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Spring Postcard: Forget playoff flop -- Cubs are NL Central faves again

1. Forget about last year.Not many teams that win 97 games need pep talks the following spring about how to get over what happened the year before, but Cubs manager Lou Piniella felt just such a speech was in order when his team gathered in Mesa, Ariz. As the new season approaches, much of the attention on the Cubs has focused more on last season, specifically their three straight losses in the Division Series to the underdog Dodgers rather than on their league-high 97 wins in the regular season, and Piniella was mindful of the potentially crushing burden that could carry once the year began. "I think this team needed a message, I really do," said Piniella, who has guided the Cubs to back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history. "I told them we played very well for six months and not so good for three days. But the longer you knock on the barn door, eventually you knock it down."

Even personnel from division rivals are conceding the NL Central is the Cubs' to lose, but Piniella cautions that nothing is guaranteed. "I wouldn't put the greatness label on this team just yet," he said. "Let's see it first. Let's see it."

2. Pitching in.Last year's Cubs team boasted the best offense in the National League, but it was pitching that was most responsible for their second straight division title. Cubs starters led the league in ERA (3.75), opponents' batting average (.237) and wins (69), while finishing third in strikeouts (786). And the bullpen, led by All-Star Kerry Wood and hard-throwing set-up men Carlos Marmol and Jeff Samardzija, finished fourth in saves and third in K's. This year, despite the losses of Wood and fifth starter Jason Marquis, the Cubs staff could be even better. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly return to anchor the staff, and Kevin Gregg was added from the Marlins to battle Marmol for the closers' role. Much of this spring has been devoted to finding a fifth starter from a group that includes Samardzija, newly acquired Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall and Chad Gaudin. The left-handed Marshall, who started seven games a year ago, is the early favorite to win the job, but this is a competition that is unlikely to be settled before camp breaks. Whichever pitchers don't win the fifth spot will be added to the relief corps, giving it a level of depth and experience that few, if any, clubs in the league can match.

3. Powering down.For all the Cubs' offensive prowess -- they led the NL in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage last year -- their home run total was surprisingly low: 184, fifth in the NL. Six Cubs hit at least 19 HRs, but two of them (Jim Edmonds and Mark DeRosa) are no longer in the Windy City, and there is some question as to whether the remaining sluggers can return to their power-hitting form. Catcher Geovany Soto slugged 23 home runs as a rookie, so it's too soon to know whether or not that will become the rule or the exception. Aramis Ramirez (27 home runs), Derrek Lee (20) and Alfonso Soriano (29, in 109 games) have combined for 11 30-HR seasons, yet none reached that level last season. Piniella has hinted that their bat speed may still not be where it should for this time of year, but he's willing to do his part to make sure that once they reach midseason form, they don't get burned out. Piniella is already making plans to get more rest for his top stars earlier in the season after Ramirez played 149 games (his second-most in five years) and Lee played 155 (his highest total in three years). Additionally, Kosuke Fukudome, who could platoon in center with Reed Johnson, played 150 games and Ryan Theriot (149) and Geovany Soto (141) also received extended playing time. Fatigue may have been a factor in the Cubs' postseason meltown: Soto, Ramirez, Soriano, Theriot and Fukudome combined to hit .158 (9-for-57) in the playoffs.

Milton Bradley. The Cubs offense was both dangerous and dangerously one-sided. Of their top 10 leaders in at-bats, eight of them were right-handed hitters, and one of the two lefties (Edmonds) was not brought back, leaving them with a lineup too easy for opposing teams to game plan against. "We needed some thunder from the left side to balance out all our righties," said Jim Hendry. The Cubs GM found just who he was looking for in Bradley, who led the AL in on-base percentage (.436) and ranked third in batting average (.321) with the Rangers last year and should represent a noticeable upgrade offensively from Edmonds. Bradley does not come without concerns, however. Primarily a designated hitter in Texas, he has not played a full-season in the outfield -- or been healthy enough for 500 at bats -- since 2004, and he'll be expected to stay healthy and productive long enough to protect righty sluggers Lee and Ramirez. More important, his notable temper tantrums required some frank questions from Hendry before he could sign Bradley this offseason. "I was very blunt and very honest with him when I met with him," said Hendry. "And I was very pleased with how honest he was with me. He admitted the mistakes he made to me right off the bat."

None. A plaque outside the team's clubhouse at their training facility in Mesa lists recent winners of the Ron Santo and Billy Williams Rookie of the Spring award, which debuted in 2003. Either it hasn't been given out in recent years or no one has bothered to update the plaque, which lists Angel Pagan in 2006 as the most recent recipient. Laziness wouldn't be the only reason a new name may not be added this spring. "This is not the year for younger kids to come in here and win jobs," said Piniella. "This is a veteran ballcub that's ready to win now." Indeed, only one position battle is ongoing, and that one -- for backup catcher -- is likely to come down to one of two veterans: 30-year-old Koyie Hill and 36-year-old Paul Bako.

Aaron Heilman. Believe it, Mets fans: Heilman, the much-maligned middle reliever with the 5.21 ERA a year ago, has been turning heads in Mesa this spring. For all the criticism he received in New York, he always had his admirers from afar. Hendry had tried to pry him loose from New York on multiple occasions but couldn't get him until this winter, after the Mets had already shipped him to the Mariners. "Sometimes a change of scenery is all you need," said Hendry. "He's looked very good so far." Hendry praised the right-hander's ability to pitch as both a starter and reliever and is counting on his new acquisition to be able to handle either role when called upon this season.

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