Catching Up With the Cubs

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

WRIGLEY RESIDENTS ON PACE FOR ANOTHER POOR SEASON

Yesterday we talked some about the disappointing season the Chicago Cubs are having so far. It's been hidden to a degree because they've played a lot more home games than road games. They sure didn't impress recently at home against the likes of Houston, Pittsburgh, and the NY Mets. What's going to happen when they're on the road against good teams?!

Well, we're about to get a sense of that because of this upcoming schedule:

This Weekend: at St. Louis (Saturday's game is a regional option on FOX, Sunday's game is on TBS)
Monday-Wednesday: at Cincinnati
Thursday-Sunday: at Philadelphia

That's pretty brutal! Ten straight games away from home against playoff contenders. That's the last thing you want to see on the schedule when things aren't going well.

After that, it's:
June 13-16: vs. Milwaukee
June 17-19: vs. NY Yankees (national TV games Saturday and Sunday)
June 20-22: at Chicago White Sox

Three additional challenge series against either playoff caliber teams or a cross-city rival. And, we mentioned yesterday that the White Sox are better than many realize because a road-heavy schedule has been an early season burden.

So, we're not just getting you caught up with the Chicago Cubs because they're on TV this weekend. We're on the cusp of a make-or-break stretch vs. top quality teams that could easily DESTROY Chicago's season if they don't pick up their pace. Something like 5-15 is certainly possible over these next 10 games. Anything at .500 or better would be cause for celebration.

What's gone wrong for Chicago thus far?

  • Injuries. We don't normally like to allow for this excuse. Teams are supposed to have depth. And, EVERYBODY deals with injuries at some point or another. Maybe a handful of teams get lucky in a given season and don't lose anybody major for a long period of time. Being a pro team means you'll be dealing with injuries in whatever sport you're talking about.

That being said...one of the main reasons Chicago has fallen out of the big parity hunk in the middle of the league can be traced to injuries in their starting rotation:

MATT GARZA came over from Tampa Bay in the offseason with a chance to be the new ace of the staff. He was effective in the AL, in a killer division. That suggested he'd thrive in the NL Central this year (except for any home games when the wind was blowing out, because NO PITCHERS thrive in Wrigley with the wind blowing out!). Garza had an adjustment period, then just missed three starts with an elbow issue. He's scheduled to come back Monday vs. Cincinnati at last report.

RANDY WELLS is one of those innings munchers you need in the back of your rotation to keep things stable. He's not an ace. But, he's far from a disaster. Wells has only made two starts this season.

We're talking about a dozen starts right there that had to go to replacements who weren't ready to produce. May not sound like much. At a time of parity in baseball, anything that causes you to take a step backward suddenly puts you a step behind A LOT of teams.

  • Batting Carlos Pena cleanup. Pena looks like he should bat clean up. He does have home run power. But, we're talking about a past-his-prime slugger who just hit .227 and .196 the last two seasons. He's hitting .214 this year, and slugging just .370. The occasional home run doesn't get you very much if your clean up hitter is slugging just .370?! Kosoke Fukodome has no power at all and is slugging .387! A guy with a horrible batting average can't bat clean up. Chicago insists on putting him there.

  • Batting Aramis Ramirez fifth. Ramirez has improved his batting average from last year. But, that's mostly from hitting singles. He only has two home runs and 19 RBI's through 50 games as a regular. His slugging percentage is less than .400. This is awful for a fifth place hitter. Singles don't do much damage if the guy in front of you is never on base!

  • Playing Alfonso Soriano! This just isn't a guy who should have a prominent role on a serious team. He's not a good defender. He refuses to draw walks (only six this year, leading to an on-base percentage below .300). The occasional long ball may impress. Good teams don't impress occasionally. Note that Soriano was just put on the Disabled List, which may be a case of addition by subtraction. (Also, Ramirez had to leave the series finale vs. Houston after a ground ball hit him in the face...which brings us to...)

  • Team Defense. Amazingly, the Cubs have put together a overpaid lineup that's generally underachieving both offensively and defensively. You can live with low offensive numbers if you're preventing runs with great defense. You can live with defensive lapses and poor range if you're scoring a million runs. But, NOT producing while making errors has no chance of working!

It's very hard to be optimistic about the Cubs getting back in the NL Central race, even if Garza can return to projected form after his recent layoff. This is a franchise that loves paying big money to hitters who are past their prime. It's what they've done for years. Yes, there are some younger guys having an impact this year. There's not enough of them at the moment to make up for the anvils that generally hit in the 4-5-6 spots. And, should a mindset develop that this is going to be another lost season, things could get very ugly very quickly. There are usually 1-2 teams in the NL Central that just fall off the map during the dog days of summer. The poor recent homestand against soft opposition suggested Chicago may be heading into that direction already.

Let's monitor the Saturday and Sunday games in St. Louis. Here are the pitching matchups:

SATURDAY
Randy Wells (5.40 ERA) vs. Kyle Lohse (2.13 ERA)

Wells threw over 90 pitches in just four innings as he returned from his long layoff earlier this week. He's far from sharp at this point. Lohse has been pitching way over his head thus far, you can't argue with his form at the moment.

SUNDAY
Carlos Zambrano (4.23 ERA) vs. Chris Carpenter (4.52 ERA)
Zambrano made the blooper reels the other day when he was trying to break a bat over his knee. He still has his fire. And, he's capable of having ace like performances every so often. He's far from reliable. Carpenter has had a few uncharacteristic outings. He's likely to pitch better than that ERA suggests...but sometimes erratic peformances are a sign that a pitcher is dealing with a minor injury.

We probably won't be backing the Cubs in either of those games unless we here something very good from our on-site sources. And, we may be against the Cubs on multiple occasions during the schedule we outlined above. Maybe we'll back Garza if he shows us something Monday. Maybe Ryan Dempster is back in form and deserves a look at value prices. For the most part, we're expecting big troubles ahead for the Cubbies. We know anything can happen in sports so we'll stay open-minded.

Other matchups we're looking at this weekend include:
NY Yankees at LA Angels
Tampa Bay at Seattle
Oakland at Boston
LA Dodgers at Cincinnati
Philadelphia at Pittsburgh

Our game day baseball releases can always be purchased online with your credit card. Be sure you take care of business EARLY when there are day games. Basketball returns Sunday with Game Three of the NBA Finals. We'll run a preview for you tomorrow here in the NOTEBOOK. We want to make sure you noticed too that JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK has now made available its EARLY BIRD FOOTBALL package for online purchase as well. The earlier you sign up, the less you pay!

If you have any questions about programs or combination packages, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

What the Cubs do in the next two weeks will likely shape the last four months of the 2011 season. The decisions YOU make in the next two weeks MAY CHANGE YOUR LIFE!

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