Is This the Year? (No, but ...)

The Cubs have issues, but they're making new skipper Lou Piniella one happy camper
February 26, 2007

IN HIS oftenexplosive 19-year managerial career, Lou Piniella has been ejected 57 times,including once from an exhibition game. When he retired as a player, from theNew York Yankees in 1984, he received a bashed-in water cooler as a farewellgift from a fan. But last week, as the first-year Cubs' manager addressed hispitchers, catchers and a smattering of position players--most notably $136million free-agent prize Alfonso Soriano--for the first time, his usual dourcountenance was as sunny as the azure Arizona sky. "We're going to havesome fun," the 63-year-old Piniella assured the assembled. "It's goingto be nice and relaxed here."

Did the man sayrelaxed? Pressure on the Northsiders to win is now as high as it's ever been,following the Cubs' 96-loss finish and a wild-spending winter in whichownership ran up a free-agent tab totaling more than $297 million, a record fora single off-season. While the Cubs' players welcomed their manager's What, MeWorry? attitude, they weren't completely buying it: By Friday they had startedto organize a clubhouse pool inviting wagers on the date of Sweet Lou's firstmeltdown.

Nonetheless, thetone at the Cubs' camp was upbeat, purposeful and, yes, relaxed. Sorianoquietly arrived in Mesa four days ahead of the reporting deadline for positionplayers--a stark contrast to the traditional late arrivals of the Cubs' lastsuperstar, Sammy Sosa. First baseman Derrek Lee, who missed most of last yearwith a fractured right wrist, was all smiles as he took one healthy cut afteranother in the batting cage. Oft-sidelined Mark Prior, the onetime ace who'svying for a rotation spot after a disastrous 2006 (1--6, 7.21 ERA), threwpain-free and looked sharp.

Of course, therewere the usual signs of the apocalypse, courtesy of the franchise's otherinjury-cursed righthander, Kerry Wood, who bruised his right ribcage three daysbefore the start of camp--while stepping out of a hot tub. Wood, who has beenpegged as a closer candidate if Ryan Dempster's struggles from last seasonpersist, met with reporters after he was injured and said with a shrug and asmile, "It's that time of year again." (Wood was back throwing off themound two days later, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild anticipates a quickrecovery.)

In taking overfor the laid-back Dusty Baker, Piniella might be the most important piece of anextreme makeover that has transformed everything from the clubhouse, wherethere are 17 new faces, to the iconic Wrigley Field outfield walls, which willfeature advertisements among the ivy for the first time, to help pay forChicago's projected $115 million payroll. The team's lavish off-season spendingmight not even have been possible without the addition of Piniella, who signeda three-year, $10 million pact. "We didn't know how interested [freeagents] would be in coming here, especially coming off a few losingseasons," says Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. "But after Lou came onboard, I think guys looked at us and thought, 'They're serious about winningnow.'"

That wascertainly the case with Soriano, the most coveted position player from the '06free-agent class. In late November, Piniella and Hendry met secretly withSoriano for three hours in a Ritz Carlton hotel suite in Naples, Fla. TheDominican-born Soriano and Piniella, who speaks fluent Spanish, instantlyconnected. "I could tell from our visit that he's a good young man,"says Piniella. "A humble kid. He came here early and got a head start. Hewants to be ready--and it sends a great message to the team." Says Soriano,"I saw his passion [during the meeting in Florida]. He's real, and he'lltell you exactly what he thinks, and I like that."

Though Soriano iscoming off a career year (a remarkable 46 homers while playing half his gamesin cavernous RFK Stadium), he is yet another free swinger in a lineup full ofthem. Chicago ranked last in the National League in on-base percentage in 2006and, not surprisingly, second-to-last in runs. Soriano's career on-basepercentage is a mere .325 and his strikeout-to-walk rate remains alarminglyhigh, yet the Cubs are committed to batting him leadoff. Then there is theissue of where he plays in the field. Last week Piniella revealed that he wantsSoriano in centerfield. Not only has the 31-year-old never played the position,but the swirling winds of Wrigley make it one of the most perilous centerfieldsin baseball. A second baseman for much of his big league career, Sorianoinitially balked at moving to the outfield for the Nationals last spring. Heeventually relented and played a full season in left, where he displayed anadequate arm and good range, though he committed 11 errors. He says he's gamefor another switch, but not without some trepidation. "I'm an outfieldernow," he says, "but I'm not a good outfielder yet. I have a lot tolearn."

Only three teams(the 1991 Atlanta Braves, the '99 Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2003 Cubs) havemade the postseason after losing more than 95 games the previous season, butPiniella, who never won more than 70 games in his last managerial job (with theTampa Bay Devil Rays from '03 through '05), says he wouldn't have taken the gigif he didn't think he could do what Jim Leyland did for the Detroit Tigers lastseason. "We can turn this around quick because we have the makings of areal good pitching staff if we can stay healthy," he says, contemplating arotation anchored by ace Carlos Zambrano and bolstered by free-agent lefthanderTed Lilly.

As for hissunnier demeanor, Piniella, who worked last year in the Fox broadcast booth,insists that a year away from managing has softened his edge. "It gave me adifferent perspective--helped me lighten up," he says. "You step backand see that sometimes you take things a bit too seriously."

Says Hendry,"He's invigorated. He's hungry for one last shot to win. When he went toTampa, financially the team wasn't able to move forward, and that wore him downa little. When we met [in Florida in November], he asked me one question:'What's your payroll going to be?' I told him at least $100 million. He said,'That's good enough for me.'"

Baseball Prospectus Says
Yes, the Cubs have tried to buy their way to contender status. And it justmight work in a division that was won last year by a team that went 83--78.PECOTA anticipates that Soriano will make a big splash (a .287 batting averageand 39 homers) while Lilly, who signed a four-year, $40 million free-agentcontract this off-season, should help stabilize the rotation (10--8, 4.37 ERA).Although PECOTA is less excited about new acquisitions Jason Marquis (projected5.26 ERA) and infielder Mark DeRosa (11 HRs, 50 RBIs), getting a full season ofLee (28 HRs, 86 RBIs) should help the Cubs tremendously, as will Piniella,whose ability to manage a bullpen is far superior to that of his predecessor,Baker.
BOTTOM LINE: an 84--78 record, putting Chicago in a three-way war of attritionin the NL Central with the Brewers and the Cardinals.

PHOTOROBERT BECKWHO ISTHIS MAN?
After a frantic off-season spending spree by the front office, the volatilePiniella is telling his (amused) players, Just relax.
PHOTOMORRY GASH/APCENTERPIECE
Soriano will hit, but even he wonders if the Cubs won't take a hit with himpatrolling center.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)