Well, we are at the unofficial halfway point of the year, and I must say this is Cubs team is one of the most frustrating and difficult to figure out that I have ever seen. In one three or four game stretch they'll look like world beaters, then they'll immediately turn around and have a stretch where they look like they couldn't beat a Class A team. As you'll see below, I declared their season was over after a miserable showing in Atlanta, but then to close the first half they went into Florida and dominated three games in a row against the Marlins and have pulled back to within six games (five losses) of a playoff spot. Here's a little review of what has taken place so far:
What went right: Derrek Lee is having an all-world season, leading the league in hitting and among the leaders in home runs and RBIs most of the season and has been the NL's MVP so far. Aramis Ramirez also is having a great year and wound up starting in the All-Star Game. Ryan Dempster has stepped up to be a very reliable closer after taking over the job a few weeks into the season. Michael Wuertz and Will Ohman overall have been solid as setup men. Mark Prior, when healthy, has shown signs of brilliance. Neifi Perez for much of the season filled in nicely at shortstop, and Glendon Rusch and Sergio Mitre were solid filling in for injured players in the starting rotation. The team played its best in late May and early June, including when they went 6-1 on a West Coast trip that at this point has allowed them to stay reasonably close to the other Wild Card contenders.
What went wrong: Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. Nomar Garciaparra still is out after tearing his groin in late April, and Todd Walker missed several weeks after injuring his knee during the first weekend of the season. Mark Prior started the season on the DL, returned, but then was drilled on the elbow by a comebacker. Fortunately, he missed just one month. Kerry Wood also missed much of the first half with a shoulder injury. The bullpen has been wildly inconsistent as Dusty Baker continues to try to find the right guys to get the ball to Dempster. Before Dempster, LaTroy Hawkins's continuing struggles would lead to a trade to the Giants. Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux have been decent overall, but Maddux at times has been hammered and Zambrano has struggled with control. The offense also has been wildly inconsistent. They still have not found the answer in left field, while Corey Patterson struggled mightily, to the point where he was demoted to the minors. The offense as a whole has been too anxious and has not shown much willingness to take pitches.
What the Cubs must do in the second half: I still think they playoffs are a long shot, but obviously things look much better than they did before the big series at Florida. This is a team that when healthy is built around starting pitching, and if the rotation finally reaches it's full potential it will be tough to stop them from making a big run. It might not be easy with so many teams still in contention, but the front office needs to go out and add an outfielder and some bullpen help. Nomar Garciaparra's return will be like a trade. Hopefully he will return within a few weeks, and they will need him to contribute. In the mean time, they begin the second half with a four-game series both against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, two struggling teams. This team has been so unpredictable in the first half, but how they play out of the gate in these games will go a long way to determine whether or not the Cubs truly are contenders.