Hope springs eternal and ever the optimists, Chicago Cubs fans are gearing up for a new season. The winds of change have blown in to the Windy City as new manager Lou Pinella gets ready for his first Spring Training as the Northsiders skipper. With the addition of several new players like Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly along with a healthy Derek Lee the Cubs look to make some serious noise in the National League Central Division. After spending close to $300 million this off season to bring in a bevy of new coaches and players, the Cubs feel they are on the cusp of turning the franchise around.
With spring training a few mere weeks away the optimism in Cubs Nation is at a fevered pitch. Though several upgrades have been made, there are still some key questions that need to be answered. With pitchers and catchers reporting on February 14th and the first Spring Training games beginning March 1st, Manager Lou Pinella will have a little over a month to find those answers.
With that, I give you 3 key situations to watch as Spring Trainings plays out.
1. The Outfield: Who will be in Center Field Opening Day
With Matt Murton, Jacque Jones, Alfonso Soriano, Cliff Floyd, and Daryle Ward the Cubs have a surplus of corner outfielders. This begs the questions, who will play Center? When Soriano first signed with the team it was assumed he would take over Right Field with Murton sharing time in Left Field with whoever else the Cubs brought in. We later learned this was Cliff Floyd and as it stands right now there could be a Murton and Floyd platoon in Left Field. After the 2006 season ended, there were many rumblings that Jacque Jones was unhappy and wanted out of Chicago. Many fans believed a trade was imminent, but with Spring Training only a couple of weeks away, Jones is still in a Cubs uniform. During the Cubs Convention last month the prospect of Soriano playing Center was addressed, and looks like this is what is likely to happen.
Keep an eye on the Jacque Jones situation however, as he still may wind up being traded. If that happens, look for the Cubs to bring in highly touted prospect Felix Pie. As it stands now however, the Opening Day outfield will likely look like this: LF-Matt Murton, CF-Alfonso Soriano, and RF-Jacque Jones.
The Cubs outfield will more than likely not be bringing home any Gold Glove Awards in 2007, but they should provide for some possibly record breaking offense.
2. The Pitching Rotation
Outside of Ace and number one starter Carlos Zambrano the Cubs pitching rotation is wide open. The organization did spend big money to bring in free agent pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, so you can figure they will be in the starting rotation, but the question is where. The Cubs also have Rich Hill who has absolutely dominated at the Minor League level, and did finally seem to emerge as a Major League starter towards the end of the 2006 season. Throw into the mix often injured Mark Prior who in all appearance seems ready to make a comeback, Wade Miller a year removed from arm surgery, and Neal Cotts who was picked up from the cross town rival White Sox and things could get real interesting. You cannot forget about Sean Marshall and Angel Guzman either. Both were forced into the rotation in 2006 due to injuries and both showed promise at times.
If Prior can even come close to returning to the form he showed in 2003 he will definitely find himself back in the rotation. Marshall and Guzman are both young and unproven, and though they did pitch well at times last year, will probably find themselves starting the year in Triple A. Should the injury bug return to Wrigley Field again in 2007, those two would be the first to be called up. Another interesting prospect is that they could also be packaged in a deal should the Cubs need to fill other holes in the lineup. The dark horse in this race is Wade Miller. No one really knows what to expect from Miller, and he could prove to be the missing link the Cubs need to go deep into the Playoffs. More than likely when the Cubs break camp and head for Chicago and Opening Day, the rotation will look something like this: Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Jason Marquis, and Mark Prior.
I know what you are thinking, that list is incomplete. What about Kerry Wood? Well, Kerry will be back with the Cubs in 2007, but he will be plying his trade out of the bullpen as a possible set up man and potential long reliever. The bullpen does look solid, but if Ryan Dempster shows signs of faltering all eyes will undoubtedly turn back to Kerry Wood to possibly step into the Closer’s role.
3. What Will the Cubs do with Ronny Cedeno & Ryan Theriot
When Gold Glove Shortstop Cesar Izturis came to the Cubs last year in the Greg Maddux trade, Ronny Cedeno was all but handed the Second Base job. This did not last long however as Izturis went down with a hamstring injury forcing Cedeno to move back to Shortstop. This opened the door for young Ryan Theriot who became a fan favorite at the end of the year with his hot bat, and hard nose style of play. With Izturis supposedly back at 100% and the signing of Mark DeRosa both Cedeno and Theriot are suddenly the odd men out.
Cedeno has shown flashes of being a Gold Glove caliber Shortstop, but after a hot start never really became comfortable at the plate. The move to Second Base was not good for him either, and it may be that his only position is at Shortstop. Izturis does have a history of getting injured so Cedeno could find himself back manning the left side of the infield once again.
Theriot on the other hand is an interesting case. He can play basically any position on the field other than pitcher and catcher. There have even been rumors about him transitioning out to Center Field though that is highly unlikely. Theriot will not scare anyone with his bat, but he is one of those scrappy type of players that every team needs to be successful. This versatility gives him a slight edge over Ronny Cedeno.
It will obviously come down to who has the more productive Spring Training between Cedeno and Theriot to see who makes the team. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that both players will make the trip to Chicago either as Pinella loves depth on the bench. Cedeno is another player that could be moved in some kind of deal should the Cubs find themselves in need.
Always optimistic, Cubs fans have high expectations for their team this year. With a new coaching staff, potentially lethal offense, and depth in the starting rotation the team seems poised to make a run at its first World Series in 62 years. Though there are still some questions in need of answering, I find myself falling into the hopeful trap of thinking “next year” is finally here.