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Posted: Thursday July 16, 2009 11:32AM; Updated: Thursday July 16, 2009 11:32AM
Cliff Corcoran Cliff Corcoran >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Injuries, bad luck and some poor moves have derailed Cubs

Story Highlights

Great last season, the Cubs' offense has been surprisingly impotent in 2009

Aramis Ramirez's injury and slumps from Soriano and Soto have hurt

Second base has been a black hole since the trade of versatile Mark DeRosa

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jeff-baker.jpg
Jeff Baker is the sixth person who has played second base for the Cubs since they traded Mark DeRosa to the Indians last winter.
AP
MLB Team Page

Twelve of SI.com's 13 baseball experts (myself included) agreed: The Cubs were a lock to win the National League Central this season. After all, the Cubs had the best record in baseball in 2008, and their chief rival in the division, the wild card-winning Brewers, had lost their two best starting pitchers (CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets) to free agency. Coming out of the All-Star break, however, the Cubs are tied for third in their underwhelming division, and their .500 record ranks them ahead of only 12 of the major league's 30 teams.

What has gone wrong? A lot. Some of it was (obviously) unexpected, and some of it has been plain bad luck, but some of it has also been self-inflicted. And nearly all of it has happened to the offense.

The Cubs had by far the most potent offense in the National League last year, scoring 5.31 runs per game to the second-place Phillies' 4.93. Even over in the DH league, only the Rangers managed to outscore the Cubs last year. This year, in a nearly identical run-scoring environment (MLB average 4.62 R/G vs. 4.65 in 2008), the Cubs are scoring nearly a run and a quarter less per game. The second-best offense in baseball a year ago, the Cubs have managed to outscore only four teams (the Reds, Mariners, Royals and Padres) on a per-game basis this year.

Some of the reasons for this have been obvious. Aramis Ramirez, the team's top RBI man in 2008, separated his shoulder while making a diving play at third base in early May and missed two months. That was bad enough, but the fact that '08 team slugging and home run leader Alfonso Soriano stopped hitting around the same time that Ramirez went down was devastating. Soriano was batting .271/.341/.559 with nine home runs when Ramirez got hurt on May 8, but while Ramirez was on the shelf, he hit just .200/.259/.325 with only five more taters. The Cubs were 16-13 (.551) before Ramirez's injury, but just 24-26 (.480) with Ramirez on the disabled list. Things would have been worse had 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto not acted as a counterweight to Soriano, going homerless with a .159 average through May 8, but hitting a solid .262/.353/.490 with eight homers during Ramirez's DL stay.

Ramirez's injury and the struggles of first Soto and then Soriano haven't been the Cubs' only offensive problems, however. The team has had a black hole at second base, with the men assigned to man the keystone combining to hit just .224/.280/.294. The worst production the Cubs got from any single position last year was their right fielders' .250/.350/.381, led by disappointing Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome. Their hole at second base this year is all the more glaring because it was one the Cubs themselves created by trading Mark DeRosa to Cleveland for three minor league pitchers over the winter.

On its own, trading DeRosa made sense. Despite his ability to play multiple positions, DeRosa was a butcher at second and was coming off a career year that was also just his third as a full-time player at the age of 33. The Cubs sold high on DeRosa, who was all but guaranteed to see his production decrease this season, and has. The problem was that, though they properly distrusted DeRosa's 2008 production, they weren't sufficiently suspicious of Mike Fontenot's 2008 numbers. As part of a second-base platoon with DeRosa in 2008, the left-handed-swinging Fontenot hit .305/.395/.514 as a 28-year-old major league sophomore -- but he did so in just 243 at-bats, only 21 of which came against left-handed pitching. The same day that they traded DeRosa, the Cubs signed infielder Aaron Miles, a 32-year-old switch-hitter non-tendered by the Cardinals, to serve as Fontenot's platoon partner. The Cubs gambled that Fontenot and Miles, who was a .284/.352/.352 career hitter against left-handed pitching entering the season, could match DeRosa's production while providing them with far superior defense at a discounted price. What they failed to appreciate was just how valuable DeRosa had been at plugging holes elsewhere on the diamond. DeRosa had started 53 games in the outfield corners for the '08 Cubs, serving as both an injury replacement for Soriano in left field and part of a complex platoon that helped limit the drain on the offense caused by right-fielder Fukudome's awful second half. He also made 10 starts at third base, the position he was asked to man upon arriving in Cleveland. Without DeRosa, the Cubs left themselves exposed in the event of an injury like Ramirez's or an offensive collapse like that experienced by Soriano and the team's second basemen.

Indeed, with DeRosa in Cleveland, the Cubs turned to Fontenot to fill in at third base when Ramirez went down, leaving second base to Miles. Miles didn't hit much against lefties and just .188 against righties then got hurt himself. He was followed by a parade of replacement players, including 31-year-old rookie Bobby Scales, who proved useless after a hot first week, and Andres Blanco, a slick-fielding shortstop with a career .256/.317/.319 minor league batting line. To make matters worse, Fontenot's production also vanished -- his .236/.322/.369 line against right-handed pitching looking good only in contrast to his performance against lefties. With all other options having failed, the Cubs returned Fontenot to second and tried Plan E, putting third-string catcher Jake Fox at the third. That worked, but by the time the Cubs had figured it out, Ramirez was on his rehab assignment.

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