The Baseball Notebook

June 3, 2010 2:14 PM

The Coming Chicago Surge

The Chicago Cubs are 24-29. They're 6.5 games back of NL Central co-leaders St. Louis & Cincinnati. They're only two games ahead of Milwaukee and Pittsburgh and are closer to the bottom of their division than they are to the top. But, to paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, pay no attention to that incompetent team that's occupied Wrigley Field for April and May. Because the Cubs have a summer surge ahead of them. Here's why:

*Even if they play exactly as they have for the first 8+ weeks, there will be a natural improvement. They rank 13th in the NL in runs scored, in spite of being ninth in both OBP and slugging. They rank 10th in ERA in spite of being 7th in keeping runners off base and 8th in power prevention. This strongly suggests to me that the right hits haven't been falling for Pinellia's crew, while they have for the opposition.

*You can further expect the team's offensive numbers to improve. The only positive surprise in this offense is the slugging percentages of Mike Fontenot and Marlon Byrd. Otherwise, good years from Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and the underappreciated and patient Kosuke Fukodome can be expected to maintain throughout the summer. On the other hand, how much longer is Aramis Ramirez going to be completely incompetent at the plate? How much longer will Derek Lee be an albatross rather than an asset? Will Ryan Theriot spend an entire year without getting on base consistently? I don't believe so. So an offense that's already due to see its luck improve is also a solid bet to see its concrete performance improve.

*The starting pitching is solid top to bottom. While Carlos Silva's phenomenal 7-0 start won't continue, nor will the 1-5 of Ted Lilly. If you look at the top four starters--Silva, Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells, you have guys with ERAs in the 3s. The wins have fallen for Silva early. Whether they continue to do so for him is not really relevant to the overall team picture. They're going to keep falling for somebody. Meanwhile, Carlos Zambrano returns to the rotation, but if he doesn't pitch well, Pinellia can go right back to Tom Gorzelanny, whose 3.66 ERA fits the profile of the rest of the rotation.

*The bullpen has the pieces to be strong throughout the summer. The horrid performance of Bob Howry has held them back early, but strong work by Sean Marshall and James Russell can make up for it, as Pinellia fits everything into place. Carlos Marmol has blown a couple saves, but is sitting on a buck-44 ERA. And either Zambrano or Gorzelanny add further depth.

This isn't the opinion of a Cubs partisan. Hey, I'm originally from Milwaukee and if my hometown friends read this, I won't be welcomed back anytime soon. But the indicators all say it's going to be a hot time on the North Side this summer.

Derek Lee might be struggling, but there's quite a few NL first baseman who would be worthy choices to be in Anaheim come July. Let's look at the contenders..

There's no doubt Albert Pujols would be the choice and I'm not going to be the one to argue. With a .431 OBP and a .566 slugging, 2010 is another banner year for the Cardinal star. But three others have a valid case to make and the challengers are led up by Joey Votto in Cincinnati. Not far behind is Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego and Adam Dunn in Washington. Votto's power exceeds that of Pujols and while Gonzalez' slugging is below .500, we do have to remember he hits in Petco Park and in a lineup where no sane pitcher would ever feed him anything to hit. Dunn belongs towards the top of the list, but not at the top. Overall, while I wouldn't argue with Pujols, I'd pick Votto at this point because he doesn't have Matt Holliday protecting him. And the Cincy offense, without the benefit of a Carpenter/Wainwright/Garcia trifecta in the rotation, is much more significant to their team success.

Three more relative surprises are having nice years. Troy Glaus has been scorching hot in May and the first few days of June, lifting the Braves into first place. Adam LaRoche is having a good year in obscurity in Pittsburgh and Aubrey Huff seems to have re-found the batting stroke that made him so productive in Baltimore in 2008. At the next level down, we find Prince Fielder, Lance Berkman and Todd Helton. Each are strong on OBP and low on power. That's a crude one-sentence portrait, because Fielder and Berkman's power is merely a little disappointing, while Helton's is non-existent . But when it comes to disappointments, none match up to Chicago's Lee, LAD's James Loney and even Ryan Howard in Philadelphia. Howard's numbers of .336/.450 aren't terrible, but for a guy who just inked a fat new contract they are way below expectations.

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