After ploddingthrough a listless season--the first sub-.500 record in manager Dusty Baker'sthree years with the club--in the unfamiliar role of second team in the SecondCity, the Cubs made modest improvements during the winter but whiffed on theplayers they wanted most. Free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal turned downChicago's five-year, $45 million offer to sign with the Dodgers, and amuch-discussed trade for Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada never materialized.That left the Cubs with relievers Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry and outfieldersJuan Pierre and Jacque Jones as consolation prizes.
Still, generalmanager Jim Hendry believes he plugged his biggest holes by landing a couple ofsetup men and a leadoff hitter. "We don't have to make apologies on Furcal;we made him an overwhelming offer," Hendry says. "We didn't make asplash [in the off-season], but we addressed what we needed to." Eyre, a33-year-old lefty, and Howry, a 32-year-old righthander, add experience to thebullpen and are coming off their finest seasons. With the Giants, Eyre led themajors in appearances, with 86, and had a 2.63 ERA; lefties batted only .182against him. In 79 appearances with the Indians, Howry had a 2.47 ERA, andopponents hit .191.
Pierre, acquiredfor three prospects from the everyone-must-go Marlins, will play centerfieldand bring his jitterbug routine to the top of the order; last season the Cubs'leadoff hitters batted .245, worst in the NL, and the club stole 65 bases, onlyeight more than Pierre had himself. A meticulous worker and an enthusiasticstudent of the game--he'll drop bunts in batting practice to test how the ballrolls through the infield grass and along the foul lines--Pierre is also thefocal point of an outfield makeover that has Jones, a free agent who left theTwins for a three-year, $16 million contract, in rightfield and Matt Murton,who after a midseason call-up batted .321, in left.
Plowing over lastyear's miserable outfield--the 10 players used there combined to finish last inthe league at the position in on-base percentage (.307), slugging (.401) andruns--was imperative. But while the replacements have the speed, defense and anoverall athleticism that most of last year's cast lacked, there are doubtsabout each of them: Pierre's .276 batting average and .326 OBP last year werecareer lows; Murton hasn't yet shown he can handle major league righthanders;and at 30 Jones seems to have plateaued as a power hitter while his average hasdipped.
Jonesacknowledges as much but blames a Minnesota lineup left thin by the absences ofsluggers Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau. "I learned that I can't carry ateam for a week or two at a time," Jones says. "I can be a more patienthitter here because I know that if I don't get a pitch to hit, they've got topitch to somebody else." In particular Jones should benefit from thepresence of first baseman Derrek Lee, who made a run at the Triple Crown lastyear, and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who hit .302 with 31 homers.
The Cubs'starting rotation, the backbone of the 2003 division title winner, has beenchronically unhealthy since. After throwing a career-low 66 innings last seasonand undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in August,righthander Kerry Wood had surgery in March to repair a torn meniscus in hisright knee and won't pitch before May. Fellow righthander Mark Prior had hisoff-season throwing program interrupted by a respiratory infection, and hecontinues to be treated with kid gloves after two injury-compromised seasons."This guy has had some terrible luck," Baker says of Prior. "Threeyears ago he ran into [the Braves' Marcus] Giles and hurt his shoulder, thenlast year he got hit with a line drive on the elbow. That's just badfortune."
But that's alsothe way it always seems to go for the Cubs, who--now that the White Sox havewon a World Series--can remain uniquely put-upon, can call themselves uniquelycursed. Returning to the postseason appears a reach, after this off-season ofsmall upgrades and behind a rotation that never seems to be 100%.
Derrek Lee was the fourth straight NL batting champ to hit 40 homers (afterBarry Bonds, twice, and Albert Pujols). The last AL batting leader who also hit40 homers was Carl Yastrzemski, in 1967.
a modest proposal
Although the Cubscommitted nearly $40 million in the off-season to three relievers--righthandersRyan Dempster and Bobby Howry and lefty Scott Eyre--they should move Kerry Wood(right) to the bullpen. The hard-throwing, injury-prone righty was effective inmiddle relief late last year (17 strikeouts and three runs allowed in 12innings). Using Wood in key spots in the seventh and eighth innings is the bestway to keep him healthy and get the most value out of him. He can rely solelyon his fastball and curve, and stay fresh with less wear and tear. Thinkstarters turned relievers Tom Gordon and Jason Isringhausen.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
fourth in NL Central
fourth season with Chicago
JUAN PIERRE¬†[New acquisition]
JACQUE JONES¬†[New acquisition]
JOHN MABRY¬†[New acquisition]
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
RH Carlos Zambrano
RH Mark Prior
RH Greg Maddux
LH Glendon Rusch
RH Kerry Wood
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
A five-toolcenterfielder in the mold of Carlos Beltran, Felix Pie is still relatively rawat 21, and he missed the second half of last season at Double A West Tenn witha broken right ankle. Though he batted .304 in 240 at bats before theinjury--belting 33 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs--Pie strikes out toomuch and doesn't walk enough. He is quick defensively and has a strong arm,qualities that might make the Cubs rush him to Wrigley.
The meticulous Pierre adds speed to the top of the lineup, but he must improveon a disappointing 2005 season.
CHUCK SOLOMON (WOOD); MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (PIE)