The Cubs finished the first third of the 2009 season -- 54 games -- after yesterday's win with a 28-26 record.
In and of itself, that's actually a good thing. Because of rainouts, the Cubs have played the fewest games of anyone in baseball. There are a couple of teams -- the Dodgers and Indians -- that have already played 59 games, five more than the Cubs have. Despite having long stretches (23 games in a row starting on June 16 due to last week's rainout, which will be made up on June 22 in Atlanta) of games with the makeups, two of those games represent games that Aramis Ramirez might be able to play in, that he otherwise would have missed. This could be a positive thing; also, the 3.5 game deficit in the NL Central is, because of the number of games played, only two in the loss column.
And despite the turmoil of this year, the 2009 Cubs are only five games worse than last year's model after 54 games, although the 2008 team was in the middle of starting their amazing regular-season run right then; the 54th game in 2008 was the fourth of the late-May nine-game winning streak.
So let's grade this year's team and see where we are headed for the remaining two-thirds of 2009.
Catching: B-. Geovany Soto has been a huge disappointment this year, showing up out of shape and not hitting at all, so much so that Lou had to give him a "mental break" late last week. He's started to hit a little better lately; since May 12 Soto is hitting .250/.361/.383 with 2 HR in 60 AB. Bump that up another 30 BA points and 50 SLG points and he's close to 2008. The reason the grade is as high as it is, is because of the presence of backup Koyie Hill, who has done a good job both offensively and defensively.
Infield: C. Derrek Lee also got off to a slow start, but since May 1 he is hitting .322/.413/.544 with 5 HR in 90 AB. That kind of production the rest of the year will probably get him to finish with around the kind of numbers he had in 2007 and 2008, maybe a little better if he can sustain it. Ryan Theriot has shown unexpected power, hitting six homers and having a .291/.355/.451 line for the season, fine numbers if he can keep them there. The injury to Aramis Ramirez has exposed how flimsy the bench is -- Mike Fontenot was forced into a fulltime role for which he isn't suited, and the rest of the backups are mediocre. When A-Ram returns, the infield will again be championship quality.
Outfield: B-. Kosuke Fukudome got off to another good start, as he did in 2008. And like last year, when the calendar turned to June, he stopped hitting -- .158 in his first five June games. This trend has to reverse, because with Milton Bradley in and out of the lineup, Fukudome has to play nearly every day. Reed Johnson has provided good bench play; Alfonso Soriano, as usual, is hot and cold, right now cold, but maybe yesterday's HR will start a streak for him. Bradley hasn't played enough to get any sort of rhythm. Since May 8 he is hitting .286/.384/.508 with 3 HR in 63 AB. If he can keep that up, he'll be just fine.
Starting pitching: A-. A shaky beginning by Ryan Dempster and a DL stint and suspension for Carlos Zambrano have faded into the past. The Cubs have gone 7-11 over their last 18 games -- which includes the eight-game losing streak -- but in those 18 games have allowed just 68 runs, 3.78 per game, and not all of those earned, and eight of them came in one blowout loss. Randy Wells has been a revelation, and I think he's for real. We still don't know exactly what's up with Rich Harden; his health is important to the rest of the season.
Bullpen: C-. Only Angel Guzman has been consistently good all season. That's one of the reasons the Cubs haven't been able to set out on a long winning streak -- bullpen failures. Kevin Gregg, better lately, had a shaky start. Aaron Heilman can't stop walking people. Neal Cotts was so bad he had to be demoted. And the formerly trustworthy Carlos Marmol has had control problems, probably from overuse. Guzman may be the savior here.
Management: C. And I happen to like both Lou and Jim and the job they did putting together the 2007 and 2008 NL Central champions. We have discussed many times the conclusion they apparently reached after the NLDS sweep by the Dodgers -- that they lost because they didn't have enough LH hitters. This isn't why they lost, but that obsession pushed them to sweep a lot of useful players out and bring in some that... well, not so much. The Aaron Miles signing was ridiculous -- Bobby Scales could have done the same thing for far less money, and though Milton Bradley may eventually provide production, I can't help thinking that Raul Ibanez or Adam Dunn would look awfully good in right field right now, even with their defensive skillsets. I will give Hendry credit for two minor moves that paid off: making Hill the backup catcher and keeping Guzman, who was out of options, and letting Chad Gaudin (current ERA: 5.01 with San Diego) go.
Lou Piniella looks like a lost little boy when he trudges in and out of the dugout. Even yesterday, when he went out to argue a call, he looked as if he were being bothered to do so, rather than having any passion. I don't need him to throw tantrums or bases or even his cap, but at least look like you care, Lou. It's as if he put every fiber of his being into winning in 2008, and even though he signed an off-season extension through 2010, this year is an afterthought. He's let bullpen pitchers sit for two weeks at a time, effectively playing with a 22-man roster while Z was suspended, and made other inexplicable decisions. Maybe he's the one who needs a "mental break".
Nevertheless, apart from the Dodgers -- and who saw that coming? -- there are no dominant teams in the NL this year. The Cardinals just gave up 28 runs in 3 games to Colorado at home; the Brewers look good, but also are flawed and have injury issues of their own. There's no reason the Cubs can't use the remaining two-thirds of this season to stay right in there until they return to full strength, likely about six weeks from now. All you have to do is get into the postseason -- then it's a crapshoot. Many playoff teams have proven that great regular season records mean nothing, both positively and negatively.
Enjoy the off-day. I'm sure the Cubs are.