Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

Cubs looking up, down

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Finishing off a two-game sweep in Houston, the Cubs have begun showing signs of solving a few of their early season problems but still haven't plugged all their leaks and while others could be about to crack the dike.

The uptick:

-- Milton Bradley struck out twice Thursday and still isn't right at the plate, but he does have hits in his last three straight starts, including a bases-loaded single Thursday and looks like he could be on the verge of breaking out.

--The lineup as a whole has begun to take more walks and bump up its on-base percentage, including struggling catcher Geo Soto who has reached base in seven straight starts. Doing it against Houston and Florida might not be all that impressive, but this weekend's Milwaukee series might be more telling, especially Saturday against Yovani Gallardo, the touted young right hander who has pitched well so far.

--Kosuke Fukudome is looking better and better in center field, and despite that 0-for-13 homestand, he opened his first start on this trip with a first-inning single and first run of Thursday's game and then walked and scored in the third.

--Reliever Aaron Heilman has been particularly impressive after a couple of initial speed bumps, and Carlos Marmol looks like he's finally back to form after missing those games with the twisted knee.

The down-tick:

--Piniella still has no idea who's going to reliably fill that second bridge setup role with Heilman to get to Marmol-Gregg. Chad Fox got beat up in his season debut Thursday night; Jeff Samardzija's back in the minors because he couldn't handle the role; Jose Vizcaino's out of the organization; Neal Cotts and Angel Guzman don't inspire much faith from Piniella for that job yet, either.

--Derrek Lee's stiff neck might never bother him again this season, but the fact the bulging-disk problem has surfaced twice in two weeks is a concern. Hoffpauir's done a good job in his absence, but the Cubs are a better team with a healthy Lee playing every day -- and don't give me that crap about his power being down or he hits into too many double plays so he should sit.

--The Cubs have leaned hard on every ounce of production they've gotten from their starting rotation to be in as good a position as they are right now. But they need Dempster to get on track, and they need a healthy Zambrano to contend. And this elbow tightness that Lou mentioned Thursday night with Lilly bears watching. There's not enough depth in this area to afford breakdowns.

Anyway, I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but I've got an early flight in the morning. And there's plenty of time to pick this up after a few more series figure to shine more light on this team's direction.

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This page contains a single entry by Gordon Wittenmyer published on May 8, 2009 12:00 AM.

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