Thursday, March 19, 2009
Cubs building a superpower on and off the field
MESA, Ariz. -- The sale of the Chicago Cubs to Tom Ricketts still is more than two months away. But the team that won the most regular-season games in the National League in 2008 and the organizational operation that long has been a financial sleeper eagerly await the in-season transition as they try to end the club's 101-year itch and move forward as one of the sport's economic superpowers.
This season's Cubs again should be the favorites in the NL Central. They subtracted Mark DeRosa, closer Kerry Wood and the innings of Jason Marquis while adding American League OPS leader Milton Bradley, Aaron Heilman and Aaron Miles.
They hope Alfonso Soriano can remain healthy (109 games, 29 homers in 2008). They know Derrek Lee is capable of more than 20 homers.
And in manager Lou Piniella's mind, there is a lesson to be learned from a great regular season followed by a first-round playoff elimination. "We peaked in August," Piniella said. "No doubt about it. A big key to this team is going to be depth, because I have to keep them fresh. Playing in Wrigley takes its toll, with all the day games. Heck, we start the season with a one-week road trip, finish with a Sunday night game [on ESPN] in Milwaukee, then the next day have our home opener, an afternoon game. That takes its toll, and I'm going to make sure we stay fresh."
Which, as the season unfurls, might mean adding another infielder and outfielder to fill roles.
The Cubs believe Bradley brings fire, power, plate discipline and balance to what was a right-hand-dominated batting order; but he also has played 100 games in the field just once in his career because of a set of freak and nagging injuries. Pineilla has Bradley and Soriano at the corners, with Kosuke Fukudome and Reed Johnson platooning in center.
He has Lee and Aramis Ramirez at the infield corners, with Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot -- who have been double-play partners for LSU, the Wareham Gatemen and the Cubs -- in the middle and All-Star Geovany Soto at catcher. There is thunder -- Theriot is a really good player, and everyone on this team believes Fontenot will hit.
One of the things that hurt the Cubs in the playoffs this past season was that the pitching was out of sync, but Carlos Zambrano has had a very good spring, Ryan Dempster is being Ryan Dempster and both Rich Harden and Sean Marshall have been very good.
"Harden has been very encouraging," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. Harden also has averaged 14 starts a year the past four seasons, not from lack of heart, but from various shoulder issues. Ted Lilly is a 17-game winner, although his World Baseball Classic schedule might mean he won't be ready to open the season in the rotation.
Piniella soon will decide on Kevin Gregg or Carlos Marmol as his closer, with Heilman setting up. Jeff Samardzija might start off as a reliever in Triple-A, but he's likely to be an important piece during the season.
Meanwhile, Cubs CEO Crane Kenney pushes ahead to try to bring the team into the 21st century. The Cubs have taken control of the rooftop viewers. They are opening their first restaurant, with plans for a hotel and other businesses in the Wrigley neighborhood. Their regional sports network soon will be up and running. The Cubs have been a $200 million business that should be closer to $300 million, especially considering the fact that they, the Yankees and the Red Sox are the sport's three national franchises; the eight largest crowds in the Cactus League this spring have been with the Cubs playing.
So when Ricketts takes over -- likely before Memorial Day -- it will be interesting to see whether the Cubs can take on a couple of contracts from one of the teams expected to be affected by the recession. There still seems to be a feeling they will be able to take on Jake Peavy's $63 million obligation if they can satisfy Padres GM Kevin Towers with a gaggle of prospects.
They are the Cubs, and we all know about the 101. But they should be a baseball perennial, and that's what they are building with this sale.
Viciedo, Beckham turn some heads at White Sox camp
Josh Fields and Chris Getz probably are going to open the season at third and second, respectively, with Alexei Ramirez at short for the White Sox, but 20-year-old Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham have opened a lot of eyes. Viciedo, who looks like Pedro Guerrero, needs a lot of work at third base in the minors, but the ball jumps off his bat to right-center. And Beckham, the eighth overall pick in last June's draft, might have played only 14 professional games, but he is almost certainly going to end up with the White Sox by midseason, at second or in a utility role.
Word is there might be another handful of young Cuban players defecting in the next few weeks. Those tryouts can be a little crude. When Viciedo worked out last winter, he dazzled scouts by running the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. Afterward, a couple of skeptical scouts measured the course and found it was 50 yards, not 60. Oh, well, a 6.5 50 isn't all bad.
The Red Sox say the backing-up-Tim Wakefield catching job has been won by George Kottaras, but they still are looking for another catcher. The Diamondbacks, who would like another starting pitcher, continue to insist on Michael Bowden for Miguel Montero, and Boston GM Theo Epstein still won't trade Bowden.
Skip Schumaker turned three double plays for the Cardinals on Wednesday. That's good news for everyone rooting for him to make the transition from outfield to second base. It appears manager Tony La Russa will open the season with Ryan Franklin at closer. And between Franklin and Josh Kinney, he'll use either Chris Perez or Jason Motte in a setup role, with the other youngster opening the season as the Triple-A closer.
Every team that has played the Royals has come away impressed with their professionalism and talent. Dayton Moore's trades for Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp seem to have strengthened them; Jacobs has made vast improvements defensively, and Crisp has been a bundle of energy and worked hard helping minor leaguer Derrick Robinson with his game. Now, if Mark Teahen can play some second, they will have even more flexibility.
One NL scout predicts Josh Johnson might be in the Cy Young discussion at the end of the season.
How far out into the desert is the Indians' new complex -- the best baseball facility ever conceived, if such facilities are meant for development -- in Goodyear? Lowell George would be happy that the exit is right after a sign that reads, "Tonopah 32 Miles," and after the turnoff is a huge sign that reads, "Have an A()-Kickin' Day." Great place to let your kids pet burros.