Piniella optimistic about NL Central title

Updated: January 13, 2010, 7:18 PM ET
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Lou Piniella made sure he got away from baseball once the disappointing 2009 season ended for the Chicago Cubs.

Piniella traveled to Europe to be a tourist and hit the Florida Keys for some fishing. Now, with spring training about a month away, he's ready to start the fourth and final year of his contract. And he's optimistic that a National League Central title is within reach.

The Cubs' major personnel addition so far has been center fielder Marlon Byrd, signed as a free agent. But the offseason has been busy, even if there haven't been a lot of major changes to the roster.

The Ricketts family took control of the team as the new owners. The Cubs hired the well-respected Rudy Jaramillo as their hitting coach, added 355-game winner Greg Maddux to the front office and jettisoned mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley via a trade to Seattle for pitcher Carlos Silva.

After winning back-to-back division titles in Piniella's first two seasons, the Cubs managed 83 victories last year.

"If we can win 83 games with all those problems and all those injuries and stay relatively healthy, I'm sure we can add another eight or 10 wins to this thing and give ourselves a chance to get to the postseason and win in the postseason," Piniella said Wednesday during a stop on the team's winter caravan.

The Cubs will have to find a way to overcome the arch rival St. Louis Cardinals, who recently re-signed star slugger Matt Holliday. Piniella said general manager Jim Hendry is working on adding some depth to the bullpen -- Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman are gone from last season -- and another outfielder.

With Byrd reunited with his former Texas hitting coach Jaramillo and slated to play center, Kosuke Fukudome will move back to right field, where he is better defensively.

The Cubs, whose offensive production declined by 148 runs last season from 2008, are a predominantly right-handed hitting team with Fukudome the lone lefty bat in the projected starting lineup.

"Hopefully Rudy will do wonders with a few of our hitters like he's done in Texas all those years," Piniella said.

And Chicago's pitching could be short-handed early on because left-hander Ted Lilly underwent arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in early November and is not expected to be ready by the start of the season. The Cubs did not re-sign Rich Harden.

With Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster expected to head the rotation and Randy Wells, a 12-game winner as a rookie, also in the mix, Jeff Samardzija could get a shot at the rotation.

Samardzija has made 46 appearances for the Cubs over the past two seasons but has only two starts while also spending time in the minors.

"Obviously you go into spring training with something to prove. Sometimes it's just stepped up a notch and you got to be ready to go," he said.

He's also hoping to latch onto some advice from Maddux.

"That's pretty crazy," Samardzija said. "Growing up and watching him pitch, find me a better guy to pick his brain and learn some things from. You're not going to find one."

The Cubs need a healthier and more productive season from left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who batted .241 with 20 homers before his season ended with arthroscopic knee surgery. Ditto for catcher Geovany Soto, who slumped after winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2008. And supposed ace Zambrano, who spent two stints on the disabled list a year ago, went 9-7 -- not a strong return for a pitcher with a $91.5 million contract.

Bradley, who had signed a three-year, $30 million contract, lasted only one season and drove in only 40 runs. He was suspended the final two weeks after criticizing the team.

That's one less headache for Piniella.

"Look, we're going to start anew," Piniella said.

The Cubs invited 19 non-roster players to spring training Wednesday, including 32-year-old infielder Bobby Scales. Scales made his major league debut with the Cubs last season after playing in more than 1,000 minor league games.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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