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Cubs' turnaround has Lee pondering
With Neifi Perez traded to Detroit on Sunday before the Cubs' 5-3 loss to St. Louis, all three players who competed for the Cubs' second-base job in spring training are gone.
Jerry Hairston was traded to Texas in May for Phil Nevin, and Todd Walker was dealt to San Diego in July for two low-level prospects.
The Cubs haven't had a fire sale, but with Perez, Walker, Scott Williamson and Greg Maddux all traded since July 31, the clubhouse has grown younger, and youthful mistakes are becoming more common.
Rookie Juan Mateo exhibited that trait Sunday with two bad pitches in a 39-pitch first inninga solo homer to Chris Duncan and a three-run homer to Juan Encarnacion on a 79-m.p.h. curve that hung out over the plate.
Mateo regained his poise and threw shutout ball for six innings, but the Cubs' offense was absent against Chris Carpenter, who breezed through the lineup to improve to 12-6.
Despite losing two of three to St. Louis, the Cubs are 19-16 since the All-Star break. If they had played at that pace in May and June, when Derrek Lee was out with his broken wrist, they'd be in the thick of the wild-card race.
"The way we're playing now, it makes you ask the question, 'Why didn't we do this the whole season?'" Lee said. "With our division wide open, if we'd have played like this the couple of months we were out, we'd be right there. That's the main thing I ask myself."
Manager Dusty Baker said it's easy to say that but much harder to pull it off.
"You can't just play like that when you want to play like that," Baker said. "Things go in cycles. Some teams have been good in the first half, and some are better in the second half."
Baker pointed to the recent play of Juan Pierre, Aramis Ramirez and Perez, who was traded an hour after Baker's news conference.
"You can't just turn it on and off when you get ready," Baker said. "When we were all waiting for Derrek, that may have had something to do with it.
When you're waiting on your big gun sometimes, psychologically, everybody could've been waiting on Derrek.
"This is baseball. It's a sport. It's not a light switch where you can just turn it off and on whenever you're ready."
The Cubs will save about $500,000 on Perez's 2006 salary, and they're completely off the hook for his $2.5 million salary in '07.
Of the players who remain Cubs property in 2007, the team is committed to only $55 million: Lee ($13 million), Ramirez ($11.5 million), Ryan Dempster ($5.3 million), Jacque Jones ($5 million), Bob Howry ($4.5 million), Michael Barrett ($4.3 million), Cesar Izturis ($4.15 million), Scott Eyre ($4 million) and Glendon Rusch ($3.25 million).
Ramirez has an opt-out clause that allows him to renegotiate or file for free agency.
The other non-free agents are either arbitration-eligible, including Carlos Zambrano and Mark Prior, or have less than three years of major-league experience.
That should give general manager Jim Hendry plenty of flexibility in pursuing free agents, unless the Cubs decide that developing their own young pitchers can bring them back to respectability.