Cliff Floyd has come back from bereavement swinging a hot bat. Daryle Ward is healthy again, and proving to be a very hard out. And Jim Hendry performed some late-season general managing magic by procuring Craig Monroe, a powerful right-handed bat with pretty good defensive tools, to spell the popular slugger. Monroe hit five dingers in 50 postseason at-bats in 2006. Hopefully, he will murder left-handed pitching. While all of these are great developments for the Cubs as they face the home stretch, their fate lies squarely in the hands of fifteen key players. They don't have a Yankee-sized lineup or a Red Sox rotation, but in the NL Central, they have enough. If these four quartets gel, they could go deep into the postseason.
The Tenors: Jacque Jones - CF, Derrek Lee - 1B, Aramis Ramirez - 3B, Alfonso Soriano - LF
The Cubs middle-of-the-order sluggers averaged 30 HR apiece last year, even though Derrek Lee missed most of the season with a broken wrist. In 2005, they averaged 34 HR apiece. So far this season, none of them has hit more than 18 and with only 4 from Jones, they are on pace to average only 17 apiece. All of them have spent time on the DL in 2007. But regardless of lost time, there can't be any disputing that it is a troubling power outage. Nonetheless, the Cubs have remained in the pennant chase in the thoroughly mediocre NL Central. If these four get healthy and hot in the season's final month, they could catch a lot of teams by surprise. Jones seems to have already figured out what was ailing him during his awful first half. Since July 1, Jones is hitting .362 with a 962 OPS. (Literally, as I write this, Jones bashes a two-run blast into the wind to put the Cubs ahead of the Cardinals 2-1.) Lee found his power stroke in the second half. He's hit seven of his thirteen homers since the All-Star Break. However, his average has only been .260, thanks primarily to a .174 stretch during his last dozen games. Pitchers have been pounding the outside corner and for some reason D-Lee has been reluctant to go the other way. Lee is not likely to suffer a prolonged slump, but he and Ramirez need to be productive until Soriano returns in September. This quartet is not Jeter, Abreu, A-Rod, and Matsui. It isn't Granderson, Sheffield, Magglio, and Guillen. It isn't Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Delgado. But it is the best foursome in competition for the NL Central title. The Brewers have Braun and Fielder. The Cardinals have Pujols and Rolen. But, neither team can string together four hitters as intimidating as the Cubs quartet. They need one good month.
Scrappy Strings: Ryan Theriot - SS, Mike Fontenot - 2B, Mark DeRosa - UT, Jason Kendall - C
This crew of sub-six-foot crackers has done as much to keep the Cubs afloat as the underperforming powerhouses above. Theriot is batting .321 with 15 runs in 18 games since Soriano went on the disabled list. Kendall is batting .304 with an 810 OPS since joining Chicago in mid-July. DeRosa is batting over .300 in each of the last three months and .386 on the season with two outs and runners in scoring position. He has provided all this offense while playing 10 games or more at four different positions. Fontenot hasn't found as many at-bats in the last month, but is still hitting .320 with men on base and has an 891 OPS at Wrigley Field, the "friendly confines" which has not been so friendly for many of the Cubs this season. This quartet is more than just spare parts. They keep innings alive. They play critical defensive positions. And they get better in the later innings of close games.
The Barbershop: Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Bobby Howry, Kerry Wood
The back end of the Cubs bullpen averages more than a strikeout per inning, led by the dynamic Carlos Marmol and his microscopic 1.58 ERA. All of these guys can bring it, quite clearly. The key down the stretch will be keeping Wood and Dempster healthy and not overusing the young Marmol. This is a bullpen that can shorten the game, but it improves considerably if Lou Pinella can come to trust Scott Eyre, Micheal Wuertz, Will Ohman, or Sean Gallagher in the middle innings of games which are still on the line.
Big Z & Trio: Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Sean Marshall
You can't argue with the year Ted Lilly is having. However, Cubs fans should keep in mind that he was signed to fill the role of third or fourth starter, not #2. In his four full seasons, Lilly has never had an ERA under 4.06, a WHIP under 1.32, or more than 15 W. Generally, he hovers right around the league average for full-time starters. This year he has 13 W, a 3.85 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP in 27 starts. A mediocre September could have him finishing with numbers right in line with his career norms. I wouldn't bet against it. Like I said, Lilly at #3 is fine. Which means Rich Hill needs to step up and be what he was expected to be after his dynamite second half in 2006 (6-3, 2.92 ERA), a left-handed complement to the dominant Zambrano. Hill's only picked up two wins since the All-Star break in 2007, but there is room for encouragement. His ERA is 3.40 in his last 8 starts, including a seven inning, ten strikeout performance in his last outing. Marshall also needs to pick it up, seeing as it's about time Pinella took a page out of his good friend Tony LaRussa's book and left Jason Marquis out of the postseason rotation.