Cubs Entering Spring Camp with Many Questions

The two-time defending NL Central champs go to camp as the favorites again, but that doesn't mean manager Lou Piniella won't have his hands full. Roster turnover and questions in several key areas are sure to keep Piniella antsy and his players on edge during spring training.

Once again, there will be a battle for the closer's job because the Cubs let veteran Kerry Wood walk away after he saved 34 games last year. This time, right-hander Carlos Marmol looks to move up from lights-out setup man to closer, and he says he's ready. He'll battle with right-hander Kevin Gregg, whom the Cubs obtained from Florida in November, when Cubs officials said it was time to cut ties with Wood.

The fifth starter job is wide open. Piniella would like to have another lefty in the rotation to join Ted Lilly, so Sean Marshall might have to pitch his way out of a job during the Cactus League season. Marshall has done it all for the Cubs in the past three seasons, starting and relieving. He'll compete with right-handers Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija and Aaron Heilman for the No. 5 job. Whoever doesn't get it presumably will go to the bullpen.

With the trade of infielder/outfielder Mark DeRosa to the Indians, the infield situation is wide open and a bit uncertain. The Cubs want left-handed-hitting Mike Fontenot to get a lot of at-bats and play second base. He'll share time with Aaron Miles, who also will spell Ryan Theriot at short.

Where the Cubs might miss DeRosa is at third base, where he ably backed up Aramis Ramirez. Miles can play third, but he doesn't offer much pop. General manager Jim Hendry may have to add a veteran during camp.

The situations in right field and center field also will be interesting. A poor second half last year cost Kosuke Fukudome his starting job in right to free agent Milton Bradley. Fukudome will share time in center with Reed Johnson. Bradley has to show he's 100 percent healthy.

Speaking of health, keep an eye on the starting pitchers. Right-handers Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden are coming off seasons in which their shoulders acted up. Zambrano experienced problems for the first time in his career, a sign that maybe the heavy workloads of the past are catching up to him. Harden's problems have been chronic, and the Cubs might take it easy on him in Mesa, Ariz.

Piniella's competitiveness never takes a holiday, and he's good for at least one blowup during the spring. Sloppy baseball and players complaining about their roles are sure to get the manager's goat.

Overall, this is a veteran team, and there aren't many jobs up for grabs.

WHERE, WHEN: HoHoKam Park, Mesa, Ariz. First exhibition game is Feb. 25 against the Dodgers.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: Bradley brings a lot of baggage with him after signing a free agent contract in January. The Cubs profess not to be worried about Bradley's past outbursts, which have landed him in hot water and even gotten him injured. Their main concern will be keeping Bradley on the field by avoiding some of the nagging injuries that have plagued him in the past. Bradley led the AL in on-base percentage and OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) last year. If he can play 140 games, he could have a monster year for the Cubs.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: Fukudome lost his job in right field after a horrid second half last year. He'll compete for playing time in center with Johnson. Fukudome was an on-base machine during the first two months of the 2008 season, and then he fell off the face of the earth. Now entering the second year of a four-year, $48 million contract after coming over from Japan, Fukudome is under severe pressure to show that other teams haven't figured him out once and for all.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: Piniella is 182-141 in two seasons as Cubs manager. However, he has yet to win a playoff game as the Cubs have been swept out of the NL Division Series in both of his years. Veteran players have learned to tune out some of Piniella's rants, which come from frustration. Actually, he has mellowed markedly in recent years and isn't above apologizing to a player if he feels he's come on too strong. Piniella also has been tough on pitching coaches, but Larry Rothschild returns for his eighth season with the Cubs. Rothschild began under Don Baylor and then survived the Dusty Baker years. Piniella's coaching staff with the Cubs has remained intact since he arrived before the '07 season.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The trades of LHP Rich Hill and RHP Michael Wuertz clear some of the congestion from the pitching staff. Wuertz had been a mainstay of the bullpen since 2004, but he spent two months in the minors last year after his slider flattened out. His departure leaves RHP Luis Vizcaino, Heilman, and LHP Neal Cotts as the leading men for the middle to late innings. Hill did not figure into the Cubs' plans at all after control problems last year derailed what appeared to be a promising career.

--RHP David Patton is the lone Rule 5 player in camp, but he'll have a hard time making the club, even with the departure of Wuertz. However, if the Cubs decide RHP Samardzija will open the season in the rotation for Class AAA Iowa, Patton may have a shot. He was with the Rockies' organization last year. The Reds took him in the Rule 5 draft in December and dealt him to the Cubs.

--RHP Jeff Stevens, 25, is a sleeper candidate out of the bullpen. The Cubs obtained Stevens from Cleveland in the DeRosa trade. Stevens has no big-league experience, but the Cubs like his fastball, and they say their scouts have turned in glowing reports. He was a combined 5-4 with a 3.24 ERA and six saves last year in stops at Class AA and Class AAA.

--Cotts will be on the spot in spring training. Aside from non-roster veteran Mike Stanton, Cotts is the only veteran lefty specialist in the 'pen. Cotts has been up and down the past two years for the Cubs, but they liked the way he threw late last year. Cotts was 0-2 with a 4.29 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings last year after his recall from Class AAA Iowa.

--While the Cubs are short a true backup third baseman, they've got one true backup first baseman in Micah Hoffpauir. The Cubs most likely will go with 12 pitchers and 13 position players to start the regular season, and Hoffpauir appears to have a job to lose as the backup to Derrek Lee. Hoffpauir drove in 100 runs with 25 homers in the minor leagues last year. He hit two homers and eight doubles in 33 games for the Cubs last year. He can play the outfield, too, but his defense is only average. He'll turn 29 on March 1. He's no kid, but the Cubs feel he has the maturity to come off the bench and hit, something a younger player might not have.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Catchers the Cubs are likely to keep, so the final spot could come down to a tough decision between Paul Bako and Koyie Hill as to who backs up Geovany Soto.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're ready to go to camp and adjust after that. Let's not forget that we picked up Reed Johnson (in late March) last year. We'll scout spring training like we always do." -- Hendry, on what moves were left to make this offseason.

ROSTER REPORT

For a team that won 97 games and its division last year, the Cubs have made a sizeable number of changes. Part of that was natural attrition. The bigger part was the desire of Hendry and Piniella to incorporate more left-handed hitters into the everyday lineup. The Cubs will be favored to win their third straight NL Central crown, but they have questions about the fifth spot in the rotation, the back of the bullpen and center field.

ARRIVALS: Gregg (trade with Marlins), Patton (Rule 5 selection from Rockies, via Reds), OF Joey Gathright (free agent from Royals), Miles (free agent from Cardinals), Vizcaino (trade with Rockies), Bradley (free agent from Rangers), OF So Taguchi (minor league free agent from Phillies), INF Luis Rivas (minor league free agent from Pirates), Heilman (trade with Mariners), Bako (free agent from Reds).

DEPARTURES: RHP Bob Howry (free agent, signed with Giants), Wood (free agent, signed with Indians), DeRosa (traded to Indians), RHP Jason Marquis (traded to Rockies), OF Felix Pie (traded to Orioles), INF Ronny Cedeno (traded to Mariners), Hill (traded to Orioles), Wuertz (traded to A's).

SPRING FOCUS: The Cubs will spend most of February and March finding out who their fifth starter will be and then sorting out the bullpen from there. Marshall will compete for the final job in the rotation along with Jeff Samardzija and Gaudin. Whoever loses out will head to the bullpen, and it's possible Samardzija could open the season at Class AAA Iowa as a starter. The Cubs also want to see if Fukudome has indeed rebounded from a disastrous second half, which cost him his starting right field job.

PROJECTED ROTATION:
1. RHP Ryan Dempster
2. RHP Carlos Zambrano
3. LHP Ted Lilly
4. RHP Rich Harden
5. LHP Sean Marshall

Dempster wrested the title of ace away from Zambrano last year. Erratic performances and a sore shoulder hurt Zambrano down the stretch, his no-hitter in September notwithstanding.

Piniella expressed regret at not using bulldog Lilly in the NL Division Series. Harden is on permanent shoulder watch. The Cubs would love to have the versatile Marshall make the rotation, giving them a pair of lefties.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:
RHP Carlos Marmol (closer)
RHP Kevin Gregg
RHP Jeff Samardzija
RHP Aaron Heilman
RHP Chad Gaudin
LHP Neal Cotts
RHP Angel Guzman

Just as they did last year, the Cubs will hold a competition for the closer's job, between Marmol and newcomer Gregg. Marmol will have to show he's ready to go from dominant setup man to closer. If not, Gregg has experience closing.

The Cubs are light on the left side, with Cotts having an up-and-down last two years. He'll need to have a good spring, or the Cubs may have to look outside the organization for a dependable lefty. Samardzija can be overpowering. The Cubs must decide whether he's a reliever or a starter.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
1. LF Alfonso Soriano
2. SS Ryan Theriot
3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. RF Milton Bradley
5. 3B Aramis Ramirez
6. C Geovany Soto
7. CF Kosuke Fukudome
8. 2B Mike Fontenot

Here we go again. Piniella said at the team's winter convention he wasn't surprised to get questions about whether Soriano would hit first. Soriano isn't an ideal No. 1 hitter, but he has a comfort zone there, and the Cubs have won two consecutive division titles with him there.

The middle of the lineup will get interesting. If Lee's power numbers continue their downward trend, will Piniella move Ramirez up to third and drop Lee to fifth? Rookie of the Year Soto has cleanup potential.

PROJECTED RESERVES:
C Paul Bako or Koyie Hill
INF Aaron Miles
OF Reed Johnson
OF Joey Gathright
INF/OF Micah Hoffpauir

The Cubs have speed and versatility off the bench in Miles and Johnson. Expect both to see a lot of action on double switches, something Piniella likes to do. Each will start his fair share of games, as well.

With PH Daryle Ward gone, Piniella will be looking for some power off the bench. Hoffpauir will be given every shot to make the club out of camp. He hit 25 homers in the minors last year and intrigued Piniella during big-league stints.

TOP ROOKIES: RHP Mitch Atkins won a combined 17 games last year between Class AA Tennessee and Class AAA Iowa. He passed up some more highly touted prospects and could become an in-season call-up. Stevens, obtained from Cleveland in the DeRosa trade, is a possibility for the bullpen if someone falters or becomes injured.

MEDICAL WATCH:
The Cubs will keep a close eye on the cranky right shoulders of Zambrano and Harden, both of whom missed time down the stretch last year. The Cubs say they expect Harden to be stronger this year than last despite reports that he has a small tear in the shoulder.

Gregg underwent successful surgery in late October on his troublesome left knee. He says it's fine now, and he should be ready for spring training.

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