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Cubbie Rage Equals Opportunity

   by Scott Spreitzer - 06/04/2007

Everybody's talking about the dugout blow up last Friday between Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett of the Chicago Cubs. It was funny to watch professionals turn into schoolyard bullies for a few minutes. What's important to handicappers though, is the fact that this event is very likely to signal some extreme results in the coming days and weeks.

*If the Cubs continue their current meltdown, they're likely to collapse into a losing streak that could go on for quite some time. It's easy to forget how bad they were last year. During a 66-98 campaign, the Cubs had separate stretches of 4-21 (May), 4-17 (covering parts of June and July), and 3-18 (covering parts of August and September). When things go bad in baseball, it can take a long time to right the ship.

*If the Cubs use the altercation as an excuse to finally get their acts together, they could go on a very long hot streak. This is a team with a lot of talent, (expensive talent), that plays in a very weak division. We've seen time and time again in this sport that playoff caliber teams can tread water for a couple of months then really catch fire. Many considered the Cubs a playoff contender at the beginning of the season. Billy Martin's Yankees used to get mad at each other but take it out on opponents. The Cubs just might start doing that.

It's very important to handicappers to stay on top of developments with this team. The games will literally pick themselves once it's clear which direction things are going. As I write this, the Cubs are in an ugly downward spiral that includes these issues:

*A 3-10 record the last 13 games.

*A 7-16 record the last 23 games.

*A horrible season for supposed Cy Young candidate Carlos Zambrano. The emotional hurler has a horrible ERA of 5.62 this season. It's really worse than it looks. The Cubs have played a lot of games in a poor division, and enjoyed pitcher friendly weather much of the season. In terms of game impact, that 5.62 is much more like 7.00 once you adjust for context. We're talking about a guy who posted a 3.41 ERA last year with a lot of strikeouts. This is roughly the same as losing Kerry Wood to an injury and replacing him with a minor leaguer. Zambrano went from being great to being awful in a finger snap.

*A stunning loss of power from Alfonso Soriano. He had hit just 4 home runs heading into last weekend. We’re talking about a guy who hit 46 dingers last year for the Washington Nationals! This is one of the most stunning developments of the season. Even if Soriano is valiantly playing through an injury that's taking away his home run potential, the Cubs are paying for a guy who's supposed to do much more than this. His teammates expect much more as well.

*A manager in Lou Piniella who might as well be an invisible man in the dugout. He's always been one of those types that just writes the names on the lineup card and let's them play. If you've got a great team, this works out because everyone takes care of business (Seattle had some good teams under Piniella). If you've got a horrible team, they'll stay horrible (Tampa Bay under Piniella). "Sweet Lou’s" response to Friday's dugout fight was to whine about how many dumb mistakes his team has been making, and to complain that it's their job to suck it up and handle it like men. See what I mean? It's everybody else's job to perform while he writes the names on the lineup card. Now, he may not be doing even that for a while, depending on the length of his suspension.

The good news about all of that is that things could turnaround very quickly. If Soriano starts hitting home runs again (which he should as the weather continues to warm up); if Zambrano calms down and stops trying to live up to the hype he spouts about himself; if Piniella can pencil in the names of hot players instead of cold players, we're suddenly talking about a team that catches fire in a weak division.

Chicago could become Milwaukee very quickly. Chicago should be better than Milwaukee in the first place! They certainly have what it takes to dominate this weak division if key players just return to career norms.

This is why handicappers must pay close attention here. This volatile situation is likely to signal a losing streak that sees the Cubs play .300 ball for awhile, and possibly .400 ball for the rest of the season. Or, it could signal a hot month that sees the Cubs play .700 ball for awhile, and possibly .600 ball the rest of the way. Recent seasons saw teams like Houston and Oakland catch fire after the all-star break. Who's to say the Cubs can't do the same thing?

Whichever direction it goes, oddsmakers won't be able to adjust quickly enough. They've already had trouble posting accurate lines on Cubs games this year. Chicago was down about 17 units on the betting lines this year even though they were only eight games below .500 after Friday’s loss to Atlanta . It's our job to determine if these money burners are pouring water on the flames, or kerosene.

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