Tomorrow’s Headlines….Today?

As the City of Chicago prepares for Super Bowl XLI, the Cubs are preparing to start Spring Training in 14 days. Recently there was a report by Ken Rosenthal on that mentioned a few of the possible storylines that will be worth following in 2007.

The Cubs were obviously a part of the discussion and while Rosenthal’s report focuses on the money the Cubs have spent, the hiring of Lou Piniella and who will be in center this season, there are several other possible headlines worth taking a look at….

Sweet Lou Ignites Fire Under Cubs

The Cubs lack of fundamentals, hustle and OBP in past seasons has been well documented. Piniella’s ability to change the landscape of this organization could pay large dividends down the road. Piniella brought in “his guys” to bring his brand of ball to the North Side of Chicago. Piniella and his coaching staff talked the talk at the convention, now it is time to walk the walk.

Big Z Breaks Z Bank

Carlos Zambrano is in line for a HUGE payday, either with the Cubs or in another uniform. Zambrano wants Zito money and rightfully so. Several reports have indicated he would like a new deal done before the season starts and if not he will play out the season under his current contract. The Cubs still face a possible arbitration case with Zambrano, one that both sides would rather avoid. The offer the Cubs made to Zambrano was roughly 4 million less than what he is asking (asked for $15.5 million and was offered $11.025 million). If the Cubs do want to contend in 2007 they will need Zambrano healthy, happy and on the mound every 5th day.

Hill Picks Up Where He Left Off

Rich Hill had a tremendous second half of 2006 (6-3, 2.93 ERA, 79 k’s, 24 walks in 80 innings with a 1.05 WHIP and the only 2 complete games of the entire staff in 2006), which helped most forget his previous outings at the major league level (0-6, 9.21, 32 k’s, 32 walks in 43 innings). Many think the light has finally turned on and the lefty will continue to pitch at a high level in the big leagues. Hill has the stuff and if he could pitch to his ability the Cubs would have a solid number two behind Zambrano. If Hill regresses the Cubs dependence on Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to succeed will be magnified….a scenario that could provide a tremendous amount of long balls for the opposition at Wrigley.

Dempster Throws Strikes

One of the big questions going into Spring Training is how effective will Ryan Dempster be in the closer’s role? After a good statistical year in 2005, Dempster’s ineffectiveness last season was well documented. Most fail to remember that even though Dempster’s save totals were impressive during the 2005 season and up until May of 2006, his inability to throw strikes on a regular basis resulted in few outings that a club would expect out of their closer. Bobby Howry was given several opportunities late last year and was successful with finishing games. Several rumors have surfaced this off-season that either Howry or Scott Eyre could be used as the closer in the event Dempster is unable to provide results but if he falters one must wonder if there would still be room for Dempster at the backend of the bullpen.

Charlie Hustle and Aramis Ramirez

Aramis Ramirez left a lot of money on the table when he decided to stay with the Cubs this off-season….and now he will have to work for it. Lou Piniella stated several times during the convention that he has never had a problem with his players hustling and with all Ramirez brings to the table that is probably the biggest knock against him. Ramirez is arguably the best offensive 3rd baseman in the league and even his defense took a large step forward in 2006 (without the benefit of Derrek Lee saving a couple of arrant throws from time to time). Past management gave Ramirez a pass with running out ground balls and over all hustling out of the box, it is very unlikely those tendencies will be tolerated by the new administration.

The Return of the MVP

Lost in all of the hoopla of the off-season has been the return of a healthy Derrek Lee. While some feel 2005 was his career year, his leadership in the clubhouse cannot be measured by stats on the field. Lee’s absence left the Cubs without their best player last season and apparently its heart and soul as well. Although Lee was not very effective right after his return, the rest of the team seemed to play better than they had without him. Lee is as important to the Cubs as anyone else on the team and 145 (or more games) with him in the lineup will generate more runs and a drastically improved infield defense.

Throw in the Towel

The annual questions about the health of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have already begun. Wood lost over 30 pounds this off-season and several reports have indicated Prior has been working hard in San Diego to strengthen his shoulder. Many have penciled Wood in the Cubs’ bullpen in 2007 but until he proves he can pitch on consecutive days, it is wishful thinking. Could Wood be successful in the pen? Of course, but unless, as mentioned, he can go back-to-back days with success his roster spot might be better served by a healthy, proven arm in the relief corp.

Mark Prior has not left Spring Training for the most part healthy the last 3 years and until he takes the mound in Mesa (or surrounding areas) he cannot be counted on in the starting rotation. Piniella has mentioned several times that if Prior is healthy it would be like them signing an ace in the off-season. Undoubtedly this is a very true statement, and one that could help the Cubs to the post season but one that should not be counted on until proven otherwise.

Soriano: The Center of Attention

All eyes will be on Alfonso Soriano when the Cubs take the field on March 1st in Mesa. Soriano has played under the brightest of lights in New York so he should be able to deal with the pressure that comes with the contract he just signed. Piniella appears to have penciled him in the leadoff spot and the recent willingness to play center field has many questioning how effective he would be in either position. The stats show Soriano is comfortable leading off games and he could provide the Cubs with a leadoff hitter like one they have never seen. Piniella’s rationale is that he would only be leading off one time a game and in turn one of the best hitters in the game could end up with five at bats per game. Several players have had trouble getting off to a good start their first year at Wrigley (Alou, Lee and Jones) and if Soriano stumbles the boo-birds might outweigh the applause.

Pie Optioned to Iowa

While Felix Pie could be ready to patrol center for the Cubs in 2007, his offensive numbers say he needs just a little more time in Iowa. Pie has the tools and anyone that has seen him play in person will attest to his abilities in the field….but at the plate is where he needs the most improvement. Pie had an average year in Triple-A in 2006 (average for a player with his potential) but struggled at Winter Ball this season. Whether or not Pie will ever be the leadoff hitter the Cubs have coveted for years or not is irrelevant and most feel his talents would be better served in the middle of the lineup. The Cubs have been down this road, hopefully this time they will take a different path.

Jones’ Future Still Uncertain

Does Jacque Jones want to remain in Chicago? That question may not be answered for several more weeks, if at all. For every report stating he wants to be traded there is another saying the opposite. Jones is very affordable and as long as he is platooned, a good offensive threat from the left side with questionable defense. Jones’ future with the team could very well depend on the health of Cliff Floyd. A healthy Floyd and a good spring by Angel Pagan could pave the way for Jones’ departure.

Murton in Left….Floyd and Ward to fill out the Bench

Beyond the fact Matt Murton is a fan favorite, he possibly has the biggest upside of any young position player the Cubs have had since the days of Mark Grace. Piniella described during the convention what his ideal 2-hole hitter would be like. Good eye, willing to take a pitch, can hit to all fields, hit behind the runner and willingness to give himself up to advance Soriano to 2nd or give him a chance to steal a bag or two….all traits Matt Murton has shown in his brief big league career. Murton will have to earn his spot, it is not a given like last season but he has shown he can perform well at the highest level.

A bench that includes Cliff Floyd and Daryle Ward will give Lou Piniella two power threats from the left side the previous administration did not have. Gone are the days of Tom Goodwin and Neifi Perez.

Cubs Cash in their Insurance Policies

The signings of Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Wade Miller are direct results of unfulfilled promise. The Cubs looked set for years in the rotation just a short time ago but after the last two injured-filled seasons, the Cubs spent a tremendous amount of money in an attempt to ensure there will not be a repeat of the 2006 season. Competition for a spot in the rotation is exactly what this once complacent team needs. If Lilly and Marquis can keep the ball in the park and win their fair share of games, everyone will forget the $61 million the Cubs just spent.

Wade Miller and Sean Marshall could give the Cubs even more depth in the rotation if necessary or could even provide the Cubs with quality long relief out of the pen. Piniella does not appear to be the kind of manager that values loyalty over performance and with that being the case, the frequent flier miles could rack up between Chicago and Des Moines.

Cubs and Braves PPD

The April 19th game between the Cubs and Braves was postponed due to rain.

The upcoming season should be very interesting to say the least. Headlines and storylines will fill the airwaves, newspapers and sites such as this all summer long…. Anyone up for peanuts or cracker jack yet?

Quote of the Day

"Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure." - Joe Maddon