Carlos Zambrano's antics got all the attention yesterday, but the most important thing that happened at Wrigley Field was that the Cubs won the game.
I've been asked about the Cubs a lot lately, which has been surprising to me because this is a team that has obvious reasons for its .500 record. Aramis Ramirez and Rich Harden are out; Zambrano and Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley have all missed time. That kind of injury track record by half of the payroll can sink some teams, but all it's done to the Cubs is slowed them down. They're 23-22 today even after losing eight in a row, and they're four games out in a division loaded with teams that have been overachieving. The Cubs were projected by me to go 87-75, a big drop from last year due to the team's age and injury concerns. An 87-75 team would be expected to be 24-21 at this point in the season. So regardless of how they got there—and I can't write enough about how little the order of events matters relative to how much emphasis is placed upon it—the Cubs are just a game off of their expected pace.
The Cubs' offense has become a problem, resembling the team on the South Side more than last year's juggernaut. This year's Cubs, like recent editions of the White Sox, don't do anything but hit home runs. The Cubs lead the NL in dingers, while placing 15th in hits, 15th in doubles, sixth in triples, 11th in walks, and 12th in steals. They're 12th in batting average and OBP, while the homers bump them to seventh in slugging. That's the profile of a one-dimensional offense, and the following chart, which I've taken to calling the Guillen Number, shows just how one-dimensional they've been
Team RUNS HR HR_R HR_R% Rangers 242 77 113 46.7 Yankees 266 77 119 44.7 White Sox 189 49 84 44.4 Phillies 249 66 107 43.0 Brewers 218 53 86 39.4 Cubs 206 51 80 38.8 Nationals 228 53 88 38.6 Orioles 235 53 90 38.3 Padres 188 49 71 37.8 Reds 213 51 80 37.6 Tigers 244 51 91 37.3 Red Sox 250 53 93 37.2 Marlins 221 48 82 37.1 D'backs 200 50 74 37.0 Mariners 180 40 66 36.7 Rockies 225 53 82 36.4 Twins 252 54 90 35.7 Indians 261 51 92 35.2 Cardinals 217 51 75 34.6 Blue Jays 257 53 87 33.9 Rays 281 57 86 30.6 Royals 200 39 60 30.0 Astros 193 39 56 29.0 Braves 197 33 56 28.4 Mets 226 32 62 27.4 Athletics 194 33 52 26.8 Pirates 206 31 55 26.7 Angels 219 37 52 23.7 Giants 182 25 42 23.1 Dodgers 276 34 56 20.3 (Thanks, Bil Burke.)
The Cubs are sixth in MLB and third in the NL in their reliance on the long ball. Of the five teams ahead of them, four play in extreme home-run parks. And it's adorable to see the White Sox, again, among the world leaders in this stat.
The Cubs' age may be coming around to haunt them. They have an assortment of the kinds of good-not-great players who often decline as they edge past 30, and while seven weeks of baseball is still not enough to base conclusions on, the combination of age and performance is discouraging. Lee, at 34 years old, is hitting just .242/.313/.406, with an uptick in his strikeout rate and a loss of power. Alfonso Soriano, 31, is striking out a lot even by his lofty standards, and appears to be losing his speed (no triples since 2007, a sharp reduction in steals since 2006). Bradley, 31, has stayed on the field more than expected, with more than 200 defensive innings to his credit, but unfortunately he's been a huge disappointment at the plate, hitting .200/.328/.390. Although Soriano's overall stats are respectable, these three players, collectively, are a big reason why the Cubs are fading from last year's performance. They've pushed the team from third in the NL in Equivalent Average a year ago to 13th this time around.
It's a young player who has been the biggest letdown, however. Last year, Geovany Soto won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. This year, he's been horrible, batting .216/.328/.276, and showing none of the power that made him such a key part of last year's offense. Not only was he not expected to fade like this, he was actually expected to improve slightly, with PECOTA projecting small jumps in OBP and SLG. Instead, Soto has been a replacement-level player and another Cub killing the team's bottom line.
On the mound, the Cubs have a serviceable rotation that is, again, not quite as good as last year's. Only Ted Lilly has pitched as well as—in his case, better than—he did in 2008. Ryan Dempster and (currently injured) Rich Harden are off by two runs a game, and Carlos Zambrano slightly worse. The collective decline was expected, however, and because none of the starters have imploded—Dempster's 4.99 ERA is the worst of the bunch—it's hard to consider this a weakness. The Cubs are 10th in the NL in Support-Neutral Value, and even so many teams would trade rotations with them in a heartbeat.
The bullpen was also expected to be worse this season, and it has been. Bringing in Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman has failed; the two have combined to allow 24 runs in 39 innings. An apparently healthy Angel Guzman has been a godsend, though, with 20 strikeouts in 20
The Cubs were never going to win 97 games this season, not after so many things went right a year ago. They can still win 87—they're essentially on pace to do just that—and that may still be enough to win the NL Central. The Cubs' problem is as much that the Cardinals and Brewers have played better than expected as anything else. A 23-22 record on May 28 is perfectly reasonable; the surprise is that it comes with a fourth-place standing and a four-game deficit. That's not a reason to panic, though, not unless you believe the Cardinals really aren't going to allow a home run the rest of the season, or that the Brewers will continue to have the third-best bullpen in the league all year.
Unlike many teams, though, the Cubs should be willing to make sacrifices of the future for the present. Because of their age and the lack of high-quality prospects on the horizon, it makes sense to go all out in a push to win this year and next. The Jake Peavy negotiations last offseason made sense because of that, and with Josh Vitters crushing the ball right now, it may be time to put him back on the table to see what he can return. Instead of Peavy, or someone who plays the same position, the Cubs should target an impact bat who can play second base or center field, or depending on their tolerance for controversy, first base.
The problem is that the good second basemen all play for contenders or, in Brian Roberts' case, aren't going anywhere. Adding a center fielder or a first baseman will squeeze Bradley or Lee out of a job, and that may be more trouble than it's worth. One popular notion is to reacquire Mark DeRosa, who would be a small upgrade on the current situation, but bringing him back would reintroduce the Cubs to the lineup-balance problems they spent the winter addressing.
No, the Cubs probably aren't going to find their answers on the trade market. They are going to have to look internally, to rediscover the approach that made essentially this same group of players such a good offense a year ago. The 2008 Cubs drew 636 walks, leading the league in that category and in OBP. This team is 11th in walks and 12th in OBP. Change that, and the Cubs change their season.