Last year, Piniella's get-acquainted sessions extended into the first two months of the season. But once he had sorted through the roster and made some changes, the Cubs were able to rally to win the National League Central Division for the first time since 2003.
"Last year was a step in the right direction for us," Piniella said, "but it was a first step."
The Cubs take that next one Feb. 13 when pitchers and catchers report to Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz. The Cactus League box scores will have much more meaning. Kerry Wood, Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol are contending for the closer role as the Cubs look for a replacement for Ryan Dempster, now one of the candidates for the rotation.
At the end of last season, Wood looked strong in his comeback from shoulder problems. Is he durable enough to handle the workload? Howry was the White Sox closer in 1999, and last season, was 8-for-12 in save situations subbing for Dempster when he was sidelined. Can he do it? Marmol's 1.43 ERA was third lowest among Major League relievers. Is he ready?
"We'll let itself play out," Piniella said. "We'll bring them all along the same way. Spring Training will tell us that."
Dempster's status is the second biggest issue to be resolved. He joins a list of starters that includes Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Jason Marquis and Jon Lieber, who rejoins the team after signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Youngsters Sean Gallagher, Sean Marshall and Kevin Hart are waiting in the wings. Dempster has spent the last three seasons as the closer, and he'll be given plenty of chances to see if he's able to convert back to a starter.
A year ago, Piniella didn't know what his Opening Day lineup would be. This year, he's got it scribbled down already and, with the exception of new right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, knows what they can do. Ready? It'll be left fielder Alfonso Soriano leading off, followed by shortstop Ryan Theriot, first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, Fukudome, second baseman Mark DeRosa, catcher Geovany Soto and center fielder Felix Pie.
Pie's spot isn't guaranteed. He hit .215 during his three trips to the big leagues last season, while batting .362 at Triple-A Iowa. Sam Fuld, who impressed the team with two daredevil catches in right last year, will also be vying to start in center field. And there could be a surprise contender in young Eric Patterson.
Hitting coach Gerald Perry, who went to the Dominican Republic twice to tutor Pie, will resume his private sessions at Fitch Park. The Cubs want the young outfielder to shorten his stroke, and use his speed.
"He's ready to play at the big league level," Piniella said. "The message was, 'Let's play small ball.' "
Spring Training also will be the start of Fukudome's transition. Is the Japanese outfielder ready to play in the U.S. Major Leagues? The Cubs are banking $48 million over four years that he can do it. The left-handed hitter brings a .305 career average and .397 on-base percentage to the Cubs, plus he has won two batting titles and four Gold Gloves.
"They play the game the same way we play it," Lee said of Japanese players. "If [Fukudome] can play there, he doesn't need to change here. They're very fundamentally sound players, and if your fundamentals are sound, you'll be all right."
Expect some interesting exchanges as Fukudome gets to know his new manager, coaches and teammates. Piniella spoke Spanish with Ichiro Suzuki when the two were together in Seattle. Hopefully, Fukudome's interpreter has a sense of humor.
Soto will be busy. He does know quite a few of the pitchers, but he's now the No. 1 catcher, and has to prove he's ready. Soto will be the Cubs' first rookie catcher to start on Opening Day since Joe Girardi in 1989. The Cubs could be very young up the middle with Soto, Theriot and Pie.
"These kids can play," Piniella said. "I like our team, I really do. This is a team that I'm looking forward to getting into the low 90s, win-wise."
The 2007 team took that first step with its 85-77 record, a significant improvement over the 66-96 season of 2006. The last Cubs team to win 90 games was the 1998 squad, which won the NL Wild Card at 90-73 under Jim Riggleman. Before that, it was the '89 team, which won the East Division at 93-69 under Don Zimmer.
In his first talk to the full squad, Piniella will likely mention the franchise's 100-year anniversary since it last won a World Series. It's the longest drought in professional sports, but it's not a factor as far as he's concerned.
"My message first and foremost to this team -- and I've been thinking about that -- is don't put the load of 99 other years of not winning on you," Piniella said. "Worry about this year only. We've got a good ballclub, don't put any pressure on yourself. Let this team stand on its own merit, and that's really going to be the message as far as Spring Training is concerned.
"You can't re-do the past. We've got a good chance to go forward. If we start looking at what's happened and for so long, you put undue pressure on yourself. Let this team stand on its own merit and go from there."