1 CHICAGO CUBS

April 05, 2009

They'll MakeHistory

For the firsttime since 1908 (drum roll) the Cubs will go to the playoffs for a thirdstraight year

IN LESS than 24 hours this spring, Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano campaigned openlyfor both the starting pitching assignment on Opening Day and for the chance tohit as high as third in the batting order. He was serious about the firstrequest but less so about the second—though one can never be certain with theflamboyant Big Z. "I'll go to the minors, take some at bats, come back as arightfielder, leftfielder," Zambrano told reporters. "We can move[leftfielder Alfonso] Soriano to second base."

Such a move isnot as ridiculous as it might sound; Zambrano's .337 batting average last yearwas the highest by a Cubs pitcher in the modern era, and his 16 career homeruns (in 494 at bats) are the most by a pitcher in franchise history. "He'sactually the strongest guy, and hits the ball the longest, of any guy on theteam," says Cubs batting coach Gerald Perry, who adds that Zambranoconstantly begs to be allowed to take batting practice with the hitters ratherthan with the pitchers.

For now, though,Zambrano will be staying with the pitchers, and with good reason. In a deeprotation that, along with the Giants', is the class of the National League, the27-year-old righthander has become a topflight pitcher. He overcame a mildright-shoulder strain that landed him on the disabled list last June to finish14--6 with a 3.91 ERA in a season that included a September no-hitter of theAstros. In addition to displaying better command of his four-pitch repertoire,he also showed improvement in controlling his emotions, long considered to behis greatest weakness. "We committed four errors behind him in one playoffgame," says Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, referring to Chicago's10--3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 2 of the Division Series last season. "Hehandled it fine. Hopefully that's a sign of things to come."

Zambrano, whowill indeed get the Opening Day nod, leads a rotation that includes 17-gamewinners Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster, plus Rich Harden, who was excellent afterarriving from Oakland in a midseason trade but is returning slowly fromshoulder trouble that limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Don't writeoff the possibility that the Cubs and the Padres will restart the negotiationsover San Diego righthander Jake Peavy, which broke off in December.

Even withoutZambrano in the lineup, the offense is potent. The Cubs led the National Leaguein runs scored (855), on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.443) andwalks (636) and were second in hits (1,552) and batting average (.278). Andthat was without Milton Bradley, whom Cubs general manager Jim Hendry acquiredthis winter to bring better balance to the Cubs' heavily righthanded battingorder. A switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions, Bradley wasthird in the American League in batting average (.321) and first in on-basepercentage (.436) with the Rangers in 2008. Before giving him a three-year, $30million deal, Hendry had a lengthy dinner with Bradley in Los Angeles. On themenu that evening was a frank discussion of Bradley's famously hot temper,which belies his cerebral approach to hitting. "I was very blunt and honestwith him, and I was very pleased with how honest he was with me," saysHendry. "That's all in the past."

The G.M. ismindful of the distractions that can overwhelm any team, especially one that isconstantly 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 theRangers' clubhouse, his most recent stop in a seven-team, nine-yearcareer—disrupting the team chemistry that helped the Cubs win an NL-best 97games last season.

For his part,manager Lou Piniella opened spring training this year by telling his players toforget about last year's Division Series sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, andhe reminded his team that it's still among the best in baseball. He stoppedshort, however, of any discussion of an end to the championship drought. "Iwouldn't put the greatness label on this team yet," he said. "Let's seeit [play] first."

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

The Cubs aretrying to threepeat in the NL Central without a solid centerfielder. KosukeFukudome (left) is the nominal starter, a 31-year-old rightfielder coming off adisappointing rookie year in which he was benched—and publicly criticized bymanager Lou Piniella—during the playoffs. His platoon partner, Reed Johnson,32, is a fourth outfielder by trade and better in the corners. Joey Gathright,who brings nothing but speed to the table, may end up playing more than heshould simply because he's the only true centerfielder in the room. There areworse ideas than bringing back Jim Edmonds, whom the Cubs picked off the scrapheap last May but didn't re-sign after the season. Age has turned the onetimeGold Glove into a below-average defensive player, but he's a naturalcenterfielder and can still hit a little (.362 OBP, .521 slugging versusrighties).

THE NUMBERS
DON'T LIE
8

Consecutiveseasons in which the Cubs' pitching staff has led the majors in strikeouts. Ofthe pitchers who threw at least 160 innings in 2008, two—Ryan Dempster and TedLilly—were in the top 10 in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. A fullseason from Rich Harden, who fanned 89 batters in 71 innings after beingacquired mid-year from Oakland, only increases the likelihood that the Cubswill extend the streak to nine seasons.

The Lineup
WITH 2008 STATISTICS

Manager LouPiniella
THIRD SEASON WITH CUBS

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ALFONSO SORIANO   LF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 15 .280 29 75 19
RYAN THERIOT   SS  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 149 .307 1 38 22
DERREK LEE   1B  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 66 .291 20 90 8
MILTON BRADLEY [

NEW ACQUISITION]

  RF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 68 .321 22 77 5
ARAMIS RAMIREZ   3B  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 30 .289 27 111 2
MIKE FONTENOT   2B  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 209 .305 9 40 2
GEOVANY SOTO   C  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 45 .285 23 86 0
KOSUKE FUKUDOME   CF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 145 .257 10 58 12
BENCH
REED JOHNSON   OF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 287 .303 6 50 5
JOEY GATHRIGHT [

NEW ACQUISITION]

  OF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 342 .254 0 22 21
AARON MILES [

NEW ACQUISITION]

  IF  
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 278 .317 4 31 3

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ROTATION
PITCHER PVR W L K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Carlos Zambrano 17 14 6 6.2 1.29 3.91
RH Ryan Dempster 40 17 6 8.1 1.21 2.96
LH Ted Lilly 45 17 9 8.1 1.23 4.09
RH Rich Harden 24 10 2 11.0 1.06 2.07
LH Sean Marshall 152 3 5 8.0 1.27 3.86
BULLPEN
PITCHER PVR W SV K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Kevin Gregg [

NEW ACQUISITION]

129 7 29 7.6 1.28 3.41
RH Carlos Marmol 36 2 7 11.7 0.93 2.68
RH Aaron Heilman [

NEW ACQUISITION]

146 3 3 9.5 1.59 5.21

NEWACQUISITION
B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)

NOW AT SI.COM/VAULT

EXCERPTED FROM SI
April 7, 2003

A fellow like me is wandering outside of the park,marveling again that the only statue at Wrigley is not of Hack or Tinker orEvers or Chance—Cubs all—but of bloated, grinning announcer Harry Caray,holding out a microphone to an invisible crowd, singing silently in the seventhinning. LET ME HEAR YA .... the legend on the base reads. A ONE.... A TWO.... ATHREE. It's perfect, really, just like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey yearsago. Deejay Steve Dahl, who concocted the event and wore a military helmetduring the detonation, says now that Sox fans and Cubs fans can accept theendless losing because "we're happy just to be outside for a fewmonths."
—RICK TELANDER

For free access to all Cubs stories and photographsfrom the SI archives, plus video clips, go to SI.com/vault.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRISKY BUSINESS Bradley, who had the AL's top OPS (.999) in '08, has played more than 101 games in a season only twice. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (FUKUDOME) PHOTO

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)