The Chicago Cubs open up the 10-game homestand for the Atlanta Braves against NL Central teams at Turner Field tonight. The Cubs come in just one game over .500 on the season, as the Braves open up June at .500. It's always a fun series when the Cubs are in town, and tonight will have the added bonus of two former Chunichi Dragons players, Kenshin Kawakami for the Braves and Kosuke Fukudome for the Cubs, facing each other for the first time.
To help give Atlanta fans an idea of how the Cubs season is going I've exchanged five questions with Chicago Cubs blogger Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue. Al is a terrific blogger and a nice fellow. We met last year at the Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, NY, which ended up being rained out. Anyway, here are my questions to Al about the Cubs, and here is a link to his questions to me about the Braves.
Q: Most people expected the Cubs to hold first place in the Central for the entire year, are you disappointed that the Cubs are only one game over .500 and in fourth place in the division?
A: Disappointed? Sure, but without Aramis Ramirez and with a bullpen that quickly sunk into mediocrity -- OK, at times awfulness -- one game over .500 and only 4.5 games out of first place on June 1 isn't that bad. Ramirez is the Cubs' best hitter, the guy every other team fears every time he comes to bat. The Cubs have a huge hole in the middle of their lineup and guys like Milton Bradley, Derrek Lee and Geovany Soto have not yet stepped up to fill it.
The starting pitching has been good-to-excellent, yet the Cubs have won only one game all year (last Friday vs. LA) where they scored less than four runs. So, generate some offense and a winning streak could easily follow.
Q: Do you think the other teams in the Central who are in front of the Cubs can keep up their good play all year? And do the Cubs have enough to overcome those teams if they stay hot?
A: I always say, "The Cardinals aren't this good", and most years they prove me wrong. Tony LaRussa, who Cubs fans love to make fun of, is an excellent manager, despite his wacky lineups at times. He always prepares his team to win. And any team with Albert Pujols has to be feared.
I thought the Brewers would decline without Sabathia and Sheets, but Yovani Gallardo has stepped up and filled at least one of those holes. But probably the biggest difference so far for Milwaukee is the presence of Trevor Hoffman. The Brewers haven't always had a lights-out closer. I'm surprised at his age that Hoffman has been one, but if he keeps it up, the Brewers won't fade.
The Reds are managed by Dusty Baker. Nuff said.
Q: The Braves and the Cubs were two teams that missed out on Jake Peavy this off-season. At this point in the season, do you regret the Cubs inability to acquire Peavy?
A: Not at all, because as I said above, starting pitching has been one of the Cubs' real strengths for the first two months. Peavy's numbers have been skewed by having Petco as his home park -- his road ERA is a full run higher than his home ERA, not just this year but for his whole career, and he has allowed significantly more homers away from Petco in fewer innings.
I think if the Cubs got Peavy, they'd be paying $70 million for a league-average pitcher. You guys can have him.
Q: What is the biggest strength of the Cubs so far this season? What is the biggest weakness?
A: I don't want to get repetitious, but starting pitching has been a huge plus. The Cubs are tied for 2nd in the league in quality starts. Granted, QS (which can result in a 4.50 ERA; all you have to do is throw 6 innings with 3 or less ER) isn't the best measure. Even during the recent skein of losing (10 of the last 14), the Cubs put up outstanding starts in 10 of those 14 games.
Conversely, when the starter is pulled, that's where things have gone south. Despite the presence of good setup men in Carlos Marmol and Angel Guzman, the relief pitching has been pretty bad. Kevin Gregg has 8 saves, but has been inconsistent (better lately). Neal Cotts, the only lefty in the pen, was so bad he was shipped to Triple-A and replaced by a minor league lifer, Jason Waddell. Aaron Heilman is about to be booed back to New York, he's walked so many people. The Cubs have converted only 61% of save opportunities.
Q: What player on the Atlanta Braves would you like to have on the Chicago Cubs?
A: I'm going to surprise you with an unconventional answer. It's not Chipper or McCann or Jurrjens. It's Kelly Johnson, who can play multiple positions (though he's played only 2B this year). He's got some power, a little speed, and could be a lefthanded Mark DeRosa type, something the Cubs sorely need. The trade of DeRo left the Cub bench really thin.