Cubs counting on talented youngsters

Cubs counting on youngsters Cedeno, Murton

Dusty Baker has said he's never had kids who could play in the big leagues. Now he does.

Ronny Cedeno and Matt Murton are expected to begin their sophomore seasons in the Chicago Cubs starting lineup in 2006. These kids can play.

Having the pair in the lineup on April 3 will be historic. Murton and Cedeno would be the first position players born in the 1980s to start on Opening Day for the Cubs. Pitcher Carlos Zambrano is the only other player from the 1980s to start on Opening Day.

Cedeno, 23, is a smooth-fielding shortstop. He began the 2005 season at Triple-A Iowa, and was called up three times to the big-league team. In 41 games, he batted .300 before he was sidelined with a hand injury on Sept. 10. He played winter ball and was named Rookie of the Year in the Venezuelan League.

"This kid has come along quick," said Baker, the Cubs manager.

"I believe he'll be an everyday shortstop with a chance to be a very good offensive player," Triple-A Iowa manager Mike Quade said in an interview in late September. "He's still very young and has plenty to learn. I saw stuff that he did at the plate that I loved. I think he's going to get better hitting-wise. I'm real optimistic about his future."

So are the Cubs. They tried to lure free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal to Chicago this winter, but he opted for a more lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. If the Cubs had signed Furcal, Cedeno likely would've moved to second base. Shortstop is his natural position and a better fit.

Where will Cedeno hit in the lineup? Baker is wrestling with that.

"Eventually, I think he'll be an outstanding No. 2 hitter," Baker said of Cedeno. "That's probably your smartest hitter position. You have to know when to take to let Juan Pierre steal. You have to be a good bunter. You also have to be a pretty good runner in case Juan doesn't get on. Florida had Juan and [Luis] Castillo. Whoever that No. 2 hitter is will have to learn Juan."

The Cubs could experiment with Cedeno in the No. 2 spot this spring. Baker also needs to find the right fit for Murton, 24. The red-head with the powerful legs made his Major League debut last July 8 against Florida and went 2-for-2 with a double and an RBI. Not a bad start. He finished hitting .321 in 51 games with the Cubs.

"He's a good learner. He asks questions," Baker said of Murton. "He's always around the old guys. I like the young man a lot. He can run. I'm not going to put any expectations on him. He's got the skills."

Murton can become more of a power hitter. He can hit the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. The youngster knows he has work to do. In the final series of the 2005 season, Murton faced Houston's Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. The young Cubs outfielder realized quickly that big-league pitchers make adjustments with each pitch. If a hitter doesn't make the adjustment, he's on the bench.

The Cubs had Murton play in the Arizona Fall League so he could physically feel what it was like to play a full season. As for the mental part of the game, Murton is more mature than most young players. He recognizes the need to keep a level-headed approach; don't get too high if you go 4-for-4 because the next day could be an 0-for-4 day.

"I think I've proven I have the ability to play at the Major League level," Murton said in an interview in October. "I'm ready to play, I'm ready to play now, and do a good job and be successful and help the team win. Am I going to be as good this year as I'll be 10 years from now? I hope not -- I hope I'll get better every single year."

Neither Murton nor Cedeno are eligible for the Rookie of the Year award. The Baseball Writers Association of America considers a player a rookie unless during the previous season or seasons he has (1) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues, or (2) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club during the 25-man limit that is in effect from Opening Day through Aug. 31.

Both Cedeno and Murton were over the days of service limit. Cedeno had 77 days of service prior to Sept. 1. Murton was recalled again Aug. 30, and entered September with 46 days of service.

The Cubs' key offseason pickup was Pierre, acquired from Florida in a trade. The speedy center fielder is a much-needed leadoff man and helps balance the lineup. Defending batting champ Derrek Lee and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, healthy after an extensive offseason workout regimen, now should have someone to drive in.

The Cubs rotation appears to be overloaded with Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch, Jerome Williams, Kerry Wood and Wade Miller. Wood is to begin throwing off a mound when pitchers and catchers report next week to Mesa, Ariz., and Miller, who also is coming off shoulder surgery, is expected to be ready by May. Baker would love to have too many healthy arms as opposed to the last two seasons in which starters have been sidelined with aches and pains.

The bullpen got a boost with the addition of free agents Scott Eyre and Bob Howry. Ryan Dempster, who led the National League in save percentage, will begin the year in the 'pen rather than the rotation.

Last year's fourth-place finish and sub-.500 record left the Cubs with a bad feeling. They could only watch as Houston won the NL Wild Card during the final weekend with wins over Chicago.

"When we saw Houston celebrate on their home turf, we got a chance to look at that, and it really left a bad taste in our mouths," Cubs infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "We have worked so hard this offseason. I kept in contact with 'D-Lee' and some of the guys we're bringing in. We do not want to have that same feeling that we did last year. We were a little embarrassed, and we want to change that."

Much of the attention will be on Cedeno and Murton. Are they ready? Murton could be the youngest Cubs left fielder on Opening Day since Rafael Palmeiro in 1988. Palmeiro was 23 years 5 months old then, Murton will be 24 years 5 months. Cedeno would be the youngest Opening Day shortstop for the Cubs since Shawon Dunston in 1986. Dunston was 23 years 1 month at the time; Cedeno will be 23 years 2 months.

The last time the Cubs had three Opening Day starters under the age of 25 was in 1989 (Mark Grace, Jerome Walton and Joe Girardi).

"The kid will let you know when," Quade said when asked how he knows if a Minor League player is ready to make the leap. "His performance will dictate that, how quickly he matures, how quickly he learns."

The Cubs are counting on Cedeno and Murton.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.