Discussions of the Cubs' chances of winning their division tend
to resemble the Kipling poem in their shared reliance on the
word if. The 1998 version of this spring tradition comes
courtesy of Chicago manager Jim Riggleman: "If we're hitting on
all cylinders, we're a contender in the National League Central."
Of course, this is basically the same opinion that was expressed
a year ago, just before the Cubs opened the season with a
National League-record 14 consecutive losses, putting them well
on the way to a 68-94 finish. For such an awful team, however,
it drew quite well--more than 2.1 million, down only a little
more than 100,000 from its average over the last 10
Chicago's irrepressible fan support is the basis for the most
persistent criticism of the franchise since the Tribune Company
bought it in 1981: The Cubs do well financially even when the
team on the field is lousy, but it hasn't spent nearly
enough--or wisely enough--to create a winner.
Not surprisingly, Cubs CEO Andy MacPhail disagrees. "The Tribune
Company has been a terrific owner," he says. "We've tried to put
in place what we feel we needed, and they've given us the time
to do that."
The primary focus of MacPhail, Riggleman and general manager Ed
Lynch since they arrived in the fall of 1994 has been to rebuild
a farm system that wasn't producing quality major leaguers--a
plan that has yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, they have relied on
an aging core of players in an effort to remain competitive. "We
knew that a downturn was probably going to come," says Lynch,
but no one in the organization could have imagined that it would
be as bad as it was in '97.
The horrors of last year prompted a shift in focus. "This year,"
says Riggleman, "we just looked the situation in the eye and
said, 'The hell with it, we've got to go outside our
organization to get some help.'"
In an attempt to win the most uniformly mediocre division in the
majors, the Cubs added a handful of proven veterans. This
off-season they acquired four players, three of them in their
30s, who have been All-Stars at least once during the past three
years. The most important of those newcomers is 30-year-old
leftfielder Henry Rodriguez, who arrived in a trade with the
Expos. Leftfield has been a black hole on the North Side; it's
been 11 years since a player held the job on two consecutive
Opening Days. But Rodriguez, who hit 36 home runs in 1996 and 26
last year, may finally bring some stability and production to
The Cubs desperately need that offense. Last year they were 12th
in the league in runs scored, and too much of the burden fell on
rightfielder Sammy Sosa. "In the past, once you got by Sammy in
our lineup, there really wasn't a situation where one swing of
the bat was going to get us back in a game," says Riggleman.
"Henry brings us the lefthanded power hitter we needed."
The other newcomers include a pair of free-agent
signees--32-year-old shortstop Jeff Blauser, who is coming off a
career year, and 29-year-old closer Rod Beck, who had 105 saves
over the past three seasons--plus second baseman Mickey
Morandini, 31, who came in a trade from the Phillies. After
suffering with a bad team in Philadelphia, Morandini (.295 at
the plate, only six errors in 610 chances in the field) is
excited by his spot on the newly revamped Cubs roster. "The key
is, we all feel that we have a chance to win this division," he
says. "We stack up position-by-position with anyone in the
Chicago's acquisitions have bumped its payroll to $48 million,
up 14% from last year. And the Tribune Co. has made it clear
that there will be plenty of cash available for another
acquisition during the season--if the Cubs stay in the race.
Says MacPhail, "It's our job to get the ball club in a position
to take advantage of the economic might of the company. We
haven't done that."
Often disaster is a catalyst for change. Perhaps last year's
failures were what the organization needed to move to a place
where the ifs seem a bit more realistic, and the when might
finally be now.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO BATTER UP Mark Grace's team-best .319 average last year would have been higher if he could have hit against the Cubs' staff.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Jeff Blauser]
BY THE NUMBERS
1997 Team Statistics (NL Rank)
1997 record: 68-94 (fifth in NL Central)
BATTING AVERAGE .263(5) OPP. BATTING AVG. .266(10)
RUNS SCORED 687(12) ERA 4.44(11)
HOME RUNS 127(13) FIELDING PCT. .981(5)
WHAT THEY NEEDED: A second baseman to replace the retired Ryne
Sandberg, a top-of-the-line closer, another slugger to team with
Sammy Sosa, more starting pitchers.
WHAT THEY GOT: Shortstop Jeff Blauser and second baseman Mickey
Morandini, closer Rod Beck from the Giants, power-hitting
outfielder Henry Rodriguez from the Expos.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: Although they both whiff a lot, the addition
of Rodriguez to the lineup should help protect Sosa. Blauser and
Morandini are smooth fielders with some offensive punch. Adding
Beck was nice, but his impact may be limited by the starting
staff. The Cubs definitely helped themselves, but they've still
got a ways to go.
After watching every other ambulatory free agent shortstop sign
a lucrative contract this off-season, Jeff Blauser finally
decided to take matters into his own mitts and had his agent
call the shortstop-challenged Cubs. Now, with a two-year, $8.4
million deal, Blauser is getting exactly what he asked for: the
chance to help raise a bad team up from the depths of hell.
Blauser surpassed himself by hitting .308, with 17 homers and 70
RBIs for Atlanta last year. But he has to do even more--as in 85
RBIs--if he hopes to turn the Cubbies into winners.
Projected Roster With 1997 Statistics
Manager: Jim Riggleman (fourth season with Chicago)
BATTING ORDER B/T BA HRs RBIs SBs
CF Lance Johnson L .307 5 39 20
2B Mickey Morandini[**] L/R .295 1 39 16
1B Mark Grace L .319 13 78 2
RF Sammy Sosa R .251 36 119 22
LF Henry Rodriguez[**] L .244 26 83 3
SS Jeff Blauser[**] R .308 17 70 5
3B Kevin Orie R .275 8 44 2
C Scott Servais R .260 6 45 0
3B Jose Hernandez R .273 7 26 2
OF Matt Mieske[**] R .249 5 21 1
IF Manny Alexander R .266 3 22 13
C Tyler Houston L/R .260 2 28 1
C Sandy Martinez*[**] L/R .224 4 29 7
STARTERS W L S BR ERA
RH Kevin Tapani 9 3 6.5 1.20 3.39
RH Mark Clark 14 8 6.5 1.35 3.82
RH Jeremi Gonzalez 11 9 6.3 1.37 4.25
RH Steve Trachsel 8 12 5.9 1.49 4.51
RH Kevin Foster 10 7 5.8 1.43 4.61
RELIEVERS W L S BR ERA
RH Rod Beck[**] 7 4 37 1.10 3.47
RH Terry Adams 2 9 18 1.78 4.62
RH Marc Pisciotta 3 1 0 1.31 3.18
LH Bob Patterson 1 6 0 0.96 3.34
LH Terry Mulholland[**] 6 13 0 1.35 4.24
RH Amaury Telemaco 0 3 0 1.53 6.16
[**]New acquisition (R) Rookie B/T: Bats/throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start BR: Base runners per inning pitched
*Triple A stats