MANAGER LOUPINIELLA first season with Cubs
INJURY-CURSEDrighthanders Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who combined for 11 trips to thedisabled list and only 30 wins in the last three seasons, have come tosymbolize the Cubs' misery in the post-Bartman era. After unraveling in the2003 League Championship Series, the team slid further down the divisionstandings each season until it hit the cellar in '06. Over the last two yearsthe Pirates and the Rockies are the only NL teams with more losses thanChicago's 179. "There's always been a belief that our hopes kind of restedon their shoulders," catcher Michael Barrett says of Prior, 26, and Wood,29, "but this spring, you just didn't get that feeling."
Indeed, the buzzin camp was, for a change, about new faces in the clubhouse. The organization's$300 million off-season spending spree has galvanized the team. "This isthe year," first baseman Derrek Lee mass-texted teammates in early January.But will the expensive makeover be enough to turn the team into a contender,even in a division where 83 wins was good enough for first place last year?
Though the $136million signing of outfielder Alfonso Soriano made the biggest splash, just asimportant to the Cubs' chances are the free-agent additions to the startingrotation: Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million) and Jason Marquis (three years,$21 million). Though both have career ERAs north of 4.50, Chicago is countingon them to fill in behind ace Carlos Zambrano. The last two spots will befilled by Rich Hill and someone from a crowd that includes Prior. Wood isexpected to come out of the bullpen and be a late-inning bridge to closer RyanDempster. While the slimmed-down Wood has looked very strong this spring, Priorhas struggled to get his fastball out of the mid-80s.
Lilly, who gaveup a career-high 28 homers with the Blue Jays last year, should benefit fromnot having to face the mighty AL East lineups any longer. But the Cubs can'trely too heavily on a fly ball pitcher--his 1.12 fly ball to ground ball ratiowas fourth highest among AL starters--to be their No. 2 starter athomer-friendly Wrigley Field. Marquis, a low-strikeout pitcher who won 42 gamesfor the Cardinals over the last three seasons, is coming off a year in which heranked last among full-time NL starters in ERA (6.02) and opponents' sluggingpercentage (.509). New manager Lou Piniella is counting on pitching coach LarryRothschild to fix the mechanical problems they believe contributed to therighthander's unsightly numbers. "If you take away three or four starts,that ERA comes down to pretty much the league average," says Piniella."He's pitched [a lot of] innings. He's healthy. He's won in our division.You'll see a big improvement."
If Lilly andMarquis are effective and the lineup--punchless last season, ranking 15th inthe NL in runs and last in on-base percentage--is as productive as expected,the Cubs should start climbing back up the standings. In addition to the boostprovided by Soriano, Chicago hopes to get a full season out of Lee, whofractured his right wrist in a collision at first base with the Dodgers' RafaelFurcal in April, and played only 50 games. "I pushed the team into lettingme play," says the '05 NL batting champ, who briefly returned in lateAugust, "but I hurt the team more than I helped."
G.M. Jim Hendryalso re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez and imported free agents MarkDeRosa and Cliff Floyd to add more thunder to the lineup. (The Cubs would'vedone better to subtract a free swinger or two and make room for 25-year-old fanfavorite Matt Murton, who had a .365 on-base percentage, and led the team inpitches per plate appearance, 3.72). Says Piniella, "We've got the playersto turn things around real quick."
In this divisionhe might be right. --A.C.
a modest proposal ...
Lou Piniella hassaid he'll defer to Alfonso Soriano's desire to hit leadoff, but the Cubs wouldbe better off using catcher Michael Barrett--that rare, selective hitter onthis team--at the top of the order. Baseball Prospectus placed Piniella'sexpected starting lineup and the PECOTA projections for each Cub into a lineupsimulator at the Baseball Musings website. The simulator found that Piniella'slineup, with Soriano batting first then following the 8 and 9 hitters in hisensuing at bats, would score 39 fewer runs than a version with Barrett (left)leading off and Soriano hitting cleanup, where the Cubs would get more bangfrom Soriano's projected 41 homers (and suffer less because of his mediocreOBP). That 39-run gap is equal to the difference in value between Soriano andthe centerfielder he replaced, Juan Pierre. So the Cubs risk nullifying their$136 million investment with poor strategy.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
* New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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THE NUMBERS DON'TLIE
Home runs hit by new centerfielder Alfonso Soriano last season, 24 of whichcame at spacious RFK Stadium--his former home park with the Nationals. RFKyielded 165 home runs all season, the fourth-lowest total in the NL. Bycomparison there were 206 dingers hit at Wrigley Field; only two other NLstadiums, Cincinnati's and Philadelphia's, yielded more long balls.