The Cubs have a new look this season and not just on the field, but in the dugout and front office as well. After a 66-96 campaign a year ago (the club's worst showing since 2000), the team cleaned house beginning with the resignation of Andy MacPhail as team president last October.
Dusty Baker's contract was not renewed following a disappointing four-year tenure as Cubs skipper and all but pitching coach Larry Rothschild were pink-slipped by Piniella's arrival. Among the more popular coaching changes, Gerald Perry was named hitting coach, replacing the befuddled Gene Clines.
Mike Quade, the Cubs' Triple-A skipper each of the past four years, earned his way onto a big league coaching staff as third base coach for the first time since 2002, while former Detroit manager and Motor City fan favorite Alan Trammell replaced Dick Pole as bench coach.
Matt Sinatro replaced long-ago Cubs favorite Gary Matthews as first base coach, and former Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Les Strode received the promotion to bullpen coach under Piniella.
For Piniella, Thursday is the first time he'll get to employ the new-look Cubs lineup. Under the direction of new team president John McDonough and reigning general manager Jim Hendry, the Cubs spent $300 million this off-season with a fair chunk of it used to plug holes in the team's rotation.
Fittingly, one of Hendry's two marquee acquisitions to the starting rotation will be on display in Thursday's opener as right-hander Jason Marquis takes the mound against the Giants' most prized off-season possession: free agent left-hander Barry Zito. Marquis signed a three-year, $21 million contract in December. He won 14 games, but lost 16 times and carried a disappointing 6.02 ERA into the post-season a year ago with St. Louis.
The other acquisition to the rotation, left-hander Ted Lilly, is scheduled to pitch Monday, March 5, in relief of Mark Prior, who by all intents and purposes will start spring training on time for the first time since the Iraq invasion.
Prior, if healthy, would join a Cubs rotation consisting of team ace Carlos Zambrano (the team's Opening Day starter for the third straight year), Lilly, Marquis, and left-hander Rich Hill. If Prior is not ready by Opening Day, either Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall or Juan Mateo, each of whom acquired a taste of major league pitching in 2006, could vie for the fifth spot in the rotation.
The Cubs also made a couple of changes to the bullpen. Oft-injured Kerry Wood moves to the ‘pen in an effort to save some wear and tear on his pitching arm. Joining him will be left-hander Neal Cotts, whom the Cubs pried loose from the White Sox for right-hander David Aardsma in November.
With a full vote of confidence from his new manager, right-hander Ryan Dempster will serve as the Cubs' closer heading into the season, but figures to be on a short leash if his struggles from a year ago spill over into 2007. Dempster blew nine saves in 33 chances and had a 4.80 ERA in 2006.
Bob Howry and Scott Eyre are back for another season and will serve primarily as setup men while left-hander Will Ohman and either right-handers Michael Wuertz or Roberto Novoa should round things out in relief.
The Cubs bullpen combined to go 18-27 a year ago with a 4.04 ERA in 562 innings. By contrast, Cubs starters were 48-69 with a 5.19 ERA in 877 IP.
Turning to the Cubs' offense, the team's biggest spending footed the bill for the arrival of superstar Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million), who expects to start the year in center field and will lead off, plus a new contract for third baseman Aramis Ramirez (five years, $75 million).
Soriano, who reported to spring camp five days before position players were scheduled, hit .277 in a 40-40 campaign with Washington a year ago that included career-high's in home runs (46) and on-base percentage (.351). Ramirez played in all but five games and had a solid season, batting .291 with a career-high 38 home runs and 119 driven in.
Mark DeRosa was added to the fray after a career year with the Texas Rangers in 2006. He hit .296 with a career-high 13 home runs and 40 doubles, and was awarded the Cubs' second base job after signing a three-year, $13 million deal. That eliminated the revolving door up the middle that featured Todd Walker, Neifi Perez, Ryan Theriot and even Ronny Cedeno.
Veteran Daryle Ward was brought in to spell the Cubs outfield a few starts, but primarily to provide a backup to Derrek Lee at first base. Lee appeared in only 50 games a season ago, breaking his wrist early in the year.
One of the final pieces to the Cubs' puzzle was added in the form of veteran outfielder Cliff Floyd, who will share at least partial playing time in left field with the promising Matt Murton, one of the Cubs' best hitters a season ago in his first full year with the club. Murton batted .297 in 144 games.
Elsewhere around the diamond, Jacque Jones returns for his second year on the North Side following a strong campaign in right field that was unfortunately highlighted by jeers and baseballs coming from both opposing hitters and fans. Jones hit .285 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs.
Behind the plate, Michael Barrett and Henry Blanco make up the Cubs' catching corps for another year and both had their best years to date in 2006. Barrett hit .307 in 107 games before missing the final month of the season with an injury to his groin, while Blanco batted .266 in 74 contests.
Meanwhile, outfielder Felix Pie is still the Cubs' top prospect entering the season and will be one of many fighting for one of the final spots on the club's roster, but is likely to begin a second season at Triple-A Iowa.
When the Cubs take the field Thursday, their starting lineup should look a lot like the one Piniella will trot out on Opening Day against Cincinnati, April 2, at Great American Ballpark.
Piniella announced on Wednesday that his lineup for Thursday's spring opener would feature Soriano batting in the leadoff spot and playing center field. Murton, who spent most of last year in the mid-to-bottom of the order, will bat second and play left field. To no surprise, Lee, Ramirez and Barrett will make up the heart of the order in the 3-5 spots with Jones hitting sixth.
Rounding out the order, DeRosa is slated to bat seventh with shortstop Cesar Izturis hitting eighth, and Marquis batting ninth.
The Cubs will play a 32-game spring exhibition schedule in the Cactus League. The team's only scheduled off-day will be Wednesday, March 14. In addition, two split-squad contests are slated for Friday, March 9, and Monday, March 19, respectively. A record 14 Cubs games will be televised this spring between WGN-TV and Comcast Sports Net Chicago.