SEASON PREVIEW: Question Marks Loom

The Cubs had some key question marks they hoped to have answered at the beginning of spring training.

Toward the end of camp, they might have some more.

The shoulder injury that Mark Prior developed in mid-March has weakened what appeared to be a solid rotation with quality help on the way. Heading into camp, it appeared that Carlos Zambrano, Prior, Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams would open the season in the rotation with Kerry Wood and Wade Miller (both are coming off offseason shoulder injuries) returning early in the season.

But with Prior's injury -- and unknown time frame for his return -- the rotation will open the season with Zambrano, Rusch, Maddux, Williams and a rookie -- either Sean Marshall, Angel Guzman, Rich Hill or Jae Kuk Ryu.

Wood might return in late April or early May, and Miller could return in May.

But for the time being, Rusch (9-8, 4.52 last year) and Williams (6-8, 3.91) need to step it up early and Maddux (13-15, 4.24) needs to return to the vintage Maddux of old.

Power hitters Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Jacque Jones had been scalding the ball in Cactus League games in Arizona, but over the years, the Cubs have seen Cactus League superstars go cold when the regular season starts. Last year, one of the best exhibition hitters for the Cubs was shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, but he slumped to open the season before suffering a groin injury.

Two closely watched youngsters will be left fielder Matt Murton and shortstop Ronny Cedeno.

Murton appears to be a solid hitter with power who doesn't think he has to hit the ball over the fence all the time. The Cubs hope he develops into a smart, situational hitter who can drive home runs with singles and doubles as well as with homers.

Cedeno struggled at the plate in Arizona and will likely start the season batting eighth in the lineup. But he hit .300 in 41 games with the parent squad last year, .355 at Triple-A Iowa and .355 in winter ball in Venezuela.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 3B Aramis Ramirez is already one of the better RBI men in the game. But the cleanup hitter could have a particularly big season if leadoff man Juan Pierre (.355 lifetime on-base percentage) gets on base and opponents try to pitch around third-place hitter Derrek Lee.

ON THE DECLINE: RHP Greg Maddux is a certain Hall of Famer when he retires, but the soon-to-be 40-year-old is not the Maddux of old. He endured his first losing season (13-15) since 1987 last year. He gave up triple-digit earned runs (106) for the first time in his career and had a career-worst ERA of 4.24. Still, he gave the Cubs 35 starts, 225 innings and double-digit victory totals and is far from washed up. And he is a good guy to have in the rotation and serves as a mentor to younger pitchers who seek his advice.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RHP Jerome Williams had a 9.00 ERA in his first four Cactus League starts.

Glendon Rusch had a 7.31 ERA in his first five starts.

With injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, these two Cubs pitchers are going to be depended on heavily to keep the team afloat throughout April. While both have struggled early in the hitter-friendly environments of Arizona, manager Dusty Baker has confidence in his two pitchers once the season starts.

"They are both throwing the ball good, it's been a matter of location," Baker said. "I'm confident it will come.

"They pitched well in the past. They could pitch well in the present and the future. I'm not too worried. You want them to be in great form right now, but they do have some time and a couple of starts left."

Rusch (9-8, 4.52 ERA last year) will start the team's second game of the regular season on April 5 in Cincinnati while Williams (6-8, 3.91 in 2005) will pitch the fourth game of the year against St. Louis at Wrigley Field.

--1B Derrek Lee says he thinks the Cubs and his representatives "are on the same page" when it comes to hammering out a possible contract extension by the end of camp. Last year, the Cubs and 3B Aramis Ramirez were in a similar negotiating session, and the sides agreed to a deal the morning of Opening Day.

--OF Angel Pagan made an impression by hitting .346 with two homers and four RBI in his first 26 at-bats. The speedy switch-hitting rookie figures to snag one of the final two roster spots for position players if he stays healthy. Pagan was recently experiencing quadriceps pain.

--C Geovany Soto was sent back to Triple-A Iowa on Thursday (March 23) despite hitting .400 in 10 games. Soto, who picked up one at-bat on the major league level last year, figures to be the main call-up if Michael Barrett or Henry Blanco is injured. Soto was able to get extended playing time this spring when Barrett and Blanco participated in the World Baseball Classic.

--INF Dylan Johnston made quite a first impression. The 19-year-old, who never played higher than rookie league ball, hit a home run in his first Cactus League at bat against San Diego on Wednesday (March 22). He is a fourth-round draft pick who a year ago was playing high school ball in Chandler, Ariz.

--RHP Juan Mateo, who was taken by St. Louis in the Rule 5 draft during the winter meetings in December, was returned to the Cubs and assigned to minor league camp.

BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Consecutive at-bats in which third baseman Aramis Ramirez had hits during a four-game stretch in Cactus League play.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's nothing on hold -- these games are going to go on regardless. The wins and losses go on your record regardless. Nothing is on hold. You wish you can stop time. I'm looking at that clock and the second hand is still ticking." -- Cubs manager Dusty Baker when asked if the team had its plans on hold with the injuries to starting pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.


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