The Chicago Cubs will open their 134th National League season Monday against the Houston Astros. The…
Cubs Will Again Have High Expectations
The biggest strengths are good balance and pop throughout the lineup and a deep and talented rotation. Right fielder Milton Bradley battled a minor leg injury and a flu bug at various points throughout the spring, but as a switch hitter he'll give the Cubs their much-desired powerful presence from the left side on most days. There were few questions about the leadoff spot this spring. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano will keep that job despite some outcry over the winter to move him down in the order.
Second baseman Mike Fontenot took the opportunity to replace the popular and versatile Mark DeRosa and ran with it. Fontenot is another left-handed batter who can sting the ball and get on base. Shortstop Ryan Theriot had a nice spring and showed signs that last year's big season was no fluke.
The Cubs have to be worried about two things, though: a middle-relief corps that looked shaky at times during spring training, and whether they have enough infield depth.
Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol give the Cubs a solid duo in the back of the 'pen, and both will get save opportunities. Aaron Heilman lost out to Sean Marshall for the fifth starter's spot, and he'll fill the seventh-inning role. Beyond that, it was hit and miss as Piniella tried to fill out the rest of the relief corps. Neal Cotts is the lone lefty, and he had a good overall spring. Chad Gaudin and Luis Vizcaino were spotty, at best, but they have healthy-sized contracts. It looks as if Jeff Samardzija may open the season in Class AAA as a starter.
In the infield, Aaron Miles figures to be the lone backup on the left side, but he was hampered by soreness in his throwing shoulder. That's a concern if third baseman Aramis Ramirez needs any time off.
Ahead of Marshall in the rotation, right-handers Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden are solid, as is lefty Ted Lilly. Harden needed time at the end of spring to catch up after a nasty stomach illness, and Lilly was away for the WBC.
THE CUBS WILL CONTEND IF ... Everybody stays healthy. Zambrano and Harden had cranky shoulders last year (Harden's problems are chronic), and Bradley has a long history of disabled-list stints; he also hasn't played much outfield in recent years in the American League. The Cubs are the deepest team, both offensively and pitching-wise, in the NL Central. An injury or two to a key player is the only thing that seemingly can derail this team because there isn't a whole lot of depth.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: Bradley seems happy after landing with a team that seems to want him. Bradley led the AL in on-base percentage and on-base-plus-slugging percentage last year. He's moving from a hitter-friendly park in Texas to another one in Chicago, although the tough sun field at Wrigley could give him trouble.
ON THE DECLINE: 1B Derrek Lee has seen his power numbers drop steadily since his monster season of 2005. At 33, Lee may be past his prime. The home runs didn't come during spring training either, so it seems 20 might be a realistic number for the season.
-- Harden was encouraged after throwing 63 pitches in a minor league game March 25. Harden had made only two Cactus League starts because the Cubs were taking it easy on his tricky shoulder. Then, a nasty stomach bug felled him, and he was still down about seven pounds when he pitched in the minor league contest. The Cubs said he was still on track to pitch twice before the exhibition season ends and then to start the fourth game of the regular season. Team officials said Harden's velocity was in the low 90s on his fastball against the minor-leaguers.
--C Geovany Soto figures to get a lot of playing time before the regular season begins. Soto was with Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but he didn't catch regularly. The Cubs were concerned that Soto had put on weight (this has been an annual concern with him). They also want him to hit the ball the opposite way to regain the hitting stroke that helped make him Rookie of the Year last season.
--3B Corey Koskie called off his comeback after only three games because of concerns about post-concussion syndrome. That's a worry for the team because the Cubs had hoped the left-handed-hitting Koskie could provide some insurance at third base and as a bat off the bench.
--1B/OF Micah Hoffpauir has all but sewn up a bench job. He beat out INF/OF Jake Fox, who had a hot spring, just as Hoffpauir did. Hoffpauir spent most of the spring leading the majors in RBIs. He's a left-handed batter who "hangs in there against lefties," according to Piniella. Hoffpauir is adequate at first base and somewhat less so in the outfield, but the Cubs were giving him plenty of outfield reps. He hit 25 homers and drove in 100 runs last year at Class AAA Iowa, and he batted .342 with two homers and eight doubles with the Cubs.
-- Fukudome saw his first Cactus League action March 27 against the White Sox. He was aggressive at the plate, going 1-for-4 in his first game. He also lost a high flyball in the sun. "We've got to get him some at-bats," Piniella said. "He's got to catch up here."
-- Vizcaino was making a late push to secure his spot in the bullpen. Through March 27, he had made three consecutive scoreless outings and five out of six after hitting a rough patch with his control. The Cubs are on the hook for $4 million with Vizcaino, whom they obtained in an offseason trade with the Rockies for RHP Jason Marquis.
--OF Brad Snyder was out-righted to Class AAA Iowa on March 27, thus removing him from the 40-man roster.
BY THE NUMBERS: 25 -- Piniella noted that Soriano has run well this spring and that he'd like him to steal 20 or even 25 bases this season. Soriano was hampered by leg problems last year, and he stole 19.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My stupidity." -- Fukudome on why his batting average declined precipitously in the second half of last season.
The Cubs got through spring training relatively unscathed from a health standpoint, but Piniella was eager to see his regular-season lineup intact after getting Soto and Fukudome back from the World Baseball Classic. The rotation looks strong, and the only real issue was how Piniella was going to fill out of the middle of his bullpen, an area that looked shaky at times during the Cactus League season.
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano
2. RHP Ryan Dempster
3. LHP Ted Lilly
4. RHP Rich Harden
5. LHP Sean Marshall
ROTATION ANALYSIS: This may be the best and deepest rotation in the NL. Zambrano seemed to shrug off concerns about the shoulder problems he had last year as he cruised his way through spring training and earned the Opening Day start. There had been some doubt about that because of Zambrano's inconsistency last year and the emergence of Dempster, who also had a sold spring on the heels of signing a new four-year contract.
Lilly has been a consistent performer, and the Cubs were eager to get him back from the World Baseball Classic. Harden's chronically bad shoulder seemed to hold up well after an offseason conditioning program. Marshall beat out several other candidates by a wide margin to win the fifth starter's job.
RHP Kevin Gregg (closer)
RHP Carlos Marmol (setup man)
RHP Aaron Heilman
LHP Neal Cotts
RHP Chad Gaudin
RHP Luis Vizcaino
RHP Jeff Samardzija or RHP David Patton
BULLPEN ANALYSIS: The bullpen has been overhauled since last season, with the departures of Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, Scott Eyre and Michael Wuertz. The back of the 'pen looks to be in good hands with Gregg and Marmol. Piniella says there will be save opportunities for both.
Things get a little iffy in the middle. Cotts will be the lone lefty, and he threw the ball well in the spring, continuing a trend that began late last year. Vizcaino and Gaudin both were inconsistent in spring training, raising red flags. Samardzija didn't help himself in the spring, either. The Cubs have toyed with keeping him a reliever at the big-league level or sending him to Class AAA to start and to work on his second and third pitches.
1. LF Alfonso Soriano
2. CF Kosuke Fukudome
3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. RF Milton Bradley
5. 3B Aramis Ramirez
6. 2B Mike Fontenot
7. C Geovany Soto
8. SS Ryan Theriot
LINEUP ANALYSIS: The surprise of all surprises was that there was little or no talk of moving Soriano out of the leadoff spot during spring training. That had been all the rage in Chicago after the Cubs' second three-and-out in the playoffs, with Soriano among those failing and flailing at the plate. Piniella says Soriano is comfortable in the leadoff spot, and that's pretty much that.
Piniella may be taking a big chance with Fukudome batting second against right-handed pitchers (Reed Johnson will play against lefties and some righties). Fukudome struggled in the second half last year. Piniella may go for this arrangement for a while, but he's likely to have little patience with Fukudome. Theriot hit second much of last year, and Fontenot can hit there, too.
The other player to watch will be Lee. His power numbers have trended downward in recent years, but Piniella has resisted moving him out of the No. 3 spot.
INF Aaron Miles
C Paul Bako or C Koyie Hill
OF Reed Johnson
OF Joey Gathright
1B/OF Micah Hoffpauir
RESERVES ANALYSIS: GM Jim Hendry seems comfortable with his bench, even though it might be a little thin on the left side of the infield. That will become a concern if Ramirez comes up with a nagging injury. Miles can play third, but he's best suited in the middle. On top of it, his right shoulder bothered him for much of spring training.
Johnson figures to see a lot of starting time, especially if Fukudome falters. Gathright is more of a specialist who will be used for defense and pinch-running. Hoffpauir spent most of spring training leading the majors in RBIs. He's a left-handed batter and an "older" rookie at 29.
ROOKIE WATCH: There was just no keeping Hoffpauir off the team. He hit 25 homers and drove in 100 runs last in year in only 71 games at Class AAA Iowa. He hit two homers and eight doubles with the Cubs in limited action. He's 29, and the Cubs feel he may be able to come off the bench and hit, something that can be tough for rookies to do.
Patton, a Rule 5 draft pick from Colorado via a trade with the Reds, impressed the Cubs with his aggressiveness in spring training. The team was pushing a decision whether to keep him to the very end of spring training.
Harden (chronic right shoulder problems) had the double whammy of coming down with a bad case of food poisoning late in camp. The Cubs are looking at a total of four spring starts for Harden, who is slated to start the fourth game of the regular season. The velocity on the fastball was in the low-90s, and both he and the Cubs say the shoulder is healthy.
Miles (sore right shoulder) nursed the injury through the spring. The Cubs want him to fill in at second base, third base and shortstop. But the shoulder limited him mainly to second base for the second half of the Cactus League season.
Lee (sore right quadriceps) was slowed during spring training. He missed nearly a week but said he would have played had it been the regular season.
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