With all of the voiced displeasure by fans and the media over the Cubs' play thus far in 2009, you'd think the team was ten games under .500 and in last place. Instead they're in second place with a 29-26 record, just 2.5 games behind the first place Milwaukee Brewers.
When you consider that they've played about as poorly as they can, their best hitter in Aramis Ramirez has missed 26 games with a dislocated shoulder, and numerous other key players have missed time with injuries, the Cubs are in pretty good shape looking forward.
Consider of the offensive players that have played well under expectations so far, and their career histories would lead you to believe things will change for the better as the season goes on. Alfonso Soriano is hitting .240 with a .790 OPS. He's a career .280 hitter with an .844 OPS, and his OPS was much higher than that the last three seasons(.911 in 2007, .897 in 2008, .876 in 2009). Through May 17, he had 12 homers, but only has two homers since then. He's been in a huge slump for a few weeks now, and we know this is what he does. He has a month or two each year where he struggles mightily, but also has a couple months where he's one of the best hitters in baseball. He's due to get hot.
Milton Bradley's missed time with injury as we knew he would, but even when he's played, he's been awful at the plate. Nobody could've seen that coming. He was arguably the best hitter in the American League last year, batting .321 with a league-leading .999 OPS. Since 2003, his worst batting average is .266, and his worst OPS is .786. The guy has always been a hitter. While it's unlikely he'll avoid the disabled list the rest of the season, it's quite likely he's going to start hitting at least. Even if he hits just anywhere near his career averages(.277/.368/453) for the rest of the season, that's a major boost to the offense.
Geovany Soto is batting .214, with 2 homers, 14 RBI, and a .622 OPS. The catcher was the National League Rookie of the Year last season, as he hit .285, with 23 homers, 86 RBI, and a .868 OPS. He had an awful April where he hit just .109, but lately been about the same hitter he was last year, aside from the power of course. He's hitting the ball with more authority of late, and while I'm not going to predict he's going to start hitting for homers at the rate he did last year, I don't think it will be a major issue.
Really, the only regulars on offense that are performing as expected or better are Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot.
Then there's the bullpen. Carlos Marmol all of a sudden has no clue where the strike zone is. He's walked 27 batters in 27 innings, compared to 41 walks in 87.1 innings in 2008. He was out of whack for a few weeks in 2008, but eventually got it together. He's not going to get hit hard and I'd think he'll finally just start throwing the ball over the plate with more consistency.
The rest of the bullpen seems to be sorting itself out finally. Angel Guzman is the most reliable arm in the bullpen right now, and he's going to get more opportunities in the seventh and eighth innings. Jose Ascanio appears to be a keeper with his 95 mph fastball and filthy changeup. He's thrown six straight scoreless innings. Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman have each had their struggles, but each lately looked like the pitchers the Cubs thought they were acquiring in the offseason. Gregg's given up two runs in his last nine innings, and Heilman's allowed one run in his last six outings over 6 2/3 innings. There's also no more Neal Cotts, and Jason Waddell as well as Sean Marshall will be upgrades there.
Lou has a pretty good idea of how to use the bullpen now, and I think earlier in the year the way that he managed it was equally as bad as their performance. Now he's not going to David Patton in really any situations other than mop up duty. He finally realized Neal Cotts cannot get lefties out. He's given Angel Guzman more important situations to work in.
So the performance of the offense and bullpen should only improve as the year goes along, and with a great starting rotation, that should lead to a lot of wins. The return of Aramis Ramirez will be a major boost to the offense as well obviously, as he's without question their best hitter, their best run producer, and their best hitter with runners in scoring position, an area they've greatly struggled of late.
I just wanted the team to stay within four or five games of the division lead by the time Ramirez returns in July. With Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati all showing some major holes, as well as the Cubs having a pretty weak schedule leading up to the All-Star break, they should be able to do that. The Cubs certainly have much more potential to get better than all of those teams, and Jim Hendry's shown he will make a splash at the trade deadline if there's an obvious hole that needs to be filled.
As frustrating as this year has been at times, you still have to feel great about the Cubs' chances in the National League Central. Their best baseball is yet to come, and they've managed to to hang in there while playing nowhere near what they're capable of, along with being without key players for much of the season. These next three to four months should be much more exciting for Cubs fans than it's been so far in 2009.
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