Fundamentally speaking, the Cubs should be much better this year, especially from the get-go. Last year, manager Lou Piniella spent all of spring training and then the first two months of the regular season getting to know his team.
It showed in the standings, with the Cubs getting off to a 22-31 start before rallying to win the National League Central.
Bad baserunning plays and sloppy defense cost the Cubs many games in April and May. Once Piniella saw what he had, he made changes. Gone were catcher Michael Barrett and shortstop Cesar Izturis.
This spring, Piniella seems more at ease with his club, and the Cubs will focus on specific fundamental drills leading up to Cactus League games and on the mornings of game days.
Piniella feels he has a strong 1-2 combination behind the plate with rookie Geovany Soto and veteran backup Henry Blanco. Derrek Lee won his third Gold Glove at first base last year. At the other corner, third baseman Aramis Ramirez is one of the more underrated players at his position.
The addition of right fielder Kosuke Fukudome makes the outfield appreciably better. Fukudome has a good arm and good range. Piniella termed him "graceful" in the outfield and praised his footwork.
Felix Pie may not hit well at the start, but few can go get it in the outfield as well as the speedy center fielder. His presence will help Alfonso Soriano. The converted infielder holds his own in left, but his throwing arm is surprisingly strong and accurate. He still throws the ball sidearm, like a second baseman, but he notched 19 outfield assists last season.
Soriano wasn't fond of the ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley Field; few players are. But the Cubs completely overhauled their playing field last fall, putting down new sod and removing the drastic crown on the field. They also built a bigger warning track, which should help Soriano on balls hit deep.
NEWS AND NOTES
2B Mark DeRosa was OK after suffering a medical scare on the practice field Feb. 23. DeRosa was hospitalized for one night after complaining of a rapid heartbeat. The Cubs said DeRosa has a history of irregular heartbeats. He was not expected to miss any significant time.
1B Derrek Lee said he is OK with moving from third to fourth in the batting order if manager Lou Piniella decides to move RF Kosuke Fukudome from fifth to second. Such a move also would drop 3B Aramis Ramirez from cleanup to fifth. Piniella is trying to get more speed at the top of the order and more power in the middle. Lee pointed out he began his Cubs career in 2004 batting sixth. Ramirez has hit fifth in the past and voiced agreement with a switch, if Piniella makes it.
RHP Kerry Wood has impressed the Cubs with his early spring throwing. During live batting practice, Wood has been sharp with both his fastball and breaking ball. He is in the closer mix with RHPs Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol, although manager Lou Piniella is leaning toward Howry as his Opening Day closer because of his experience. Marmol is entering his second full season as a relief pitcher, and despite his "electric" stuff, Piniella may want to ease him in. Wood pitched in only 22 games last year after rehabbing without surgery from shoulder woes. Piniella says he'll stay away from a "closer-by-committee" system. Each of the candidates has stated a desire to know an assigned role.
OF Matt Murton is impressing manager Lou Piniella with his quick and compact swing. Murton, the center of many trade rumors, is a man without a position and probably will have to settle for the fourth outfielder's job on the Cubs. Murton is a high on-base hitter. He is a left fielder who has seen limited action in right.
RHP Ryan Dempster appears to be winning over manager Lou Piniella in his bid to move from the closer's role to the rotation. Dempster is in great physical shape, and Piniella has raved about how he has thrown the ball in the early going. Piniella named Dempster to start the Cubs' Cactus League opener.
The battle is on for a right-handed reliever to take Dempster's spot, but not the closer's role, in the bullpen. RHP Michael Wuertz, a dependable middle man for several years, is assured of a job. The Cubs are looking at Rule 5 man Tim Lahey, as well as Billy Petrick, Jose Ascanio and veteran non-roster men Chad Fox and Shingo Takatsu. Hot prospect Jose Ceda has an outside shot, but he's mostly like to open the season at Class AA. Ceda didn't allow a hit in his final 23 1/3 innings last year at Class A Peoria.
Scott Eyre is the only lefty assured of a bullpen job. The Cubs are looking for a bounce-back year from Neal Cotts, who spent most of last year at Class AAA. In-house man Carmen Pignatiello got a cup of coffee with the Cubs last year. He could emerge as a specialist to get left-handed hitters out.
INF Alex Cintron is in the mix for a backup infield spot. The Cubs recently signed Cintron to a minor league deal and invited him to big-league camp. He spent the last two years with the White Sox, where he battled elbow problems. He says he's 100 percent now. The Cubs like his ability to play shortstop.