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Waiting for spring thaw in Chicago

Cubs manager Lou Piniella knows that the sled moves more efficiently when the lead dog drags all the others along for the ride. That sports bromide has a literal application on the route from Anchorage to Nome, and a figurative one at the corner of Clark and Addison.

"When your No. 1 starter is pitching well, it really helps the whole rotation," Piniella said. "When your closer is pitching well, it helps your bullpen. And when the middle part of your lineup is functioning, it helps the rest of the lineup. Everybody relaxes a little more. I don't have an answer why, but it's always been that way."

The converse is also true, and it helps explain why the 2010 Cubs have a 19-24 record, languish six games out in the National League Central and look like a team that might be lucky to finish third in the division behind St. Louis and Cincinnati.

"I think they're dead in the water," said an NL scout who's seen his share of Piniella's team this season.

While closer Carlos Marmol has been terrific and Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny have helped offset Carlos Zambrano's strange odyssey from the rotation to the bullpen and back again, two factors help explain why the Cubs' offense has stalled at regular intervals this season.

Their names are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

Lee, Chicago's first baseman and No. 3 hitter, and Ramirez, the team's third baseman and Lee's nominal protector in the order, have alternated between bad and worse through the first quarter of the season. In a lineup filled largely with pleasant surprises, they've been a drag on the Cubs' ambitions.

Outfielders Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome and infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot are hitting over .300, catcher Geovany Soto has a .446 on-base percentage and rookies Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin have made positive early impressions. But with the exception of a 14-run outburst against Cincinnati and 80 runs in 10 games against Arizona and Milwaukee, the Cubs' offense has been dormant.

That's mostly a reflection of the big boys, who've spent six weeks pulling off breaking balls, fouling fastballs back to the screen, rolling over outside pitches for 6-3 groundouts and hitting into bad luck when they do make hard contact.

Lee, a career .261 hitter in April and May (compared to .295 from June through September) is accustomed to slow starts. He looked lost coming out of spring training in 2009 only to heat up in May and post some of the best numbers of his career. But last year's revival doesn't make this slump any easier to accept.

"I'm pretty good at keeping an even temperament," Lee said, "but it's no fun to go out there and make outs. When everybody else is having success, you just want to be a part of that. I know that if I hit in the middle of the order, it makes our lineup go better."

"When you stay square and back the ball up, it allows you to make a good decision. It's something they have to work out as they go. It can be mechanical, it can be mental, or it can be both.''

-- Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo

It hasn't happened yet. Lee is hitting .222 and has a slugging percentage of .352 -- 24th-best among first basemen with at least 100 at-bats. Only Seattle's Casey Kotchman and Baltimore's Garrett Atkins have lower slugging percentages at the position.

Lee looks good only in comparison to Ramirez, who's batting .166 and has three multi-hit games all season. Ramirez went homerless in 108 straight at-bats before hitting a two-run, 11th-inning walk-off shot to beat Colorado 4-2 on Monday. The Cubs hoped that blast might be a springboard to better things, but Ramirez is hitless in eight at-bats since. He missed the opener of an interleague series in Texas on Friday with a thumb injury.

Renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, three months into his tenure with the Cubs, likes his hitters to get their front foot down quickly and have a strong back side. That said, both Lee and Ramirez have been a little too quick at times, rushing to swing at pitches outside their respective comfort zones. Is it because they're overanxious, trying too hard, having trouble with pitch recognition or feeling a need to "cheat" to catch up with the hard stuff? No one has been able to solve that Sudoku puzzle.

"It's basically the same thing," Jaramillo said. "Their timing is off, and they're not letting the ball get deep enough [in the strike zone]."

Jaramillo refers to that phenomenon as "backing the ball up." The precious milliseconds sacrificed through excessive jumpiness can mean the difference between a productive at-bat and a lost cause.

"When you stay square and back the ball up, it allows you to make a good decision," Jaramillo said. "It's something they have to work out as they go. It can be mechanical, it can be mental, or it can be both."

Ramirez is walking less and striking out more this season, and that's only part of his problem: According to FanGraphs.com, he's hitting fewer line drives and ground balls, and he's generating fly balls 60 percent of the time, compared to 44 percent last season. That's fine when those balls are clearing the fence. But when they die at the warning track, it means a lot of U-turns and jogs back to the dugout.

As for Lee, he's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and putting them in play more often. But when the result is more weak pop flies and rollovers than line drives to the gap, he might be better off swinging and missing more frequently.

"Some days have been better than others, obviously," Lee said. "But I haven't found that groove where I'm really seeing the ball and putting a good swing on it when I get my pitch. I know I've had a ton of poor starts, but I didn't see this coming."

Lee, in the final year of a five-year, $65 million contract, said his pending free agency has not affected his focus on the field. Ramirez, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has a guaranteed $16.6 million owed to him after this season as he winds down on a five-year, $75 million deal.

History says that when Lee and Ramirez do start hitting, some other Cubs will go in the deep freeze. Fukudome has been a master of the second-half fade in his first two seasons with Chicago, and Theriot produced seven extra-base hits and a .303 slugging percentage after the break in 2009.

If this helps, Lee and Ramirez will receive all the moral support and plate appearances they need until the hits start falling. Short of making a big trade or resurrecting the careers of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks with a Hot Tub Time Machine, do the Cubs have any other choice?

"Those guys have been around and they've been successful for a long time," Soto said of Ramirez and Lee. "We all have faith in them. It's our time to pick them up until they turn it on, but you can see things starting to turn for the better."

Until the numbers begin to reflect that turnaround, Piniella will keep a dugout vigil for good at-bats and other telltale signs that the ice is about to crack.

"I've seen spurts, but I haven't seen the consistency yet," Piniella said. "They've both struggled this year, no question."

Struggled? That's a classic case of manager-speak, an understatement and a euphemism rolled into one. The status quo better end soon, or it's going to be a forgettable summer at Wrigley.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.