Jim Hendry smiled and cut off the questioner before the first query could be raised. “You want to know why we stink, right?” Hendry said. Well, since he mentioned it …

Why do the Cubs stink? After all, they were the overwhelming favorites to win the National League Central coming into this season, even if Hendry did make some significant changes to a team that won an NL-best 97 games last season before being swept by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series. Yet the Cubs are 36-38 and in fourth in the division, 4½ games behind the first-place Brewers. “It’s not what we expected, that’s for sure,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “The good news is that we haven’t been completely blown out of the water yet. As badly as we’ve played at times, we’re still right there. We’re one hot stretch from getting right back to the top of the standings. We’re very fortunate in that regard.”

Piniella and Hendry know where their biggest problem lies, and that is in the lack of offensive production. The Cubs are 23rd in the major leagues in scoring, with an average of just 4.21 runs a game, and rank even lower in team Equivalent Average, tied for 25th at .249. Before the season, the Cubs decided that it was time to make some changes after being swept in the NLDS for a second consecutive season. Thus, they traded second baseman Mark DeRosa to the Indians for three minor league pitchers in order to give Mike Fontenot a shot to play second regularly. They also signed Milton Bradley to a three-year, $30 million contract as a free agent to play right field, which in turn let them move Kosuke Fukudome, the former Japanese star who had an uneven rookie season in 2008, into a center field platoon with Reed Johnson.

“We’re playing to get a World Series ring, and when you come up short in October like we have the last two seasons, you try to find ways to give yourself a better chance of winning that ring,” Hendry said. “What we came away with following the Dodgers’ series was that we were too right-handed in our lineup. We needed some left-handed bats. It wasn’t an easy decision to break up a 97-win team, but we did what we felt we had to do.”

The moves haven’t worked. Bradley has a .257 EqA, a far cry from the .339 mark he posted with the Rangers last season. Pushed into full-time play, Fontenot’s EqA has wilted, dropping from .308 to .235. Veteran utility infielder Aaron Miles, signed to a two-year, $4.9 million contract as a free agent, has a .176 EqA, far below replacement-level play. Throw in sub-standard seasons from catcher Geovany Soto (.259) and left fielder Alfonso Soriano (.249), and it has Hendry and Piniella scratching their heads. They’ve even tried changing hitting coaches in an effort to wake up the offense, firing Gerald Perry and replacing him with Triple-A Iowa’s Von Joshua. “None of us can understand what is happening, because you are talking about good major league hitters who, in most instances, have pretty long track records,” Hendry noted ruefully.

The biggest blow for the Cubs was losing third baseman Aramis Ramirez on May 8 to a dislocated left shoulder. He had a .338 EqA in 72 plate appearances and, in many ways, is the fulcrum of the lineup as the cleanup hitter. “How much do we miss Aramis Ramirez?” Piniella said, repeating a question. “Let me answer that with a question: How many runs did he drive in last season?”

Ramirez had 111 RBI a year ago. With DeRosa traded, the Cubs had no true backup at third base. Fontenot has started the majority of games at the hot corner while Ryan Freel, Jake Fox, and Bobby Scales have also taken turns. “Everyone in the division has injuries to one extent or another, and you hate to ever complain about them, but the one spot where we did not have the depth to afford an injury was third base, and we’ve really missed Aramis,” Hendry said. “He’s a great player and it will be so good to get him back-hopefully, soon.”

The good news is that Ramirez is set to begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment on Thursday. Considering the Cubs are fourth in the league in runs allowed with 4.18 a game, Piniella believes the return of Ramirez could be just the thing to kick-start his club. “It’s been a baffling season so far, but the good thing is that we’re close to finally being healthy,” Piniella said. “We’ve tried a lot of different things this year and nothing has seemed to work. Maybe being healthy will be the answer. I know this much: we’ll keep working hard until we get it right. Look, we could be 12 games out right now, but we’re not. We’re still very much in this thing, and we need to take advantage of that.”

For 28 teams, interleague play ended Sunday, with the sole exception being a makeup game between the Cubs and White Sox on September 3 at Wrigley Field. That means the acrimony these teams stir up amongst themselves when they play each other will be carried until late in the season this year.

Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild was angry at the White Sox during last weekend’s series at US Cellular Field. He claims a member of the visiting clubhouse staff leaked details of a verbal confrontation between Piniella and Bradley to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was quite upset that Rothschild would accuse a White Sox employee of something considered an egregious breach of baseball etiquette. After all, the time-honored tradition is that what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse, even if Jim Bouton changed all that nearly four decades ago by writing Ball Four.

Guillen felt the Cubs could have handled the situation better by just being out in the open about what happened between Piniella and Bradley. “Every time I put myself in that situation, I get myself out of that situation,” Guillen told the Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley. “I never put my players in the middle. I never put my organization in the middle. When I have a problem with anybody, I resolve my problem. A lot of people say, ‘Whenever you have a problem, can’t you take the media away from it?’ No, not at all. I talk to the media because I don’t want to lie. A lot of people say I talk to the media to take the heat away from my players. No, not at all. I just say what I want to say, tell the truth, because I have a right to do that. It’s easier to just tell the truth.”

Meanwhile, regardless of the outcome of that last interleague matchup, the American League held the edge in interleague play for the sixth straight season, with a 137-114 record. The AL also holds the all-time lead in regular-season interleague play by going 1,673-1,533 against the senior circuit.

Manager Tony La Russa did not hide his displeasure last season when the Cardinals did not make a significant player move in an attempt to win the NL Central, while the Brewers acquired left-hander CC Sabathia in a trade from the Indians, and the Cubs got right-hander Rich Harden in a deal with the Athletics. The Cubs won the division, the Brewers won the NL Wild Card, and the Cardinals finished up in fourth place, 11½ games back.

Not only was La Russa unhappy, but so was his club’s star, first baseman Albert Pujols, not to mention the team’s fans, who felt that team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak were too worried about the future, and not enough about the present by refusing to give up prospects in trades.

However, that all changed late Saturday night, when the Cardinals acquired DeRosa from the Indians in a trade for rookie reliever Chris Perez and a player to be named, which figures to be a top relief prospect as well, either Jess Todd at Triple-A Memphis, or Francisco Samuel at Double-A Arkansas. DeRosa, who will primarily play third base, gives the Cardinals a much-needed power bat to complement Pujols’ in the left-leaning Cards lineup.

“Sometimes you do have to make short-term decisions,” Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Joe Strauss. “Sometimes you do have to take off the visionary hat. I think that’s how you have to look at the deal. There are times when you have to react to situations that are now. There are other times when you can have vision and look to long-term planning. One of the things I get beat up for, and the organization does, is that we fail to make shorter-term decisions. From where I stand, it’s a great message to our fans and our major league players, that we do care about today, and we are focused on winning.”

Mozeliak can consider the message delivered with his team in second place in the NL Central, two games behind the Brewers. “It can’t do anything but help us,” Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin said. “Perez is a good kid. I hate to see him go, but this is what we need right now.”

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera became only the second pitcher in baseball history to record 500 career saves, joining Trevor Hoffman on Sunday night when he closed out a 4-2 win over the Mets at Citi Field. In his typically understated fashion, Rivera did not make a big deal about reaching the milestone.

However, Rivera’s teammates were quite appreciative of the moment and what he has meant to the Yankees during his 15-year career. “He’s the best closer ever, there’s no doubt about it,” catcher Jorge Posada said. “There is never going to be another Mariano Rivera out there, ever. I was excited as he was when he got that final out. I wanted to be there. Mariano has meant a lot to me, and made my job easier. He’s the best ever.”

Rivera has reached such rarefied heights despite throwing nothing but cut fastballs. He can’t even remember the last time he threw a pitch other than a cutter. “The longevity that he’s had, the consistency that he’s had since (becoming the closer in) 1997, what he’s been able to accomplish during the regular season and the postseason, he’s a remarkable pitcher,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “To think he did it with one pitch makes it even harder to imagine.”

Shortstop Derek Jeter has plenty of perspective after spending breaking into the major leagues with the Yankees in 1995 with Rivera. He says Rivera is the best player he has played with. “He’s the definition of consistency,” Jeter said. “You can add up all the players who have played the game, Mo’s been as consistent as any of them.”

Scouts’ views on various major league players:

  • Nationals catcher Josh Bard: “He’s hitting as well as I’ve ever seen him. I don’t know how long it will last, but it was nice pickup for the Nationals to sign him at the end of spring training.”

  • Cubs third baseman Jake Fox: “This guy can hit, but he has no position. If I were an American League club that needed a right-handed-hitting DH, I’d take a shot at trading for him.”

  • Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez: “When I watch this guy play, I just don’t understand all the hype that surrounded him in the minor leagues. For me, he’s going to be an average major league player, at best.”

  • Braves third baseman Chipper Jones: “He is finally starting to slow down and show his age. That being said, I’d still take him over most of the third basemen in the game.”

  • Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora: “I’ve got to give him credit because I thought he was on his last legs, but he’s swinging the bat better lately. Maybe the Orioles will be able to get something for him at the trading deadline.”

  • Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton: “This kid throws hard and has good stuff, but he needs to throw strikes more consistently. He could wind up being really good if gains command of his pitches.”

  • Marlins center fielder Cody Ross: “He’s a really good player, an unsung player. He’s got some pop, and he plays a pretty good center field. A lot of teams would love to have him.”

  • White Sox center fielder DeWayne Wise: “Ozzie Guillen is the only person in the world who thinks he is an everyday center fielder. He is what he is, a fifth outfielder and nothing more.”

  • Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

    Blue Jays at Yankees, Friday-Monday (July 3-6)
    Scott Tallet vs. A.J. Burnett, 1:05 p.m.; Roy Halladay vs. Chien-Ming Wang, 1:05 p.m.; Scott Richmond vs. Joba Chamberlain, 1:05 p.m.; Ricky Romero vs. Andy Pettitte, 1:05 p.m.

    Mariners at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (July 3-5)
    Felix Hernandez vs. Tim Wakefield, 7:10 p.m.; Garrett Olson vs. Brad Penny, 1:05 p.m.; Brandon Morrow vs. Jon Lester, 1:35 p.m.

    Rays at Rangers, Friday-Sunday (July 3-5)
    Scott Kazmir vs. Derek Holland, 8:05 p.m.; David Price vs. Vicente Padilla, 8:05 p.m.; Jeff Niemann vs. Scott Feldman, 8:05 p.m., ESPN

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
You know what? Nothing is making me happier than to see, listed under "series' to watch" Tampa Bay vs Texas. How many times in the past could a Rays vs Rangers series during July still have relevance in the AL standings?
Must be a red state bias.
Maybe Fontenot's 2008 counting stats were a fluke, but I am left to wonder whether loading onto the transition to everyday player the position change to 3B when Ramirez hit the DL was too much? If the Cubs return him to 2B when Ramirez is back, perhaps we then get to see if Fontenot is indeed an everyday player or not.