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Don't Panic Yet

By Garrett Monaghan

With all the recent focus on how bad the Cubs' offense has been so far this year, everyone seems to be overlooking the factors that have kept the Cubs very much alive in the NL Central race. Cubbies starters have the best ERA in the National League, and rank second in the league in opponent batting average and strikeouts pitched. It's a common refrain that pitching wins championships and, if Rich Harden returns to his 2008 form in the second half, the Cubs have potentially the deepest starting rotation in the league. Admittedly, Randy Wells has been a pleasant surprise and isn't likely to improve on a 2.55 ERA for the rest of the season, but Harden has been under-performing, and could easily post a sub-3.00 ERA from here on out if he stays healthy.

The bullpen has been erratic so far, largely due to an atrocious number of walks, but has shown signs of improvement lately and should benefit from the addition of Sean Marshall. If all else fails, there's also plenty of help potentially available from AAA Iowa. Jeff Stevens (acquired in the maligned Mark DeRosa trade) has posted a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings of relief at AAA, striking out 27, and surrendering only 19 hits and no home runs. AAA relievers Blake Parker and Justin Berg have also been very effective; and Kevin Hart and Jeff Samardzija are always lurking on the horizon, provided they can learn to get the ball over the plate once in a while. We've already seen Randy Wells and Jose Ascanio contribute at the major league level this season, and I wouldn't be surprised to see another AAA arm help out sometime in the next month or two.

The Cubs are only 3.5 games out in the Central right now, and while that's certainly not where they wanted to be at this point, they're hardly in as bad a position as everyone seems to think. The Cubs have clearly under-performed, but history says they're likely to improve in the second half. Not so with their divisional rivals.

The Brewers have a great bullpen, but they simply don't have the starting pitching to make the postseason. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are great players, but the rest of the team is purely average, and Braun and Fielder aren't likely to produce at a much higher level than they already have. Likewise the Cardinals. The redbirds' offense is essentially a one man band, and I have a very hard time believing that Joel Piniero, Adam Wainright, and Chris Carpenter are going to be able to maintain the success they've had so far. The Reds I'm going to dismiss as a non-factor in the divisional race. That might be a mistake, but there's no way a Dusty Baker-managed team plays .500 baseball for the rest of the season.

The Cubs, by contrast, have hung around without the benefit of too many guys posting career-best numbers thus far. Ted Lilly and Randy Wells are going to cool off a bit eventually, but they should still remain effective. Both Bradley and Soriano are career .270-something hitters, and as a writer for the Tribune pointed out the other day, guys like that don't just forget how to hit for an entire season. Even if Bradley and Soriano finish the season 20 points under their career marks, experience tells us they're still likely to hit between .280-.300 the rest of the way. Derrek Lee has been getting hot lately, and Fontenot, Soto, and Theriot are all likely to benefit from the recent change in hitting coaches. Aramis Ramirez should be back in time to contribute before the end of July, and that by itself should help replace the Aaron Miles-sized hole in the batting order.

The bottom line so far is that things aren't quite as bleak for the Cubs as it's sometimes seemed. With the next six games at home against the struggling White Sox and Indians (owners of the worst ERA in the American League) and a new hitting coach in the dugout, the Cubs should get a chance to swing the bats a bit and break out of the slump. Don't panic yet, Cubs fans. It ain't over yet.


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