Parts of Wrigley Field are visibly empty these days, even when the tickets have all been sold. Waveland Avenue is at times oddly bereft of ballhawks. Chicago at large is far more keyed in on the Blackhawks, LeBron James and perhaps even the World Cup than on National League baseball. Enough disappointment, and even the North Side cares a bit less than it might.
This is a shame. Even coming off a run that's seen them take six of nine from the Rockies, Phillies, Rangers and Dodgers, you can't quite say the Cubs are good. But they're certainly interesting.
Consider: Closer Carlos Marmol is striking out 45.8 percent of the batters who step in against him, the best mark in major league history. Shortstop Starlin Castro, who turned 20 in March, is hitting like Derek Jeter in his prime. Catcher Geovany Soto and left fielder Alfonso Soriano, whose failures a year ago did so much to doom the early pennant favorites, are playing like fringe MVP candidates. And Cubs starters right now boast the sixth-best ERA in the NL, even with Carlos Zambrano, the team's best pitcher, having spent the last month in the bullpen.
That last bit, of course, Cubs fans have cared about. Depending on whom you ask, the spectacle of Zambrano -- the single fixed point unifying the often disappointing but occasionally superb Cubs teams of the last decade -- being demoted to the bullpen was either an outrageous insult to an all-time great Cub, proof of Lou Piniella's psychological mastery, or just flat odd. Given Zambrano's famously emotional temperament and fitful control (he has the 10th-worst walk rate among active pitchers), I'd go with the last choice. However you want to characterize it, the facts remain that a pitcher making $18 million per year has run up a 4.76 ERA in relief, and the manager has deemed the experiment over.
This raises a pair of related but distinct questions: Which starter will cede his place to Big Z? And: Which should? Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly are both well paid veterans pitching good ball, and they aren't going to the bullpen. This leaves three choices, an easy answer and the possibility that the Cubs might reclaim the relevance that's fast escaping them.
Since 2006, Carlos Silva, a sinker/change-up specialist without a good sinker or change-up, has been worth -1.8 wins, the worst mark in the game for any pitcher with at least 500 innings. Randy Wells, meanwhile, has served well as a homeless man's Greg Maddux since earning a rotation spot last year, with an ERA+ of 127. Tom Gorzelanny is left-handed and has struck out better than a man per inning since the beginning of last year. His ERA is also nearly a half-run better than Silva's this year. And like Wells, he's four years younger than Silva. This should not be a difficult decision to make.
The fly in the ointment is that Silva is 6-0, and however loose the grip of the worthless wins statistic may be on the hardcore baseball fan, it has its residual effects. The betting man should put his money on Silva being given every chance to prove his fast start wasn't a fluke, however much reason there is to think the team should, almost literally, cash out the winnings he represents while it can.
In truth, the Cubs' choice might not much matter for this year. Pitchers get hurt, and whichever starter is banished to relief will almost certainly end up back in the rotation. More than that, the club is probably not going to enjoy continued fabulous success from such dubious fellows as Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome. A playoff run likely not being in the offing, the exact identity of the No. 5 starter should be of little consequence in the standings, even if the choice is between arguably the worst starter in the majors and one of two promising pitchers who could well play a role on a championship Cubs team.
Where the choice does matter is in the more abstract arena referenced above. With good reason, the Cubs have a reputation as a rather muddleheaded organization, to which winning isn't the paramount concern. Give them a decade of solid service as one of the better pitchers in baseball, and they'll toss you in the bullpen for no crime more tangible than having chalked one bad start in your first four. Give them two fluke good months following years of unparalleled ineptitude for other teams and you'll be treated gently. It's the Cubs Way, simultaneously ruthless and sentimental, and in the end almost senseless. It's the sort of thing that leads to fans gently shrugging their shoulders and moving on to other sporting concerns.
Finally under new ownership this year, the Cubs have a chance to show this way is changing. This is why their choice matters: They've met an inflection point. However bad an idea it may be to make too much of one baseball decision, the fact is the Cubs are facing options so stark, their decision could speak volumes about the near future of the team. They'll either make the hard call and demote a winning pitcher whose odds of continuing to win are smaller than the Cubs' odds of winning a pennant, or they'll slight a younger, better pitcher for no sound reason at all.
This is a team that's already sent its best and best-paid pitcher into relief. No one should have any confidence that they'll do the right thing. Nor is it clear that doing so would secure them a solid place among Chicago's top three sporting concerns; their inscrutable decisions have done too much damage. Still, one can watch, and hope that rationality will win out. Chicago has supported vastly less attractive teams than this one. Given the least reason, fans will give Marmol, Castro, Zambrano, Wells, Gorzelanny and the rest the audience they deserve.