Monday, June 27, 2005

wildcard gut check

as mentioned by the estimable corncobdress in this very space, the cubs need to wreak some havoc on their swing through the NL east over the next two weeks if they're going to entertain thoughts of october. it's essential to deal some losses to these teams, who will be the cubs competition for the NL wildcard.

at least as importantly, the cubs need wins to prove they belong in the race. two over .500 at the break is not beyond all reason -- even in the past four seasons, two of the four wildcards held breakeven records at the all-star break (2001 saint louis and 2004 houston), as did the division-winning 2003 cubs. winning the wildcard sometimes simply means getting very hot in the second half, which is something the cubs schedule might allow for.

looking at the all-star-break alignments of the wildcard races in years past, there's good reason to think the cubs would still be in it at 3rd and 2 losses back. in 2004, houston was looking up at eight teams and sat four back in the loss column only to become the most unlikely wildcard winner of all. the 2003 marlins were fifth in the wildcard and six losses back. and in 2001, the cardinals lounged 5 back in the loss column and in fifth. all three put together furious second half runs.

nonetheless, such entries into even the bottom rung of the playoff ladder are the exception to the rule. the average record of the eventual NL wildcard at the break has been 7.2 games over .500. every win the cubs can pile up in this last difficult run of their hardest 39 game stretch is critical.

the majority of cases -- the 2002 giants (2nd, -2), the 2000 and 1999 mets (1st, +1 and 2nd, -3, respectively), the 1998 cubs (2nd, -2), the 1997 marlins (1st, +2), the 1996 dodgers (2nd, -4) -- involve being close at the break. the cubs simply cannot afford to fall apart here if the playoffs are the goal.

(a bit of an oddity: the 1995 rockies led the dodgers in the west by five games, but ended up losing out by a game to take the wildcard. the dodgers stood fourth and six back in the wildcard at the break that year.)

while still holding out reasonable hope of deliverance, i still think this team looks, walks and quacks like a .500 ballclub or slightly better. the difference between runs scored and runs allowed has fallen back to +8, with the cubs sitting mid-pack in both totals. the cubs have three everyday positions posting a near-.300 obp -- good teams rarely have such glaring weaknesses.

one might talk about the problems of wood, prior, nomar, walker, borowski and fox as having disproportionately afflicted the cubs -- but their troubles haven't been greater than those of atlanta (who are currently missing chipper and three of their front four starters, not to mention furcal's nightmare season and johnny estrada's start), though they are slightly more challenging than florida's (with lowell and pierre struggling mightily, ismael valdes and alfonseca having missed everything, castillo a month, and beckett now on the DL with blisters). washington, for their part in all this, are getting jose vidro and antonio osuna back and have used nine starters this year. if the cubs are finally putting together their complete team only now, the same can certainly be said of the braves. on the whole, it's hard to plead injury as a reason to expect to gain on these teams now.

what rings more true to me is that the cubs need to take some steps -- particularly in the outfield, bullpen and shortstop -- to improve their club and make it sharper if they think they can do something. but, to be able to think so optimistically, the cubs have to be in a position at the break that justifies making moves before the july 31 deadline.

this is a gut-check for the 2005 cubs. make up ground on the braves, marlins and nationals now, and there's reason to start thinking big.

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