The Cubs have been waiting for Opening Day since the last out of Game 3 of the National League Division Series. The early exit provided motivation this offseason for the Central Division champs, who begin defense of their title on Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Cubs made minor tweaks personnel-wise, adding their first Japanese player, Kosuke Fukudome, and bringing Jon Lieber back for a second time. They'll be counting on some kids, like Geovany Soto, in key roles. Most important, Lou Piniella doesn't have to worry about developing a "Cubby swagger." The players have taken care of that.
It's a baseball cliche, but the Cubs focused on pitching and defense. Soto and Felix Pie may be young, but they are definitely upgrades defensively at catcher and in center. Piniella had a tough time picking a closer, and could have made a case for Kerry Wood, Bob Howry or Carlos Marmol. Carlos Zambrano is a Cy Young waiting to happen, and doesn't have the off-the-field distractions to stop him from doing so. And, the Cubs had too many starters for the rotation. Not many teams can say that.
Projected starting lineup
|1. SS Ryan Theriot|
|2. LF Alfonso Soriano|
|3. 1B Derrek Lee|
|4. 3B Aramis Ramirez|
|5. RF Kosuke Fukudome|
|6. 2B Mark DeRosa|
|7. C Geovany Soto|
|8. CF Felix Pie|
| 1. RHP Carlos Zambrano|
|2. LHP Ted Lilly|
|3. RHP Ryan Dempster|
|4. LHP Rich Hill|
|5. RHP Jason Marquis|
| Closer: RHP Kerry Wood|
|Setup: RHP Bob Howry|
|Setup: RHP Carlos Marmol|
|Middle: LHP Sean Marshall|
|Middle: RHP Michael Wuertz|
|Long: RHP Jon Lieber|
It's time to see if Pie, a highly touted outfielder, is ready for the big leagues. If the young Pie can take advantage of his speed, shorten his swing, hit to left field and focus on making contact, he'll succeed. He has a hard time dealing with failure, and does strike out a lot (126 times in 2006 at Triple-A Iowa). Playing center field won't be a problem. Can he be more than just serviceable at the plate?
You'll know they're rollin' if...
Piniella doesn't have to tweak the lineup. The first step was dropping Alfonso Soriano from the leadoff spot, where he prefers to hit. Fukudome batted third and fifth this spring, and Piniella even considered inserting him into the No. 2 hole, but settled on No. 5. As the lone left-handed hitter -- other than Pie -- Fukudome is needed to break up the overload of right-handed hitters. It makes sense on paper, but the question is how long will it take for Fukudome to adjust to the Major Leagues.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
Lieber has more appearances than Wood. The pitching was solid most of the spring, with Rich Hill suffering some brief hiccups. Piniella waited until the final week to pick his final two starters, inserting Lieber into the pen as a long man. Did he make the right choice? The first month should tell.
The Brewers got off to a hot start last season, forcing the Cubs to have to scramble. The division rivals face off six times in the first 30 days, beginning with the season-opening series at Wrigley Field. They also will meet April 29-30 and May 1 at Wrigley.
The home-and-road intra-city clash with the White Sox always gets Chicagoans riled up, one way or the other. The two teams meet June 20-22 at Wrigley, and the following weekend at U.S. Cellular Field. Piniella will be welcomed home June 17-19 when the Cubs play in his home town, Tampa Bay. At least he'll get to sleep in his own bed.
The Bottom Line
The Cubs have the pitching and personnel to repeat as division champs, but the first month may decide their fate. They have an overload of home games in April, and only nine in September.
Let's get it started.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.