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Baseball Brunch: With Rare High Expectations, Cubs Have Disappointed

Aug 16, 2009 – 10:00 AM
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Ed Price

Ed Price %BloggerTitle%

Jeff SamardzijaEvery Sunday, MLB FanHouse empties out its notebook in Baseball Brunch.

Tossing an $8 beer on the head of an opposing outfielder, as happened at Wrigley Field last Wednesday -- that's a waste.

Spending $28 on a Jeff Samardzija t-shirt, which is what it still cost Thursday after Samardzija was sent back to Triple-A -- that's a waste.

Now Cubs fans have to hope the entire 2009 season isn't a waste.

One player didn't hesitate to use the term "underachieving" to describe the team's year, but others stop short of that.

"I'd like to save that for later on, if we don't get in [the postseason]," general manager Jim Hendry told FanHouse. "I'd like to think we've got a good run in us [and] we still get in."

Just three weeks ago, the Cubs were in the middle of winning 11 of 13 to take a 1/2-game lead in the NL Central. But before Friday's pounding of the Pirates, they had lost five straight to fall 4 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.

"We're looking for somebody to step up and really kind of carry us," shortstop Ryan Theriot said after Wednesday's loss.

In Cubsland, where the citizens live in perpetual anticipation of the next crisis (last week it was walk-prone set-up man Carlos Marmol), this recent stretch is seen as irrefutable proof that a total collapse is imminent.

The Cubs themselves know they're lucky that the Cardinals have not run away with the NL Central.

"I think we've hung in there," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "We haven't played great baseball all the time, but we've hung in there and we've given ourselves a chance."

The Cubs could get a lift within then next 10 days, as left-hander Ted Lilly (shoulder) is scheduled to come off the disabled list Monday and ace Carlos Zambrano (back) could return by the Aug. 25-27 series against Washington.

But, as Lilly said, "I'll tell you this: I don't think that just because Carlos and I get back in the rotation, St. Louis is going to lie down and say, 'Well, now that they're back, we're in trouble.' "

In fact, pitching isn't the Cubs' problem. Last year, when they won 97 games, they ranked third in the NL with a 3.87 ERA. So far this year, they rank fifth with a 3.92 ERA, and the pitching has been consistent enough that when the Cubs score three or more runs, they are 57-19, the best such mark in baseball.

But the offense -- ugh. Chicago is on pace to score 727 runs after scoring 855 in 2008.

Hendry said he left spring training thinking this year's lineup was better than last year's.

"We just haven't hit in the clutch like we did all last year," Hendry said, "and so many of the same guys that have hit all their lives. I don't know whether they're pressing or trying too hard or guys are trying to live up to expectations.

"We've just had a lot of disheartening losses by one or two runs where we get 12 hits and two runs or eight hits and one run. We just haven't been able to put it together. And last year offensively we were really, really good at that."

The Cubs -- who in June replaced Gerald Perry as hitting coach with Von Joshua -- have hit .241 with men in scoring position, down from .278 last season. Among the culprits: Milton Bradley (.278 with Texas to .257 this year), Mike Fontenot (.323 to .178), Alfonso Soriano (.276 to .213) and Geovany Soto (.264 to .200).

(Bradley somehow has just 30 RBI in 293 at-bats, putting him on pace to become the first regular corner outfielder with fewer than 45 RBI and fewer than 63 runs scored since Jim Wohlford of the 1974 Royals.)

"Last year everyone had great years," Lee said. "That's not typical, you know? And then this year everyone seems like they're kind of having an 'under' year, and that's really not typical."

The Cubs seems to really miss third baseman Aramis Ramirez when he doesn't play. He sat out nearly two months with a dislocated left shoulder and then couldn't play last week when the shoulder acted up. In the 29 games in between in which he played, the Cubs were 18-11 and scored 5.0 runs per game.

"You hate to think one guy made that much difference," Hendry said, "but even when he wasn't at 100 percent when he came back everybody else seemed to play better too."

Besides Ramirez, Lilly and Zambrano, Bradley, Soto, right-hander Rich Harden and outfielder Reed Johnson have also missed significant time.

"The injuries are part of it," Hendry said, "but certainly not what I would consider a giant excuse not to be doing somewhat better."

(It certainly doesn't explain the putrid outfield defense, with Soriano and Bradley in the corners.)

The Cubs are 8-18 against the four division leaders they have played -- the three from the NL and Detroit.

"I don't like that," Lilly said. "We haven't by any means handed it to the toughest clubs in this division. I think that's an important thing to do. I would like to do that. It sends a good message.

"It's something that we're going to need to do, I believe, to win the division is to win some of those series against clubs that are over .500."

In the meantime, Cubs fans should drink their beers, not throw them.

Overheard and Understood

• The immediate implication of the Blue Jays' allowing outfielder Alex Rios to go to the White Sox on waivers without compensation is that Toronto essentially admitted Rios' seven-year, nearly $70 million contract was a mistake. The Jays let the Sox take Rios' contract, it seems, because they felt he would not be worth $59.7 million over the next five years.

Chart of the Week
The Angels have a 4.84 ERA, third-worst in the American League, which makes their 69-45 record quite remarkable. They can join the 1950 Red Sox as the second team in modern baseball history with a .600 winning percentage and an ERA greater than 4.70. Only seven teams have ever won 90 games with an ERA greater than 4.70:
Team ERA
2005 Red Sox
2000 Indians
1999 Rangers
1999 Indians
1997 Mariners
1950 Red Sox
1930 Cubs
But there's a larger picture, too. Toronto said it was willing to keep ace Roy Halladay if it didn't get an overwhelming offer by the trade deadline because it felt it could contend in 2010. Purging Rios, even given his contract, contradicts that -- he still could have helped the team compete next year. So now the real issue is ownership: conglomerate Rogers Communications. The company seems content to field a middle-of-the-pack team that provides programming for its cable sports network and break even on the bottom line. To contend in the AL East means either setting a payroll with the big boys in New York and Boston or tearing down, spending on player development and building from within (and having almost everything go right) as Tampa Bay did. A mid-range payroll won't cut it, as Baltimore showed for years.

The upshot? We predict that general manager J.P. Ricciardi -- who spent on Rios, Vernon Wells, A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, to no avail -- gets bought out of the final year of his contract, and the new GM's first task is to deal Halladay.

John Smoltz apparently is not willing to give up the ghost despite his awful performance with the Red Sox, and some NL team may pick him up. Why does Smoltz want to keep pitching? He has told people that he wants to protect his all-time record of 15 postseason wins. The Yankees' Andy Pettitte is tied with Tom Glavine for second, with 14, and it looks like Pettitte will get a chance to catch Smoltz if Smoltz doesn't add to his total.

• Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt had a .128 on-base percentage, no walks and one extra-base hit through his first 13 games after being traded from Seattle to Kansas City, at which point Royals manager Trey Hillman and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer sat him down to explain the importance of walks and on-base percentage -- encouraging Betancourt to get to hitters' counts and take advantage of them. In 15 games since that day, July 31, Betancourt has hit .280 with four walks, seven extra-base hits and a .345 on-base percentage. His pitches seen per plate appearance have gone from 3.04 to 3.95.

"He has taken to that plan very well," Hillman said. "We started it all off by saying, 'Hey, look, we're not trying to turn you into something that you're not. But the by-product of this approach will turn you into walking more and being more selective with pitches you're unloading on.

"He's got very, very good aptitude. ... It's just a matter of when to unload. He gets very good pitch recognition."

• Detroit ace Justin Verlander threw 85 fastballs Thursday at Boston and they averaged 97 mph. "That's unheard of," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. Six of Verlander's pitches hit 100 mph and 14 were at 99 mph. "This year, his mechanics are much better," Leyland said. "He throws 100 in the strike zone. Last year, 100 was about a foot high."

Tim Lincecum has 205 strikeouts, and with nine or so more starts, he needs another 63 to have the most by a Giants pitcher since Amos Rusie in 1892.

• An indication that Cleveland intended to deal Victor Martinez all along: when the Indians were talking to the Dodgers about Cliff Lee, they were asking for first baseman James Loney as part of the return package.

• The Dodgers' Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are on their way to 100-RBI seasons, and Loney is on pace for 96. The franchise hasn't had three 100-RBI players in the same year since 1955, when it was in Brooklyn (Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella).

• Baltimore's Brian Roberts now has five 40-double seasons. The only second basemen with more were Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and Rogers Horsnby.

• With last Thursday's win at Minnesota, Kansas City won it first series since June 23-25 and also snapped a nine-game losing streak in rubber games. Of the Royals' final 46 games, 37 are against contenders (Twins nine, Tigers seven, White Sox six, Mariners four, Angels four, Red Sox four, Yankees three).

• Texas has pitched eight shutouts, second in the AL to Detroit's nine. The Rangers haven't led the league in that category over a full season since 1977, when they had 17 (five by Bert Blyleven and four by Gaylord Perry).

Orlando Cabrera's 22-game hitting streak, which ended Friday, included 11 games for Oakland and 11 with Minnesota. It was the longest single-season hitting streak while changing teams since 1930, when Heinie Manush hit in 18 straight for the St. Louis Browns and the nine for the Washington Senators. Manush was traded during the streak for Goose Goslin; both are in the Hall of Fame.
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