Not since Spring 2004 has there been a more optimistic feeling about our Chicago Cubs. The 2004 squad was set before the eve of training camp when Jim Hendry signed Greg Maddux to a three year deal to be our fifth starting pitcher. Other notable transactions that off season included Todd Walker splitting time with Mark Grudzielanek at second base, the trade for Derrek Lee to man first base was going to be a serious upgrade and Corey Patterson was coming back from injury to play Centerfield. Patterson’s star was rising due to his stellar play before a knee injury cut-short his 2003 season. As we all know the 2003 Cubs were five outs away from a date with the New York Yankees in the World Series before disaster struck and the 2004 squad was going to be even better. Sports Illustrated even had a cover story titled “When Hell freezes over”. As we all know, Hell remains Hot and the 2004 season was a good year record-wise, but the Cubs failed to make the playoffs. So why is there optimism for 2007? First off all the culture has been changed at the Ivory tower on Michigan Avenue. CEO Andy MacPhail was let go and replaced by marketing guru John McDonough. McDonough has said all the right things and has backed up his comments by letting Jim Hendry deal out tons of cash to players who will be here for the next 4 years or more. Aramis Ramirez was resigned, Alfonso Soriano, the best offensive machine on the free market was also newly Cubbed for eight years along with new second baseman Mark DeRosa and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. Hendry also acquired Neal Cotts from Bridgeport to give the bullpen three left handed pitchers.
With all the new faces and money spent, we sometimes forget the man who will be in charge of this squad – Lou Piniella. Piniella, a proven winner as a player and Manager will not tolerate the lackadaisical play of previous Dusty Baker teams. Actions like hustle, and on base percentage will be part of what we see on the field. Gone will be spoken words like “dude”, “is what it is”, and all Hank Aaron analogies.
The 2007 squad is not quite complete yet. A couple of prudent trades can fix that. Jim Hendry can now deal from strength; he has stock piled enough pitching were he can possibly deal some young arms that can shore up a solution for Centerfield. Last years starting five no longer includes Jerome Williams or Glendon Rusch. The names of Zambrano, Hill, Lilly and Marquis will anchor the top four spots in the rotation. Wade Miller, Mark Prior, Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, and Juan Mateo will not be given a spot in the rotation, they compete for the chance to earn the job as fifth starter along with any other Rookie-spring-surprises. Derrek Lee will back, along with Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Those three names alone should club 100 bombs. Matt Murton will be a year more experienced and Michael Barrett is one of the top hitting catchers in the game.
I can’t predict a World Series championship yet for 2007, but I can predict that there won’t be any of those empty seats in September.