The Dog Days of Winter

The first couple of months of this off-season have been like no other the Faithful had ever seen, the Cubs were spending money like they were printing it themselves in the basement of the old ballpark. $75 million here, $136 million there….it appeared there was no end in sight and Jim Hendry was handing out long-term contracts like they grew on trees. Lou Piniella still has to have a smile on his face considering the last organization he was a part of was tighter than the paint on the wall. But after the official signings of Ted Lilly and Daryle Ward last week, little has come out of Chicago, not even a press release confirming the signing of Jason Marquis.

The word of the week appears to be stopgap, as in a player that will have no long-term value or staying power with the Cubs in order to give Felix Pie a chance to mature in the Minor Leagues and in turn avoid the fate that the last top prospect endured. But in the National League, is there such a thing? The Senior Circuit is baseball at its purest, no designated hitter and according to some, more strategical. But in the National League every spot in the batting order is more important than those in the American League. In the AL a manager can hide a weak hitting fielder because of the designated hitter but in the NL it is a whole different story. In the NL it is about OBP, hitting behind the runner and playing hit and run, etc. It is less about the long ball and more about solid fundamental baseball.

Jim Hendry has improved the Cubs from last season, no doubt, but several of the players on the projected 25-man roster are coming off of career years or injuries and inserting a stopgap could add to the frustrations that were on the Northside in 2006. Granted a healthy lineup should be more productive but there could be more solo home runs than Lou Piniella and his staff are prepared to see.

When Lou Piniella hired Gerald Perry to be his hitting coach, the phrase on base percentage was shouted from the rooftops across the street of Wrigley. Those three very important letters, OBP, had finally become a part of the Cubs vocabulary and the fundamentals that this organization has lacked should not be far behind. But inserting a stopgap in center could undo all of the positive moves Jim Hendry has made.

Felix Pie has struggled in the Dominican Winter league. Pie is a fine player that needs time to develop and not to be rushed in to Wrigley just to fill a spot in the hopes he will become the player that so many think he will….one day. He did not have what anyone would call a banner year at Iowa and his line so far this winter is closer to that of Mendoza than Beltran.

2006 Winter Ball - .216/.263/.272, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 27 k’s, 7 walks, 5 stolen bases in 125 at bats

2006 Iowa (AAA) - .283/.341/.451/792, 15 HR, 57 RBI, 126 k’s, 46 walks, 17 stolen bases (11 caught) in 559 at bats

Pie is a better than average defender with an above average arm but his offensive struggles at the Major League level could affect his defense as it has so many others before him. Pie’s struggles at the plate caused Matthew Pouliot from Rotowire to say putting Pie in center in 2007 “would be a good way to cancel out much of what Alfonso Soriano adds to the lineup.”

Are there any other options for centerfield? It appears not via free agency, other than Steve Finley, and the Cubs appear set to put Soriano in right and give Matt Murton a chance to remain in left. Some have mentioned Jacque Jones as a possibility in center but the question remains….does he want to play in Chicago to begin with?

The Cubs have filled some of the obvious problems they had last season but there are several questions they still must find answers to. They have inserted a big bat at the top of the lineup with a history of a lot of swings and misses (160 in 647 at bats in 2006). A report on Cubs.com indicated Piniella is toying with the idea of either Cesar Izturis or Mark DeRosa hitting in the 2-hole. But with Soriano leading off (career .325 OBP, .351 OBP in 2006) the Cubs must find more of a traditional leadoff hitter to insert in the 2-hole than Izturis (career .295 OBP, .295 OBP in 2006) or DeRosa (career .331 OBP, .357 OBP in 2006). And he should be left-handed (or a switch-hitter) as well in order to break up an extremely right-handed lineup that might not see a lefty until the 5th or 6th spot in the order.

The Cubs projected lineup for 2007 will have to put up runs on a consistent basis if they want to make up any of those 17 1/2 games that separated them from the Cardinals last season. Hendry and Company have done a good job at adding pieces to this point but it is those little moves that he could make that could turn the Cubs fortunes around in the New Year.