If anyone ever started a television series called Extreme Ballclub Makeover-could be in the future?-the Chicago Cubs would make a good subject for the first episode. In fact, the Cubs could be a two-parter, as General Manager Jim Hendry engineered the first makeover in the offseason when, after a disastrous 66-96 season, he committed nearly $300 million to free agents, most notably outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Cliff Floyd, utilityman Mark DeRosa, and left-hander Ted Lilly and right-hander Jason Marquis for the rotation. Hendry also hired manager Lou Piniella out of Fox’s television booth.

The second makeover has occurred during the season and left the Cubs looking almost nothing like the team that took the field April 2 for the opener in Cincinnati. However, the new-look Cubs are a surging contender trying to chase down Milwaukee in the National League Central. Despite their flurry of winter moves, the Cubs stumbled out of the gate, falling to nine games below .500 at 22-31 on June 2, and they dropped as many as 8 ½ games off the Brewers‘ pace three weeks later. Though exasperated at times, Piniella continued to tinker; as a result, the Cubs are now 52-46 after winning 30 of their last 45 games. Most importantly, they are in second place in the NL Central, just three games behind the Brewers, and only 1 ½ games behind the wild-card leader, the Padres.

“The pieces were all pretty much here to have a good ballclub when the season started,” Piniella said. “It was a matter of finding the right fit for those pieces. We had to move some people around and make a few more moves with the roster until we got it right.”

Indeed, the Cubs Opening Day lineup only vaguely resembles what Piniella’s card usually look like these days:

Pos  Opening Day       Now
C    Michael Barrett   Jason Kendall
1B   Derrek Lee        Lee
2B   Mark DeRosa       Mike Fontenot
3B   Aramis Ramirez    Ramirez
SS   Cesar Izturis     Ryan Theriot
LF   Matt Murton       Soriano
CF   Alfonso Soriano   Jones
RF   Jacque Jones      Cliff Floyd

Lee and Ramirez, the two cornerstones left over from last season, are the only players in the same spots as when the season started. Of course, there is no reason to mess with success on the infield corners as Lee has a 30.8 VORP and Ramirez’s is 25.3. But in the rest of the lineup, Barrett and Izturis were sent away. Barrett was traded to San Diego on June 20, 19 days after he got into an extended off-field fight with ace pitcher Carlos Zambrano during a game against the Braves at Wrigley Field. Izturis was dealt to Pittsburgh last Thursday; he had become expendable once Theriot had taken over most of the time as the club’s starting shortstop.

The Cubs then shipped Rob Bowen (part of the slender bounty for dealing Barrett) and minor league lefty Jerry Blevins to Oakland for Kendall. Though Kendall has had a miserable season, rating as one of baseball’s worst regulars, Hendry is banking that the 33-year-old still has something left after catching 1,494 games in the major leagues.

The other moves have been equally drastic. After getting off to a .245/.288/.367 start in his first 12 games and then missing six days with a strained hamstring, Soriano was shifted from center field to left. Jones gradually lost playing time in right field after a miserable start, then barely played at all in the final two weeks of June before re-emerging as the club’s center fielder when rookie Felix Pie was benched and then sent back to Triple-A Iowa on July 13. The numbers suggest the Cubs still need an upgrade in center field.

The playing time for Floyd has gradually increased ever since Murton was optioned to Iowa on June 13. Fontenot (11.4) was only supposed to be in the major leagues temporarily when called up from Iowa on June 9, but he’s hit too well to be sent back, forcing DeRosa into a super-utility role.

At least the starting rotation has been solid with holdover ace Carlos Zambrano (3.4), Lilly (2.9) and left-hander Rich Hill (2.9) all ranking among the top 25 in the NL in SNLVAR. However, the bullpen is still shaky, as closer Ryan Dempster has been effective (1.993 WXRL), but he only just came off the DL last weekend after missing time with a strained muscle in his side. Young Carlos Marmol (1.476), overmatched as a starter last season, has been gradually handed more important relief assignments, and seems poised to become the closer if Dempster suffers any hiccups.

“I think we’re pretty solid all the way around now,” Piniella said. “Our lineup is a lot better, and we’re able to score runs on a more consistent basis. We’ve had our ups and downs in the bullpen but that has been settling down. It’s really been a matter of gradually finding the right roles for everyone, finding spots where they can be best utilized and now we’re getting contributions from everyone.”

The one player that the Cubs point to as their catalyst is Soriano. Hendry took plenty of heat for signing him to such a lucrative deal, and the move looked particularly bad in the early days of the season when Soriano not only wasn’t hitting but looked lost in center field, a position he had never played before. While Soriano was willing to play center for the Cubs, he admits the move in April helped clear his mind. “I was really pressing early in the season,” Soriano said. “I was trying to learn center field and it wasn’t going well. It seems like it would be easy to play center field if you could play left field but it’s not. There is a lot more ground to cover, and a lot more responsibility playing in center field. I was also trying to live up to the big contract and prove to everyone on my new team and in a new city that I was worth it.”

Soriano also believes the time he missed with the hamstring proved to be beneficial. “It gave me a chance to just kind of sit down for a few days and think about things,” Soriano said. “I started to understand that I couldn’t worry about what other people were thinking or saying about the contract. I started to relax and just concentrating on playing the game the way I know how.”

Soriano has hit .307/.349/.537 in 364 plate appearances since recovering, and had a particularly big June, hitting .336/.379/.697. His home/road splits suggest he is still pressing at the Friendly Confines, as he is hitting .246/.282/.407 in 207 plate appearances in home games but .354/.401/.630 in 209 plate appearances on the road.

Regardless of the splits, Lee believes Soriano holds the key to the Cubs getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003, when they couldn’t put away Florida in the National League Championship Series and Steve Bartman became part of Wrigleyville legend; the Cubs’ World Series championship drought now stands at 99 years. “Alfonso Soriano is the guy that makes this team go,” Lee said. “When he is getting on base and doing his thing, we’re a whole different team. We’ve made a whole lot of changes since last season and even during this season but he holds the key to everything. When he starts making things happen, it affects the entire team in a positive way. You can feel everything pick up around us.”

Things are certainly on the upswing in Wrigleyville after a poor start. “We’re playing with confidence now and there is no substitute for that,” Piniella said. “There was an adjustment period at the start of the season. I was a new manager. We had a lot of new players. But everything has started coming together and this is turning out to be a pretty darn good ballclub.”

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