One of the best things about baseball is the fact that over 162 games, the best teams will advance to the postseason. One of the worst things about baseball is that a team that wins 97 games gets no advantage over an 85-win wild card team in a short series, generally speaking. But I digress.
Certainly, Cubs fans were treated to a massive dose of disappointment in the first half of 2010. It seemed that everything that could go wrong did. The two guys we depend on to do all of our big damage, Ramirez and Lee, are having years so far off of their career averages that it’s ridiculous. Lou would call it a “Cubbie occurrence,” but I don’t think he’s been in the mood for levity recently. Z threw yet another sh*t-fit, after promising in the off-season that we’d seen the last of his childish, churlish behaviour. We re-signed Bobby Howry, for god knows what reason. The only Cubs who have been up to snuff have been the SPs (led by the shocking Silva), Marlon Byrd, and to a lesser degree, Soriano. Marshall has done his usual fantastic job, but that’s what we expect from him.
We start the second half 10 games out, with the Cards and Reds in a neck-and-neck race for first. That seems daunting, but the great thing about baseball – as mentioned above – is that there’s plenty of time for a comeback. Especially if our hitters start performing anywhere near their career levels. I don’t think this season is over yet by any means, and I think the Cubs can still make a serious run at another NL title. Here are my (semi-) rational thoughts for such optimism:
1). The Reds are managed by Dusty Baker. Baker’s Reds have overachieved by almost anyone’s estimation, even though they have had a solid core for a number of years. Yet what should scare the pants off of any Red Legs fans is the pitching staff, and in particular, who manages them. Cinci has leaned time and time again on the young Leake, who has done a fantastic job without ever pitching in the minors. Cueto has been a stud when he throws strikes since the day he came up. And Volquez will return soon after the AS Break. Not to mention the Chapman kid, who certainly will come up at some point this summer. Let’s see, Cub fans, four very, very good young pitchers, managed by Dusty Baker? If I was Chapman, Volquez, and Cueto, I would stick my elbow in front of Votto’s bat during BP in preparation for what will come. Baker has never understood how to manage young pitching. His core pitching staff is dependent, in the second half, on at least two of those four guys eating valuable innings down the stretch. Leake is 190 pounds – how will August treat him? Volquez and Cueto have both had elbow trouble (sound familiar, Kerry Wood?), and Chapman is an unknown commodity. Look for the Reds to fade in a serious way in August.
2). The Cardinals have been underwhelming. Look, aside from Wainwright and Carpenter, you can beat the Cardinals. Garcia has been incredible all year long, but he’s a rookie. Let’s see how he handles the big pressure of a pennant race and how he handles his first long big league season. Not taking anything away from what he’s done – he’s been fantastic – but rookies generally don’t post the stats he has over 162 games, and the Cardinals really lean on him. Secondly, the Albert factor. This is what’s so amazing about him – he’s hitting .313, and is on pace for around 40 hrs and well over 100 RBIs, and ESPN’s talking heads have said he’s been off all year long. Yet the Cardinals’ real problem is that Holliday. Before his recent power surge, he hadn’t provided the kind of Pujols protection that the Cards desperately need. Beyond those two guys, you can also beat the Cardinals. They need to get a big bat or a Cliff Lee-type pitcher, and with Pujols’ forthcoming free agency, I don’t see it happening. I’d learned (the hard way, I might add) never to count out Dave Duncan and what he does over the years. I have to put down the Cards as the favorites to take the NL Central, but I can’t see them going beyond the NLCS – too many question marks in the SP, and they rely too much on Pujols and Holliday.
3). The Cubs are due to put it together, at some point. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen too late to matter, but Murphy’s Law has been in full effect all season long for the Cubbies. So far in the second half, Rami is on fire. He’s due to go about .320/15/60 for the rest of the year and if he can pull that off and Lee gives us something, then the Cubs can make a good run. He’s really the key player. As for the bullpen, since Grabow has been hurt, it’s really solidified. Marshall gets all the pressure situations as a prelude to Marmol, who is the most unhittable pitcher in MLB, period. The last stats I saw he was averaging 17 K/9. Those are video game numbers, folks. The SP has been strong – Dempster and Lilly have relatively poor records, but both have good ERAs. Silva needs to keep competing like he has all season long. Gorzellany has been a good 4th/5th starter all year when he’s gotten the chance, and gives us a chance to win every game he starts.
The fact is these things tend to average out, and the Cards and Reds have had no issues this year. That doesn’t generally hold steady over 162 games. I’m not saying the Cubs are going to take the Central, but I do think they can make this very, very interesting. Ten games is a big head start, but as Cubs fans (and elderly Dodgers fans) can attest, it’s not insurmountable.
Crystal ball prognostication: The Cubs have been traditionally strong in the second half, winning 40-45 games or so in Lou’s reign. The smart money is on the Cards, but I look for the Cubs to give them a run. If the Cardinals start to flounder or if Albert takes a FB in the elbow, this division is eminently winnable.
Postscript: The Cubs have now taken 2 out of 2 from the defending NL champs – by scoring 12 runs one game and by getting a clutch Rami HR and a key Byrd HR in the other. Marmol Ks Werth, Howard, and a PH in the 19th for his 17th save. Teams in red, beware!