Taking the fifth

Jack McDowell

A team's success in April and May gets a team ready for the long summer months. For the teams in Chicago, the first two months of the season have played out much differently than expected.

The projected starting rotation of the Chicago Cubs has not included its two stars. With injuries to its top two aces – Mark Prior and Kerry Wood – the staff has taken on a new look. But still the Cubs remain in the hunt in the NL Central as Prior is set to return this week.

For the most part, the bottom part of the starting rotation has been doing its part. But if the Cubs had started the season with Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano as their top two starters, expectations would have been set much lower.

Losing Prior and Wood has been a big hit. The Cubs need those two guys to come back at the top of their game to meet the expectations of the Cubs this year.

People often talk about replacing a team's No. 1 and No. 2 starter, but that isn't the real story. Sometimes teams can replace the aces with the No. 3 or No. 4 – as the Cubs have (so far). But guess what? Someone then has to fill the No. 3 and No. 4 slots.

It is not so easy to replace good arms at the bottom of the rotation for any team. Look around the majors to see how many teams need good No. 4 and 5 starters. Most teams try a bunch of guys throughout the season to fill that spot.

The Cubs have been forced to look deeper into their organization to find additional arms. Any time that happens, the team is going to be in trouble. The Cubs had five solid arms to carry them through the season. Now they have been forced to find a sixth and seventh.

It isn't much of a surprise that the Cubs are still playing competitive baseball. The three healthy pitchers they do have – Clement, Zambrano and Greg Maddux – still make a pretty good trio and would keep most teams around .500 for the season. But to make a championship run, the Cubs need Wood and Prior.

With that said, the Cubs had better watch out in the NL Central. Five of the six teams are better than .500, and something has to give sooner or later. Prior returning this week would be big, especially if he is at top speed and ready to roll.

So far, the Cubs have done a good job without their horses and have shown that they can win. This could prove to be important down the line. When a team can succeed without its top two guys, everyone gets an overall boost.

The Cubs now know they can win a lot of games even without Prior and Wood carrying them. This feeling really pulls a team together in the long run.

On the South side of Chicago, the Chicago White Sox have a starting rotation that has been more than solid. And it is paying dividends throughout the pitching staff.

The White Sox are getting contributions from their top four starters and they are getting it on a consistent basis. This, along with a good offense, has Chicago atop the AL Central.

The White Sox's top four of Mark Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza, Scott Schoeneweis and Jon Garland have ERAs better than 4.00. They haven't been injured, and they are averaging at least six innings per start. No wonder they are 20-8.

Ozzie Guillen has done a good job of getting those guys ready. He has made it clear that he expects his pitchers to go out every day and throw their innings. This mindset has helped organize the entire pitching staff, especially the bullpen.

Every pitcher in the bullpen has a specific role, and the starters have allowed them to succeed. These guys aren't getting knocked out early and haven't left relievers in situations in which they are called on during the fifth inning to get one guy out. The fewer outs they need the bullpen to get, the better.

This is one of the main reasons Chicago's bullpen is doing so well even though you haven't heard many of their names (Shingo Takatsu and Jon Adkins have been especially good). These pitchers are following routines each day and it is working. After the fifth inning, they know to start to get ready and in the later innings, they have been ready.

The weak link for Chicago? The fifth starters are 0-7 with a 10.02 ERA. If the White Sox can add another arm to the rotation, look out.