Definition of a Winner

Some time in the late 1970's, the rock group Steely Dan keenly observed: "They got a name for the winners in the world and ... they call Alabama the Crimson Tide." The Cubs know Felix Pie is a winner, too. Since his first full season at Class-A Lansing in 2003, Pie's clubs have won both division titles and league championships alike.

Yes, the Cubs know Pie is a winner. Where the uncertainty lies is in how much of his teams success Pie is directly responsible for over the years.

"I don't know if you want to label him as the winner or just a part of it, but he's always part of a team that wins and I think that's what sums him up," Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita said. "Felix is a team guy. He wants to be part of a team that wins and anything he can do to help, he will."

In 2003, Pie and the Lansing Lugnuts were crowned champions of the Class-A Midwest League. The following year, the Daytona Cubs split the Class-A Florida State League title with the Tampa Yankees.

In 2005, Pie helped lead Double-A West Tennessee to a first-half Southern League division championship and last year at Triple-A Iowa, Pie's team finished tied with Nashville for first place atop their division.

"At this point in his career, I guess you could say that he's been overmatched at some of these levels," Fleita said. "But when you get better and finish strong as he did (in 2006), to me that is the key to a winner – a guy that doesn't give up and keeps battling to the end and gets better."

Pie was certainly met with his fair share of battles last year. He struggled through the end of the first half of the season, and the frustrations were becoming rather obvious in his demeanor after games.

But Pie came on strong beginning in the month of July and closed out the year with the second most hits in the Pacific Coast League. He batted .283 and clubbed a career-high 15 home runs, driving in 57 runs.

When many of his teammates' seasons ended in early September, Pie's did not. Though the outfielder was disappointed not to join the Cubs as a late-season call-up once rosters expanded to 40 players on Sept. 1, he would spend two weeks in the annual Instructional League in Mesa, Ariz., beginning in October to hone his baserunning skills with Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator Bob Dernier. Afterward, it was back to the Dominican Republic for another stint of Winter League action.

All told, there hasn't been much time for Pie to get some rest, and that's not likely to change any time soon. Pie's stint with team Licey in the Dominican Winter League is expected to end later this month (possibly within the next week), but he won't have much time to enjoy the offseason before players begin reporting to Spring Training 2007 in late February.

"This is probably his last week (of Winter Ball)," Fleita confirmed. "Maybe he finishes out at the end of this month, but he's not going to play in the playoffs. He hasn't had any time off."

Through his first 30 games for Licey, Pie was batting .224, and Fleita said the crown jewel of the Cubs' system has been recently plagued by a sore arm.

"He had a minor little bump of an injury where he was sore and didn't play the last couple of weeks," said Fleita. "The Licey club is outstanding to work with. If a guy comes in and even appears fatigued, they have so many players on their roster to choose from that they're always overly conservative and just give the guys some time off."

That's a good thing, considering Pie's arm is a key part of his five tools. (No outfielder in the Pacific Coast League had more assists than Pie's total of 18 a year ago.)

"I'd say that in the big leagues, he'd be in the top five or six left-handed throwers in the game," Fleita said. "He's a plus-arm guy that throws up there with the (Jim) Edmonds's. He's got an accurate arm, too. Guys will think twice before they go first to third on Felix."

As the coveted five-tool player, Pie has hit well for average at every level where he's performed. The center fielder is widely credited with having the best throwing arm in the Cubs' system, as Fleita would seem to validate. His strong range also enables him to cover a good amount of ground.

And even though 2006 was his best year yet in the power department, that portion of his game is still in development. In terms of his running abilities, Pie stole 32 bases at Daytona in 2004, but did not match that total last year. In Instructs, Dernier worked with Pie on getting better jumps off opposing pitchers by way of a new stance while leaning off the bag.

"Felix has always been a guy that's doing it with his legs if he's not doing it with his bat," Fleita said. "He scores from first on normal doubles, or he wins the game with his glove."

Of all the tools Pie possesses, though, the one Fleita and the Cubs like the most doesn't show up on any of the stats pages.

"I just like the fact that he loves to play the game and he plays the game to win," Fleita said. "Those are qualities that we don't grade out. They don't show up in those five tools, but they're the ones that matter most."

With Juan Pierre leaving for the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles via free agency last November, it would seem that the longer the Cubs go without signing a center fielder this offseason, the better Pie's chances are of making new manager Lou Piniella's squad out of Spring Training.

All of that is still up in the air, but for now the Cubs are excited about a number of things with regards to their top prospect.

"He's going to end up hitting some home runs down the road," predicted Fleita. "Right now, he's just like a lot of young hitters. You want them to learn what they're capable of doing. A lot of young hitters, they don't know who they are and who they could be. He's one of these guys that I don't think anybody knows who he can end up being.

"He also keeps getting bigger and stronger, and he's growing into a frame (6'2", 170) with a very athletic body. Does he move over to a corner? Does he hit for power? That's something that'll be determined down the road. Hopefully, we can make him a complete player when it's all said and done."

If so, Pie could become the definition of a winner – with no uncertainty.

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