Notebook: Cubs strong up the middle

It’s difficult to like the 2011 Cubs when the early ERAs of right-handers Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza all are above 6.00.

Still, with the emergences of Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, the Cubs seemingly are on the verge of solving their respective leadoff and second base problems.

One of these centuries, considering the depth of young talent in the organization, the Cubs might even win their first World Series since 1908.

Castro, 21, would be the runner-up to fellow shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, if the MVP balloting were conducted today, and likely will be a factor in the voting for years to come.

Barney, 25, is less talented but a terrific defender and winning player. He led Oregon State to back-to-back College World Series titles before the Cubs made him their fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft.

Manager Mike Quade has batted Castro and Barney 1-2 for six straight games. Barney, for now, is holding off Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt for the starting job at second.

“He’s a thinking-man’s player. Great instincts,” Quade says of Barney. “You talk about keeping it simple. How’s this for a simple concept? The guy loves to play baseball.

“We have a lot of guys who like to play. This guy loves to play. You know the old expression, ‘He’d play for free.’ In his case, no doubt in my mind, it’s true.”

Castro, meanwhile, continues to impress with his intelligence and maturity, not to mention his .418/.443/.582 batting line. He isn’t a classic leadoff hitter, not with three walks in 70 plate appearances. But as Quade says, “Who can argue? He just has a knack for putting the ball in play.”

What, then, is his best spot in the order long term?

“I duck that one better than a politician,” Quade says, laughing. “I don’t want to do comparisons. He’s loaded with talent. He loves to play. And he has so many intangibles.

“Maybe ‘sky’s the limit’ is too strong. But I’m not sure it is. He can be a major force in this league for a while if he keeps his head screwed on straight.”

Rockies’ Tracy on a roll

Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd offers strong praise for manager Jim Tracy, saying the Rockies are playing a more aggressive, wide-open style, similar to the one Tracy employed after taking over in 2009.

Tracy, dealing with a less athletic roster, was more conservative last season. But O’Dowd says the Rockies’ “whole focus” in spring training was to dictate their style rather than allowing opponents to dictate it to them.

The team’s spring-training move from Tucson to Scottsdale, Ariz., actually helped the Rockies in their preparation, O’Dowd says. The reduced travel enabled regulars to get more at-bats. Tracy and his staff spent more time teaching — and the theater at the Salt River Fields proved a useful tool in that regard.

O’Dowd says Tracy also deserves credit for moving Carlos Gonzalez to left field rather than right, a move that made sense given the dimensions of Coors Field. Gonzalez and center fielder Dexter Fowler are terrific defenders who save runs.

“We’re a confident, persistent club,” O’Dowd says. “We don’t panic. The guys grind things out no matter what. We’ve always been resilient, but we’re showing persistence for how to win each game each night.”

Case in point: Fowler’s two-strike, two-out, two-run double that broke a 5-5 tie against the Cubs on Sunday afternoon.

Tulo turnaround

Troy Tulowitzki’s combined numbers over 90 games in his previous four Aprils, according to STATS LLC:

Slash line: .224/.305/.357.

Seven homers, 39 RBI in 339 at-bats.

Tulowitzki’s numbers thus far:

Slash line: .364/.486/.836.

Seven homers, 14 RBI in 55 at-bats.

The ascendancies of Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have helped reduce the pressure on first baseman Todd Helton, who is healthy and could be headed for one of his familiar .320 BA/.400 OBP seasons.

Bad luck dept.

Not to make excuses for the sorry Mariners, but they might actually have one:

Poor luck.

The Mariners’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is the second lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Orioles.

Meanwhile, their opponents’ BABIP is the fifth-highest, meaning the M’s are at least slightly unfortunate on both ends.

So, third baseman Chone Figgins wasn’t exaggerating when he told The Seattle Times on Friday, “It’s just so funny. Every team we’ve been facing, those teams have been hitting the ball hard and it always seems to find a hole. Then, when we hit the ball hard, it always seems like it’s right at somebody.”

These things generally even out, but the Mariners also had the third-lowest BABIP in the majors during their historically bad offensive season in 2010.

Not sure what that all means, but for a quick check on some unsustainable trends, here are the top five and bottom five individual BABIPs entering Monday’s play:

Top five

Matt Kemp, .522.

Joey Votto, .489.

David Freese, .471.

Andre Ethier, .458.

Alex Gordon, .440.

Bottom five

Jorge Posada, .071.

Ian Kinsler, .119.

Chone Figgins, .143.

Dan Johnson, .143.

Ryan Ludwick, .143.

Oh, and by the way, Carl Crawford is next on the list at .156.

Pirates’ Morton: A Halladay clone?

If you think Charlie Morton’s new delivery closely resembles Roy Halladay’s, well, it’s by design.

Pirates special assistant Jim Benedict, a former minor league pitching coordinator for the Expos and Dodgers, studied film of Morton going back to high school during the winter.

Shortly before spring training, Benedict told the Pirates’ coaching staff and front office he wanted to give Morton a “Roy Halladay delivery.”

The Pirates said, “go ahead,” and the early returns are encouraging — Morton, who entered the season 11-29 with a 5.98 ERA, is 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his first three starts.

“Roy Halladay now has an absolute clone on the Pittsburgh Pirates,” one rival scout says. “Morton has copied his windup perfectly, from the way he starts to the way he finishes. It’s almost identical.”

Tigers: In need of pitching?

Pitching was expected to be one of the Tigers’ strengths. But through 16 games, the team is 12th in the American League in rotation ERA and 13th overall.

“They’re going to be looking for help, if they aren’t already,” says one rival scout who has followed the team recently.

Two of the Tigers’ starters, right-hander Brad Penny and lefty Phil Coke, combined to pitch only 120-1/3 innings last season.

Penny’s ERA after four starts is 8.44. Coke’s is 2.25, but the scout says he doesn’t see the converted reliever’s body or stuff holding up for 200 innings in the AL.

Then there is righty Rick Porcello, who pitched better in his last start but, according to the scout, “is a completely different pitcher now — a nibbler.”

Before making a trade, the team likely would seek help from within — Triple-A lefty Andy Oliver and Double-A righty Jacob Turner are both off to strong starts.

The Tigers, though, also are thin in the bullpen leading to setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde.