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NL Central leaders come to Coors in battle of Wild Card contenders

After losing a tough series to a strong team, there's no better food for confidence then heading home and facing a team completely devoid of All-Stars, which is what we get this weekend.

Okay, that's a bit disingenuous. Chicago had a very rough first half, especially offensively. Their only All-Star, Ted Lilly, is on the disabled list, while none of their highly acclaimed lineup made the trip despite undeniable talent. They are still dangerous. At 57-49, Chicago leads the NL Central, trailing San Francisco by 2 games in the Wild Card, thereby sitting a game back of the Rockies.

They took off in the season's second half, hitting almost 25 points higher as a team than before the break. and an ERA over 0.25 lower than the first half. Justin Lehr of the Reds (remember him?) just threw a complete game shutout against them, but that dropped their post-ASB record to a stout 14-6. Rox Girl would have you know, however, that they only faced two teams worth their salt in that streak, and they lost both series (FLA and PHI).

We have

one of those strange Fri-Mon 4 game sets that have shown up this season, which marks just the second time these teams have faced off. They split a 2-game series in a freezing Wrigley Stadium in April. The Rockies are 8-13 against the Cubs since 2006, 5-4 at Coors Field.

If you're feeling saucy enough to tangle with Cubs fans, head over to Bleed Cubbie Blue.


Chicago Cubs (57-49, L1, t-1st, 4 Gm lead, 2 GB WC)

Friday-Monday: 4-game series at Coors Field

The Bats: B-

The Cubs offense is confusing. Chicago is hitting just .251, better than only San Diego and Cincy, in spite of playing in a strong hitters' park. They do have the NL's third most HR with 120 but are MLB's least threatening team in terms of speed. Their 39 SBs are dead last among MLB teams, and their 24 caught stealings put them last in SB efficiency as well. Their 469 runs are 8th worst, one worse than even the Mets. Their .322 wOBA is 21st, and Fangraphs has them as the sixth least valuable offense this season. It doesn't make much sense looking at their lineup:

Kosuke Fukudome - CF .269 8
.384 .446 .359
Ryan Theriot - SS
.291 7
.346 .414 .335
Derrick Lee - 1B
.291 22
.363 .536 .382
Aramis Ramirez - 3B
.331 9
.400 .567 .413
Milton Bradley - RF .250 8
.389 .385 .347
Alfonso Soriano - LF
.250 19
.316 .444 .328
Mike Fontenot - 2B
.232 9
.301 .391 .300
Koyie Hill - C .209 2
.290 .301 .261

By wOBA metrics, the lineup features one hitters performing at a Superstar level (Ramirez) , one performing at a strong All-Star caliber clip (Lee), two solidly above average bats (Fukudome and Bradley), two average hitters (Theriot and Soriano), one very below average hitter (Fontenot) and one that is really hurting the lineup and could be replaced by a replacement-level player (Hill).

Sam Fuld (7-for-24, 3 2B) is the best candidate to spell Fukudome in center. Jake Fox (.297, 8, 27) will start at least one game for Bradley in right, and another power corner infielder, Micah Hoffpauir (.233, 8, 25), has gotten starts in the OF as well. The main infield backups are former Rockies Aaron Miles (.198, 0, 4) and Jeff Baker (.211, 1, 5). There are no other catchers on the active rosters, but Fox has played 3 games there and can fill in if needed.

So what's the rationale for the B-? A lot of the team statistics had been drug down from early in the season. Aramis Ramirez missed well over two months and Derrick Lee had a horrible start to the year but has rebounded. The callup of Jake Fox has also put a charge in the offense, and disregarding wOBA's, we know Soriano and Bradley are offensive threats and capable of putting a serious hurt on us. Despite their pathetic showing so far this year, the offense is better than the numbers and critical bats are heating up.

UPDATE: Rox Girl pointed out a detail I missed - Geovany Soto is eligible to come off the DL this weekend.

Hop after the jump for the scouting report on the arms, the D, the pitching matchups and the hot/cold players.

The Arms: A-

This team wins with pitching. They are 3rd in the majors in ERA and K's, behind the Giants and Dodgers. Advanced metrics aren't quite as impressed though. Their rotation ERA/FIP/tRA split is 3.67/4.15/4.04. For the bullpen: 4.00/4.75/4.40. The Cubs have the ERA/FIP split in the majors for both their rotation and bullpen, which contributes to Fangraphs valuing their staff only 17th despite the sparkly raw numbers. In terms of starters, we will both starters we faced in April. Rich Harden pitched in the Cubs' last game, and Ted Lilly is on the DL. Every member of the rotation has an above average tRA, so it seems their rotation is legit.

Kevin Gregg has scuffled as the team's closer, and he had a terrible weekend against Florida, blowing two saves and giving up 5 runs.

2009 - Kevin Gregg 4-3 4.09 1.32 52 21

He rested his arm early this week, then threw a perfect inning Wednesday, but in the meantime, setup man Carlos Marmol got the save opportunity. Also in Lou Piniella's bullpen are lefties John Grabow and Sean Marshall, plus RHs Angel Guzman, Aaron Heilman, and Jeff Samardzija. According to StatCorner, Heilman and Gregg have been below average relievers, while the other five are helping the team.

I'm not sure why FIP hates the Cubs so much with their very average defense and high strikeout numbers, but I'm choosing to give less credence to those numbers than those which we're all familiar.

The D: C

The Cubs are very average with that -0.8 UZR/150 rating. They have made 70 errors though, 7th most in the bigs despite that average range. Still, Fangraphs has them as the 14th most valuable defense. Their corner outfielders are problematic, whether they are filled by Soriano, Hoffpauir, Bradley or Fox, but they have above average fielders everywhere else.

Probable Pitchers:

Tonight, 7:10 pm MDT

2009 - Carlos Zambrano 7-4 3.35 1.35 101 57

2009 - Ubaldo Jimenez 8-9 3.76 1.25 128 54

This is without a doubt the most intriguing pitching matchup. Zambrano left Saturday's game with back stiffness and is still listed as probable, so it's something to watch. He posted ERAs under 3.00 in both June and July, going 4-2 and might be having a career year by some metrics. Z is 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA against the Rox since 2006. Maybe he'll even try to hit his 20th career HR at Coors against Jimenez, who is suddenly given up HRs in three straight starts. Otherwise, he's been eerily consistent, throwing 6-8 IP and allowing 2-4 ER in eight straight starts. tRA gives a significant edge to Ubaldo for better peripherals across the board, and his sub-4.00 ERA at Coors bodes well. Favors: ROCKIES slightly

Saturday, August 8, 6:10 pm MDT

2009 - Ryan Dempster 5-5 4.09 1.38 96 48

2009 - Jason Marquis 12-7 3.49 1.25 68 43

Dempster got a nice contract after last season, but it doesn't appear he's earning it. He's striking out less, walking more, and given up nearly double the home runs. His tRA is worst among Cubs starters. He still has the best slider in the majors, but the issue has been his fastball, which has flipflopped from having a +11.8 value last season to -12.9. Jason Marquis won the game the Rockies took from the Cubs in April, and in his last six starts, he is 3-2 with a 1.84 ERA. Favors: ROCKIES moderately

Sunday, August 9, 1:10 pm MDT

2009 - Randy Wells 8-4 2.73 1.14 65 23

2009 - Jason Hammel 6-6 4.62 1.49 77 25

Wells is a converted catcher who is having a fantastic season, matching Zambrano's 3.80 tRA. The thick right hander has won four straight starts and 8 of 9. He was taken as a Rule 5 pick by Toronto and returned later in 2008. He's not a big strikeout guy but limits his walks and dingers using four pitches (fastball, slider, cutter and change) that rate as at least average. His slider actually ranks as 3rd best in the majors behind Dempster and Zach Greinke. We all know about Hammel's struggles at home. Favors: CUBS strongly

Monday, August 10, 6:40 MDT

2009 - Tom Gorzelanny 4-1 3.38 0.88 13 4

2009 - Jorge De La Rosa 9-8 5.00 1.37 120 50

Gorzelanny wasn't good enough to be in the Pirates rotation, but after being traded to the Cubs and seeing Ted Lilly go down, Tom became the replacement lefty. He allowed 1 run on 3 hits in 7 innings vs the Reds in his lone start Tuesday. The Rockies have faced him twice since 2006, beating him up at PNC park and losing at Coors Field in a start where he allowed 1 run in 6 IP. His fastball, change, slider and curve all rate as slightly above average this season after having a terrible fastball and curve last year. de la Rosa's franchise best win streak was snapped dramatically Wednesday, but he still boasts a tRA under 4.00. Gorzelanny is an exercise in sample size, and DLR is definitely more talented. Favors: ROCKIES moderately

My take

Pitching matchups set up favorably for Colorado: the Rockies arguably have the starting pitching advantage in three of the four games against a team whose strength is pitching by far. That has to bode well. However, that advantage overall is slight, and the Cubs offense is far more capable than statistics appear. We need to get a series win to bring back confidence, but it's no sure thing against a team with talented pitchers, high confidence and hot bats.

33_15_10---fire-flame-texture_web_mediumFour bats have a post-ASB OPS of .997 or better -and a batting average of at least .328 - Soriano (.333, .997) and Lee (.329, 1.027) each have 5 HR and 15 RBI since the Midsummer Classic. Ramirez (.328, 1.087) also has 5 HR since the break, and Fukudome (.344, 1.001) has been getting on base at a .455 clip in that span. Rich Harden has allowed 2 or less runs in 5 straight starts.

IceRyan Theriot is hitting at about a .250 clip the last month or so with no home runs. Jeff Baker is hitting .211 since joining the Cubs. Jeff Samardzija has allowed 15 runs in 20.1 innings since the ASB, including 3 HR. Kevin Gregg blew consecutive saves against Florida over the weekend, allowing 5 runs in the two games.

Bandaid_mediumRyan Theriot and Carlos Zambrano are listed as probable for tonight's game with an arm and back injury, respectively. All-Star Ted Lilly is on the15day DL with a shoulder injury. He is joined by C Geovany Soto (oblique - 7/7), reserve OF Reed Johnson (foot - 7/30), Chad Fox, not to be confused with Jake (elbow - 5/10), Andres Blanco (calf - 8/4) and former Rockies farmhand David Patton (groin - 7/5)