Centerfield Scuffle

The Cubs currently have no one set in stone to replace Juan Pierre in centerfield in 2007. The 29-year-old signed with the Dodgers via free agency last November and while the Cubs have yet to sign anyone with the intent to play center, the front office is quick to point out that there is no shortage of players both in the farm system and on the 40-man roster that could potentially fill the void.

For starters, there's the top prospect in the Cubs' farm system: Felix Pie. The centerfielder and consensus five-tool talent will be 22 years of age in less than a month and is coming off what was perhaps the most challenging, yet altogether successful season of his professional career.

Pie finished second in the Pacific Coast League in hits (158) a season ago for Triple-A Iowa and batted .283 in 141 games. He managed career-high's in home runs (15), RBIs (57), doubles (33) and walks (46) in his first year back from a season-ending ankle injury the previous year at Double-A.

Things didn't always go so well for Pie in 2006, though. Through early July, he was batting .244 and mired in a 3-for-28 slump. He was visibly frustrated and began to look overmatched for perhaps the first time in his career.

As the season progressed, so did Pie. He batted .322 over the final two-plus months, but would fall short of a September call-up. Still, many felt Pie was ready for the challenge of major league pitching then just as they do now.

Should he put together a strong Spring Training, Pie may not leave the Cubs with much choice but to award him the Opening Day job in center.

Elsewhere in the organization, outfielder Chris Walker knows the situation in center and wants to be the guy manager Lou Piniella can call upon.

The 26-year-old Walker, who has led the organization in stolen bases in each of the past three seasons and made three consecutive All-Star teams, was one of 11 players invited to big league spring training camp last week.

"A lot of guys will take the opportunity of being invited to big league camp and just brag about it," Walker says. "I have a completely different view of it. I'm here to win a job. I'm here to win it and I'm here to make that team."

Walker and Pie should have plenty of competition to contend with in camp, which for position players begins in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, Feb. 19.

"There's a lot more than just Pie and Walker," Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita said of the current situation in center. "Angel Pagan can play center and it's still not out of the realm that Jacque (Jones) can go out there and play center. Buck Coats can play center and Ryan Theriot has played the outfield. He may be a guy for center, as well as Eric Patterson."

Coats, Patterson and Theriot were all drafted by the Cubs and brought up through the farm system as infielders, but each got some reps in the outfield last year. Coats, primarily a shortstop in years past, saw action in 101 games in the outfield at Iowa while Theriot made select appearances there.

And all throughout the Arizona Fall League, Patterson took in some outfield practice from center during batting practice before games.

Pagan, meanwhile, made 58 appearances in the outfield with Chicago a season ago and was often used off the bench in his rookie season.

"There are a lot of guys out there and a lot of them are our guys," Fleita said. "You try to take the challenge and put them in the right spot."

Of course, that falls under Piniella's job description and the situation in center would almost certainly become a bit more simplistic if the Cubs were to sign a veteran free agent such as Steve Finley or Bernie Williams.

But could it be that the Cubs are relishing the idea of a potential dogfight amongst their own homegrown talent for the centerfield spot?

"It's great and we're proud of them," Fleita said of those headed to big league camp to compete for a job, though not necessarily referring solely to the contingent of outfielders. "These guys have worked hard and our scouts have done a good job of getting them in the organization. That's how you reward these guys. Hopefully, they'll get out there and do a good job.

"May the best man win," he said.

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