Cubs’ Storylines of the Spring….The Infielders and Outfielders

Three days after discussing dropping Alfonso Soriano down in the Cubs’ lineup, Lou Piniella said on Thursday Soriano possibly could stay at the top of the Cubs’ lineup….followed by Aaron Miles, Derrek Lee, Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Geovany Soto and Ryan Theriot on the days Miles is at second base and Fukudome is in center.

With single game tickets going on sale at 10:00am Friday morning, the virtual waiting room figures to be extremely full. Here’s more from the CCO Spring Training preview, including PECOTA predictions, on the last Friday for eight months without baseball….

Mike Fontenot

The Cubs are banking on Mike Fontenot taking the next step in his development after a very promising first full season at the big league level. Fontenot came up with several big hits for the Cubs last season and was Lou Piniella’s most reliable left-handed bat off the bench. Fontenot hit .305 with a .395 OBP and .514 SLG in 119 games, 243 at bats, with 9 home runs and 22 doubles.

Piniella reportedly wanted a way to find more at bats for “Little Fontenot” and he will compete for the Cubs starting second base job this spring with Aaron Miles. XM Radio’s Kevin Kennedy has predicted time and time again that if Fontenot received regular playing time he would hit 20 home runs a year. In all likelihood, Fontenot will split time with Miles and he is penciled in as a backup for Aramis Ramirez at third base.

Fontenot thrived in the second half last year (.360/.435/.540/.975) and was one of the few players that hit in September (.366/.471/.439/.910 in 17 of the Cubs 24 games).

Mike Fontenot showed improvement from 2007 to 2008 and for the Cubs to win their third division crown in 2009 they will need “Little Babe Ruth” to pickup where he left off last year.

PECOTA’s projection for Fontenot in 2009: .278/.356/.440/10/47 in 409 at bats

Micah Hoffpauir

Micah Hoffpauir has become a fan favorite in his short stint with the big league club. Hoffpauir can hit but he is a natural first baseman and the Cubs have not been able to find a way to get him on the field. Hoffpauir has learned to play both corner spots in the outfield and that will help him make the team out of Spring Training.

Lou Piniella has stated that Daryle Ward’s old job is Hoffpauir’s to lose this spring. As the Cubs’ roster is currently constructed, they are counting on Hoffpauir being their power threat off the bench and primarily a backup to Derrek Lee….who will receive more off days this season. But if the Cubs add a right-handed bat that can backup Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, Hoffpauir still has options left and could start the year in Iowa.

Hoffpauir’s line in limited playing time last season: .342/.400/.534/.934/2/8 with 8 doubles in 33 games (73 at bats).

PECOTA’s projection for Hoffpauir in 2009: .261/.327/.489/11/36 in 94 at bats

Derrek Lee

After a breakout season in 2005, a broken wrist in 2006 and consecutive seasons with declining power numbers, the Cubs need Derrek Lee to drive the ball this season….and cut down on hitting into double plays.

Derrek Lee can still pick ’em at first and is arguable the best defensive first baseman in the league along side of Albert Pujols. Defense is not his problem. The Cubs need Lee to have a bounce back season offensively, not 2005, but somewhere in between.

Lee hit .291 with a .361 OBP last season (.462 SLG, .823 OPS) with 20 home runs, 41 doubles and 90 RBI in 155 games (623 at bats)…but struggled mightily in the second half.

Lee hit only 5 of his 20 home runs after the break with 15 doubles and 34 RBI (.266/.343/.390/.733).

The Cubs have won back-to-back titles without huge seasons from ‘The Big Three‘, for Lou Piniella’s crew to get another shot in October, Derrek Lee must help lead the way.

PECOTA’s projection for Lee in 2009: .289/.369/.464/20/91

Aaron Miles

Another former Cardinal has crossed the lines, this time a scrappy middle infielder that Tony LaRussa did not want to lose. Aaron Miles seemed to always step up in big spots for the Cardinals and now it is time for him to do the same for the Cubs.

Miles hit .317 with a .355 OBP last year for St. Louis with 15 doubles and 4 home runs in 134 games (379 at bats). Miles is penciled in as one of the backups to Aramis Ramirez and will receive playing time at short and second base.

Aaron Miles is a ballplayer and will give Lou Piniella a lot of options on a daily basis. If he gives the same effort on a daily basis as he did with the Cardinals he should become a fan favorite.

PECOTA’s projection for Miles in 2009: .280/.327/.489/1/29

Aramis Ramirez

Other than Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez is the longest tenured Cub on the roster. Ramirez is coming off another solid season and recorded a career high .380 OBP… .289/.380/.518/.898 with 27 home runs and 44 doubles in 149 games (554 at bats). For the first time since 2003 his OPS dropped below .900 and his SLG was the lowest since 2003.

Ramirez, like Derrek Lee, showed a decline in power in the second half and hit only 10 home runs after the break. Lou Piniella will need more consistency from Ramirez this season while showing the same patience at the plate as he did a year ago.

As the roster is currently constructed, Aramis Ramirez is one of the most important players on the team. With Mark DeRosa in Cleveland, the Cubs do not have a legitimate backup to replace Ramirez if he is lost for an extended time.

PECOTA’s projection for Ramirez in 2009: .288/.363/.509/27/104

Ryan Theriot

Ryan Theriot is coming off his first full season as the Cubs starting shortstop…and a solid year it was. Theriot hit .307 with a .387 OBP in 149 games (580 at bats). Theriot hit for little, if no power, and of his 178 hits only 24 went for extra bases (19 doubles, 4 triples and a home run).

Depending on Lou Piniella’s mood and which day he is asked, Theriot could hit leadoff for the Cubs this season, or second, or eighth. Theriot figures to get most of the playing time at short and like many of the Cubs’ young players, he must take the next step in his development.

After posting his best line of the year in July (.333/.395/.407/.802), Theriot slowed down as the year wore on. Theriot hit only .281 with a .384 OBP in August with only two doubles and in September, .278 with a .360 OBP and just a single double.

Regardless of where Theriot ends up hitting, he must continue to get on base and improve his baserunning.

PECOTA’s projection for Theriot in 2009: .283/.359/.350/1/37

Milton Bradley

The Cubs’ biggest off-season acquisition enters camp with a lot of questions. As Milton Bradley has correctly reminded the media, the past is the past and should be left there. The only thing the Cubs must concern themselves with is keeping Bradley healthy and on the field….because if they do, Milton Bradley has the ability to make the Cubs offense much better.

Bradley is coming off a career year with a remarkable line of .321/.436/.563/.999 with 22 home runs and 32 doubles in 126 games. A majority of his games was spent as the Rangers’ DH (99) and his lack of games in the field ran up the red flag for most when the Cubs inked Bradley over the winter (two years with a vesting option for the third based on games played).

Bradley courted the Cubs and wants to be in Chicago. Now it is his job, with help from Lou Piniella, to stay healthy and on the field.

PECOTA’s projection for Bradley in 2009: .294/.402/.525/21/75 in 490 at bats

Jake Fox

Jake Fox can hit, that has never been the problem and neither has his heart nor desire, but his defense leaves more than a little to be desired. Fox was moved from behind the plate two years ago and has tried to learn how to play the corner outfield spots and first base. Fox struggled last season at Iowa (.222/.242/.479 with 10 doubles and 6 home runs in 29 games) was sent down to Double-A, found his stroke (.307/.397/.580/.977 with 25 home runs and 29 doubles in 105 games) and dominated in Winter Ball.

Fox is willing to do what it takes to make the team and has been taking ground balls at third this spring.

The Cubs still do not have a place for Jake Fox to play unless he picks up third base rather quickly and Jim Hendry does not make another move. Fox will start the year in Iowa and barring injury will not figure into the Cubs’ plans this season.

Kosuke Fukudome

Kosuke Fukudome is arguably one of the most important players going into the season. Fukudome set Chicago on fire last April and May and launched ‘Fukudomania‘. But as the season wore on Fukudome lost all confidence and was just plain awful at the plate.

Fukudome did not let his offense affect his defense and if he could have hit the ball would have been in line for a Gold Glove.

Kosuke Fukudome will not join the Cubs this spring until Team Japan is eliminated or the end of the tournament. The Cubs will be monitoring him in the WBC and reportedly they are hoping Fukudome is able to rebuild his confidence while playing for his country.

The Cubs need the player they thought they signed (.279/.383/.408 with 7 homeruns, 17 doubles, two triples in 90 games before the break)…not the one they received in the second half (.217/.314/.326/.639 with 3 home runs, 8 doubles and a triple).

PECOTA’s projection for Fukudome in 2009: .286/.386/.439/10/51

Sam Fuld

Despite what Phil Rogers may think, barring injury Sam Fuld will be the starting centerfielder for the Iowa Cubs on Opening Day….not on the Cubs 25-man roster.

Fuld will battle for a spot on the Cubs’ bench but with Reed Johnson, Kosuke Fukudome and Joey Gathright in front of him, Fuld will have to do more than just try to steal the centerfield job.

Joey Gathright

Jim Hendry has been rumored for years to be interested in Joey Gathright and after the Royals non-tendered him, Hendry was finally able to add Gathright to his roster.

Gathright figures to be the Cubs fifth outfielder when the season begins and should see playing time in all three outfield spots. Lou Piniella has desired flexibility and speed on his roster since he signed on with the Cubs…and Gathright will provide both.

Gathright can run like the wind and will help defensively late in games but offensively is where Gathright comes up short. In 105 games for the Royals last season, he hit only .254 with a .311 OBP and a .272 SLG.

PECOTA’s projection for Gathright in 2009: .266/.337/.312/0/15

Reed Johnson

Reed Johnson became a fan-favorite in his first year with the Cubs and the best compliment that can be given to Johnson is he’s ‘a ballplayer’. Johnson did his job last season and figures to have a bigger role on the team this year.

While the Cubs have stated Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome will platoon in center this year, if Fukudome struggles Johnson’s playing time will increase…Johnson lost around 15 pounds this off-season preparing for more playing time.

Johnson hit .303 with a .358 OBP and a .420 SLG in 109 games (333 at bats) with 21 doubles and 6 home runs last year. Johnson seemed to always be right in the middle of the action, either in the field or at the plate.

Reed Johnson will receive time at all three outfield spots this spring and on days he is not starting should be in the mix for late inning defensive replacements when the season begins.

PECOTA’s projection for Johnson in 2009: .276/.337/.405/7/42 in 377 at bats

Richie Robnett

Richie Robnett was acquired from the Oakland A’s on February 2nd along with Justin Sellers for Michael Wuertz. Robnett was the first round pick of the A’s in 2004 (26th overall) and spent most of 2008 in Triple-A (.236/.307/.351/.658).

Robnett was the A’s 15th best prospect according to Baseball America before the 2008 season (11th in 2007). BA described his raw power as his best tool with quick hands and powerful forearms. Baseball America described his defense as limited to corner outfield spots due to poor routes, reads and jumps despite good speed and above average arm strength.

Robnett has two options left and should begin the year with the I-Cubs.

Brad Snyder

The Cubs claimed Brad Snyder off waivers from the Cleveland Indians last September. Snyder was the first round pick of the Indians in 2003 (18th overall) and could give the Cubs another left-handed bat off the bench, but Micah Hoffpauir will have to play his way off the team before that would happen.

Snyder has the tools to be a good right fielder…Outstanding arm strength with plus bat speed and above average power. But Snyder has little to no plate discipline. He struck out 158 times in 523 at bats in Double-A in 2006 and 123 times in 411 at bats in Triple-A last season. The Indians tried to change his approach at the plate, but was unsuccessful.

Snyder is out of options and barring injury will have a hard time making the team.

Alfonso Soriano

Will Alfonso Soriano be the Cubs’ leadoff man come Opening Day? The answer to that question depends on what time of day it is. Lou Piniella likes Soriano at the top of the lineup and the Cubs win games with him a top the order. But his power would likely benefit the Cubs if he hit further down in the lineup…plus they could make up for his free-swinging ways a little better, like the Phillies and Ryan Howard.

More important than where Soriano hits in the Cubs lineup is whether he can stay healthy for an entire season. While last year’s six week absence was not Soriano’s fault, his legs have not ‘right‘ since his arrival to the Cubs…reportedly his legs feel better than they have in a couple of years after he spent the winter working with Aramis Ramirez.

Soriano’s line from 2008: .280/.344/.532/.876/29/75 in 109 games (453 at bats)

Soriano is a dynamic player and when he is on one of his patient streaks, he can carry a team for a week at a time. The Cubs need Alfonso Soriano to show up everyday, catch the ball and not hop his way onto the DL this year.

PECOTA’s projection for Soriano in 2009: .281/.348/.538/38/119

Coming Soon: Storylines of the Spring….The NRI’s

Quote of the Day

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