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Do I Smell Blackmail?
by Phil Bencomo
I have very few gripes with Lou Piniella. Perhaps it's the result of Dusty Baker and his appalling idiosyncrasies; anyone with even the smallest degree of competence would seem a mental giant beside Baker.
But I simply do not understand why Piniella insists on placing Alfonso Soriano atop the batting order, especially since Soriano himself has stated publicly that he cares not.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella doesn't appear to have given a minute's thought to a favorite topic of Chicago talk radio: dropping Soriano into the middle of the order third and fifth were the most frequently suggested options so that the pesky Ryan Theriot could remain in the leadoff spot.
Phil Rogers offers some tortured logic today, first rightly saying that Soriano's place in the batting order has nothing to do with Soriano's state of mind, before offering up this gem:
Piniella's concern is constructing a lineup he can win with even if the team's second-half power outage continuesthe Cubs have hit an NL-low 30 homers since the All-Star break.
By hitting Soriano first, he has Theriot available for the No. 2 spot.
As if the Cubs don't have any other capable players to bat second, or that Theriot cannot bat second without Soriano before him.
Rogers says the Soriano-Theriot combination is far superior to any other
That's a much better combination at the top of the order than the ones that Piniella used while Soriano was out: Theriot-Jacque Jones (13 times); Theriot-Mark DeRosa (2 times); Theriot-Jason Kendall (2 times); Theriot-Mike Fontenot (1 time); and Theriot-Ronny Cedeno (1 time).
but evidently failed to do even the simplest of fact-checking. The 1-2 combination that Piniella used most often during Soriano's absence was, in fact, outstanding. Theriot batting leadoff: .314/.358/.443. Jacque Jones batting second: .333/.368/.528. Combined OPS: 1.696. Compare that to the Soriano-Theriot combination: 1.624 combined OPS.
It doesn't take an advanced statistician to determine that Soriano, with his slugging prowess, would better serve the team and boost run production by batting in the middle of the order. And to argue that Soriano should bat first because that forms the best possible combination, when such is simply not the case, is completely ridiculous. The Theriot-Jones combo has outperformed the Soriano-Theriot configuration, plain and simple.
So why has Piniella steeled himself against any possible lineup that does not include Soriano at the top? All season he has shown something not seen at Wrigley during the Baker era: The tendency to play the hot hand, the combination that is winning games. He's let Mike Fontenot, Matt Murton, and even Daryle Ward ride hot streaks until they cool. Why turn from the successful combination of Theriot and Jones now?
"We'll put Soriano back in the leadoff spot, Theriot in the two hole, and then we'll adjust," Piniella said.
There is no doubting that Soriano's return to the lineup will help the club -- even after missing several weeks, his VORP is third-highest among Cub batters, and by no slim margin, either -- but why does Piniella not recognize that he is squandering an opportunity to further boost production?
Some say Soriano is most comfortable batting leadoff -- though he did make clear that he doesn't care where he bats -- but who's to say a move would stunt his production, or that he couldn't grow comfortable batting fifth? He has spent this season all of 37 at-bats outside of the leadoff slot, hardly enough at-bats to draw any conclusion. And the last time he took the bulk of his at-bats lower in the order -- 497 at-bats batting fifth in 2005 -- he did well, with an OPS from the fifth slot just nine points lower than his current mark of .847. He can bat lower in the order and still have success.
Really, I see no reasoning behind Piniella's decision. All the evidence says bat Soriano lower, but Lou has, for whatever reason, turned on the blinders. I can only hope this decision doesn't end up costing the Cubs the division.
* * * *
Tonight marks the start of a pivotal three-game set with Milwaukee, the last time the Cubs and Brewers will meet this season. The Brewer starting rotation won't cause the Cubs much angst -- all three starters the Cubs will face have ERAs near or above five -- but Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have made mincemeat of Cub pitchers this season, with seven home runs against the Cubs between the pair.
The game begins at 7:05, Rich Hill vs. Jeff Suppan.