Piniella can’t work miracles with flawed Cubs

Lou Piniella is 66 years old. His contract to manage the Chicago Cubs will expire at the end of this season. We don’t know what the wishes of new owner Tom Ricketts, or general manager Jim Hendry, or Piniella himself will be after that.

The other day in Pittsburgh, I asked Piniella which factors will determine whether he wants to manage in 2011.

“I haven’t thought about those things,” he said. “I really haven’t.”

Well, if the performance of this year’s team is the foremost consideration . . . I’m guessing Lou will enjoy his retirement.

This team has issues. The manager isn’t one of them.

The Cubs are annually exasperating, but the ’10 edition might lead the league in fan consternation. Just consider what has happened over the past week.

On Sunday, the Cubs finished off a tidy series win over Arizona. They took three of four at Wrigley Field. Alfonso Soriano homered twice and heard cheers at home. Tom Gorzelanny struck out 10. A good day.

Then this: The Cubs took a day off, traveled to Pittsburgh and were summarily swept by the Pirates, they of the 17 consecutive losing seasons.

The last loss was the worst. Randy Wells, reliable for much of the season, was shelled for six earned runs in two innings. Chicago was embarrassed, 11-1.

Now check the National League Central standings: The Cubs are in third place at 14-16. Just a half-game ahead of the Pirates.

How would you like to manage these guys?

There is no way that a team this talented should perform so inconsistently. After all, the Cubs are scoring runs at a better clip than they did last year. Their pitching has been OK — not great, not awful. The defense has been all right, too.

But this team has one mammoth, multilayered flaw: Its best players aren’t doing much.

  • Aramis Ramirez is batting a dismal .153, which prompted Piniella to drop him to the No. 6 spot on Wednesday. “He’s not catching up to stuff like he used to,” one scout said.
  • Derrek Lee isn’t hitting much better than Ramirez — just .227 after Friday’s 2-for-4. He has four RBIs and zero home runs over his past 11 games.
  • Ted Lilly doesn’t look like his old self yet, after being slowed by injuries this spring. After three starts, he is 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA. Not a good sign, for perhaps the Cubs’ most reliable starter in recent years.

As for Big Z? Carlos Zambrano seems to be doing quite well in the bullpen, even if his paycheck is a little above the normal pay grade for setup men.

Zambrano is riding a streak of three scoreless outings. But he needs to get more work. That would happen if the Cubs had more late-inning leads.

The move of Zambrano to the bullpen was innovative — and correct. The bullpen hasn’t lost a game since Piniella made the move last month.

So, Lou hasn’t lost his touch. He’s been fine.

But Cubs fans are learning a very difficult lesson: Their problems weren’t solved when Hendry traded the troubled Milton Bradley during the off-season. Last year’s woes went beyond one mercurial right fielder.

Meantime, it would be foolish to expect star shortstop prospect Starlin Castro to immediately transform the team — even with the record-setting six RBIs in his debut Friday night. Sure, Castro can help the offense. But his impact will be marginal if Lee and Ramirez can’t drive him in.

Piniella has what he has. He has tweaked the lineup when necessary. He made the tough (but right) call to put Zambrano in the bullpen.

This hasn’t been an easy season. That’s not about to change. Piniella surely knows that. Maybe that’s why he’s not saying anything about 2011.