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January 18, 2011

On the Beat

Warming up on the North Side

by John Perrotto

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The Cubs never said they were going into rebuilding mode in the final two months of last season. However, the box scores certainly made it look that way as many of the names on the Cubs' side of things were only familiar to the avid readers of Kevin Goldstein's Future Shock column. When the Cubs decided to name interim manager and baseball lifer Mike Quade the permanent replacement for Lou Piniella at the end of last season, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that general manager Jim Hendry was going to retrench.

However, with the start of spring training a month away and following an active winter, the Cubs aren't talking about rebuilding. Instead, they are talking about contending in the improved National League Central despite going 75-87 last season and finishing 16 games off the pace. As Hendry observes, "People outside out of our organization haven't thought so less of us since the end of the 2006 season. I understand that, but I also know what happened in 2007."

The Cubs won the first of back-to-back division titles in Piniella's first seasons as manager a year after going 66-96 in Dusty Baker's final campaign as the club's skipper. Now the Cubs believe that a retooled roster including the notable additions of right-hander Matt Garza and first baseman Carlos Pena can stack up with the defending NL Central champion Reds, as well as the two other teams that have added significant players, the Cardinals and Brewers. The Cubs have also brought franchise icon Kerry Wood back to the North Side as a free agent.

Garza had 4.5 SNLVAR last season for the Rays. He will pitch at the top of the rotation with right-handers Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano. Pena had an off season for the Rays with a .272 TAv and 28 home runs last year, but Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is confident he can get the slugger back on track. Wood was nearly unhittable after the Yankees acquired him from the Indians at last year's trading deadline, contributing 1.344 WXRL; he will set up closer Carlos Marmol,

"Absolutely, we can be right in the thick of things," center fielder Marlon Byrd said. "We're excited about what we have now. I don't think you could ask for more than what we've done this winter. We went out and got guys who are great players and great competitors. We're definitely going to be a lot better."

The fact that the Cubs played a lot better after Quade replaced Piniella, who decided to retire, is part of the reason the team decided to scrap any rebuilding plan. The Cubs went 24-13 following the managerial shift. Says Hendry of the change, "It made us realize that we weren't as far away from being a very competitive club again as it might have looked. We felt it we could add the right pieces in the offseason that it could make a difference."

The Cubs will need improvement in all phases of the game this upcoming season if they are to reach their lofty expectations. They were just 10th in the NL in runs scored last season with an average of 4.2, and 13th in runs allowed (4.8) and Defensive Efficiency (.680).

While it might be dangerous to concentrate too much on the final 37 games of the 2010 season and not enough on the first 125, Hendry believes there is very recent precedent for a team that finished the previous year on a good note and took a major step forward the following season. The Reds won 27 of their last 40 games in 2009, then won the NL Central, while the Padres contended for the NL West title and wild card until the final day of the 2010 season after going 37-25 in their final 62 games the year before.

"I know I've been saying Cincinnati and San Diego a lot, and I'll probably keep saying it, but I really believe we're in the same situation," Hendry said. "They added a couple of players last year and it made a big difference. People who saw us at the end of last season know we were a better club that we were earlier in the year, and we've only strengthened our roster since then. That's why I feel very good about this season."

---

One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball last season was that there was discord between the Dodgers' coaching staff and some of their key players. Most notably, bench coach Bob Schaefer and third-base coach Larry Bowa were not fans of center fielder Matt Kemp. Don Mattingly, who was the hitting coach, certainly understood the tension as well as anyone.

Mattingly is the manger now, getting promoted after Joe Torre decided to retire at the end of last season. However, Mattingly said that personality conflicts weren't the only reason he decided to not retain Schaefer and Bowa. Mattingly said that Davey Lopes and Trey Hillman were hired as replacements because of the baseball expertise they bring, Hillman as a former major-league manager with the Royals, and Lopes as one of the greatest percentage basestealers in baseball history, who has subsequently been credited for helping the Phillies' running game achieve great things.

"When (general manager) Ned Colletti talked to me about the opportunity to get Davey, it was exciting to me," Mattingly said. "We've been trying for three years to work on our baserunning, get pressure on people, and we didn't seem to get through. Davey had a reputation with the guys I talked to. They all said, 'Davey's the best—Davey's the best.' Everyone I've talked to about baserunning says this guy is the cream of the crop. I'm not going to be someone to hold this guy down."

Although the Dodgers slipped to fourth in the NL West last season after winning the division the previous two years, Mattingly also believes the Dodgers are poised to contend in his rookie season as manager, stating that, "I think we'll be a good club. We had a bad second half (in 2010). We didn't play the game. We didn't swing the bats at all. We're that same club, but we're also the same club in '09 and '08. I think last year was an exception. A lot of things went wrong for a lot of guys. Maybe as a staff we didn't handle it as we should. The players have responsibilities, too."

Mattingly wants his players to develop a stronger mindset. Of course, managers usually say that after disappointing seasons.

"I want a club that plays with toughness," he said. "One thing on the West Coast, we always have good weather, but we'll go to San Francisco and get (bad) weather and the East Coast and get (bad) weather. I don't want us making any excuses. I want a no-excuses club coming every day prepared."

Mattingly was seemingly suggesting that the Dodgers were an excuse-making club last season, though he wouldn't directly say that was the case.

"Last year is over for me," Mattingly said. "Last year was last year. When things go wrong, I want us to be resilient. It's about expectations. It's what the fans expect. They want to see the club play hard every day. I feel it's an obligation to the fans of LA and to the game of baseball. It's the way it's supposed to be played."

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The Astros will have a crowded clubhouse when they open spring training next month in Kissimmee. They have already invited 22 non-roster players to camp. However, overcrowding won't necessarily be a bad thing. The Astros have invited 10 prospects on a non-roster basis, up from just two last season. Among the invites are the organization's minor-league player and pitcher of the year in 2010, right-hander Jordan Lyles and outfielder J.D. Martinez, along with first baseman Koby Clemens, son of former pitching great Roger Clemens.

"It gives these kids the chance to come in and see what the atmosphere is like on the big-league side," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "And it gives (manager Brad Mills) and the coaches the chance to see some of the guys we talk about a lot. And frankly, it allows us to show that we're making progress in player development."

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Spring training begins in less than a month, and that is a little hard to believe for Giants manager Bruce Bochy. While there are few downsides to winning a World Series as the Giants did last season, one of them is that a team's offseason is truncated. The Giants did not finish their 2010 season until November 1, when they wrapped up a five-game victory over the Rangers in the Fall Classic.

"It's been a lot busier winter, there is no getting around that," Bochy said. "Baseball-wise, we didn't start planning for the offseason until a month later than normal. We really didn't have any downtime after the World Series. We immediately went right into meetings and conference calls. It's been hard to try to get see all the friends and family you want to see during the offseason because of the time constraints but that's the tradeoff you make for going to the World Series and everyone who is in this game is willing to make that tradeoff."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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