Calendar turns with Cubs a question mark
North Siders enter June looking to regain frontrunner status
CHICAGO -- With the Chicago Cubs, the question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is often a matter of fierce debate. You can be sure that the glass is neither completely full nor totally empty, but after that, the argument starts.The pattern hasn't changed in the first two months of the 2009 season. You can look at the Cubs' 25-24 record as May ended on Sunday night and become somewhere between distressed and demoralized. This is no way to follow up on a 97-victory season. Look at the offensive statistics; these guys are buried in the depths of the National League. Almost everywhere you look in the everyday lineup, there is significant underachievement. The Cubs were supposed to coast away from the rest of NL Central. Instead, they're in fourth place. They've lost 10 of their last 14. This is brutal. On the other hand, you can take exactly the same set of facts and come up with a benign explanation that actually lends itself to optimism. The Cubs haven't hit well because they have not been healthy. They are without their cleanup hitter, Aramis Ramirez. No team can fully withstand that kind of loss. Other players who have not hit as well as expected have been playing hurt. There is every reason to expect that the regulars will perform nearer their career levels and the offense will round into form. The pitching hasn't been all that bad and can fairly be expected to get better. Milton Bradley is much better than this. So is Derrek Lee. So is Alfonso Soriano. So is Geovany Soto. After all this gnashing of teeth, this team is a mere 4 1/2 games out of first place. The season is young. This is not a crisis. The Cubs were the best regular season team in the NL last season. Not all that much has changed. This team will be fine and it's an issue of when, not if. It is not at all surprising that manager Lou Piniella subscribes to the latter view of the Cubs' situation. He expressed that view at length and with conviction before Sunday night's game with the Dodgers. The Cubs subsequently lost the game, 8-2, but one negative result is not going to change minds at this point. "It seems to me that we're starting to play a little better baseball," Piniella said. "Some of our batting averages are improving. Our bullpen, our pitching staff, even though we had a few injuries, is looking more settled to me. We've got people in specific roles. We've just got to keep playing now. "I think things are going to turn out all right here, I really do. I think we've gone through the worst of it. I think we've got to be tough and dogged and continue to play hard and win our share of games and get our people totally healthy. I think we're going to have a good run." When Piniella said that the worst was over for the 2009 Cubs, he had his reasons. "Look, I think we've got probably four or five players here in the lineup that you'll see their batting averages go up 30 or 40 points," Piniella said. "That will dictate to me that we'll score more runs, more consistently. I like the way our bullpen is starting to come around. You win a lot in this league with a bullpen. I like the young arms that we have out there. We really know how to use it. Our rotation is going to give us an opportunity to win baseball games, almost on a daily basis. "So, to me, things are looking up. Our job, basically, is just to continue to play and win some baseball games, keep the teams in front of us within reach. And I think once you see us get healthy, you'll see a good run out of this team." In fact, Piniella suggested that, given all of the damaging events that had occurred, the Cubs are fortunate to be where they are. "I think we're fortunate, I really do," the manager said. "I think it has to do with the competitiveness in this division. I think it has do with the fact that if you look at home team records throughout the National League it's not the easiest thing in the world to go into your opponent's park and win. I think that has something to do with it, too. And it has something to say about our team. We've lost, basically, most of our big people and we've been able to hold on. At times, it hasn't been easy. It hasn't been easy all year, I'll be honest with you. "The [NL Central] teams have gotten better; the teams have all gotten better. Every team has some really good strengths and some areas they'd like to improve in. I think that [balance] has helped us. St. Louis and Milwaukee right now, they've played the best and they deserve to be in first place. But we're three, four games behind, and that's fine with me right now." In Piniella's view, one difficult stretch kept the Cubs, problems or not, from being on the pace in this division. That was a recent trip to San Diego and St. Louis on which the Cubs went 0-6. That, Piniella said, was not a matter of bad baseball, but simply of not hitting. The Cubs scored a total of five runs in those six losses. So, Piniella adds up all the relevant factors and comes to this: "I feel encouraged, I really do. I think you'll see a steady improvement going forward. " Part of what makes that statement plausible is that there is so much room for improvement. But objectively, the Cubs' situation as June begins is much closer to frustrating than desperate. On the other hand, the only thing that will suffice over the next four months will be dramatic improvement, particularly from the Cubs' offense. When the manager speaks of four or five players picking up 30 to 40 points on their batting averages that indicates just how inadequate the performances have been so far. The Cubs' starting rotation is far enough above the 2009 average that it will keep this team afloat. But for a third straight postseason berth, another try for autumnal glory, this offense will need to get well, the sooner the better. As far as this glass being half full or half empty, it's a matter of outlook, of choice, the result of being not only a Cubs fan, but an American. Still, you'll get a better measurement around Labor Day, as opposed to in the neighborhood of Memorial Day.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.