Cubs" title="Chicago Cubs"/>
SI Prediction: 1st in NL Central
In less than 24 hours this spring, Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano campaigned openly for both the starting pitching assignment on Opening Day and for the chance to hit as high as third in the batting order. He was serious about the first request but less so about the second -- though one can never be certain with the flamboyant Big Z. "I'll go to the minors, take some at bats, come back as a rightfielder, leftfielder," Zambrano told reporters. "We can move [leftfielder Alfonso] Soriano to second base."
Such a move is not as ridiculous as it might sound; Zambrano's .337 batting average last year was the highest by a Cubs pitcher in the modern era, and his 16 career home runs (in 494 at bats) are the most by a pitcher in franchise history. "He's actually the strongest guy, and hits the ball the longest, of any guy on the team," says Cubs batting coach Gerald Perry, who adds that Zambrano constantly begs to be allowed to take batting practice with the hitters rather than with the pitchers.
For now, though, Zambrano will be staying with the pitchers, and with good reason. In a deep rotation that, along with the Giants', is the class of the National League, the 27-year-old righthander has become a topflight pitcher. He overcame a mild right-shoulder strain that landed him on the disabled list last June to finish 14-6 with a 3.91 ERA in a season that included a September no-hitter of the Astros. In addition to displaying better command of his four-pitch repertoire, he also showed improvement in controlling his emotions, long considered to be his greatest weakness. "We committed four errors behind him in one playoff game," says Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, referring to Chicago's 10-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 2 of the Division Series last season. "He handled it fine. Hopefully that's a sign of things to come."
Zambrano, who will indeed get the Opening Day nod, leads a rotation that includes 17-game winners Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster, plus Rich Harden, who was excellent after arriving from Oakland in a midseason trade but is returning slowly from shoulder trouble that limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Don't write off the possibility that the Cubs and the Padres will restart the negotiations over San Diego righthander Jake Peavy, which broke off in December.
Even without Zambrano in the lineup, the offense is potent. The Cubs led the National League in runs scored (855), on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.443) and walks (636) and were second in hits (1,552) and batting average (.278). And that was without Milton Bradley, whom Cubs general manager Jim Hendry acquired this winter to bring better balance to the Cubs' heavily righthanded batting order. A switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions, Bradley was third in the American League in batting average (.321) and first in on-base percentage (.436) with the Rangers in 2008. Before giving him a three-year, $30 million deal, Hendry had a lengthy dinner with Bradley in Los Angeles. On the menu that evening was a frank discussion of Bradley's famously hot temper, which belies his cerebral approach to hitting. "I was very blunt and honest with him, and I was very pleased with how honest he was with me," says Hendry. "That's all in the past."
The G.M. is mindful of the distractions that can overwhelm any team, especially one that is constantly reminded that it hasn't won a World Series in more than a century. Hendry didn't want Bradley -- who, it should be noted, was well-liked in the Rangers' clubhouse, his most recent stop in a seven-team, nine-year career -- disrupting the team chemistry that helped the Cubs win an NL-best 97 games last season.
For his part, manager Lou Piniella opened spring training this year by telling his players to forget about last year's Division Series sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, and he reminded his team that it's still among the best in baseball. He stopped short, however, of any discussion of an end to the championship drought. "I wouldn't put the greatness label on this team yet," he said. "Let's see it [play] first."
-- Ted Keith
Issue date: April 6, 2009