Outfield key to Cubs' chances

As Soriano, Byrd and Fukudome go, so goes the offense

Updated: March 1, 2010, 11:18 AM ET
Associated Press

Alfonso SorianoAP Photo/Matt YorkPlagued by injuries, Alfonso Soriano had the worst season of his career in 2009.

MESA, Ariz. -- With Milton Bradley moping, Alfonso Soriano limping and Kosuke Fukudome whiffing, the 2009 Chicago Cubs were done in by their $214 million outfield.

Bobby Scales was called up after 10 years in the minors and asked to save the day. Jake Fox was all-hit, no field. Sam Fuld was all-field, no-power. First baseman Micah Hoffpauir, thrown into the outfield to supply offense, batted .239.

What a mess.

Had Lou Piniella known last spring that Scales, Fox, Fuld and Hoffpauir would combine to play 135 games in the outfield -- and that Bradley would create more havoc in the clubhouse than runs on the diamond -- the Cubs manager would have known his team would have had no chance to win a third consecutive NL Central title.

[+] EnlargeMarlon Byrd
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinMarlon Byrd is coming off a career season with Texas, batting .283 with 20 home runs and 89 RBIs.

One year later, the song remains the same: As the outfield goes, so goes the Cubs' offense. And this season, hitting will be even more important because the pitching is unsettled.

Bradley has been replaced by Marlon Byrd, who is being asked to be the stud center fielder the Cubs have lacked for decades. The signing of Byrd -- coming off a career year of 20 homers and 89 runs batted in for Texas -- lets Fukudome move from center to right, where he is more comfortable.

Left fielder Soriano, limited to 116 games, 20 homers and 55 RBIs in his worst season ever, says his surgically repaired left knee feels so good he no longer has to ice it.

"We'd like to see his power numbers and RBI production go up," Piniella said. "We've got to get that 20 into the 30s and those 50s into the 80s. Those numbers are very doable for a player of his caliber."

Xavier Nady was signed to back up all three positions. Nearly fully recovered from a second Tommy John surgery, he could challenge for significant playing time in right if new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo can't fix Fukudome's swing.

"There's no reason for 'The Fook' to hit in the .250s. He's better than that. He should be hitting .285 or .290, driving in more runs," Piniella said. "He's made a couple of minor changes, so we'll see."

Fukudome did have a .375 on-base percentage and could be the leadoff hitter now that Soriano has been dropped to No. 6.

"With the guys in front of me, I should get a lot more RBIs," Soriano said. Of his importance to the team, he said: "It's not basketball, where one guy makes a lot of difference. Everybody has to stay healthy."

That includes Nady. The Cubs got next to nothing from fourth outfielder Reed Johnson last season, a big reason Scales, Fox, Fuld and Hoffpauir played so much.

Nady, who batted .305 with 25 homers and 97 RBIs with the Pirates and Yankees in 2008 before blowing out his right elbow last April 14, said he feels fine hitting. He's bringing his arm around slowly because, he said, "It's your career you're playing with."

He accepted Chicago's $3.3 million contract offer because he likes the team's talent and because he loves Wrigley Field, where he has a .304 lifetime average.

"The bleacher fans always ragged me when I was with Pittsburgh," he said. "I'll be excited to be on the other side instead of getting heckled for 3 hours."

Of course, Cubs fans are infamous for turning on their own if players don't produce. Bradley was booed mercilessly, and Soriano also has been an object of scorn.

If the outfielders do well in 2010, they'll be cheered -- and the Cubs will benefit.

"Look, we're not asking our guys to be super heroes," Piniella said. "We're just asking them to do what they were brought here to do."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press