Going into tonight’s game in Houston against the Astros, the Chicago Cubs are only two games about the .500 mark thanks to a 3-2 road trip. While the Cubs are still looking as though they are struggling to put together anything close to the season that was expected of them, there is still room for optimism on the horizon. Not only are the Cubs starting to get healthy with players coming back this week, but the schedule is going into what could be considered to be a easy stretch of games. With the upcoming schedule, the Cubs could get very healthy and bring their record well above the .500 mark.
At some point during this week, the Cubs could welcome back up to three of their five injured players. Right handed pitcher Rich Harden is tentatively scheduled to start Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers, and Aaron Miles and Ryan Freel are also eligible to rejoin the Cubs 25 man roster at some point this week. These three returning players will be playing key roles in improving the overall quality of the ball club. With Harden returning to his role in the starting rotation, Sean Marshall will resume his role in the bullpen as the second lefty and long relief pitcher. This instantly improves the bullpen, as we will rid ourselves of the Rule 5 Draft Pick David Patton, who according to the rules must be offered back to the Colorado Rockies. Randy Wells has pitched well enough to win the fifth starter job away from Marshall, who hasn’t been bad at all in his chances. When Miles and Freel return to the ball club, adding to the overall depth of the bench, we will have more options to play at third base over Mike Fontenot. In his time at third base, Fontenot has butchered several balls, and cost us at least one game. In his defense, Fontenot is not a third baseman and was thrust into a position that he has had just about no experience playing in a big league game. While neither Miles or Freel is likely to give us much in terms of offense, at least they can do a better job holding down the fort at third.
With their returns, however, two position players will need to be sent out. The likely candidates are Bobby Scales, Andres Blanco and Jake Fox. All three have done a decent job in their time with the club, but none of them have done enough to warrant staying on the big league club in place of Miles or Freel. Filling in at second base, with Fontenot at third, Blanco has made some great defensive plays, but has yet to show us the offensive numbers we saw in Triple A. While his story is a great one, Bobby Scales is also a target to be sent back to the minors because of his lack of offense. He can play a few positions, which may be his wild card to stay with the team until Ramirez returns. That leaves Fox, who I feel will be one of the two men sent back to Iowa. Unfortunately, when you are a defensive liability, you will get over looked more often then not when tough roster decisions need to be made. While we could use his bat off the bench, we already have a power bat on the bench in Micah Hoffpauir, who like Fox, is a man without a position. He may be kept on the roster though, because he is a right handed bat off the bench with some power. The question becomes would you rather have two pinch hitters, or another position player which would allow Cubs Manager Lou Piniella more options. Personally, I think we need to send Fox down along with either Scales or Blanco.
Another reason Cub fans can be optimistic, is the schedule is starting to ease up; at least for the time being. Counting tonight, the next 12 games for the Cubs are against teams with a record below the .500 mark. The Astros start off the stretch, and are followed by the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. After a game against the Atlanta Braves, who sit at the .500 mark, the Cubs play three games against the American League Central leading Tigers. After those four games, the Cubs get back to their stretch of sub .500 with six more against the Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. While we have the chance to fatten up our record against these mediocre teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds face similar competition during this stretch. There wont be much ground made up in the division, but at least the Cubs have the chance bring their record back to respectability.
Between now and the All Star break, the Cubs play 33 games in 34 days. The long stretch of games include a making a stop in Atlanta in between our series in Cleveland and Detroit, as well as a double header against the visiting Cardinals right before the break begins. With two off days, this stretch of games will really test the ball club. Thankfully, those Cubs who do not play in the All Star game, will have a three day rest before the season picks up again. If the Cubs are able to survive until then, they should be in pretty good shape.