Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cubs Tantalize Their Faithful with Promising First Half, but the Batting Order Needs a Shakeup

Suffering along with the Chicago Cubs is not only a pastime; it’s almost an endeavor of art. Let’s see... How many creative ways can you try to convince yourself that this might be the year? In fact, there’s a distinct and different philosophical/spiritual tack for every individual who roots, or has ever rooted, for the Cubs. So okay, maybe it’s not art—more like religion.

I lived in Chicago for 20-some years. I know the drill. I was still relatively new to the city when I became enamored of the ‘84 squad—NL MVP Ryne Sandberg, Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews (Sr.), Keith Moreland, Lee Smith, Jody Davis, Ron Cey, Bob Dernier, Leon Durham. Even Dennis Eckersley, for Pete’s sake, acquired from Boston in an early-season trade for Bill Buckner. A very talented squad it was. But after taking the first two games of the NLCS from the Padres, they blew the final three in a row, thus depressing the heck out of Chicago’s North Side.

The Cubs teased the faithful again in 1989. Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, NL Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton, and a pitching staff that included a 23-year-old 19-game-winner named Greg Maddux, Sutcliffe again (16 wins) and another guy named Mike Bielecki, who posted 18 victories. The closer was Mitch (“Wild Thing”) Williams. The Cubs dropped the NLCS to the Giants in five really disappointing games.

The ‘98 club won a wild-card berth, with a house-afire Sammy Sosa, who won the MVP, even while finishing second to Mark McGwire (66 to 70) in the Roger Maris Home Run Chase. Grace was still very productive (.309, 17 HRs, 89 RBIs), and power came from the oddest places: Henry Rodriguez (31 HRs), Jose Hernandez (23 HRs), and a guy named Brant Brown (who?) kicking in 14 homers. The big hurlers were Kevin Tapani (19-9), Steve Trachsel (15-8) and 21-year-old NL Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood, who went 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings. The stopper was the late Rod Beck, who notched 51 saves. They lost the NLDS to the Braves, three games to none.

Then came the Year of the Bartman, 2003, which, really, we probably shouldn’t discuss in polite company at any length. Solid, fundamental club, led again by Sosa and four quality starters—Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. It was Dusty Baker’s first year as Cubs manager after he lost the World Series the previous season helming the Giants. Heckuva follow-up, Dusty.

Anyway, it’s not only that the Cubs haven’t been in a World Series since 1945—and haven’t won one since 1908—it’s that their clear self-destructive tendencies are absolutely transcendent. Even when it’s obvious they could or should win—and clearly have the talent to do so—they simply won’t. They are cursed, and only the supernatural will ever get them over the hump.

They look to be challenging their fans again in 2007. At the All-Star break, they trail the division-leading Brewers by four-and-a-half games, yet there’s excitement under new skipper Lou Piniella. While the Cubs have rather played up and down so far, they clearly have talent and a certain emotion that conjures hopeful seasons past. They have three great hitters in Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Veterans like Mark DeRosa and Cliff Floyd are producing at the plate. Little-knowns Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot are versatile fielders who’ve been getting key hits. Zambrano anchors the starting corps, which includes veterans Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly and up-and-coming Rich Hill.

So the Cubs could give the young and gifted Brewers a definite run in the season’s second half, and it should be fun to watch.

I do, however, have one major suggestion for Piniella: Shuffle the batting order. Now.

For some reason, people think that Soriano is a leadoff hitter. Yeah, he hits for average, and yeah, he can steal you bases. But here’s a stat that can’t be ignored: In his six full seasons previous to 2007, Soriano struck out 818 times, an average of 136 Ks per year. I’m sorry, but you won’t win enough with a leadoff hitter who is K-ing 130 times a year. Soriano’s got 70 of ‘em already—he’s right on pace. He also has averaged only 37 walks per season. Interestingly enough, probably the one player in modern history whom Soriano most resembles statistically is Bobby Bonds, Barry’s late dad.

Check the stats. Bonds the Elder (pictured, left, in his baseball prime) was a gifted and exciting player. He was a leadoff hitter who could run and hit homers. He also struck out at an alarming rate. And he never made it to a World Series.

In fact, conventional wisdom says your best player bats third. You can argue that, for the Cubs, it might be Lee. Then again, it might be Soriano. And talk about a waste of power: Soriano has 15 homers, tied for the team lead with Ramirez, but only 33 RBIs. Here’s a team desperate for some long-ball juice, and they let arguably their most prolific power guy sit at the top of the lineup driving in only himself.

Soriano hit 46 dingers last season (for Washington). Ramirez hit 38. Lee hit 46 in 2005, but since then, and fighting through injury, he has yet to regain much of a home-run stroke.

This Cubs lineup needs a smart tweak—to maximize its power potential, to move contact hitters up to the top to set the table for the big guns. Here’s thereabouts what it ought to look like, with the current stats:

1. Ryan Theriot, SS (.276, 14 SB)
2. Mike Fontenot, 2B (.356)
3. Alfonso Soriano, LF (.309, 15 HR, 33 RBI)
4. Derrek Lee, 1B (.330, 42 RBI)
5. Aramiz Ramirez, 3B (.312, 15 HR, 51 RBI)
6. Mark DeRosa, RF (.291, 49 RBI)
7. Angel Pagan, CF (.267)
8. Koyie Hill, C (.148)
9. Carlos Zambrano, P

The Cubs platoon a good deal, often between second base and the outfield. That’s easy enough. For games where DeRosa’s playing the infield, move him up to the #2 slot, and Floyd (or whoever) goes into #6.

The Cubs could sure use a bat at catcher, but since they parted with Michael Barrett for reasons of team harmony, they now can only hope for the best out of what they’ve got.

The relief pitching still looks sketchy but could yet surprise. As for the starters, only time will tell.

It could be interesting in Wrigley Field for the remainder of the summer. The usual psychic cautions remain in place, of course. Yet the lineup fix is a must to have any chance to entice the supernatural to the Friendly Confines.

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