Cubs can contend, but can’t top Cards

Voodooed postseasons notwithstanding, the Chicago Cubs have offered their fans some pleasant summer memories over the past century or so.

Take 2007, for instance. The Cubs were 8 1/2 games back in late June, with a losing record, before rallying to win the division. That was Lou Piniella’s first season at Addison and Clark, and all seemed possible.

It’s not often that the Cubs can point to history as a reason for optimism. This is one such case. If it happened four years ago — despite Michael Barrett and Carlos Zambrano scuffling in the dugout — then why not now?

Sure, Cubs fans can hope. That is what they do, for better or worse.

But this isn’t The Year.

The Cubs have talented, likable players. As a group, though, they are not inspiring. Nor do they have a better overall roster than the St. Louis Cardinals, despite an 11-4 triumph over their archrival Wednesday night.

They have a chance to contend in the National League Central because, in this division, a decent lineup and capable pitchers will do that for you. They could finish better than .500.

That’s about where it ends.

Teams that rank near the bottom of the league in the game’s essential skills — namely, scoring and preventing runs — tend not to win titles. Right now the Cubs are one of those teams.

When play began Wednesday, the Cubs ranked 13th among the 16 National League teams in runs scored and 14th in fewest runs allowed. If that makes them sound like a fourth-place club, it’s because that is what they are — one game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This is not a bad team. But it is a confusing one. Prior to Wednesday’s game, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry pointed out that his team has the league’s second-highest overall batting average but the second-lowest average with runners in scoring position.

Huh?

“That means the lineup’s doing a pretty good job of getting on,” Hendry said. “We’re just not getting them in. Let’s hope it gets contagious the other way.”

It was that way Wednesday. Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook lost his command after a 53-minute rain delay, and the Cubs responded with a six-run third inning. They went 7 for 13 with runners in scoring position. They rapped five extra-base hits. They looked terrific. But blowouts can deceive.

I still wonder who will drive in runs when it matters most. Aramis Ramirez used to be that guy. He finished with 100 RBI or more six times from 2001 through 2008. Very quietly, he was one of the best clutch hitters in baseball for the better part of the past decade.

But because of injuries and a steady decline in power, he averaged 74 RBI during the past two seasons. This year he’s again on track for 70. As a cleanup hitter, that’s simply not enough.

(By the way, this is why the Cubs need Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder next year. Let’s agree to revisit that subject in November, OK?)

Ramirez’s drop in production would be less of an issue if the Cubs had a true slugger in the No. 3 spot. But they don’t. As of Wednesday morning, their No. 3 hitters ranked next to last in the majors with a .576 OPS. Yes. Next to last.

Marlon Byrd has been the Cubs’ primary third hitter, with a brief (unsuccessful) interlude by the brilliant and frustrating Starlin Castro. He batted seventh and sixth during the past two games, suggesting the Cubs won’t rush to put the 21-year-old back into a role that demands steady run production. More than anything, the Cubs want Castro to swing at strikes. First things first, you know.

“If his (plate) discipline’s good, he’s going to be good,” Manager Mike Quade said. “He’s good in the zone. He’s really good in the zone. So, let’s get pitches in the zone. His approach will tell me when he’s ready to be consistent again.”

In other words, Byrd is the answer for now. But when asked about Byrd on Wednesday, Hendry said, “He’s not really a power hitter. He’s a good player. I don’t look at him that he’s got to hit for power. He’s been fine since the day we signed him.”

In other words, the GM apparently knows that Byrd averaged 13 home runs and 70 RBI over the past four seasons. Oh, and right now Alfonso Soriano is one of the highest-paid No. 7 hitters in history.

The Cubs’ best hope is that Carlos Peña turns into a middle-of-the-order monster. He did it with Tampa Bay, reaching the 100-RBI mark in ’07, ’08 and ’09. He had a two-hit, two-RBI game Wednesday. Still, I wonder whether there is a reason the Cubs have not attempted to use him in the No. 3 or No. 4 spot.

I know it’s early. I know it’s been cold. But it’s been early and cold for the Cardinals, too, and their 3-4-5 has been devastating — even if Pujols doesn’t look like Pujols quite yet. The Cubs’ rotation will pitch better than it has, yet we can’t say that it will give them any discernible advantage over the Cardinals, Reds or Brewers. They’re all about the same.

It should be noted that Quade’s positivity has been, and will be, an excellent influence on this team. He has talked with his players about the importance of maintaining their usual approach at the plate in RBI situations. He doesn’t want failures with men in scoring position to affect their defensive play, as it may have in Tuesday’s loss. Hitters are taking extra batting practice, trying to swing their way out of it, a sign that they are responding well to a first-year manager.

“The video room is like a bakery on Sunday,” the manager said. “This group works.”

Yet it will take much more than effort for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. As a fan of the game and owner of a sympathetic heart, I hope that it happens someday. But it won’t be in 2011.

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