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Monday, July 6, 2009
Updated: August 4, 1:01 PM ET
Central command

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

The Cubs are going to win the NL Central, and they're going to win it as comfortably as sitting on a pink, cushy sofa in one of those roped-off areas at a Las Vegas nightclub, where a hostess pours a bottle of chilled vodka for you, and someone definitely not in your church group is purring nearby, and … well, anyway, the Cubs are going to win the division, OK?

Carlos Zambrano
Carlos Zambrano is part of a pitching staff that will lead the Cubs to another division title.
I can give you five quick reasons why it isn't going to be as close as you think:

1) Ted Lilly
2) Ryan Dempster
3) Randy Wells
4) Carlos Zambrano
5) Rich Harden

If those five guys stay healthy (and Harden has already been on the DL once), then Cubs win … Cubs win. It's really that simple.

No other team in the Central has the Cubs' pitching depth. And as July turns into August, and August turns into September, and September turns into October, more and more teams will begin dipping into their Triple-A, and maybe even their Double-A, affiliates for pitching. Meanwhile, the Cubs will have Lilly, Dempster, Wells, Zambrano and Harden. Over the course of the second half, that becomes a huge advantage for the Cubs.

Nothing against the Milwaukee Brewers, but they're not going to win with a rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, and prayers for rain and snow squalls. Brewers All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun is already chirping about Milwaukee's pitching, which is never a good sign:

"No matter who is in there, we have to find a way to throw the ball better for us to have success," he told reporters after the Cubs won three of four against the Brewers. "I think when you're constantly behind in games, it's not easy and it's not fun. Their starting pitcher was clearly better than ours this series."

The division-leading St. Louis Cardinals arrive at Wrigley for a four-game series beginning Friday. (By the way, is it OK to walk Albert Pujols every at-bat?) The Cards' Dave Duncan is the Yoda of pitching coaches (St. Louis actually has a lower staff ERA than the Cubs -- 3.82 versus 3.88), but I don't see how much more lemonade he can squeeze out of a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Todd Wellemeyer, Joel Pineiro, and a combination of Brad Thompson and Kyle Lohse. Carpenter and Wainwright are money, but the other four guys together are 19-25.

The Cincinnati Reds have trouble scoring runs (the Cubs know the feeling), and their rotation is beginning to show bruise marks. Johnny Cueto is 8-4, but his back has been a little cranky. Aaron Harang (5-8) is solid, but he hasn't won a game since May 25. Bronson Arroyo is 1-4 with an 8.41 ERA since June 13. Homer Bailey and Micah Owings are, well, Homer Bailey and Micah Owings.

Roy Oswalt is tougher than an MMA fight, and Wandy Rodriguez actually leads the Houston Astros' staff with seven wins and a 3.21 ERA. But Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Brian Moehler and maybe Felipe Paulino? Don't think so.

I'm not sure what to say about the Pittsburgh Pirates' rotation. Zach Duke is a keeper. Who knows about Virgil Vasquez, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf?

So, in short, it's time for Cubs followers to return all sharp objects to the knife rack. The All-Star break is almost here, and you and the Cubs survived. It doesn't seem possible, but despite the fourth-worst road record in the NL, a 12-14 record in one-run games, and the two-month absence of cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs begin the week being a manageable 2½ games out of first.

Yes, the memory of Alfonso Soriano in the leadoff spot is as difficult to put out as a grease fire. But he's in the bottom third of the batting order now, where he and his .290 on-base percentage and .226 batting average belong. That's the good news. The bad news: Soriano is 33 and is signed through 2014. According to legendary stats analyst Bill James, 33 is the age formerly great offensive players tend to suffer significant reductions in production. Uh-oh.

Actually, I think you can make a case for Soriano's belonging on the bench rather than in the starting lineup. Or, at the very least, splitting time with Jake Fox in left field until he remembers how to hit with power (one home run in his last 113 at-bats). Will it hurt Cubs management to see Soriano and his $17 million salary sitting in the dugout? Sure. But do you want to win games or not? Think of it this way: You're getting Soriano and Fox for about $17.4 million.

Lou Piniella
Lou Piniella may age in front of our eyes, but he'll guide the Cubs to a division title by a comfortable margin.
It also would be nice if Milton Bradley began hitting like Milton Bradley. And if Kosuke Fukudome could pretend every month is April. And if Geovany Soto could remember what it was like to be the NL Rookie of the Year.

In the end, though, it will come down to starting pitching. It always does. The Cubs have more of the good stuff than the Cardinals, Brewers, Astros, Reds and Pirates. Then again, they also have Zambrano, who could explode like an M-80 anytime.

But I'll take my chances in the second half with these guys, including the goofy Big Z. And I think the trickle-down effect of Ramirez's return means the Cubs' offense won't be kidnapped for days at a time.

So watch manager Lou Piniella age before your eyes. Count how many times he begins a sentence with, "Look …" Keep track of his non-shave days. But by Oct. 4, the last day of the regular season, the Cubs will own the NL Central -- something in the five-game-lead variety sounds about right.

The first half of 2009 will be a distant memory. Just like those Vegas sofas.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.