It’s a great day to start the season, it looks like fantastic weather for a ballgame in Cincinnati, expected high of 75 degrees and sunny. There is a raised level of excitement surrounding this Cubs ballclub that was very noticeable here in Arizona this spring. (The winter visitors could be seen racing up Center Street between Fitch and Hohokam at nearly the speed limit!) Of course that’s understandable with the kind of money that was spent to bring in new players and coaches. Last year’s 96 loss Cubs team seems a distant memory right now. What have I seen and learned about the 2007 Cubs after spending the last month and a half around the team?
I learned that the biggest change in the Cubs isn’t a new player but a new Manager- Lou Piniella, and his ability to change the mindset of the club. This spring Lou has mentioned “the Cubs swagger”, which can only be earned by playing winning baseball. Of course Lou can talk of the “swagger” having won a couple World Series as a player and as Manager of the championship Reds of 1990. Are the Cubs developing that confidence? The short answer is yes, but it’s a work in progress and will increase as the Cubs continue to play fundamentally sound baseball. Lou is a master of motivation and understands well that mental toughness is nearly as important in baseball as physical abilities.
Speaking of physical abilities, It’s apparent that new Centerfielder Alfonso Soriano has a ton. Soriano is still on the learning curve in CF, and is going to have some rough days this season as he had this spring. As evidenced by his being one of the first position players to report to Fitch Park, it won’t be because of lack of effort. He is a free swinger, and strikes out alot, not your typical lead-off man. His power and base stealing abilities will help the Cubs put early pressure on their opponents.
Matt Murton will start the season batting in the #2 spot, with his patience and ability to see alot of pitches it should allow Soriano to do his thing on the bases. Murton is also improving in the field and really seems to be having fun playing. Cliff Floyd will share time with Murton and Jones. He provides a big bat and appears at least 90% recovered from his Achilles and ankle problem of last year.
Derrek Lee could be up for an MVP this season. The quiet Cubs leader was nearly unstoppable this spring at the plate, and continues to refine his gold glove skills.
Aramis Ramirez batting clean-up has really impressed this past month and a half, working hard and hustling, yes I said ‘hustling’ and ‘Ramirez’ in the same sentence! His defense was stellar this spring, as was hit bat, and he looks poised for a huge offensive year.
Jacque Jones’ arm appears to be completely healthy. His value to the team is enhanced by the fact that he could also play Centerfield if Soriano doesn’t work out there. If Jones can duplicate his offensive #’s of last year, he’ll be solid in the 5th spot in the batting order.
Michael Barrett worked as hard as anybody on his defense this spring. Hopefully
that will be evident during the season. We all know that Barrett can hit. Too bad they can’t morph Henry Blanco’s defense and Barrett’s offense into the perfect Cubs Catcher.
Mark DeRosa comes in as the new starting 2nd baseman, batting 7th in the order today. Solid with the leather, he also did a nice job playing 3rd base this spring. DeRosa had a career year offensively last season, like Jones if he can come close to those numbers the Cubs will be very happy.
At shortstop, Cesar Izturis also is fully recovered from his injuries of last season. A slick fielder, Isturiz also had a nice spring at the plate batting .311. Any offense they get from him will be a bonus.
I’ve learned Carlos Zambrano is going to win the Cy Young Award, and the Cubs will win the World Series this year. And that is straight from the Big Z’s mouth. Ok, he later backed off of the World Series comments a little bit. Big Z is the Ace of the staff, he’s young, fiery, and a leader. Hopefully he’ll get his long-term deal done soon.
As for the rest of the pitching staff, Theodore Roosevelt Lilly had a very solid spring, and could be poised for a big year. Jason Marquis looked like a much improved pitcher this spring than how he finished up last year. Rich Hill and Wade Miller are big keys to the Cubs starting rotation, because of Hill’s inexperience and Miller’s rehabilitation they are both somewhat wildcards.
The bullpen looks to be solid with a huge key to the Cubs season hinging on closer Ryan Dempster being able to regain his 2005 form. Dempster was solid this spring, and looked great having lost 20 lb during the off season. Piniella seems to think that Dempster has the right mindset to rebound and get the job done this season. Any positive results the Cubs get this season from Kerry Wood and Mark Prior will be a bonus. The team took the right approach going out and getting other pitchers, and not hinging their season on the two injury prone stars.
This year’s Cubs certainly aren’t a perfect team, but are very talented and under the guidance of Manager Piniella, should continue to improve throughout the season. Several people have asked me how well the Cubs will do this year and I truly believe, barring major injuries this is a 90 win ballclub. Could they win more, maybe 100, sure they could, but they are the Cubs so they could also win 75. I love the concept of “the Cubbie swagger”, hopefully it’s more than just an idea. The Cubs now have 162 games to prove to us what that exactly means.