Health is key to Cubs' chances in 2006

Health, leadoff spot are key to Cubs' chances

Let's start at the top for the Chicago Cubs.

The 2006 season is the beginning of the Juan Pierre era. The Cubs haven't had a bona fide leadoff man since Eric Young in 2000-01. Nineteen different players have batted first in the last three years under manager Dusty Baker. For the first time, he could order his lineup cards for the '06 season and have one name stamped at the top.

And if Pierre can get the Cubs offense started, then this could be a fun season at Wrigley Field.

"I like our team," Cubs starter Greg Maddux said. "I think our everyday lineup is plenty good enough to win. If we pitch good enough, we'll win. The eight guys behind us are good enough to win. It's a matter of whether we can get them out."

The starting rotation was dealt a setback when Mark Prior halted a bullpen session because of pain in his right shoulder. There's no timetable for his return. It's true Kerry Wood won't be ready on Opening Day. But the Cubs didn't expect him to be. They get a break in the scheduling and can go with four starters until April 15 when they need a fifth. The four will be Carlos Zambrano, Glendon Rusch, Maddux and Sean Marshall.

Sean Marshall?

Cubs manager Dusty Baker says every spring he's looking for a "surprise" and that's Marshall. The 6-foot-7 left-hander won the spot with an impressive spring and will make his Major League debut April 9 against St. Louis. Jerome Williams, who struggled with his control, has been designated the long man in the pen but could be used as the fifth starter.

Wood might be ready by late April. Wade Miller, who had the same shoulder surgery as Wood but one month later, is about 10 days behind in his rehab. That's pretty good reinforcements.

"The most optimistic thing this spring has been the rivalry with J.K. and Sean Marshall and Guzman healthy, and Rich Hill getting back to form and Jerome looking better," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said. "Granted, they have little experience when you add them all together, but it's a good problem to have until we get Wade and Kerry and those guys back. That's uplifting and encouraging."

Sorting out the lineup this spring has been a high priority for Baker. He knew three spots heading into the season -- Pierre leading off, Derrek Lee third, and Aramis Ramirez fourth. The rest? That's to be determined.

Who will play second and bat second may depend on the day. Jerry Hairston Jr. has better range than Todd Walker, but Walker has a potent left-handed bat.

Lee didn't look as if he missed a day when he started for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The defending National League batting champ, who is coming off a season in which he hit .335 with 46 homers, 50 doubles and 107 RBIs, was slowed by a bruised shoulder and missed time to take care of a family emergency. Still, he has adopted a better approach toward his spring at-bats and should be able to make up for missed time.

If Ramirez can stay healthy for 150-155 games, look out. He has the potential for 30 homers, 100 RBIs, and just needs to avoid nagging leg injuries.

"I like the makeup of the team and how we've evolved with the arrival of Juan Pierre," Barrett said. "I've said from the beginning that this is the kind of guy who changes lineups. It's like [Scott] Podsednik changed the White Sox.

"Everybody can say what they want to about their style of play and how they were able to do the little things and how they were able to hit and run," Barrett said, "but in reality if you don't have guys who can run the bases like Podsednik and Juan Pierre, there's really no threat. It's a different kind of threat when you don't know if a team is going to steal, hit and run, bunt, move them over, or get them in. That's where the real strength is.

"[Having Pierre leadoff] trickles down and sets everything up -- that's why they call them the table-setters," Barrett said. "Now, Jerry or Walker, whoever is hitting second, they have a different type of mentality when they're hitting. It takes a little bit of pressure off them. They don't have to hit a double or triple or homer, it's about hitting the singles and continuing to set the table for the next guy and the next guy. It's a mind-set."

As for the rest of the order, take your pick. New right fielder Jacque Jones, determined to erase his .249 season last year, could follow Ramirez. Or it could be Barrett, who got a huge confidence boost by playing for Team USA. Or it could be left fielder Matt Murton, who is starting his sophomore season.

Remember, on Opening Day 2005, Lee batted sixth for the Cubs. Things can change.

Last year, home runs accounted for 42 percent of the Cubs scoring. That figure will likely drop. This is not a team that will make ballhawks outside Wrigley Field happy. They may even lose interest if the bleacher renovation project snags more balls than it allows onto Waveland or Sheffield avenues.

Murton has the potential to hit 25-30 homers. He and smooth fielding shortstop Ronny Cedeno are two young players who should help Baker shake the stigma of favoring veterans. These kids can play.

The Cubs have a nice mix of young and old. Maddux fits the latter category. He turns 40 on April 14, and heads into this season with 300-plus wins, 3,000-plus strikeouts, and the attitude of a 3-year-old. He loves to play.

Ryan Dempster begins the season as the closer rather than a starter, which he was one year ago. The right-hander led the National League in save percentage in 2005, and got some help this year with the addition of Scott Eyre and Bob Howry. The lefty and righty are complete opposites. You know where Eyre is every second because he's always talking -- especially when he's tardy taking his medication for attention deficit disorder. Howry will disappear into a book.

But no matter who makes the final cuts, who gets that last bench job, there's one theme that's key.

"It's a good team," Jones said of his new ballclub. "When it's a fully healthy team, it's a very good team. When guys aren't able to play or out of the lineup, you still have to win those games. Whether we do that will dictate how the season looks."

That's the reality of the Cubs. The running joke each spring is that the team leads the Majors in simulated games.

"We have a lot of good players in here but we just have to stay healthy," Ramirez said. "That's the main thing. The last couple of years, we've had a lot of injuries and that's why we haven't had the success that everybody says. This is a different year and the key is everybody has to stay healthy."

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