07/17/07 10:45 AM ET
Inside Pitch: Here come the Cubbies
Chicago heats up after early-season adjustment period
By Jim Molony / MLB.com
Could it be? It might be! It is!
OK, so it's too early to say whether this run the Cubs are on will prove to be the home run that carries Chicago to the playoffs, but it is clear the Cubs are the hottest team in baseball and a legitimate contender for the National League Central Division crown.
The Cubs, who have won 16 of their last 20 games, are 26-12 (.684) since June 3, the best record in the Major Leagues during that span. Their 48-43 record is a 12-game improvement from where the Cubs were after 90 games last season.
The Cubs are in second place, 3 1/2 games behind Milwaukee. This time a year ago they were in fifth place, 16 games out of first place.
This is a team that was nine games under .500 as recently as June 2.
"We wanted to get out of the gate quick, but it didn't work out that way," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "When you have as many changes as we did, there's going to be an adjustment period. We've been through ours and now we're starting to play like we thought we would coming out of Spring Training. The chemistry is definitely there now."
After bringing in Lou Piniella to manage the team and making several major roster changes, like bringing in outfielder Alfonso Soriano and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, the Cubs figured to be better, but a poor start to the season cooled the playoff talk.
"In the beginning, things weren't going so well, but we knew we were better than we were playing," Soriano said. "We need to keep playing like we have been these last few weeks, and I think we can."
The offense, led by Lee, Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, has started to click, but it has been more than just the big three leading this charge. Scrappy Ryan Theriot and Mark DeRosa have provided the kind of spark this team lacked last year. The Cubs added a veteran catcher with the acquistion of Jason Kendall from Oakland on Monday night.
The team ERA of 3.89 is the fourth best in the NL and sixth best in the Major Leagues. Among the 30 Major League teams, only the Dodgers (717) have recorded more strikeouts than the Cubs staff (691), and no team has given up fewer hits (739). Cubs relievers have stranded 108 of 133 inherited baserunners, an 81.2-percent success rate that leads the Major Leagues.
Like most teams, especially in the NL Central, the Cubs have areas that could use strengthening, but for now they are a team on a roll -- one they could ride well into October.
Pearls from the diamond ...
Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol has been sensational this season, with an ERA (0.88) that is the fourth best in baseball among relievers. "He's always had a great arm, but he's using his offspeed stuff much more aggressively this year instead of just relying on his fastball," one scout said.
The Rangers are willing to trade Sammy Sosa, but so far interest has been tepid. Sosa, hitting .246 with 14 homers and 63 RBIs through Monday, is probably best suited as a designated hitter, which might limit interest in Sosa from National League contenders, but teams looking for a right-handed bat with power might take a flyer on him. Sosa has been a changed man this year with Texas, willing to DH or be the fourth outfielder. Some of the negatives that followed him from his Cubs days have not been in evidence this season.
White Sox right-hander Jose Contreras is drawing attention from several teams, including the Dodgers, Braves, Phillies and Indians. Contreras is signed through 2009 and is due $10 million each of the next two years. Chicago GM Kenny Williams did not make the trip to Cleveland this week, though he was previously scheduled to attend the series. It is uncertain whether his change of plans has anything to do with a possible roster move.
White Sox slugger Jermaine Dye is being scouted by several contenders, though it is uncertain whether the White Sox will deal the right fielder or try to re-sign him. The White Sox are looking for Major League-ready pitching, a shortstop and possibly a catcher. The Brewers have had scouts checking out some of the White Sox relievers.
Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu was hitting .228 on June 1 but has really come on strong during the last six weeks, hitting .290 in June and .415 the first two weeks of July. "He's spraying the ball to all fields again," an American League scout said. "He wasn't doing that earlier this year, but he's found his stroke."
The Orioles are willing to listen to offers for several veterans, including Jay Payton, Kevin Millar, Daniel Cabrera and Steve Trachsel. There's also a chance the Orioles might be willing to part with catcher Ramon Hernandez if the price is right.
The Devil Rays will listen to offers for left-hander Casey Fossum and infielders Ty Wigginton and Greg Norton, but the Rays have told teams calling about Delmon Young, Carl Crawford, James Shields, Scott Kazmir, B.J. Upton or Andy Sonnanstine to forget about it. On the other hand, Jorge Cantu and Elijah Dukes are available.
Contrary to some reports, the Astros are not shopping Brad Lidge, and the right-hander hasn't requested a trade.
The best starting pitcher available in this midsummer market might be Matt Morris. The Giants aren't actively shopping the right-hander, but considering they are in last place and Morris will be turning 33 years old next month, he may not fit in rebuilding plans. Morris, who is tied for the Major League lead with three complete games, is making $9.5 million this year and is due $9.5 million next year and $9 million (or a $1 million buyout) in 2009. Morris is 7-5 with a 3.86 ERA.
Other veteran Giants who could be moving on include Steve Kline, Ryan Klesko, Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, Pedro Feliz, Omar Vizquel and Randy Winn. The only untouchables on the roster are right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and lefty Jonathan Sanchez. Catcher Bengie Molina and left-hander Barry Zito aren't going anywhere.
The Braves, Angels, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Orioles are among the teams interested in Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Rangers would want young Major League-ready pitching for Teixeira, which might make the Tigers the team that could best meet the Rangers' price for him (i.e., Andrew Miller). That seems highly unlikely at this point.
The first-place Red Sox aren't likely to deal him before the deadline, but four-time All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell can be a free agent at season's end and hasn't received an extension yet. If he does go on the market, the 33-year-old could be one of the top free-agent third basemen next winter.
The Yankees, Angels, Braves and Tigers have scouted Adam Dunn recently, although nothing appears to be imminent on that front.
The Red Sox continue to scour the country for insurance purposes, despite their large lead in the AL East, in case some of their injured regulars are sidelined further. The Red Sox have battled numerous injuries which may or may not impact the race or playoffs, and by adding depth now the Red Sox would be better positioned to handle more injury setbacks.
Right fielder J.D. Drew has a hamstring strain, designated hitter David Ortiz is playing despite a meniscus tear, catcher Jason Varitek has a sore thumb, first baseman Kevin Youkilis has a strained quad and Curt Schilling is on the disabled list.
According to an official with another team, the Cubs are gauging interest in shortstop Cesar Izturis. The Cubs are happy with Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot and have Ronny Cedeno at Triple-A, so moving Izturis wouldn't be a shocker.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.