Injuries, bad luck and some poor moves have derailed Cubs
Twelve of SI.com's 13 baseball experts (myself included)
What has gone wrong? A lot. Some of it was (obviously) unexpected, and some of it has been plain bad luck, but some of it has also been self-inflicted. And nearly all of it has happened to the offense.
The Cubs had by far the most potent offense in the National League last year, scoring 5.31 runs per game to the second-place Phillies' 4.93. Even over in the DH league, only the Rangers managed to outscore the Cubs last year. This year, in a nearly identical run-scoring environment (MLB average 4.62 R/G vs. 4.65 in 2008), the Cubs are scoring nearly a run and a quarter less per game. The second-best offense in baseball a year ago, the Cubs have managed to outscore only four teams (the Reds, Mariners, Royals and Padres) on a per-game basis this year.
Some of the reasons for this have been obvious.
Ramirez's injury and the struggles of first Soto and then Soriano haven't been the Cubs' only offensive problems, however. The team has had a black hole at second base, with the men assigned to man the keystone combining to hit just .224/.280/.294. The worst production the Cubs got from any single position last year was their right fielders' .250/.350/.381, led by disappointing Japanese import
On its own, trading DeRosa made sense. Despite his ability to play multiple positions, DeRosa was a butcher at second and was coming off a career year that was also just his third as a full-time player at the age of 33. The Cubs sold high on DeRosa, who was all but guaranteed to see his production decrease this season, and has. The problem was that, though they properly distrusted DeRosa's 2008 production, they weren't sufficiently suspicious of
Indeed, with DeRosa in Cleveland, the Cubs turned to Fontenot to fill in at third base when Ramirez went down, leaving second base to Miles. Miles didn't hit much against lefties and just .188 against righties then got hurt himself. He was followed by a parade of replacement players, including 31-year-old rookie
DeRosa is still a poor defensive infielder, and his .261/.334/.443 line this year is indeed a significant step down from his .285/.376/.481 of a year ago, but even his reduced production would have been a boon to the Cubs at third base during Ramirez's absence, in helping to keep Fontenot's glove propped up at second, and in giving the slumping Soriano some additional rest in left. That's exactly DeRosa's value, keeping a team from falling to replacement level at any given position, something the Cubs have done at multiple positions in his absence. That sort of player is most valuable to a contender, for whom the difference between league-average and replacement-level production at a given position can be the difference between a playoff berth or an October vacation, and most valuable to a contender in the National League, where hitting pitchers force managers to have a greater reliance on their bench and on the defensive diversity of that bench, making the Cubs the perfect team for him. To wit, in the first half of this season, Fontenot, Miles, Blanco and Scales combined were worth 13.7 runs
Of course, it took the injury to Ramirez and the poor showings from Soriano, Fontenot and Co. for the DeRosa difference to matter. The Cubs figured they had offense to spare given their performance at the plate last year and could hardly have expected to get so little in the first half of the season from two of their top hitters of a year ago. Still, the reasons for the DeRosa trade remain hazy. Despite DeRosa's poor glove work at second, the Cubs still turned balls in play into outs at a higher rate than any other National League team in 2008. Theoretically, the trade was a salary dump (the Cubs received three minor league arms in return, two of whom had never pitched above A-ball), but in signing Miles to a two-year contract worth $4.9 million the same day, the Cubs barely saved at all on the $5.5 million DeRosa is earning this year in the final year of his contract.
That last makes it difficult to blame the outgoing Tribune Co. ownership for the move. The Tribune notably committed $285 million to contracts for free agents DeRosa, Soriano, Ramirez, and pitchers
Meanwhile, the Cubs are up to Plan F at second base in the person of
Still, the Cubs are just 3 1/2 games behind in the NL Central, and the two teams ahead of them, the Cardinals and second-place Brewers, have plenty of faults of their own, specifically the Brewers' rotation and the Cardinals' offense around
There's still room for hope in Wrigleyville, but as much will have to go right for the Cubs in the second half as went wrong for them in the first for the NL Central to be anything but a dogfight the rest of the way. If the Cubs still manage to pull out the division, one might be tempted to argue that it will prove just how much of a lock they were in the first place, but really, the 2009 Cubs are proof that there is no such thing as a lock in major league baseball.