Last Days of Spring (Training)

The National League Central appears to be ready for the taking. The Cubs, who finished in last place and won 66 games in 2006, spent more than $300 million in the offseason to try to win the division not just this year but in the next few years, too.

But was it money well spent?

The answer will start to arrive on April 2, when the Cubs visit the Reds to open the 2007 season.

The Cubs spent the last two months in spring training trying to answer a few questions. While they didn't answer them all, at least they weren't bombarded with new problems to fix, as they were in previous camps.

The outfield situation appears clear with Matt Murton starting in left, Alfonso Soriano in center and Jacque Jones in right. But it will still be a below-average defensive outfield, and the three will need to make up for it with their offense.

The fifth starter spot appeared to be settled when Wade Miller outpitched several others in camp, but Mark Prior is making a push in the final week. Whoever wins that derby could be on a short leash if he struggles early in the season.

The bullpen looks strong, but closer Ryan Dempster needs to return to the form of late 2005/early 2006, when he saved 26 in a row. He followed that up with nine blown saves, and that won't sit well with new manager Lou Piniella.

The offense, which features leadoff man Alfonso Soriano (who can hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases) and dangerous sluggers Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, should provide power. Left fielder Cliff Floyd, who will be a reserve early in the season because he is recovering from heel surgery, will also be able to provide some thunder when he is ready for full-time action.

Piniella ran a good, crisp camp this year, and the players seem enthusiastic and ready to win.

But they seemed just as enthusiastic coming out of camp the last two seasons, and they failed to hit the .500 mark.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 1B Derrek Lee, who was on the disabled list for the first time in his career when he suffered a broken wrist in 2006, has given every indication he is ready to replicate his 2005 campaign (.335, 46 homers, 107 RBIS). Lee hit .532 in his first 14 games in camp.

ON THE DECLINE: LF Cliff Floyd, who has been set back by injuries in several season of his 14-year career, is not coming along from his left heel injury as quickly as the Cubs hoped. He headed into camp thinking he would platoon with Matt Murton, but manager Lou Piniella indicated Murton would be a regular starter for the first month or so.

INSIDE EDGE: While manager Lou Piniella has been experimenting with several different hitters in the No. 2 spot -- an important bridge between Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee -- Matt Murton is probably his best option. Originally Piniella hedged on that because he thought that Murton would get less playing time platooning with left-handed-hitting Cliff Floyd. But now that Murton will get a majority of the playing time because of Floyd's ankle surgery, Murton should be the man at No. 2 because he's a smart hitter who took the most pitches among Cubs hitters last year.

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