— Lou Piniella was joking when he said it earlier this week — but not really.
“Maybe we should make the Cardinals the favorite (in the National League Central); put the pressure on (Tony) La Russa.''
In fact, the very next day, Piniella — whose NL Central-favorite Cubs hit the final day of April at the .500 mark — re-addressed the issue.
“I meant what I said the other day; St. Louis is a better team than us right now,'' Piniella said. “And at this time, it might be more (teams in the NL Central) than St. Louis (who are) better than us. Our job is to stay in contact now (with the Cardinals).''
The standings concur with Piniella, and there are several issues in play here. The most-pressing one is the Cubs' health. They limped into Arizona on Monday with the entire middle of their lineup — Milton Bradley, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez — banged up.
It got so bad that for Monday's game, staff ace Carlos Zambrano was listed on Piniella's lineup card along with the extra position players — just in case. (And the very next night, Zambrano had three hits including a home run as the winning pitcher).
By the time they left Arizona, the Cubs did have Bradley and Lee back in the lineup, but Ramirez's calf injury could land him on the disabled list. And Geovany Soto, last year's NL Rookie of the Year, has a sore shoulder that is limiting both his throwing and hitting (5 for 45, 2 RBI).
So much so that Piniella dropped the 'sophomore slump' term into the conversation when discussing giving Soto a day off in Arizona:
“I don't think this has anything to do with a sophomore slump, but you want to get him out of there, relax for a day, and get himself together,'' Piniella said.
The deeper, longer-term questions surround general manager Jim Hendry's off-season moves. Namely, dealing away Mark DeRosa and giving Bradley three years and $30 million despite his history of injuries and social problems — both of which have already surfaced this season.
At least Kosuke Fukudome, whose 2008 second-half struggles led to Hendry's attempted solutions, has been the Cubs' best hitter of late.
Otherwise, the returns from the stats-don't-lie deptartment aren't good. The Cubs in the National League rankings:
“(Those 2009 numbers) don't signal a team six-seven games over .500,'' Piniella said. “We've got to improve. People who are struggling have to pick it up.''
Meanwhile, La Russa's Cardinals are first in the NL in runs scored and trailing only the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates staff in team ERA. And that latter number has been accomplished almost entirely without the one player other than Albert Pujols who was thought to be indispensable to the Cardinals' playoff hopes — Chris Carpenter.
But four innings into his second start of the season — and after a perfectly healthy spring in which he didn't so much as miss a side throwing session — the Cardinals' ace suffered a left oblique injury that will sideline him likely through May. At least it wasn't an elbow or shoulder.
“You can't exaggerate it,'' La Russa said at the time. “On and off the field, he's critical to us.''
But not critical enough to keep the Cards from a 15-8 start behind a 10-0 combined mark for three of Carpenter's rotation mates — Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro and Adam Wainwright.
La Russa also has used the first month to establish order in a bullpen that was in flux at the season's onset. And that order is: Ryan Franklin closing; Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte as the primary setup men; Denys Reyes the late-inning situational lefty; Trever Miller for earlier left-handed situations; and Chris Perez, Blaine Boyer and P.J. Walters in the middle innings.
Pujols' first month has been monumental — NL RBI leader, in the top four in the NL in four offensive categories, 17 walks and seven strikeouts. But he's far from alone:
Ryan Ludwick is proving that he can do it again, the Troy Glaus replacement team of Brian Barden and Joe Thurston has been very productive, and rookie Colby Rasmus is contributing enough for Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to say: “he's a unique combination of power and speed, offense and defense. He can do things a lot of people can't.''
A: I believe he is, Cody. I had him as my Royals' breakout candidate because after talking with scouts during spring training, I really thought he had a chance to emerge as one of those Cy Young candidates you're looking for.
Here are a handful of other Cy Potentials after the first month of the season:
Johan Santana's ERA rose to 1.10 on Wednesday, when he was stuck with an unfair no-decision because of J.J. Putz's blown save. Santana is 3-1 and could be 5-0, as his loss came when he allowed two unearned runs. His other numbers: 32.2 IP, 22 hits, 9 walks, 44 Ks — as Citi Field is playing as a pitchers' park.
Felix Hernandez is another emerging AL stud, and the Mariners are a much-improved team behind him. His stats: 4-0, 2.38, 34 IP, 27 hits, 36 Ks.
Roy Halladay (4-1, 3.75) always is in the mix, and this year will be no exception — unless he changes leagues with a potential mid-season deal. That, of course, will hinge on how long the Blue Jays stay in the AL East race.
Tim Lincecum has straightened things out after two rocky outings, and don't forget about his teammate, Matt Cain, who finally is getting some run support.
I also really like Josh Johnson's power-pitcher repetoire and dominating numbers (2-0, 2.60, 6 BB, 32 K in 34.2 IP). And how about the best pitcher with a losing record, Dan Haren? He's 2-3 despite a 1.54 ERA, and could be 5-0, as he received only three runs of support in his first four starts.
Those would be your early leaders, but remember that things can change in a hurry. Last Sept. 1, Brandon Webb looked like a solid favorite to win the NL award, but struggled down the stretch, and Lincecum streaked past him.
A: Wow, that would be a quick hook, Dwaine. And lucky for Wedge, I'd be very surprised if Indians general manager Mark Shapiro is thinking along those lines, even with the club's slow start.
I say that mainly because Wedge signed a three-year extension in July of 2007, and will be paid through 2010 regardless if he is in the Indians' dugout or not.
And also because Wedge isn't the one who put together a questionable starting rotation over the winter. That would be Shapiro. I'm not blaming the Tribe for dealing CC Sabathia last July — they couldn't afford to keep him, obviously.
But if you ask me, relying on Carl Pavano and a handful of unproven kids to fill out the rotation behind Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona isn't the way to go if you're really serious about winning a very winnable AL Central.
I loved the trade for Mark DeRosa and the Kerry Wood signing — Shapiro's two biggest off-season moves. But Pavano (0-3, 9.50) has been awful, and Anthony Reyes (acquired from St. Louis) had a 7.58 ERA and 11 walks and nine strikeouts in his first four starts. Aaron Laffey (2-0, 2.41) has pitched well, though, after replacing injured Scott Lewis as the fifth starter.
All that said, it's still early enough for the Tribe to put together a good stretch and jump back into the AL Central race. I don't see anybody running away with that division, so hanging around .500 will keep you in it for quite awhile.
A: Those are important factors, A.J. But the most-important factor is when the Orioles feel he is ready to step in at the big-league level and catch the majority of games.
You don't want him coming up and catching only once or twice a week. He needs to be getting at-bats and catching experience at the Triple-A level — not watching Gregg Zaun or somebody else work. Also, Wieters has been slowed by a mild hamstring injury, so isn't 100 percent right now.
But there's no question he will be up at some point soon, and the rules on arbitration work like this: If a player is promoted after June 1 of this season, there is no chance he can become what they call a 'super-2' category player and be arbitration-eligible after the 2011 season.
So barring a major injury that leaves the Orioles strapped behind the plate, it's pretty safe to assume Wieters won't be up until after June 1. And we'll see if the 'Joe Mauer-with-power' hype proves to be true.