-fire October winner.
I think it's a safe bet that, whether the Cubs are on pace to win 100 on July 31st or not, Jim Hendry will be burning up his cell phone minutes like the diligent GM he is. Perhaps they'll swing an Epic Trade for a Sabathia, or even a Burnett. Or, perhaps they'll settle for an Epic Fizzle, and land another Traschel.
Point is, we've yet to see the Cubs team that will march into October, assuming they get there, and I wouldn't be worried yet just because like every other team in baseball they are, from time to time, made to look useless.
And so, as the Cubs limp into July, we should all feel relieved at the outcome of June.
Remembering that the majority of the month was spent without the team's best-hitting outfielder, and that half the month was without the team's ace pitcher, and that a few days were spent with the sickly feeling that the team's best set-up man had lost it, and that there were a number of other minor, scary incidents...
When you consider all that, it's practically a miracle that the Cubs finished the month 15-12. And yet, we are - and we should be - more than a little disappointed that the Cubs didn't do a little better. It was within this team's grasp to have an epic June, injuries be damned, but that little 1-5 slide at the end of the month laid all those hopes to rest.
But what about July, you ask?
Well, let's give it a very quick overview. First and foremost - from all reports, Carlos will be back soon, and he seems healthy. Alfonso Soriano, meanwhile, hopes to be healed before the All Star Game, but he should be back by the middle of July at the latest. The team appears to be getting healthy again.
They play a grand total of 26 games this month. Of those 26 games, 16 are on the road. Of those 26 games, 17 are played against teams currently with winning records - St. Louis (3 on the road against), Arizona (3 on the road, but Az may be under .500 by then), Florida (the Cubs host them for 4, and they have an epic losing streak going against the Marlins - and all Florida teams - right now), and 4 in Milwaukee against the third place Brewers.
I submit that this won't be as tough a schedule as June's, but it's hardly going to be easy. The Cubs have been dinged up as of late, they are perhaps grateful to be playing the Reds, Astros, and Giants this month, but ultimately I have a very strong feeling that the Cubs are going to lay waste to a lot of these guys. Arizona is playing bad baseball right now, the Marlins aren't exactly magicians on the road, and the Brewers and Cardinals aren't going to necessarily be easy, but they should be fun, and this very well might be the month that a resurgent, healthy Cubs team really buries their rivals.
In the meantime, they're playing 3 more in San Francisco, against one of the worst teams in the game this year. After being pummelled by the Sox, it could be worse.