Piniella pondering moves to awaken his hibernating Cubs

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Word was getting around in baseball circles that Piniella is "very down'' about his team, which is now 5-9 and has dropped four straight games. But he still has incredible energy at age 66, and he seems to be focusing on the hope of the long season ahead. On Tuesday at least, Piniella wasn't doing too badly.

"What are you going to do?" Piniella said. "It's not easy when you're losing. But I'm holding up fine.''

Frankly, the Cubs have too many problems right now for being the highest-priced team in the National League. Their payroll is estimated to be $146 million; they have the league's best-paid left fielder (Alfonso Soriano, $18 million), its second-best-paid starter (Carlos Zambrano, $18 million) its best-paid castoff (Milton Bradley, now with Seattle, $10 million) and even its highest-paid hitting coach (Rudy Jaramillo, $800,000). Piniella is one of the best-paid managers, too at about $3.7 million annually. But he can't be happy unless they're playing better.

"I've never been a good loser,'' Piniella said. "We've lost a lot of tough games from the seventh inning on."

Indeed, the bullpen has been easily the Cubs' biggest bugaboo. Their relievers are 1-6 with a 6.00 ERA, better than only the Diamondbacks and Royals. As Piniella succinctly put it, "It's been a problem.''

Going in to the season, Cubs people were afraid that would be the case, and their worst fears have come to fruition. Piniella said, "We tried to trade all winter for a (relief) pitcher. Then (setup man Angel) Guzman goes down. And on top of that, (hard-throwing youngster Esmailin) Caridad (is hurt). We have a young bullpen. It's not the easiest thing in the world.''

Piniella and his Cubs bosses are starting to bat around possible solutions.

Top left-handed starting pitcher Ted Lilly is scheduled to make his season debut Saturday, which will improve the Cubs' already strong rotation. But what Lilly could do most is improve the bullpen by allowing the Cubs to move one of their fine starters, who have nine quality starts in the first 14 games, to a relief role.

Piniella isn't ready to say publicly what the Cubs will do, but indications are strong that left-hander Tom Gorzelanny will stay in the rotation when Lilly returns, and one of the right-handers -- Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva -- will move to the pen for now.

It's hard to imagine it being Zambrano, who has a $91-million contract. And it's even harder to fathom it being Silva, who's showing signs of resuscitating his career as a Cub after a disastrous two seasons in Seattle. Wells has settled into a nice routine as a starter, too. If it's anyone, Dempster -- who makes almost $13 million a year as a starter but has been a semi-successful closer in the past -- might be the most logical of the four.

Piniella hopes the new reliever -- whoever he is -- will transform the pen, at least temporarily. With the exception of talented closer Carlos Marmol, the entire relief corps is trouble right now, but the eighth inning is the most immediate issue. "We've just to find better ways to get to [Marmol],'' Piniella said. "We've got to try to fortify the bullpen.'' Veteran lefty John Grabow, who is being counted on to be the setup man in Guzman's absence, failed again in eighth inning on Tuesday night when he allowed a two-run home run to the Mets' Fernando Tatis that all but ensured Chicago's 4-0 loss. Grabow, who was given a $7.5-million, two-year deal before the market for mediocre relievers sank, is now 0-2 with a 9.53 ERA.

The pen may be problem No. 1 but the offense is an issue, too. People high up in the Cubs' organization are dismayed about how free-swinging their hitters have been. The team as a whole has a .317 on-base percentage, which ranks 22nd in the majors, and star third baseman Aramis Ramirez has been so uncharacteristically strikeout prone that Piniella was considering resting him against a left-hander in the next day or two. Someone wondered Tuesday night whether Ramirez could be "pressing,'' and Piniella said with a smile, "It becomes a long season if you start pressing in April.''

"It's early,'' Soriano said, agreeing. "We can turn it around. We have a good offensive team and a good starting rotation. We can change it. We're supposed to be better than this. But people don't realize, everyone struggles. Everyone needs to relax, and we'll do a better job.''

Piniella, though, would just like to see a little more versatility. "When we hit home runs, we do better,'' he said. "We're not really good at manufacturing runs.''

As expected, the Cubs hit well when the wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field. But when it shifted and started blowing in, they lost two straight one-run games. They also haven't hit very well on the road, where they have a .207 average thus far. Piniella's tried a few different things, but now seems to like Marlon Byrd leading of against left-handers. With Soriano batting sixth where he belongs, there are no experienced leadoff men, so it's been a bit of trial and error.

"We're struggling basically with the alignment,'' Piniella said. "But if we have to make changes down the road, we will.''

Their roster is jammed with usable outfielders, and Piniella badly wants to get promising youngster Tyler Colvin more at-bats. The Cubs also have a superb prospect in shortstop Starlin Castro, but it's not immediately clear how they'd be able to use him if they called him up.

In the meantime, the best Piniella can hope for is improved play from the high-priced stars they have. Ramirez is hitting .145. Soriano has only three RBIs out of the No. 6 hole, and what's more, he's drawing renewed criticism for the same old issues. He's hitting reasonably well but tends to watch his long hits rather than immediately running, his defense has been atrocious, and he compounds his poor defense by sometimes doing his patented hop while catching flyballs, an unnecessary risk.

"I love the guy to death. But put it this way, he's not going to win a Gold Glove,'' Piniella said. "He's been working hard with the hitting coach. We need for him to drive in some more runs. He's conscientious about it.''

Piniella talked to Soriano about watching a long flyball Monday that became a double but should have been a triple. Soriano acknowledged their conversation. "He told me to run a little bit more because [that day] he thought I could get a triple.''

"I have a good rapport with him,'' Piniella said. "He aims to please. But he gets in his old habits. He told me no more hop, and I thought to myself, 10,000 Little League coaches can breathe a sigh of relief. (Monday) night, he had half a hop.''

In the meantime, there still appears to be a hop in Piniella's step. His friends still say "losing eats at him.'' But if it does, he's hiding it.

"I don't like losing,'' Piniella said. "But I'm fine. We're working. We're tying to do the best we can. And we're going to get better.''

Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez caught a break by failing the spring-training test for a PED while he was on the 60-day disabled list after Tommy John surgery, allowing him to serve his 50-game suspension while he was out anyway. It's a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement, but it didn't cause much consternation when Sergio Mitre and Rafael Betancourt had similar situations in past years. It still might be something for baseball to take a look at, though.

As for Volquez's excuse that he was taking a fertility drug because he wanted to start a family, well, that's not a great one. Even if true, major leaguers should know better since Manny Ramirez was caught with a similar drug a year ago. Everyone has an excuse when they are caught, but some are better than others. This one should be viewed with some skepticism.

Baseball is mourning the loss of beloved Rockies president Keli McGregor, whose background was in football but who was smart enough to work his way up to lead the Rockies, a very successful organization during his tenure (he became president in 2001). McGregor was a great American success story, a former NFL player who rose to great heights in the baseball world.

Baseball people were saddened at shocked at the sudden death of McGregor, who appeared to be the most fit 48-year-old executive in baseball. He often ran five miles a day and looked like he could still play his game. Statements filled with praise and sadness were sent out by commissioner Bud Selig, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall, players union leader Michael Wiener. In fact, testimonials came from all over baseball for McGregor, who was found in his hotel room in Salt Lake City, where he had gone on team business.

• Selig is said to be fed up with the feet-dragging that's going on in the negotiations to sell the Rangers to prospective buyer Chuck Greenberg, and wants a deal done soon. At last count there was still a $30-to-50 million gap that needed to be bridged. Current owner Tom Hicks has been threatened with bankruptcy by the banks, an alternative that would be bad for everyone, including the banks. Hicks has been nothing short of a disaster as an owner, and it's time for him to be reasonable.

• Red Sox GM Theo Epstein didn't soft sell his team's surprisingly slow start. He said they haven't played "worth a (bleep)'' and other unflattering things about his own team, which responded with a 7-6 win over Texas that brought them to 5-9.

• The Red Sox can't have as much patience as they did last year with struggling DH David Ortiz (.158, 0 Hrs, 2 RBIs) since they already have fallen well behind the Yankees and Rays in baseball's toughest division. Mike Lowell provides a decent option to replace Big Papi, certainly against left-handers. Ortiz has no chance to have his $12.5 million option for 2011 picked up.

• Andruw Jones appears to be back (four home runs already).

• What's gotten into Vernon Wells? (He might actually be worth his $18 million salary right now).

• Carlos Beltran met with knee specialist Dr. Richard Steadman in Colorado. Beltran is said to be doing well but the doctor advised that all "hot spots'' (bone bruises) heal before Beltran begins his running program.

• Ike Davis has brought some excitement to Citi Field, and the Mets are 2-0 since his arrival. Mets people are trying to downplay his presence to take the pressure off. Baseball America has him rated only the seventh best first-base prospect, behind Texas' Justin Smoak and two in the Mets' own division (the Braves' Freddy Freeman and the Marlins' Logan Morrison), but he looks like a future star.

• With the Mets bullpen being such a pleasant surprise, there's been some media calls for the Mets to demote top pitching prospect Jenrry Mejia so he can work on being a starter. But Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said both Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya like having Mejia with the big club.

• Minaya said he believes Pedro Martinez will be pitching somewhere this year, though he didn't say it would be for the Mets. The Phillies remain a possibility, though club sources continue to say "nothing is imminent'' there.

• Smoak has the potential to provide Ike-like excitement for Texas. But Texas, being a smaller market team, may be more cautious with a callup.

• The five-game suspension of Cliff Lee was rescinded by MLB, which is only fair since Lee at worst was retaliating for an incident that caused an injury that's so bad he's missing the first month.

• The Rockies were right to complain about the balk calls in their defeat Sunday to the Braves, as those didn't appear to have been balks. Hopefully, there are no budding Bob Davidsons on the horizon.

• Congratulations to Ubaldo Jimnenez, who may have announced his arrival as a big-time star with his and the Rockies' first-ever no-hitter.