- Phil Rogers
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The beauty of Lou Piniella's first season in Chicago lies in the eye of the beholder.
A year after a 96-loss season cost Dusty Baker his job, the Cubs rebounded to win the weak National League Central. But they did it with only 85 wins, finishing just eight games over .500, and were swept by a highly beatable Arizona team in the first round of the playoffs. This stood as significant progress, but was also a missed opportunity for a franchise that hasn't been to a World Series since 1945 or won one since 1908.
Having added Alfonso Soriano in the offseason, the Cubs had as powerful a lineup as any team in the NL, except possibly the New York Mets. Yet they scored runs inconsistently, more often than not relying on a dependable starting rotation. Newcomers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis joined Carlos Zambrano and second-year lefty Rich Hill to give Piniella some certainty on the mound. The bullpen opened the season badly -- one of the reasons the Cubs went 2-12 in their first 14 one-run games -- but rounded into shape in the second half, largely because of the contributions of Bob Howry and rookie Carlos Marmol.
Mark DeRosa, another offseason acquisition, was valuable both as a second baseman and a super utility man. But none of the big bats in the lineup -- Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Soriano -- had a big year. Piniella spent the first half of the season auditioning players at shortstop, second base, catcher, center field and left field before settling into a plan that had Ryan Theriot at short and Jacque Jones in center. The Cubs had enough talent to play deep into October in the wide-open NL, but went into early hibernation after Brandon Webb shut them down in Game 1 of the division series, when Piniella made a tactical error in pulling Zambrano after six innings.
Right fielder: Piniella mixed and matched all season in right, finishing the year with a platoon featuring Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton, both of whom are better suited for left. The position was problematic all season. A left-handed-hitting regular would be a fine addition.
Front-of-the-rotation starter: When the Cubs went to the playoffs in 2003, they had Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Zambrano -- three potential No. 1s -- in the mix. Lilly and Hill did a good job but there's a big drop-off behind Zambrano, who wasn't a sure thing himself.
Left-handed reliever: Scott Eyre was a first-division set-up man in 2006, the first year of his three-year contract, but he didn't earn Piniella's trust last season. He can be a useful part, but an upgrade would be nice.
In the picture: The Piniella-Alex Rodriguez connection is the elephant in the room with the Cubs. It doesn't make a lot of sense to add a fourth right-handed power hitter to a team that will pay Soriano, Lee and Ramirez a combined $40 million next season but the Cubs hit only 151 home runs last year, finishing 11th in the NL. Until Rodriguez signs elsewhere, this bears watching. The Cubs will study the available free-agent center fielders and could make a run at Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda.
Ryan Dempster: Marmol seems poised to move into Dempster's spot at the end of games, and Howry is available if Marmol has an allergic reaction to late-inning tension. There's one year left on a contract for Dempster, who could be moved into the rotation or a different role in the bullpen if he's not traded.
Jacque Jones: Felix Pie should be taking over in center field but hit so poorly last season that the Cubs have to think twice about moving Jones, whose fielding was better in center than it had been in right. Jones could stay as insurance in case Pie does not progress after hitting .215 in 87 games last season.
Mark Prior: The Cubs face a decision on the surgically repaired Prior, who will be due at least $2.86 million if they tender him a contract. They appear to have lost patience with him but another team might be willing to take that gamble, giving the Cubs something for Prior before he is nontendered.
Eric Patterson: The younger brother of Corey Patterson is coming off an excellent season in Triple-A and projects as a regular second baseman but appears blocked by DeRosa, Theriot, Ronny Cedeno and Mike Fontenot.
C Geovany Soto: Lightly regarded a year ago, in part because he was overweight, Soto experienced a breakthrough season in 2007. He was the MVP in the Pacific Coast League and figures to take Jason Kendall's spot as the No. 1 catcher. One scout says he may be one of the top catchers in the NL soon.
RHP Kevin Hart: Acquired from Baltimore for second baseman Freddie Bynum a year ago, Hart was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year and showed Piniella enough in September to make the playoff roster. He will go to spring training with a good chance to make the team, either as the No. 5 starter or a set-up guy in the bullpen.
C-1B-OF Jake Fox: As versatile as anyone in the organization, Fox caught Piniella's eye last spring and could win a job on the bench. He could join Soto and Henry Blanco to give the Cubs three catchers, making it possible to pinch hit Soto when he's not in the lineup.
With the Cubs remaining up for sale, it's hard to know what the organization will or will not do. The one thing that seems certain is there won't be as much player movement as there was last offseason, when GM Jim Hendry scrambled to upgrade the roster. A big move is not out of the question, however, for either Rodriguez, one of the free-agent center fielders on the market (Torii Hunter?) or another starting pitcher.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
The Cubs need another front-of-the-rotation starter in 2008 to go along with staff ace Carlos Zambrano.