These past few days since Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez went down with an injury, I have heard a lot of gloom and doom from a good portion of their fans. Granted, when your best hitter gets put on the shelf with an injury for up to two months, your team will be in trouble. However, I honestly believe that there is plenty of reason for optimism, despite the apparent bleak outlook. Before you ask, no I am not speaking as a typical Cub fan who always believes that this is the year. I am looking at the team as a baseball fan in general.
First, look at the record that the Cubs have put up without Ramirez in the lineup. In the four games that he has missed (I am counting the game he left with an injury because he left in the third inning), the Cubs are 2-2. I know that playing at a .500 clip is nothing special, but when you are without your best everyday player you will take what you can get. Please also take note, that in those four games we only had Derrek Lee playing in one of them. During that four game stretch, the Cubs played a team which is going to be in the race for the division crown in the Milwaukee Brewers.
Since Ramirez will be out for the next two months, let’s take a look at who exactly the Cubs will be facing, and just how good their opponents will be in that stretch. Over the next two months, and up to the All Star break, the Cubs will be playing 18 series and 55 games, counting the current series with the San Diego Padres. In those 18 series, the Cubs will be playing 12 different teams, seven of which are under the .500 mark. The combined current record of those 12 teams is exactly at the .500 mark (198-198). Don’t forget that the Cubs will also be playing the Los Angeles Dodgers without Manny Ramirez, who was suspended for failing a drug test.
Since the division games matter the most, let’s focus in on those. In the span of time that Ramirez will be out, the Cubs will play all five division rivals in eight different series, counting for 25 games. The record for our division opponent’s record stands at 85-78, which shows that our inner division games will pose the bigger threat. Also take note that the St. Louis Cardinals have put Ryan Ludwick on the 15-Day disabled list. While he is no Albert Pujols, he has been a beast in the games he has played against the Cubs.
What I am trying to say here is that while losing Ramirez for two months is going to test this team, and push them to the limits, there is no reason why we cannot win enough games to keep the race close. After all the Cubs are only 1.5 games out of first place, and that’s not bad considering everything this club has gone through in the first month and a half. Have faith my friends, you have plenty of reasons to remain optimistic that the Ramirez injury is not the end of the season.
For those curious of the teams we are facing until the All Star break, I have put the teams we are facing, along with their record and the number of times we will face them below.
5- San Diego Padres 13-20
6- Houston Astros 14-18
6- St. Louis Cardinals 20-13
6- Pittsburgh Pirates 13-19
4- Los Angeles Dodgers 22-12
6- Atlanta Braves 17-17
3- Cincinnati Reds 19-14
3- Minnesota Twins 16-17
6- Chicago White Sox 15-18
3- Cleveland Indians 13-22
3- Detroit Tigers 17-14
4- Milwaukee Brewers 19-14
Three days ago when Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez injured his shoulder, Cub fans everywhere started to panic; which they did for good reason. With his injury, Ramirez will miss up to eight weeks and the Cubs do not have a viable replacement for him. While the loss of Ramirez is a devastating blow, the Cubs are not as bad off as they appear to be. Look at everything the Cubs have had to endure so far this season, and look at where they are in the standings. I think that you might come to realize that our boys in blue are doing fine, despite the looks of everything.
Take a look back at the 31 games the Cubs have played, how many games have we had Derrek Lee, Milton Bradley, and Ramirez? While I do not have an exact number, I am sure that you can count all the games on one hand. Also take into account that Geovany Soto has gotten off to a severally slow start and is battling with a sore shoulder, and Carlos Marmol has been inconsistent with an injured knee. The Cubs also lost their best pitcher in Carlos Zambrano, who already missed the first of at least three starts. The Cubs have suffered through a tremendous amount of injuries early on, and the Cubs are still only one win off the pace they set last year. They may not be getting a lot of pretty wins, but they are getting wins none the less. After all, isn’t that what counts? Just win games, and get to the playoffs. No one will remember how you got their once you do get there.
The road to getting there might be harder then we all imagined, but we are still doing a good job. While we are not running away with the division like so many people thought, we are not being left for dead either. Currently the Cubs are in third place, only two and a half games behind the St. Louis Cardinals who are starting to come back down to earth. While you never want to be trailing in the division, especially to the hated St. Louis Cardinals, we are still a good three game stretch away from being in first place. Even with the injuries, we are hanging tough and not giving up. Sure there are road blocks along the way, but every team has them.
One major roadblock the Cubs are facing is having what may very well be the worst bullpen in the majors. Aaron Heilman has completely fallen off the face of the planet and is pitching like he did during his time in New York with the Mets. In fact, you could easily say that he is pitching worse. Neal Cotts is still struggling badly, and has yet to put together any consistency that would give Cub fans any hope that he can rebound. David Patton is, well, who he is; just an A ball player with very limited experience. While he can put forth a good two inning outing one game, he can also go out and get lit up like a Christmas tree. Marmol has been struggling in recent games as well, but appears to be coming out of his funk. While he is still walking too many people, he is getting out of the ugly jams that he seems to put himself into. Kevin Gregg still is one of the most hated men in the bullpen, likely because he replaced Kerry Wood on the roster. However, he is getting the job done. He may look bad doing things, but he is doing the job. A surprise in the bullpen is Angel Guzman, who appears to finally be figuring things out. He has had some very quality outings as of late, and may very well be the seventh inning guy Cubs Manager Lou Piniella has been looking for. Add into the fact that the Cubs added Jose AsCanio to the roster to replace the walking arm injury Chad Fox. He has been one of the best pitchers in the Cubs farm system this year, and the hope is that he will continue his dominance at the pro-level.
However, you also need to look at one of the bright sides going on for the Cubs. Bradley seems to be coming out of his season opening slump, and is starting to look very good. While he only has a .179 batting average, he is getting on base at a .321 clip. I don’t care what you say about him, a batting average that low, with an on base that high is very impressive. That is not what I am talking about though in terms of him looking good. Over the course of the five game road trip, Bradley has six hits in 20 at bats, for a .300 average. He is also going to work the count more often then not, and rarely swings at a bad pitch. You may not like him, but you are going to have to support him, because with Ramirez out, with Lee coming off an injury, Bradley will have to be one of the guys to help carry the team. Alfonso Soriano, who seems to be getting on one of his hot streaks lately as well is another man who is going to be leaned on hard to help carry a team. When Soriano gets hot, he can single handedly carry a team for at least a week, as can Bradley. Soto is another man who needs to stop up his game while Ramirez is out. While the loss of Ramirez is the most costly loss the Cubs could endure, the Cubs have enough fire power to at least keep their head above water and keep the race close.
The road for the Cubs will be a bumpy one, but one that I honestly they will be able to survive. They may not look good getting the wins, but they will come.
One negative, would be the piling up of the injuries with the Cubs lineup. Catcher Geovany Soto, right fielder Milton Bradley and third baseman Aramis Ramierez all missed both games of the opening series with various nagging injuries, which vary in severity. Sure, Soto got behind the plate today, but I do not believe that his shoulder woes are over, at least not yet. Cubs Manager Lou Piniella has stated that Soto will be given at least a game off this weekend, which could be viewed as normal rest for your catcher. Whether or not his shoulder is fully healed, publicly we will never know unless he takes himself out of a game again. With him just coming back from his injury, you wouldn’t expect his bat to come back right away, but his .100 batting average is something to keep an eye on. Just hope he is not going through one of those “Sophomore Slumps” that we hear about.
Ramierez missed these past two games due to issues with his back stiffening up, which has been an injury which he has dealt with in previous years. While Piniella said that he was available to pinch hit if needed on Wednesday, he never did make an appearance. Having his bat out of the lineup hurts our offense, but all signs point to him being back on Thursday for the first of a four game series with the hated St. Louis Cardinals. While Mike Fontenot has done a pretty good job defensively at third base in his absences, I would still rather have Ramierez at the hot corner.
The injury to Bradley, which we should have all known was coming, kept him out of both games and will likely keep him out of the first couple of games against the Cardinals. The groin muscle is a very tricky injury to figure out when you are safe to return to game action. You have to be very careful when returning with this injury, because if you come back too soon a tweak can turn into a pull, or even worse… a tear. So with Bradley having an injured groin, the Cubs are better suited to sit him an extra day or two just to be on the safe side. I would hate to see him come back in Thursdays game, only to severely re-injure himself landing on the Disabled List for a few more weeks. Even though he only has one hit (which just so happens to be a homerun) in17 tries, his bat is missed in the lineup, especially the way he works the count and draws walks.
Our offense is another worry, as they just have not seemed to click on all cylinders. This may be in part to Derrek Lee’s, and Bradley’s very slow starts. When your three and four hitters are not hitting the way you expect them too, your offense will not soar as expected. Through in the fact that our slugging catcher Soto has been out for a week, that didn’t do our offense any favors either. On the bright side, players are coming back from injury, and are starting to play better.
First and foremost, Lee has seemingly snapped out of a long stretch of bad baseball. In case you didn’t notice, he had a few multi hit games in this series, getting five hits in seven at bats. Perhaps his bat is waking up like some of us thought. One thing to consider, is perhaps his being shifted to the four spot in the line up may have had something to do with his awakening. Now I don’t think that he can stay in the four spot, at least not if Cubs Manager Lou Piniella wants to keep his bats alternating right and left all the way down. So perhaps when Ramierez gets back from his injury stint, Piniella will move Lee down to the five hole and let him take over batting third. Imagine the possibility, Ramierez will have Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome in front of him to drive in, that would be a great boost for our offense.
Speaking of Fukudome, he continues to play well. He is looking like he did at the beginning of last season, which I believe is great news. I know what you are saying though. You are probably thinking “Who cares what he looks like now, he did this last year. He is going to fade again.” While that is true, he was hot at the start of last season, and faded into the oblivion as the season went on. As the pitchers got more tape on him, they figured him out. They started pitching to his weakness, which he was unable to adapt to. They had figured out Fukudome, which was making him utterly useless to us down the stretch because he could not readjust. This season though, I look at his early success with more enthusiasm for those same reasons. They did not forget how to pitch to him, they are still doing what the scouting report tells them to do. I honestly believe that he has figured something out, and has made the proper adjustments. I think that he has finally figured out how to play baseball in the United States. He is showing great patience again, which can be seen by his drawing walks. He is driving the ball, and getting good hits and getting on base. Fukudome has seemingly out things together, and I am putting more stock into this seasons early success then I did in last seasons.
Soriano is scorching hot at the plate right now. Leading off ball games he now has five hits out of his eight at bats leading off a ballgame. In case you aren’t keeping tract, never fear, I am. He has two lead off homeruns, and three singles to go with two strike outs and a pop out. I know that he has his detractors out there, those who say that he should not be hitting leadoff. You want him batting in the middle of the order where he will have more RBI chances. I can fully understand that, but when you can start off the game with a 1-0 lead, what can you complain about? Think of this as well, go back to Saturday night in Milwaukee. If he was not in the leadoff slot, we don’t win that game. He hit the go ahead home run which won the game. Do you honestly think Ryan Theriot would have done that?
In their first starts of the season, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden went completely different directions. Lilly returned to his roots getting bombed for four homeruns, while Harden cruised striking out 10 batters in just six innings. While you can argue that Lilly was just throwing strikes working to contact because of the big lead, you don’t like to see your starting pitcher give up that many bombs. Some even wrote it off to his not getting much work in Spring Training and continuing to work off some rust. In their second outings, they once again traveled in different directions. Lilly took a no hitting into the seventh, but with two outs gave up a hit and then walked the next batter before being pulled for the bullpen, who kept the game as a one hitter. Harden on the other hand, was shelled, allowing four runs while striking out eight in just three innings of work. The bullpen stepped in for the final six innings.
Since we are on the subject, I would like to conclude with thoughts on our bullpen. Over the past three games, our bullpen has looked a lot better then they did, which wouldn’t be too hard to do. In the last 11 and 1/3 innings pitched by the bullpen they have allowed just two runs while giving up six hits and six walks. While they are still not great numbers out of the bullpen when it comes to hits and walks, the runs allowed is great to see. Sure there will be some rollercoaster rides along the way, but there are a few pitchers in that bullpen that I am really starting to like. Carlos Marmol, Aaron Heilman and David Patton have all earned my respect and I like what they can do for us. The other four though: Luis Vizcaino, Angel Guzman, Neal Cotts and Kevin Gregg all have a lot to prove to me though. Even though Vizcaino has looked fairly decent in his limited opportunities, but he isn’t screaming confidence at the moment, despite his perfect ERA.
That about sums things up for my thoughts after the Cubs Home Opening series with the Rockies. Thoughts, ideas, concerns are always welcomed.
In 2003, Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry picked up the young slugging Ramierez in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, only giving up second baseman Bobby Hill. In a move where Hendry should have been wearing a ski mask and carrying a weapon, he solidified a position which has seen close to one hundred players try to fill since Santo was traded from the club in the 70s. In his time in Chicago, Ramierez has become one of the best third baseman in the National League, if not all of baseball. While his defense was among the leagues worst early in his career, he has taken several steps to correct flaws in his fielding, and has improved greatly. Granted, he will likely never win a gold glove, which is isn’t always based solely on defensive numbers, but that wont be due to lack of effort.
While he has been labeled as a player who will dog it now and then earlier in his career, giving a less then full effort, he still puts up top notch statistics. Many people believe that hiring Lou Piniella as the Cubs manager might have been the greatest thing for Ramierez. Since Piniella got here, there hasn’t been much if any talk of him dogging it during a game. Even with the talk of Ramierez supposedly lollygagging during games, he is one of the most clutch players on the Cubs, and he is always coming up with a key base hit driving in a much needed run. I nicknamed him Shark, because he smells the RBI on the bases much like a shark can smell blood in the water. With his improving defense, and seemingly overpowering offense, he has earned a spot in Cub fans hearts which could last a lot longer then people realize.
Ramierez has recently stated that he would love to finish his career with the Cubs. If he follows through with his words, Ramierez could possibly retire as one of the greatest third baseman, if not players, to ever wear a Cubs uniform. As things currently stand, Ramierez is ranked 11th on the home runs list, as he has hit 173 bombs as a Cub, which is only one behind Dawson. If he puts up his usual 30 home runs, he will end the 2009 season ranked 7th or 8th overall around Bill Nicholson and his 205 Cubs homeruns. For those who are interested, Santo hit out 337 as a Cub.
This year, Ramierez could have one of his best years ever, especially with the Cubs adding another power bat to an already strong lineup in Milton Bradley. Last year, players and coaches alike said that Bradley was the toughest person to get out in the American League. If that continues to be the case, and he proves that he will continue to be a tough out , Ramierez will have more chances to drive runners in as Bradley is slated to his 4th in between Derrek Lee and Ramierez who will be moved back to the 5 hole. No matter where he hits in the lineup though, Ramierez will be a threat to deliver a crushing blow to any opposing team.