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July 16, 2010

On the Beat

A Second Second City Revival?

by John Perrotto

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On the South Side of Chicago, the White Sox have made a phoenix-like rise. They have gone from being 9 ½ games out of first place in the American League Central to one game ahead by winning 26 of their last 31 games, including their last nine in a row.

The odds of such a turnaround occurring twice in the same major-league season are long. The odds are even longer of something like that happening twice in the same city in one year. On the North Side, the Cubs fully understand the tough spot they have put themselves in by falling nine out in the National League Central as they are 40-50 and tied with the Brewers, nine games behind the division-leading Reds. While the Cubs understand it would be bad form to concede the season when there are still 2 ½ months to play, they also know that their chances of duplicating the White Sox's feat are slim.

"We still have more than 70 games, so anything is possible," catcher Geovany Soto said. "But we're going to need to play great to win this thing. We're going to have to be a whole lot better than we did in the first half. We're going to have to win a lot of games."

"Look, we've played better baseball lately, but we've put ourselves in a very deep hole," manager Lou Piniella said. "If we're going to come back, we're going to have to hit; it's real simple. The way our ballclub is built, we've got to hit."

The Cubs are just 14th in the 16-team NL with an average of 4.03 runs a game, and just 13th in the league in team True Average. What has particularly hurt the Cubs is that the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup, first baseman Derrek Lee (.251 TAv) and third baseman Aramis Rarmiez (.229), are having poor seasons. Second baseman Ryan Theriot began the season as the leadoff hitter and has a .236 TAv.

The Cubs hired Rudy Jaramillo away from the Rangers over the winter and he is believed to be the highest-paid hitting coach in the major leagues. Yet the Cubs have been in a season-long funk.

"You see signs of us coming out of it at times but we've never really been consistent all season," Piniella said. "It's hard to understand. Our guys are trying. They've put the work in. We've tried different combinations of players and different batting order. Nothing has worked and no one really has the reason why."

Ramirez has battled a thumb bruise on his right hand all season. He was on the disabled list for 18 days but admitted the thumb hasn't gotten better, commenting, "It hurts but there's nothing I can do about it. If I take the time off that's necessary for it to heal, I'll be out of the lineup for too long. We need to win every game we can with the situation we're in, so I've got to play and do the best I can."

That is not a heartening sign for a big second-half comeback. In fact, general manager Jim Hendry will likely look to be a seller at the July 31 non-waiver deadline unless the Cubs go on a big winning streak in the next two weeks. That certainly isn't the way Hendry drew it up before the start of the season.

"I think the industry will be fairly active the next couple of weeks," Hendry said. "What's hard for me is I thought we'd be doing a lot better. I really like the action of July. I don't think that's been any secret. We've had years where we've made some really great deals in July. I like doing that a lot. I've got real good help. We've always liked the action of it."

Regardless of how many trades Hendry makes in the next two weeks, the Cubs are looking to get younger. They already have two rookies in their lineup in shortstop Starlin Castro and right fielder Tyler Colvin, and three in the bullpen with right-handers Andrew Cashner and Mitch Atkins and lefty James Russell.

"I think one of the things that goes unnoticed is how many young players have come to Chicago and showed they can play at this level in the last few years," Soto said. "(Farm director) Oneri Fleita does a great job with our farm system. He gets guys ready to play in the major leagues both physically and mentally and I think you've only seen a little bit of what some of the younger guys on this team are capable of doing."

With the Cubs almost assuredly going younger in 2011, it is a foregone conclusion that they will have a new manager. Piniella is 66, not exactly the age to oversee a youth movement. The overwhelming sentiment is that Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the manager of the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa farm club, will be the skipper next year.

Piniella's contract expires at the end of the season, but he shoots down speculation that he may resign before the year is out. Hendry is adamant that he will not fire Piniella.

"He's done so many good things, not only for us, but in the game that I feel like there is no way I am going to let him go," Hendry said. "That, to me, is the wrong message for the organization moving forward."

---

The Marlins open the second half of their season tonight with a 42-46 record, putting them in fourth place in the NL East, 10 ½ games behind  the first-place Braves. That would seemingly put the Marlins in the position of being sellers as the non-waiver trading deadline approaches, and right-hander Ricky Nolasco and second baseman Dan Uggla have been the subject of speculation that they will be on the move, along with left-hander Nate Robertson, third baseman Jorge Cantu, and center fielder Cody Ross.

"We have a really good clubhouse here," Nolasco said. "I feel the same way as a lot of other guys: We don't want to get broken up. Obviously, I don't want to, either. I've liked the organization since I've been there. This team can win ballgames if we stay together."

Marlins baseball operations president Larry Beinfest is not ready to waive the white flag yet, saying it's premature to predict that he will be either trading players or adding help in the next two weeks. However, he also realizes his team has yet to show the ability to string wins together, as it has neither won nor lost more than four games in a row all season.

"It's a good group, a lot of good players," Beinfest. "They've been a pleasure to be around, but the bottom line is, nobody is happy to be under 500. There are a lot of teams ahead of us in the wild card and we certainly have not trended the right way. We haven't gotten hot. We've been waiting to get hot all year and it hasn't happened."

---

The Yankees have the best record in the major leagues at 56-32, though that puts them just two games ahead of the Rays in the American League East race. However, many baseball people feel the Yankees have the edge because they own a true No. 1 starting pitcher in left-hander CC Sabathia, who will face the Rays' James Shields tonight at Yankee Stadium in the opener of a three-game showdown.

Sabathia finished the first half of the season on Sunday by notching his eighth consecutive victory as he beat the Mariners to improve to 12-3. He ranks fourth in the AL with 3.8 SNLVAR, trailing the Mariners' Felix Hernandez (4.6), the Red Sox's Jon Lester (4.1), and the Rays' Jeff Niemann (3.8).

"He's that type of pitcher; when he gets on a roll and things get right, he can be extremely effective," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's using all his pitches, his velocity has been great and his location has been great. He's in a good groove."

Sabathia is the first Yankees pitcher to win eight consecutive starts since Roger Clemens in 2001. He also has posted a 1.81 ERA in that eight-start stretch, evoking memories of the roll he went on with the Brewers in 2008 after he was acquired from the Indians in a trade that July, notching a 1.65 ERA and 5.6 SNLVAR in 17 starts and 130 1/3 innings.

"They all run together," Sabathia said. "I really can't tell you where the streak started. I'm just going out, forgetting about the last one and keep going."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Astros aren’t likely to trade right-hander Roy Oswalt until he gets the two victories necessary to surpass Joe Niekro as the franchise's all-time leader in wins. … The Mets and Twins are the two teams with the most interest in Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly. Meanwhile, the Cubs are aggressively shopping outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. … The Yankees and Red Sox have interest in left-handed reliever George Sherrill, who has been placed on outright waivers by the Dodgers. … Those close to the Yankees say Hal Steinbrenner has no intention of selling the team now that his father George has died. … Though the Giants could use a power bat, they may have a tough time making a trade because they do not want to part with either Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner. … The Reds have backed off on the idea of promoting left-hander Aroldis Chapman from Triple-A Louisville to help the bullpen because of his spotty control. … The Angels are expected to make an aggressive run at Rays left fielder Carl Crawford in free agency in the offseason. … All signs are pointing to Brewers manager Ken Macha not being back next season. … The Mets are expected to host the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field. The All-Star Game will be played at Phoenix next year, and Kansas City in 2012. … Major League Baseball is considering opening the season three days earlier in 2011 to avoid having the World Series stretch into November.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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