Last year, Piniella spent all of spring training and the first two months of the regular season getting to know what the Cubs had. Not surprisingly, the Cubs got off to a poor start and had to scramble the rest of the way to make the playoffs.
With the exception of RF Kosuke Fukudome, an established player in Japan, Piniella and his coaching staff know what they've got this spring.
So Piniella's main focus this spring will be to see who emerges to play center field and how the rotation shakes out.
Rookie Felix Pie will be given every opportunity to win the starting job in center after struggling in 87 games last year. By the end of the season, Pie's time was limited to late-inning defensive situations. Another rookie, Sam Fuld, will push Pie. Fuld, who made a good impression during a September call-up, was MVP of the Arizona Fall League.
The top four of the rotation are set with Carlos Zambrano, lefties Ted Lilly and Rich Hill and recently signed righty Jon Lieber. The final spot figures to be a battle among incumbent righty Jason Marquis, converted closer Ryan Dempster, lefty Sean Marshall and youngster Sean Gallagher.
Dempster requested a return to a starting role after closing for the Cubs since 2005. The Cubs will give Dempster a good look, but it's not out of the question that he could end up back in the bullpen.
If Dempster sticks as a starter, the Cubs likely will turn to Bob Howry as their closer. Howry saved eight games last year, stepping in when Dempster was injured. Velocity has been a problem for Howry in the early going of recent years, and that could spell trouble. However, Howry said he has tried to remedy that by throwing from a mound earlier this winter.
Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood could be closers-in-waiting. Scott Eyre had a strong second half, and he'll be the left-handed setup man.
Behind the plate, the Cubs are ready to turn over the starting job to Geovany Soto, who has 30 games of major league experience. Soto came up in September and won a spot on the playoff roster. He batted .353 with 26 homers and 109 RBIs last year at Class AAA Iowa. The Cubs aren't expecting those kinds of numbers at the big-league level, and they'll gladly live with a slight drop-off because they like Soto's defense.
WHERE, WHEN: Fitch Park, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 14-26. The Cubs move to HoHoKam Park in Mesa on Feb. 27. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 at the Giants.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: INF Ronny Cedeno came up in 2005 with all kinds of promise but never grabbed the shortstop job and ran with it. Cedeno played some center field in winter ball, and he could turn into a utility player. Manager Lou Piniella cited maturity as a problem for Cedeno. If Cedeno, 25, shows he understands what's expected of him, he could push Ryan Theriot for the starting job at short.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: Is Felix Pie the Cubs' next superstar or the next Corey Patterson? The Cubs spent much of the winter monitoring Pie's progress, even sending hitting coach Gerald Perry to work with him. Pie needs to improve his plate discipline and strike-zone knowledge. The Cubs also want him to bunt more and hit the ball to the left, or opposite, side. Pie is only 23, and he may need more time to catch up with the learning curve.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Lou Piniella lifted the Cubs from last-place sad sacks in 2006 to 85-77 division winners in 2007. He has a lifetime managerial record of 1,604-1,497, which leaves him 15th in wins all-time. Piniella's greatest strength is sizing up talent quickly. He finds out who can play and who can't. If you can play, you play. If not, you sit, or Piniella has GM Jim Hendry get rid of you. Bench coach Alan Trammell has Piniella's ear, and the pitchers have great respect for pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
--With the trade of LHP Will Ohman to the Braves in December, the Cubs have one bona fide lefty in the bullpen: Scott Eyre. The Cubs caution not to forget about Neal Cotts, who opened the season in Chicago last year before being demoted to Class AAA Iowa. Cotts started six games at Iowa, but he'll be back in the bullpen this spring. The longshot lefty is Carmen Pignatiello, a Chicago-area product who pitched in four games for the Cubs last season.
--The sleeper of spring training just might be RHP Jose Ceda, a non-roster invitee. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Ceda has hit 97 mph on his fastball, and the Cubs consider him a fast-tracker. Ceda struck out 66 in 46 1/3 innings last year at low-A ball.
--The Cubs have loaded up on switch hitters among their non-roster invitees. Infielders Andres Blanco, Luis Figueroa and Bobby Scales hit from both sides, as do catcher J.D. Closser and OF Andres Torres. Manager Lou Piniella asked the front office to get him as many versatile players as possible.
--OF Matt Murton is a man without a position. Murton is a left fielder by trade, but OF Alfonso Soriano is entrenched there. The Cubs tried Murton in right, with mixed results, last year, but Kosuke Fukudome's arrival pushed Murton out of the starting picture. Murton is a patient, high on-base-percentage hitter, and the Cubs will try to trade him.
--One pitcher to watch in spring training is RHP Tim Lahey. The Cubs obtained Lahey from the Rays, who took him from the Twins in December's Rule 5 draft. Lahey had 13 saves for Class AA New Britain last year, and the Cubs like his sinking fastball. He'll be in the mix for middle relief.
BY THE NUMBERS: 20 -- Non-roster players invited to spring training. Among the veterans are RHP Shingo Takatsu and C Koyie Hill. The Cubs also have invited OF Tyler Colvin, their top pick in the 2006 draft, and C Josh Donaldson, a supplemental first-round pick in last year's draft.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The Chicago Cubs are the team to beat in the National League Central." -- Manager Lou Piniella.
The defending NL Central champions open spring training with a set roster, with battles expected only in center field and at the back of the rotation. Manager Lou Piniella and his staff spent most of last spring getting to know their players and the first two months of the season trying to iron out problems. With that behind them, the Cubs will focus on having better approaches at the plate so they don't run into scoring droughts such as the one that proved fatal in last year's playoffs.
ARRIVALS: RHP Jose Ascanio (trade with Braves), RF Kosuke Fukudome (free agent from Japan), RHP Jon Lieber (free agent from Phillies).
DEPARTURES: OF Jacque Jones (traded to Tigers), RHP Roberto Novoa (claimed off waivers by Orioles), C Jason Kendall (free agent, signed with Brewers), LHP Will Ohman (traded to Braves), OF Cliff Floyd (free agent, signed with Rays), RHP Mark Prior (non-tendered free agent, signed with Padres), RHP Steve Trachsel (non-tendered, unsigned).
SPRING FOCUS: Manager Lou Piniella will do minimal tinkering in his second year as Cubs manager. Over the winter, Piniella noted that none of his big hitters -- Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee or Aramis Ramirez -- enjoyed a career year in 2007, yet the Cubs still won their division. The addition of Fukudome gives the Cubs a high on-base percentage threat, and Piniella may move him into several spots in the order before settling on fifth.
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano
2. LHP Ted Lilly
3. LHP Rich Hill
4. RHP Jon Lieber
5. RHP Ryan Dempster
Zambrano has Cy Young potential, but he tends to lose focus on and off the mound. He signed a new long-term contract extension late last season, and perhaps that will settle him. This winter, he said he no longer would predict Cy Young Awards for himself, something he did last spring. Zambrano termed that a mistake. When he's on, he has some of the best pure stuff in baseball.
Lilly is a steady No. 2, and the Cubs would like to see Hill finally harness his great potential once and for all. Hill has a devastating curveball, and when he mixes it properly with his fastball, he can pile up the strikeouts while walking few.
The addition of Lieber and Dempster's move from closer to starter clearly put the heat on RHP Jason Marquis, whom the Cubs may yet trade. Marquis faltered down the stretch and fell out of favor with Piniella. LHP Sean Marshall has 45 games of big-league experience. Nagging injuries have kept him from pitching full seasons.
RHP Bob Howry (closer)
RHP Carlos Marmol
RHP Kerry Wood
LHP Scott Eyre
RHP Michael Wuertz
RHP Kevin Hart
The arrival of Marmol last year changed the entire complexion of the bullpen. If Dempster remains in the rotation, it's possible Marmol could slide into the closer's job and move Howry back into a setup role, where he has excelled for several years. Wood seemed fully recovered from shoulder surgery. If he can pitch back-to-back days or three days in four comfortably, he's also a closer candidate.
Piniella never had a true long reliever last year, but Hart could fill that role in 2008. The Cubs liked what they saw in late-season appearances. Wuertz is a steady middle man with a good slider.
1. LF Alfonso Soriano
2. SS Ryan Theriot
3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez
5. RF Kosuke Fukudome
6. 2B Mark DeRosa
7. C Geovany Soto
8. CF Felix Pie
Piniella made it easy on reporters by announcing his starting lineup in January during the team's annual fan convention. Of course, as with all things from Piniella, this is subject to change.
Even though Piniella has Fukudome penciled into the fifth spot, Piniella said Fukudome could hit second or third. Look for a lot of lineup juggling during Cactus League games.
The bottom third of the order could be soft if Soto can't continue his solid hitting from the minor leagues or if Pie proves again that he's not ready.
C Henry Blanco
1B/OF Daryle Ward
INF/OF Ronny Cedeno
INF Mike Fontenot
OF Sam Fuld
Blanco is one of the better backup catchers in baseball. A painful neck injury hampered him much of last year, but he was able to play 47 games of winter ball this offseason. Blanco is a good handler of pitchers and has a strong arm.
Ward proved to be a valuable pinch hitter, but he'll have to stay away from nagging injuries. Fuld made a splash in September, and he could conceivably push Pie for the starting job.
Cedeno also has starter's potential, and Piniella made a telling remark in the offseason when he said he wanted Cedeno to concentrate on baseball better, suggesting that the young infielder still has issues with maturity and concentration. During winter ball, Cedeno had an OBP of .396 and an OPS of .811.
TOP ROOKIES: CF Felix Pie is the Cubs' perennial "can't-miss" prospect. If Pie takes to heart the Cubs' teachings and lets his natural ability flow, he could blossom this year. One thing is for sure: Pie can go get it in center field, and that should help Alfonso Soriano in left.
The key to C Geovany Soto's success last year was twofold: The Cubs were patient with him and gave him another year at Class AAA. The other was that Soto got himself into good physical shape. He looked slim and trim over the winter. Soto calls games like a veteran, and he possesses a strong arm.
RHP Angel Guzman (elbow surgery in September 2007) will miss most of the 2008 season.