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April 9, 2008
The 100-Year Itch
Chicago's Title Quest
The Chicago Cubs are marking an ignominious anniversary this season. It has been 100 years since they beat the Detroit Tigers in five games to win the 1908 World Series. Chicago hasn't won a Fall Classic since and hasn't even participated in one since 1945.
"Yeah, a few people have mentioned that," first baseman Derrek Lee said with a smile.
So, while the Cubs figure to be reminded of the 100th anniversary 100 million times this season, especially by a passionate fan base that perpetually dreams of a world title, there are some who believe that title-less streak can end in 2008. The Cubs are the consensus choice to win the National League Central for a second straight season, though the Milwaukee Brewers figure to challenge again, just as they did last year. Furthermore, the Cubs are also a trendy pick by many prognosticators to win a wide-open NL, where a case can be made for plenty of potential pennant-winners. So how does a franchise that so often has no expectations handle so many people looking for big things this season?
"Personally, I'm glad people do have expectations of our ballclub," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I think it's a good thing. We do have a good club and we should win our share of games this season. I'm glad people recognize that. It's flattering. Of course, it's also probably the in-vogue thing to pick the Cubs this year because of the 100th-anniversary thing. It would obviously be a great story if we did win it all. At the same time, you can't get too caught up in it. You can't get too full of yourselves just because other people like your club."
One reason to like the Cubs, who finished second in the NL last season with 4.26 runs allowed a game, is that they have pitching depth. While many clubs scramble each spring training just to find five decent starters to flush out a rotation, the Cubs had so many candidates this year that veteran Jon Lieber, signed to a one-year, $3 million contract as a free agent in the offseason, wound up getting pushed into a long-relief role when he lost out to Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis.
The Cubs have a formidable rotation fronted by Carlos Zambrano (5.6 SNLVAR last season), which includes left-handers Ted Lilly (5.4) and Rich Hill (4.8) in addition to Marquis (3.4) and Dempster. Dempster returns to a starting role after serving as the Cubs' closer the past three seasons, though his 2.657 WXRL was only third on the club last year behind Carlos Marmol (3.694) and Bob Howry (3.129).
Taking over the closer role is Kerry Wood (0.013), who settled in as a reliever late last season after recovering from shoulder surgery, as the Cubs finally conceded that pitching Wood in short bursts was likely the only way to ever keep the one-time phenom healthy. While Wood figures to pitch the ninth inning the majority of the time, Piniella says he will not hesitate to use Marmol and Howry to close out games.
"We feel we have three outstanding options at the end of games," Piniella said. "Relieving is still new for Woody and we want to watch him carefully to make sure we don't overextend him. We looked at all three of them as the closer in spring training, and I would have been comfortable with whoever emerged. We decided on Kerry because he threw the ball well all spring and earned it, but certainly Marmol and Howry are also quality pitchers."
Wood believes closing gives him a new baseball life at 30 years old. "It's definitely new, but it's exciting," Wood said. "There aren't many things in baseball that gets the blood pumping like being on the mound with a lead in the ninth inning. I feel I can consistently get the last out and I'm looking forward to the challenge of it."
The Cubs finished eighth in the 16-team NL with an average of 4.64 runs scored last season, and completely revamped their lineup between Opening Day and the middle of May as Piniella searched for the combination he liked.
While that kind of drastic overhaul isn't expected this season--though the Cubs would still like to trade for Brian Roberts after unsuccessfully trying to acquire the leadoff-hitting second baseman from Baltimore throughout the offseason and spring training--Piniella didn't wait long to adjust his batting order, flip-flopping shortstop Ryan Theriot and left fielder Alfonso Soriano between the leadoff and second slots after opening the season with two losses to the Brewers with Theriot at the top of the order. "There'll probably be 100 more lineups before the season is over," Lee said. "You know Lou likes to tinker with the lineup."
The Cubs' offense has a chance to be better this season, but there are still holes, as Theriot (.238 EqA last season) doesn't give the Cubs much hitting high in the order behind Soriano (.285), and rookie catcher Geovany Soto and 23-year-old center fielder Felix Pie are talents who have yet to prove themselves in the major leagues. Soto showed great promise last season with a .351 EqA in 60 plate appearances, but Pie had just a .217 mark in 194 PA. Right-handed hitting Reed Johnson was signed as a free agent late in spring training to platoon with Pie, but he also had a paltry .217 EqA last season.
The Cubs are solid in other spots, with Lee (.299), third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.294), and second baseman Mark DeRosa (.268), but the difference maker could be Japanese right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who was signed to a four-year, $48 million contract as a free agent in the offseason. Fukudome has been a sensation in the season's opening days, as his .436 EqA is second in the NL to the .438 of Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez. PECOTA projects a .303 season mark for the 30-year-old.
There were serious questions in spring training about Fukudome, who struggled to make solid contact during March games. However, Fukudome has quickly answered those questions. "It goes to show you that you can't put a lot of stock in spring training," Piniella said. "We knew what we were getting when we signed him. We felt we were getting a player who was going to be above-average offensively and also good on defense. He's swung the bat well. He knows what he's doing."
Perhaps Fukudome, who admittedly only had a vague knowledge of the Cubs' century of futility when he signed last December, can finally help end the long drought that continued last season with a sweep at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series.
"Our season didn't have a very happy ending last year," Piniella said. "I think we're good enough to get back and give it another shot and I know a lot of other people feel that way, too."