The Cubs have been a second-division team for 13 years. This winter they traded extensively and came up with players as good as Frank Thomas and Richie Ashburn (together, left). The Cubs look better, but the key man—this year, last year, for the past five years—is still Ernie Banks.
•WORDS FROM ERNIE
Banks was standing beside the batting cage in Mesa, Ariz. this spring, watching his teammates hit. Hitting is what the Cubs do best, and on this particular day baseballs were disappearing into the thin mountain air like jets. Banks looked pleased.
"I like the looks of this club," he said at length. "We have a good team. Only trouble is, so does everybody else. I can hardly wait to see how this all turns out."
Because of Banks himself, things can't turn out too badly for the Cubs. Last year the team tied Cincinnati for fifth place, but it was only Banks, with his 45 home runs and 143 runs batted in, that kept people from confusing the Cubs with the last-place Phillies. Banks hits home runs like a man brushing an ash from his sleeve—just a flick of the wrist and it's gone. Ask any pitcher.
•THE RUN SCORERS
Many of the runs Banks batted in last year were scored by Tony Taylor, who hit .280 in the lead-off spot. This year Tony may bat second because the Cubs now have Ashburn, who was leading off for the Phillies when Taylor was in grammar school. Ashburn is 33 now and last year was his worst in the majors, but both he and the Cubs do not believe the end is in sight. The Cubs got another good hitter in Thomas, who also had his worst season. Thomas can hit home runs—for six years he averaged 27 a season—and he is only 30.
So the Cubs will present a very respectable top of the batting order—Ashburn, Taylor, Banks and Thomas. What follows is anybody's guess. First Baseman Dale Long (do you remember when he...?) and Outfielder Walt Moryn are two free-swinging left-handed hitters, the all-or-nothing type. Outfielder George Altman, First Baseman Dick Gernert and Catcher Sam Taylor fit that general description, too. Outfielder Irv Noren is still a fair hitter, and a rookie outfielder named Lou Johnson has been hitting every pitch in sight. Let the members of this merry band have a good day together and the Cubs will score enough runs to win a war.
Trouble is, other teams are going to score well against the Cubs. Chicago fans, spoiled by the fine defense and pitching of the White Sox, may find the Cubs hard to digest. Catching is a Grade A problem. Manager Charlie Grimm named Del Rice captain of the team when spring training began, a curious move. Rice is 37 and spent most of last year as a Milwaukee coach. He has not played regularly since 1953, yet Grimm has said he is counting on old Del to steady the team's young pitching staff. The Cubs also have Sam Taylor (nice hitter, poor catcher) and Cal Neeman (poor hitter, nice catcher). Of the group, Neeman would seem to be the best bet, but the position is definitely a trouble spot. So is third base. Frank Thomas can play it, but poorly, and is better in left field. Jerry Kindall, a weak hitter, may be used there, although second base and shortstop are his positions. Harry Bright, who couldn't make it with the Pirates, pleased Grimm in spring training.
At shortstop and second base, Banks and Taylor are very good. Long and Gernert at first base—they will probably be platooned—are slow but reasonably sure. The outfield of Thomas, Ashburn and Johnson, will be better than some, worse than most. Thomas is slow, Ashburn's arm is weak, Johnson is still only a rookie.
•LACK OF PITCHING
Despite the defensive deficiencies, the Cubs would be a first-division team if it were not for their paucity of big-league pitchers. True, no team would refuse Glen Hobbie or Bob Anderson, both young, strong right-handers who last year pitched well over 200 innings apiece and won 16 and 12 games respectively. And Don Elston is still a top reliever. But after these three come problems. Two years ago the Cubs thought they had two future stars in Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky, and nobody argued differently. Together they won 28 games in 1957, their first full season. Since then they have been hampered by enough arm ailments to drive a manager mad. Last year neither was of any help to the team (Drabowsky had a 4.12 ERA, Drott 6.00), and Drott wound up in the minors. This spring, however, both pitchers were throwing easily and without pain. Should Drott and Drabowsky regain their 1957 form, the Cubs would look a lot better. And yet, even with help from D & D, the Cubs are short of pitchers. Two shopworn left-handers, Art Ceccarelli and Seth Morehead, show promise, but that is about all.
1959 TEAM PERFORMANCE
RUNS BATTED IN