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Cubs still have what it takes to finish the job

Cubs still have what it takes to finish the job
This is supposed to be the Chicago Cubs' year.

First and foremost, they're an excellent team this season, and, if you're a fool for the power of dismal symmetry, then there's the fact that they haven't won the World Series in an even 100 years. Indeed, this may be the year that the North Siders end their decades of misery.

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On the other hand, the curiosities of the postseason might get in the way (anything can happen in a short series — a fact we're reminded of almost every year), and there's the fact that the Cubs will likely be playing a superior AL opponent in the World Series (and without the benefit of home-field advantage). But here's another, more emergent concern for the Cubs: pitching injuries.

First, though, the merits. The Cubs are, to date, the best team in the National League. They're on pace for 98 wins, which would be their highest victory total since 1945 (the last time they won the pennant). And in a related matter, gives the Cubs an 84.7 percent chance of winning the NL Central and a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. So they're going to the postseason.

The Cubs this season are also a robust 51-24 at home, and that means home-field advantage throughout the NL bracket should be especially beneficial to them. Moreover, they're a team built to succeed in the strange environs of October.

As previously detailed in this space, teams that go deep into the postseason tend to play good defense, strike out lots of opposing batters and have dominating closers.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, they account for each of those three elements in assessing which teams are likely to thrive once the playoffs begin. What they've found is that, among the 30 teams in MLB, just the Angels and Red Sox are better poised than the Cubs to win in the postseason.

Sure, those are two possible World Series opponents. But the Cubs are easily the favorites to win the pennant, and if they reach the World Series, then they'll have at least got a puncher's chance to win it all. Then it would be burning couches and overturned cars all over the North Side. Of course, something could get in the way of all the reverie and curse-busting ...

Those aforementioned pitching concerns. Of those concerns, the most, well, concerning is what's happened to ace Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano has a 5.26 ERA in the second half (compared to a 2.84 ERA before the break), and he's also been battling a case of tendinitis.

Is this a case of a career of heavy usage finally catching up with him?

Perhaps. Zambrano, age 27, has logged at least 200 innings in each of the last five full seasons.

Even if Zambrano doesn't miss any significant time the rest of the way or wind up on the disabled list, there's no guarantee he's going to recoup his skills without extended rest. After all, he's logged only one quality start since the end of July.

And then there's Rich Harden. Harden, pilfered from the A's leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, has a 1.50 ERA as a Cub and — important for their playoff purposes — 75 strikeouts in 54 innings. There's no question that he's a dominator when healthy. The caveat, though, is an important one — in Harden's six-year career, he's been on the DL six times, including this year with a right shoulder strain.

As though his history weren't troubling enough, Harden recently missed a start because of arm soreness. He's scheduled to return to the mound this week, but it's not alarmist to call him an "injury time bomb." Will he hold up? He never has before ...

It's worth noting that Zambrano and Harden have been vital to the Cubs' success this season. Remove their numbers from the calculus, and the ERA of the Chicago rotation rises from 3.79 to 4.05. Ryan Dempster has been excellent, but in the absence of Harden and an effective Zambrano, there's not much in the way of playoff-caliber starters. Ted Lilly? Jason Marquis? Sean Marshall? No, no and no.

And once you consider the rotation fronts of other possible NL playoff opponents — CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in Milwaukee, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren in Arizona (the team that swept the Cubs in the NLDS a year ago), Johan Santana and anyone else in New York — it's clear the Cubs will be in for a fight. If they're without Harden or Zambrano isn't his usual self, then the Cubs may be waiting for next year much sooner than they think.

Nothing is to be assumed in the postseason. But for the 2008 Cubs — presumptive NL champs in most quarters — and their suddenly dubious rotation, that's especially the case.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: September 9, 2008

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