To sum up the Chicago Cubs of 2010 in one word, that word is the clear choice. Until a seven-game skid from late July into early August, the team had not won or lost more than four games in a row all season. They have played 31 games decided by six or more runs, going 11-20. In their 47 one-run games, they are 17-30.

It is somewhat unfair, however, and certainly not constructive, to simply dismiss Chicago as having had a bad team. That is not the case.

In the first half of the season, Chicago could not score enough to win. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the team’s offensive superstar, stood at a miserable .178/.243/.296 at the end of play on July 5th.

First baseman Derrek Lee, a former batting champion and the team’s premier slugger in 2009, struggled to a .227/.326/.367 line through the games of that day. Despite strong (but largely unspectacular) starts by a handful of other position players, Chicago could not put runs on the board with its third and fourth hitters struggling so mightily.

It was a shame, too, because those difficulties held Chicago back during a time when their starting pitching was working wonders. Through July 6th, right-handed hurler Carlos Silva had thrown 100 1/3 innings, allowing just 16 walks against 70 strikeouts and posting a 2.96 ERA.

Yet the Cubs lost five of his 16 starts, scoring two or fewer times in three of those defeats. Ryan Dempster, the team’s co-ace, had fanned 129 batters and walked 46 through July 15th, but the Cubs had lost 11 times in his 19 starts. In nine of those 11 losses, the team scored three runs or fewer.

The team’s other ace, Ted Lilly, suffered a similar fate. Lilly pitched well through July, posting a 3.69 ERA and striking out over three times as many opposing hitters as he walked. Because of lacking run support, however, the team lost 11 times in his 18 starts, as well. Again, nine of the losses saw the team score three runs or fewer.

Suddenly, just shy of the All-Star break, everything changed. Ramirez began a torrid tear that has lasted through the summer. Since July 6th, he has mashed at rates of .315/.358/.612. Lee began bashing on July 10th, after which point he would hit .317/.358/.574 before being traded in mid-August.

Other players, too, stepped up. Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, a notoriously slow finisher who had lost playing time throughout the middle part of the season, came alive August 3rd, and has hit a preposterous .406/.506/.719 in 21 games since. Xavier Nady, a reserve outfielder who gained regular playing time at first base after Lee’s departure, batted .320/.386/.467 for the month of August.

By that time, however, it was too late. Lilly had been traded to Los Angeles. Silva’s season had come off the tracks with shoulder fatigue and a heart condition contributing to bad starts and a stint on the disabled list. Dempster, to whom the team had constantly looked to rest a tired bullpen, grew weary under the weight of rising pitch counts and poor defense. His ERA since July 15th is 4.05, and he has walked 26 against only 43 strikeouts. In seven of his nine starts, the team has scored at least four times. Still, they have won only five games.

So there we have it. The tale of two seasons. During the first half, the Cubs were not offensively viable. During the second half, a combination of circumstances has depleted their pitching staff beyond repair. Because of a bad defense and a worse bullpen, the team could not overcome either shortcoming. The end result is a team that will feel fortunate if it reaches 70 wins.

How can general manager Jim Hendry avoid this problem next season? In part, that will take care of itself. The team suffered from a lack of organizational depth this season.

Next year, however, a number of strong pitchers will be ready to step up from the Minor Leagues and contribute if the need arises. Outfielder Brett Jackson could be ready for a mid-season call-up, and semi-prospects Marquez Smith and Brandon Guyer look able if the team needs an extra bat or two off the bench.

The entirely unstable managerial situation, which the team will presumably remedy by bringing aboard a new skipper this winter, may also have contributed to the team’s fractured personality, and that, too, will take care of itself.

Still, the Cubs will need outside help to contend in 2011, if indeed that is possible. Free agents Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre have reputations as consistent, steady contributors. Either would be a sensible addition. Neither would be sufficient alone. At any rate, Hendry and company must find some way to fix the crucial flaw of this 2010 Chicago Cubs team: extraordinarily bad timing.

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