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About two week ago, I was feeling pretty smug, having watched the Cubs drop
seven in a row to fall out of first place in the NL Central. I was pretty
sure their April was fluky, the product of good months by random retreads
like Jason Bere and Jeff Fassero. Mind you, I had a higher
opinion of the Cubs coming into the season than most people,
picking them to
finish third
thanks to an underrated rotation. I just didn’t believe they
had any business running with the Cardinals and Astros, and their fall from
grace confirmed my notions.

Cut to today, and the Cubs are back on top of the division, riding a
ten-game winning streak. Their pitching has outperformed even my
expectations–the best rotation in the NL according to
Michael Wolverton’s
Support-Neutral Value Added
–covering for an offense that calls to mind the
early days of the Michael Jordan Bulls: one superstar and his supporting
cast.

It’s especially gratifying to see the continued improvement of Jon
Lieber
, who I’ve liked since he was a Royals prospect in the early
1990s. The trade that brought him to Chicago in exchange for Brant
Brown
stands as one of the best deals in Cubs history. Leiber doesn’t do
anything fancy: he throws strikes, gets ahead in the count, and gets outs.
It’s enough to make him the ninth-best starter in the NL so far this year.

Kerry Wood is other big story, as he continues his comeback from
Tommy John surgery. Wood has been inconsistent from start to start, but has
shown flashes of his 1998 form and at times has looked ready to be one of
the top starters in the NL.

One thing to watch is his workload. I don’t want to sound alarmist, and I
don’t know that there is a problem here, but Wood has gone over 100 pitches
in all but one start this year, a product of his occasional control problems
and his overall effectiveness. His pitch counts so far are reminiscent of
Alan Benes in 1997, when Benes was over 100 pitches in almost every
start before surgery ended his season in August. Wood hasn’t had the starts
of 120 pitches and up that caused concern in 1998, and as Keith Woolner’s
work in Baseball Prospectus 2001 indicates, it’s those starts that
are the problem. In the long term, though, Wood will have to improve his
command to take the leap forward that someone like Leiber has. It’s best for
both his results and his health.

What has saved the Cubs is that rotation behind those two pitchers has
exceeded expectations. Julian Tavarez and Kevin Tapani have been very
good, while Jason Bere has avoided being a disaster in the #5 slot. A
rotation that doesn’t collapse in the last two slots can be a huge help to a
team. The work the Twins, Cubs, Phillies, and Padres have gotten from the
back of their rotations has been a big factor in the surprising success
they’ve shared.

With the bats, the Cubs have been a nightmare. Sammy Sosa has been
his usual superstar self, coming in eighth in the NL in
Equivalent Average.
The Sosettes behind him, though, have been a disaster. Save for Ricky Gutierrez,
the Cubs don’t have a single regular who is above average at his position
(Bill Mueller, currently on the DL and out through June, is also
having a good year), and their offense is 11th in the league. Yes, ladies
and gentlemen, it’s the pitching-and-defense Cubs!

The Cubs have some things in their favor as they try to stay in the hunt.
They have some prospects they can deal for the middle-of-the-lineup bat and
middle-relief help they need. While everyone awaits the arrival of Corey
Patterson
, it’s just not likely that Patterson is ready to help a team
trying to win its division, not yet. The Cubs will be better served by going
outside the organization to fix their first-base and center-field holes.

If they can do that–and they have the resources to do so–they should be
able to stay in the mix for postseason play. As currently constituted,
though, the Cubs just aren’t going to score enough runs to get the 88 to 90
wins they’ll need to play into October.


Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by

clicking here
.