Cubs Pre-season Report

Last year, the Cubs went into spring training with eyes on the World Series. A day before camp opened, they added to an already strong starting rotation when they picked up Greg Maddux.

Not only did they fail to make the World Series, they could not make a return trip to the playoffs. Injuries, controversies and a 3-7 finish helped keep the Cubs out of the postseason.

But spring training is always a time for optimism, and Cubs manager Dusty Baker took some positives out of the disappointing 2004 season. He led the Cubs to back-to-back winning records for the first time since Leo Durocher did it in 1971-72, and the 89-victory total was one better than in 2003, when the Cubs won the division and made it to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

"I think people lose sight that we did have a better record last year than the year before," Baker said. "It took less games to win the division the year before. That's what happens. I think Seattle won 93 games two years ago and had to go home because of Oakland's record (96 victories). We won 88 and won the division. A lot of it is how strong the division is and how strong the wild card situation is."

The Cubs made some pretty big changes in the locker room this off-season. Gone are star right fielder Sammy Sosa (traded to Baltimore), left fielder Moises Alou (who went to San Francisco as a free agent after the Cubs refused to pick up his option) and starting pitcher Matt Clement (a free agent who went to Boston). All three of those players were with the North Siders for at least three years, and Sosa was with them since 1992. The Cubs still figure to have a strong starting rotation with Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Maddux. It could still be one of the best in baseball if everyone stays healthy.

Despite missing Sosa and Alou's combined 74 homers and 186 RBI from last year, the offense should be strong. Nomar Garciaparra, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Corey Patterson and Jeromy Burnitz are capable of putting up impressive power numbers.

The big question mark is the bullpen.

Heading into camp, veteran starter Ryan Dempster will have a shot at the closer job, and LaTroy Hawkins (nine blown saves in 2004) and Joe Borowski (33 saves in 2003 and injured most of 2004) will try to re-claim the role. The Cubs might be looking for outside help and have Oakland closer Octavio Dotel on their radar screen.

WHERE, WHEN: The Cubs train at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz., before moving to HoHoKam Park in Mesa for the Cactus League season. They open the exhibition season against Oakland in Phoenix on March 3 and host San Francisco at HoHoKam on March 4.

WHO'S IN CHARGE: Manager Dusty Baker (13th season as manager, 1,017-862 career record, three time National League Manager of the Year), pitching coach Larry Rothschild, bench coach Dick Pole, hitting coach Gene Clines, first base coach Gary Matthews, third base coach Chris Speier, bullpen coach Juan Lopez, special assistant coach Sonny Jackson.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: Garciaparra. He was slowed by an Achilles tendon injury in 2004, and that hurt his chances for a huge multiyear deal. The Cubs, who traded for the longtime Red Sox star last July, signed Garciaparra to a one-year, $8 million deal heavy with incentives, and he is out to prove he is healthy and ready to put up some beefy numbers. He is penciled in as the third hitter in the lineup, and that could help bolster his offense as well.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RF Jeromy Burnitz is replacing Sosa in the lineup, and some pro-Sosa fans are already disappointed because he will not hit 50 or 60 homers, or drive in 150 runs, and he strikes out too much. But the fact is that Sosa hit 40 homers in 2003 and 35 in 2004, and Burnitz can reach those numbers. True, Burnitz will have his share of strikeouts, but he is also an upgrade on defense.

NOTES, QUOTES

—RHP Kyle Farnsworth, who had an up-and-down career in six seasons with the Cubs, was dealt to Detroit on Feb. 9 for three prospects. Farnsworth possesses a fastball that can register in triple figures, but inconsistency has always been his problem. He finished his Cubs career with a 22-37 mark with a 4.78 ERA and four career saves. The Cubs, who have resisted making Farnsworth a part of a deal in the past, figure that a change of scenery will help the 28-year-old fireballer while they stock up their farm system.

—LHP Glendon Rusch heads into camp as a favorite to earn the fifth spot in the starting rotation. But because he was so successful as a versatile starter-reliever last year, he could end up in a similar role if RHP Sergio Mitre has a hot spring and takes the fifth spot.

—RHP Angel Guzman, one of the Cubs' top pitching prospects, threw a few bullpen sessions for Cubs officials during the winter and was impressive. Guzman had shoulder surgery in 2003 and made just 11 minor league appearances in 2004. It's likely he will break camp with Triple-A Iowa and be available for a call-up during the season.

—INF Dave Hansen, who signed a minor league deal, could be one of the few non-roster invitees to stick with the club. The team could use another infielder, and he has 137 pinch hits in his career.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5—Minor league players the Cubs received in two early February deals that sent Sosa to Baltimore and Farnsworth to Detroit.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "At times he showed a lot of improvement but had some hiccups along the way, too." —Cubs general manager Jim Hendry on Farnsworth.

ROSTER REPORT

ARRIVALS: C Henry Blanco (free agent from Minnesota), LHP Stephen Randolph (trade with Arizona), IF-OF Jerry Hairston Jr. (trade with Baltimore), RF Jeromy Burnitz (free agent from Colorado).

DEPARTURES: RHP Matt Clement (free agent to Boston), LHP Kent Mercker (free agent to Cincinnati), LF Moises Alou (free agent to San Francisco), INF Ramon Martinez (free agent to Detroit), 2B Mark Grudzielanek (free agent to St. Louis), C Paul Bako (free agent to Los Angeles), RF Sammy Sosa (traded to Baltimore), OF Tom Goodwin (signed a minor league deal with Tampa Bay), RHP Kyle Farnsworth (traded to Detroit).

PROJECTED ROTATION:
—RHP Kerry Wood finished under .500 (8-9) for the first time in his career lsat season. A triceps injury kept him out for two months, and the strikeout ace hopes to recover with a big season in 2005. He will likely be the team's Opening Day starter for the third straight year.

—RHP Mark Prior spent the first two months of the season on the disabled list with Achilles tendon and elbow woes and finished the season strong, posting a 2.17 ERA in five starts in September. If healthy, the 24-year-old Prior could be in line for his first career 20-win season.

—RHP Carlos Zambrano is viewed by some as being better than star teammates Prior and Wood. He had a career-best 16-8 record with a 2.75 ERA and made the National League All-Star team in 2004. He's still an emotional powderkeg on the mound, and it has hurt him at times, but he believes that pitching with emotion has helped him more than hurt him.

—RHP Greg Maddux nailed down 16 victories for the third straight year, and the 38-year-old led the Cubs with 212 2/3 innings. His 4.02 ERA and 35 homers allowed were alarming, but the bottom line is that he can still win.

—LHP Glendon Rusch is not guaranteed the final spot in the rotation, but heading into spring training he is the leading candidate. Rusch was 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA splitting time as a starter and reliever in 2004 after going 1-12 with a 6.42 ERA with Milwaukee the season before. He could be pushed for the job by RHP Sergio Mitre.

If this rotation stays healthy, it can lay claim as one of the best in the game and can lead the Cubs into the playoffs. The hype and expectations were high in 2004 and the injuries to Wood and Prior took their toll, but Maddux and Zambrano held up their end of the bargain by each winning 16 games.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:
—RHP Ryan Dempster will be given the opportunity to close during spring training even though he has been a starter most of his career. Dempster posted a 3.92 ERA and two saves in 23 appearances in 2004 after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery in 2003.

—RHP LaTroy Hawkins blew nine saves in 2004, but manager Dusty Baker believes the longtime successful setup man was hindered by not knowing the National League. Still, if Dempster is effective, look for Hawkins to be an eighth-inning man.

—RHP Joe Borowski came out of nowhere to notch 33 saves in 2003 but was on the shelf most of 2004 with a shoulder injury. Borowski also had minor knee surgery but lost some weight and could come to camp in great shape. He could also contend for the open closer's spot.

—LHP Mike Remlinger is in the final year of a three-year contract, and injuries marred his 2004 season. He can usually make 70-plus appearances, but he was hindered by a shoulder injury, which allowed him to make just 48 last year. The 38-year-old Remlinger wants to prove he still has it when he tests the free agent waters next offseason.

—LHP Stephen Randolph will have to fight off LHPs Will Ohman and Raul Valdez for a spot as second lefty in the bullpen. Randolph came to the Cubs in a trade with Arizona, where he was effective out of the bullpen. He struggled in a starting role with the Diamondbacks in 2004.

—RHP Jon Leicester won five games in middle relief in 2004 and will battle Michael Wuertz, Todd Wellemeyer, Chad Fox, Sergio Mitre and Roberto Novoa for a spot as righty setup man/long reliever.

There are a lot of guys battling for spots in the 'pen, but the Cubs are still searching for a clear-cut closer candidate. They might scout closers during spring training and make a deal then. They have their eyes on Dotel and could try to pull off a deal to bring him to town.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
—LF Jerry Hairston could be the leadoff man the Cubs are looking for. Last year, they used eight different players at leadoff. Hairston has an on-base percentage of .342 as a leadoff hitter the last three seasons with Baltimore.

—2B Todd Walker nailed 15 homers in a part-time role, sharing duties with Mark Grudzielanek last year. This year, he has the starting job and could bang out 20-25 homers.

—SS Nomar Garciaparra has a one-year, $8 million deal with plenty of incentives to prove he is fully recovered from an Achilles tendon injury. The Cubs are crossing their fingers he can deliver a 30-homer, 100-plus RBI season.

—3B Aramis Ramirez drove home 103 runs last year, but the most amazing part of his game was that he made just 10 errors in 2004 after committing 33 the season before.

—CF Corey Patterson could bat fifth or sixth depending on whether manager Dusty Baker wants to split up his lefties or let them bat consecutively. Patterson nailed 24 home runs in 2004 even though he spent 55 games leading off. He is more comfortable as a power hitter, and his triple-digit strikeout totals will not hurt the team as much in a power hole as they did when he led off.

—1B Derrek Lee could have enjoyed a monster season, but he got off to one of his typically slow starts (.233 with two homers and 11 RBI in April). However, he heated up and finished with a .278 average with 32 homers and 98 RBI.

—RF Jeromy Burnitz replaces Sammy Sosa and had a better season in 2004 than Sosa (Burnitz hit 37 homers and drove in 110 runs for Colorado while Sosa had 35-80 for the Cubs). Some fans worry that Burnitz's numbers last year were inflated because of Coors Field, but he points out he has put up big numbers everywhere he has played.

—C Michael Barrett had 16 homers and drove in 65 runs, which sounds modest. But those are the best power numbers by a Cubs catcher since 1993.

Although the Cubs are in dire need of a solid leadoff man, Hairston doesn't get the job automatically. He must prove himself to be an everyday left fielder in spring training. The Cubs are eying OF Todd Hollandsworth and rookie OF Jason Dubois as possible left-field candidates, but Hairston's leadoff ability gives him the edge. The Cubs believe their lineup can withstand the losses of Sosa and Alou, who combined for 74 homers and 186 RBI last year.

PROJECTED RESERVES:
—C Henry Blanco has thrown out more than 40 percent of baserunners trying to steal off him during his career and worked well with Maddux when the two were with Atlanta.

—OF Todd Hollandsworth returns from a shin injury that ended his season in late June. He hit .318 in 57 games and .563 in 16 pinch-hit situations, and was also a solid fill-in when Sosa was sidelined with a back injury.

—INF Neifi Perez hit .371 in 62 at-bats last September after he was released by San Francisco. He's versatile and a good guy to have on the bench.

—INF-OF Jose Macias played five different positions last year and drove in six runs as a pinch hitter.

—OF Jason Dubois nailed 31 homers and drove in 99 runs for Triple-A Iowa last year. He played 20 games on the major league level.

—INF Dave Hansen signed a minor league deal but could battle rookie OF David Kelton (who is out of options) to land one of the final roster spots. Hansen has 137 career pinch hits--the third most on baseball's all-time list.

Baker uses his bench constantly, and when Hollandsworth went down with a shin injury in late June, his absence was felt. If he's back and stays healthy, he can be a valuable part of the team. There is even a chance he will be able to be a starter in left field.

Blanco figures to be more than just Maddux's personal backstop. He threw out 45 percent of would-be base stealers for Minnesota last year and banged out 10 home runs in 114 games. The bench may not be as strong as last year, when Walker backed up Grudzielanek, but it can still be respectable.

TOP ROOKIES:
—OF Jason Dubois hit a home run, triple and four RBI in the season-ending contest against Atlanta last year. Combine that with a great season at Triple-A and he should have the confidence for a breakout spring.

—RHP Angel Guzman is not likely to break camp with the parent squad, but all eyes will be on his progress. Several scouting services rank him as the top Cubs pitching prospect, and he made just 11 minor league appearances last year after undergoing shoulder surgery the year before. He is said to be stronger than ever after throwing a few sessions for Cubs officials during the winter.

SPRING FOCUS: Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen.

The Cubs are looking to find a closer, whether it's internally or in a trade. They also have 10 legitimate candidates for six bullpen spots. Rusch and Mitre will battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Hairston will battle Hollandsworth and rookie Dubois for the starting left-field spot.

MEDICAL WATCH: The Cubs will find out how well Borowski (partially torn right rotator cuff and arthroscopic surgery on his left knee) and Hollandsworth (injured right shin) bounce back. RHP Scott Williamson (Tommy John surgery in 2004) will not open the season with the club, but the Cubs think there is a chance he could be on the hill in August or September.


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