Team Profile – Chicago Cubs
Of all the superstitions in sports, not many are more famous than that of the Chicago Cubs. (I’d like the Detroit Tigers to take some credit and pride in knowing that the team was the opponent when the curse was placed on the Cubs.) In 1945, Billy Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game because his pet goat (who was with him in his box) was emitting a foul odor. At this point in the Series, the Cubs were up 2-1, and the next four games were to be at Wrigley Field. As he was leaving the stadium, Sianis said that “Them Cubs, they aren’t gonna win no more.”
Fans, conspiracy theorists, and evil witches still debate whether that meant the Cubs wouldn’t appear in another World Series game, or that another World Series game would never be played at Wrigley Field. (Of course, the second argument is clearly dumb, because if the first argument is true, then obviously the second is true as well, and if the first argument is false, then the second argument is also false.) The curse continues to this day, despite attempts to break it. According to legend, the curse can only be broken when the Cubs organization shows sincere fondness for goats, and allows them into the stadium because they want them there. The curse appears as if it can be temporarily canceled by walking a goat around the bases at Wrigley. But it has yet to be broken.
Will 2012 be the year that the curse ends, and the Cubs make it back to the World Series? Right now, it’s not likely, but anything is possible. So let’s see what the Cubs have to do to succeed.
Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, and Chris Volstad anchor the Cubs’ starting rotation. At the top of the hill is Dempster, who currently sits on a 0.95 ERA through four starts. While he doesn’t have the wins to show for such work (obviously lacking in run support even when he gives up only three runs in 28 innings of work), having a starting pitcher that has been able to come out of the gate in such a way will give your rotation quite the shot in the arm every five days. This is especially true when that shot is coming from a 14-season veteran of Major League Baseball. The leadership alone would be enough for most managers, but to also be assured that you’re going to get 10-15 wins (and already have a miniscule ERA) takes a lot of pressure off the manager every fifth day. Add in Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija (who have consistently had between 10-15 and 8-10 wins each season, respectively), and you have a top three that can give your team a real chance at winning 60% of ever five game set. And at the end of the season, winning 60% of your total games would definitely put you at or near the top of your division.
The only problem with this setup (and rotation) is that there’s no one that can be guaranteed for 15-20 wins, and the odds of those three all getting at least 15 wins is unlikely. Even if they do, that’s only 40-45 wins for the team, which means there’s a lot of pressure on the bullpen to keep the vast majority of games from slipping away or within winning distance. Without a true ace on the staff, there’s no one that the Cubs can truly count on for a win. And that shortcoming really shows when your starting rotation accounts for ten of your seventeen losses thus far.
The Cubs’ offense is currently spear-headed by Bryan LaHair, Starlin Castro, and Alfonso Soriano. While situational players and auxiliary players can sometimes skew the team numbers for who the best is at any given time, LaHair, Castro, and Soriano have played in nearly every game this season, hitting .370, .352, and .264 respectively. It’s a shame for LaHair and Castro that they play in the same league as Matt Kemp, or else there would be a lot more focus on the Cubs and their players. (Kemp is hitting .392 for the Dodgers right now, and only in the past few days has his average dipped under .400 for the 2012 season.) If any of those three can be called the leader for the offense, it’s Soriano. After nearly 13 seasons in the major leagues, he consistently hits .280-.290. Given what we know about baseball, those are actually good numbers. (N.B.: What’s good in baseball is not necessarily what’s good in real life. Stay in school kids.) Add to that the fact that LaHair is looking to appear in his first full season of Major League Baseball (and Castro only in his third season), and you have three players that can really contribute and really give the team a shot at winning in games.
The problem, however, is that three specific players aren’t going to be effective in every single game. After all, LaHair is only hitting .370, which means that 63% of the time, he’s a nonfactor. Of course, there’s more to hitting in baseball than how many hits you’re racking up, but it does add the point that there will be times when these players will not hit. And therein lies the problem, because thus far there is no one else on the roster that has played in more than half the games this season and is hitting above .250. That means you have a lot of situational and part-time players, or players that are just mediocre hitters right now. And if your offense can’t click a little bit better than that, then it won’t matter if every pitcher in your rotation is putting up a 0.95 ERA. You still won’t win games. It takes all the pieces working together to become a championship-caliber team.
The Chicago bullpen has been very hit-or-miss this season in terms of the success of its members. Leading the charge for the bullpen are James Russell, Scott Maine, and Michael Bowden. While none of these three have appeared in too many games (suggesting that they are more situational pitchers than anything else), their ERAs are exceptionally low. This is especially true of Russell, who has a 1.08 ERA in 10 games and 8 1/3 innings. Obviously he comes in as a seventh or eighth inning pitcher, meant to clean up after the starter or make the transition to the backend of the bullpen. But to have that kind of success in such a crucial role speaks volumes to the ability of Russell. It also shows that he may have turned a corner in this, his third year in the majors. In his previous two seasons, he’s had rather elevated ERAs, speaking again to his effectiveness in his role out of the bullpen. In 2011, he was also tagged with six losses over the course of the season. So to start things off with a 1.08 ERA in the first month is a fantastic start to Russell’s season.
The biggest blight on this bullpen comes from its longest-tenured veteran. Kerry Wood was once a starter with moderate success for the Cubs in the early 2000s. In the last five years, however, injuries and a so-so ERA have led to minor league stints and being moved to the bullpen. Wood often comes up in the offseason as a player that teams may be willing to make a modest trade for in order to pick up either a fifth starter or veteran reliever. Yet he’s remained with the Cubs in all but one season since coming to the majors in 1998. So far, 2012 hasn’t been any easier on Wood, as he’s only appeared in five games, and currently has an ERA of 13.50. Those are not the kind of numbers that will keep you on a big-league roster for very long, regardless of your track record or time with the club (just ask Brandon Inge).
Keys to Success
With an average offense (save a couple guys), a rotation that will rely heavily on the bullpen, and a bullpen that is below average (save a few players), the best way to succeed right now is to do absolutely everything possible to take advantage of the misfortunes of N.L. Central opponents. The Pirates have been okay the last couple seasons, but have always fallen off as the season progresses. Likewise, while the Astros are currently climbing back towards .500, they’ll play to their averages soon enough. The Brewers were a competitor in the division, but many injuries in the last week or so have left a lot of people wondering if the Brewers can keep up with the Reds and Cardinals this season. So, if the Cubs can just start playing a little stronger in the coming week or two, they stand a great chance of overtaking both the Pirates and Brewers, putting them well within striking distance of the other teams. The Cubs aren’t out of the division race yet, but if they don’t put it together a little bit better in the immediate future, they’ll fall out of the race sooner rather than later.
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