Day two of the Cubs Convention was filled, as usual, with sessions that involved management, coaches and players. The big panel of the day is typically the first….”Meet Cubs Management”. This year being the first with Piniella was interesting to say the least. The second major event of the day assembled Lou and his entire coaching staff in “Piniella 101″ where the fans were allowed to ask questions while the coaching staff discussed their goals for the upcoming season.
The early afternoon gathering in the Grand Ballroom was a celebration of the “Boys of Zimmer, the Summer of ’89″ that featured the first appearance of the weekend by Mark Grace and among others, Ryne Sandberg, where seven members of the 1989 National League East Champions shared stories from the locker room, the hotels and the dugout. 9:00am – 10:00am – Meet Cubs Management with Lou Piniella, Randy Bush and Jim Hendry
Saturday morning started with coffee, donuts and Jim Hendry (in no particular order). Lou Piniella was late to the morning Q&A so Hendry and Bush handled the first round of questions.
To no one’s surprise the first question addressed the lack of fundamentals from last year’s team. Hendry indicated Piniella has never had trouble was fundamentals with any of his past squads and basically told the fans not to worry about it going forward. Hendry’s response was, “I’m sure if any player has any issues, he will be there 4 hours before the game making up for it.”
The topic turned to the amount the Cubs paid for Juan Pierre last off-season. Hendry said it was a painful day when the Cubs let go of so many prospects for Pierre. He mentioned the Astros paid an extremely high price for Jason Jennings, a price the Cubs were not willing to pay to a player that will be a free agent at the end of the season. He mentioned not many players pitch the way Wood and Prior did so quickly in their careers and reminded everyone how much pressure he received to trade Carlos Zambrano for Shea Hillenbrand in 2003. Hendry went on to say it is the “Price of Playing Poker” and the Cubs had to overpay in the free agent pitching market.
The questions then shifted to the health and conditioning of the team. Hendry noted Kerry Wood has dropped 31 pounds since October and Ryan Dempster is down 20 as well. He went on to discuss Mark O’Neal’s work ethic and stated he worked harder than anyone else at his position he has ever seen and traveled extensively this off-season to visit his players.
A fan then brought up the topic of Alfonso Soriano and mentioned how shocked he was the Cubs signed a free agent of Soriano’s caliber. The fan went on to say the handcuffs had finally been removed this off-season giving Hendry much more freedom in signing players. Hendry began his response saying he never felt handcuffed or never felt he did not have the resources to build a winner. Hendry reiterated that he and John McDonough had sat down at the end of last season to go over their strategy for the upcoming off-season. It was then they decided they were going to go out and get the best player available and it is rather clear they achieved this goal.
Lou showed up 15-20 minutes late due to a back problem he was experiencing Saturday morning. Someone asked Lou his thoughts on the convention; he indicated that he was impressed with the passion and enthusiasm of the fans and that he has never seen anything like it. He went on to say he played and managed in New York and managed in Seattle where they drew over 3 1/2 million fans a year but he said this experience was one of a kind.
Dave Kaplan told Piniella that on Friday night he asked Soriano if given the choice which position in the outfield would he most like to play. Kaplan told Piniella his choice was center and Lou responded very positively, “Really, that’s news to me.” He then went on to say that would make my life easier. An outfield of Murton in left, Soriano in center and Jones in right would be very good. After this session, the news of Piniella’s discussion of Soriano in center spread quickly throughout the convention and eventually to the mainstream media and Internet.
Piniella went on to discuss a winning team has a good balance of speed, power and OBP and raved about Matt Murton and with more experience he will learn how to become a power hitter. He went on to mention patience at the plate will be a huge a key and that is something Gerald Perry will work on with the team in Spring Training.
Felix Pie was discussed at this point and everyone was reminded he is 21 years old and if he had gone to college would have been drafted just this year. Hendry stated there would not be a 3-year or a 5-year deal signed by the Cubs to another free agent to play centerfield and in turn block Felix Pie. Piniella said Pie will receive a lot of at bats in Spring Training in the leadoff spot, when Soriano is not playing, in the 2-hole and in the 8th spot in the lineup, their goal is to get Pie as many at bats as possible. Hendry reiterated the Cubs tried to sign Juan Pierre to a short-term deal right down to after Lou was hired.
Lou Piniella called Alfonso Soriano the best leadoff hitter in the game and said in the leadoff spot he would receive 5 at bats per game. Soriano is a prolific leadoff hitter and manufactured over 200 runs last season. He concluded by jokingly saying Zambrano needed protection in the 9-hole. Piniella actually gave Soriano a great compliment and compared him to the incomparable Ricky Henderson.
The enviable question of why is Larry Rothschild still the pitching coach came up. Piniella quickly defended him by bringing up examples of his past successes. He mentioned that Leyland wanted to hire him last year in Detroit. He went on to say not only did he win a World Series with the Marlins but that he was on the Reds staff when they won the series in 1990.
All in all it was a very engaging hour filled with intriguing questions and candid responses.
11:30am – 12:30pm – Piniella 101 with Lou Piniella, Gerald Perry, Larry Rothschild, Alan Trammell, Matt Sinatro, Mike Quade, Ivan DeJesus and Lester Strode
The first important topic of discussion was managing in the National League versus managing in the American League. Piniella said he likes the type of play in the NL but that a team needs more versatility. In the NL a team uses more pinch hitters and utilizes more double switches because of the pitcher’s spot in the lineup.
Piniella was asked about why the Cubs have struggled at home in recent years and what he thinks he can do about it. He said it is something that is tough to figure out and it is no one thing, but that the key to overcoming it is to utilize the entire roster. Piniella then used a word missing from the Cubs vocabulary for many, many years….swagger. Lou said all good teams must have a swagger and the Cubs will have one.
The next question dealt with the perceived lack of accountability during the past few seasons. Piniella said in order to affect a ballplayer positively you must appeal to their personal pride. Each player is different but there is something inside of each and every one of them that you must find in order to make him and the team successful. He went on to say, “But don’t worry my players will hustle their ass off on the field.”
Piniella was then asked to discuss his lineup philosophy, the person that posed the question stated he felt the lack of lineup consistency detracted from the offensive production. Lou responded by saying, as he had earlier in the day, it is very important to utilize the entire roster. However, he said it was just as important to stay as constant as you possibly can. He went on to give everyone a sneak peak into the possible lineup for the upcoming season. He confirmed Soriano would be leading off and the best hitter on the team, Derrek Lee, would be batting third. He inferred that Aramis Ramirez was a prototypical clean-up hitter and in a predominately right-handed lineup, Jacque Jones would hit in the 5th spot. Earlier in the session, when asked about Michael Barrett, he said he would fit well in the 6th or 7th spot.
Piniella spoke in some detail of the responsibilities of the 2-hitter. He said whoever it is will have to have enough patience to take pitches and give Soriano a chance to steal a bag while also being able to hit behind the runner.
Lester Strode was asked to talk about pitchers in the Cubs organization that could have impacts in the near future. Strode mentioned the likes of Rich Hill, Sean Gallagher, Sean Marshall, Donald Veal, Jeff Samardzija and Mark Pawelek. Strode said the Cubs have a lot of faith in Marshall’s ability, compared Donnie Veal to Dontrelle Willis and said that Mark Pawelek is a true left hander.
Mike Quade was asked to discuss any position players in the minors that he feels might be able to help the Cubs down the road. He said Casey McGehee was one of the finest defensive 3rd baseman that anyone will ever see but they are trying him at catcher. He said Felix Pie is very immature and he has to work on his offense but that his defense is second to none. Quade went on to say until he improves his plate discipline Pie will be eaten alive by Major League pitching.
Look for a detailed write-up on the “Boys of Zimmer” later in the week. The 1989 team is this generation’s version of the ’69 team and the stories they shared were priceless to say the least. Mark Grace’s appearance and candor is unmatched and Ryne Sandberg’s class is only outweighed by his knowledge and passion for the game.
Day Two of the Convention was filled with many sessions, both of the meeting and of the autograph kind. Of all of the happenings and information, we felt these three sessions had the most pertinent information to the upcoming season and to their storied past.
Day Three should be a short one with everyone in Chicago’s focus turning to the Bears’ quest at returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years. The Down on the Farm session should draw interest with Donald Veal and Eric Patterson scheduled to be in attendance.