Interesting spring winding down

What began as a quiet and boring spring training turned interesting in ways the Cubs weren't banking on. As he began to get his team ready to head north, manager Lou Piniella still was trying to put all of his pieces in the right spots. Granted, the Cubs have enough pieces to win the easily winnable NL Central, but several concerns gnawed at Piniella.

All spring long, Piniella bemoaned a lack of depth among position players. The hot spot is center field, where Felix Pie will be counted on heavily. Pie's defense is fine, but the Cubs are worried about batting him No. 8, in front of the pitcher. The Cubs will be able to live with Pie not hitting well at the get-go if the team's stars are hitting, but what has Piniella worried is the lack of a backup in case Pie needs a day off.

The Cubs originally scrapped a plan to have Ronny Cedeno play some center, instead choosing to move him back to a utility infield role. It's still possible the Cubs could trade for a right-handed-hitting center fielder before the end of spring to back up the left-handed-hitting Pie. If not, they could pick someone up off the waiver wire. If the Cubs aren't successful in making a deal, they'll have to go back to Cedeno as a backup along with right fielder Kosuke Fukudome.

Piniella has liked his starting pitching. One source of concern is Rich Hill. The lefty walked 14 batters in his first 12 2/3 innings this spring. That's in stark contrast to no walks for the entire spring of 2007. Still, Piniella said the Cubs are sticking with Hill as their No. 4 starter. Hill worked over Easter weekend with pitching coach Larry Rothschild to "level out" his shoulders and not fall so far backward in his windup.

Hill is locked into the rotation, as are right-hander Carlos Zambrano and left-hander Ted Lilly. Still battling for the final two spots are righties Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis and former closer Ryan Dempster. Lieber, who has thrown strikes all spring, appears to have the inside track on one spot. The Cubs seem inclined to let Dempster start again, especially since he worked to get himself into top physical shape. One bugaboo for Dempster as a starter in the past was his high number of walks issued. The Cubs will keep an eye on that.

If the Cubs don't trade Marquis, he may have to open the season in the bullpen. Marquis probably won't like it, but he and the Cubs will have to live with it.

Piniella entered the final week of the spring still trying to find a lineup that will work. One thing is clear: Left fielder Alfonso Soriano won't be heading back to the leadoff spot. The Cubs don't want Soriano trying to run too much in the cold weather. Initially, the Cubs moved shortstop Ryan Theriot into the leadoff spot with Soriano moving to No. 2. That seemed to work for both of those players, but it seemed to mess up Fukudome, who moved from second to fifth.

Fukudome looked comfortable in the second spot, where the Cubs can use his high on-base percentage. But he struggled at No. 5, and Piniella wants to make his transition from Japan to the major leagues as easy as possible. Despite that, look for Fukudome to stay at No. 5 because Piniella wants him to protect cleanup man Aramis Ramirez. Piniella even had toyed with having Fukudome lead off.

The Cubs got off to a poor start last season and had to "floor it" the rest of the way to overtake Milwaukee and win the NL Central. Piniella wants a fast start this year, and that's why finding the right lineup is critical. The Cubs play 33 games at home the first two months of the season, and as cold as it can get at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will have to find a way to make that a home-field advantage.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: LHP Rich Hill struggled with his command all spring, but manager Lou Piniella said Hill was due for a breakout season and easily could up his win total from the 11 he had last year to 18 this year.

ON THE DECLINE: LHP Scott Eyre endured a miserable first half of 2007 before righting himself after the All-Star break. He's been so-so this spring, and the Cubs now say Eyre's elbow is "tight." Eyre is 35, and he's logged a lot of action the past few years.

NOTES, QUOTES

--INF Mike Fontenot increased his chances of making the team as a backup infielder. Fontenot has hit well in spring training, and manager Lou Piniella always has liked Fontenot's bat. On top of that, Fontenot showed he could play shortstop creditably, and Piniella also wants versatile players.

--RHP Kerry Wood pitched in back-to-back games for the first time this spring Saturday and Sunday. That appeared to be the final hurdle to making him the team's closer.

--LHP Scott Eyre will miss at least a few games this week and possibly the rest of spring training because of a tight left elbow. A red flag went up Saturday when Eyre threw only a few breaking pitches during a rough outing against the White Sox.

--1B Derrek Lee entered the week batting just .184 with one homer. Lee's power numbers dropped last season, one year removed from a broken right wrist. The Cubs say they aren't concerned about how many homers Lee hits as long as he's driving the ball.

--LHPs Sean Marshall and Carmen Pignatiello will compete for a bullpen job if LHP Scott Eyre (tight left elbow) can't start the season. Pignatiello entered the week having not given up a run in seven outings. Marshall has looked creditable in his spring starts. He has started 43 big-league games, but he appears adaptable.

BY THE NUMBERS: 100 -- Years since the Cubs last won a World Series. Piniella addressed the anniversary at the beginning of spring training. Players claim it doesn't bother them, but they'll get constant reminders of it all season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Truthfully, I still think we need a little work down here. A few of our hitters need more at-bats. Our pitching's in pretty good shape. I think we need a little more time for a few of our hitters, I'll be honest with you. They'll probably tell you we don't." -- Piniella on the iffy state of his team's offense in the waning days of spring training.


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