- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- After 19 seasons of managing baseball teams and expectations, Lou Piniella knows the drill. He has mastered the art of doling out information and keeping the writers content while avoiding the trap of talking himself into a corner.
On the subject of the Chicago Cubs' outfield -- the biggest puzzle for Piniella to resolve in the Cactus League -- Sweet Lou dropped a few bread crumbs Wednesday while keeping his options open. Some things to look for in the coming weeks and months:
• The Cubs will monitor Alfonso Soriano's transition to center field through mid-March, then take stock. If Soriano can't cut it in center, Piniella will pull the plug on the experiment, shift him to right field, and most likely move Jacque Jones from right to center.
• Mark DeRosa, who signed a three-year, $13 million contract after playing six positions in Texas, is Chicago's regular second baseman. If DeRosa takes a break from second this season, it will probably be for a cameo at short or third. Ryan Freel, he isn't.
• Felix Pie, rated the franchise's top prospect by Baseball America, will probably begin the season with Triple-A Iowa, where the Cubs want him to learn strike-zone discipline and to better embrace the nuances of the game. They're looking to avoid a repeat of the Corey Patterson syndrome.
Now that general manager Jim Hendry's heart scare has passed and Kerry Wood has survived his brush with an Arizona hot tub, the outfield will be the focus of much of the non-Mark Prior, Wade Miller and Wood-related speculation this spring. There are enough Plan B's and C's in the hopper to give Cubs fans a severe case of bleacher buzz.
It's Piniella's job to distribute the at-bats equitably and make the value judgments. He doesn't mind injecting some competition into the equation.
"I remember when I played for the Yankees, I would go to camp every year as the fourth outfielder, and by the middle of June, I was an everyday player because I was getting the job done," Piniella said. "I'm going to play the people who are productive and helping us win baseball games. That's the bottom line. We'll be fair about it."
Soriano, of course, is free to proceed at his own pace and let the Cubs know where he feels most comfortable. When the Nationals tried to shift him from second base to left field last spring, Soriano initially raised a fuss. But he embraced instruction from coach Jose Cardenal, let his athleticism take over, and turned himself into a functional left fielder, with a major league-high 22 assists to help offset his 11 errors.
Throw in 46 homers and 41 stolen bases, and he's suddenly basking in the acclaim (and scrutiny) that accompanies a $136 million contract.
Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are Chicago's middle-of-the-order thumpers, but it's Soriano who appears with Piniella on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated. He's kicking back in a lawn chair wearing a "What, me worry?" smile across his face.
"I don't think he's ever taken a bad picture," Piniella said. "He's got a very photogenic face."
"I get better looking every year," he said.
The state of Soriano's smile come April and May could hinge on his ability to avoid ivy-covered brick facials. He plans to work with third-base coach Mike Quade on the nuances of outfield play in Arizona, but Wrigley Field will pose distinct challenges because of the wind and sun during all of their matinee games.
In one respect, center field will be more difficult for Soriano, because he'll have to cover the gaps and play traffic cop. But right field at Wrigley is particularly tough because of the absence of foul territory, the proximity of the bullpen mound and the abrupt configuration of the wall. Balls down the line tend to get on a guy in a hurry.
Soriano's ultimate destination will affect the fate of two fellow Cubs. One is Jones, whose debut season in Chicago was a mixed bag. Jones hit 27 homers and drove in 81 runs, but his baserunning gaffes, errant throws and dicey relationship with the fan base made for a trying year. The low point came when Jones received some racially charged messages on his cell phone.
The Cubs shopped Jones over the winter, but failed to make a trade despite interest from Pittsburgh and Colorado, among others. Now it's anybody's guess where Jones hits and fields. He could bat fifth in the order, and Piniella has kicked around the possibility of hitting him second despite Jones' high strikeout numbers and career .328 on-base percentage.
Jones is comfortable at all three outfield positions. He played center field at the University of Southern California before shifting to left in Minnesota in deference to Torii Hunter.
"I've been through it all before, dude," Jones said. "There's no preference."
The Cubs, in their efforts to accommodate Soriano, might also be messing with Pie's long-term future. They claim they don't want to move Soriano once they find a spot for him. But if Soriano settles on center field, he'll be taking dibs on Pie's natural position.
Left field is a choice between youth and experience. Murton, 25, needs to develop more power, but he uses the entire field and brings a dose of patience to a team with a hacking mentality. Last year Murton finished with a .365 on-base percentage and ranked among the Chicago team leaders with 3.71 pitches per at-bat. He knows how to work a count.
Floyd, 34, is a potential feel-good story because he's finally realizing the dream of playing for his hometown team. The extent of his contribution could depend on his health. Floyd appeared in 97 games for the Mets last year because of an Achilles injury that required surgery in October. He claims the foot is fine, and that he wants to play 140 games.
"I thought about a lot of things in the offseason," Floyd said. "Would I be OK with platooning? If my play dictates it, I'll accept that role. But in my mind, I'm not ready for that. My mind-set is to go out there and play every day. I know this might be my last opportunity to do that."
Piniella's choices will generate both offensive and defensive fallout. The Cubs spent $61 million in the offseason on Ted Lilly, an extreme fly ball pitcher, and Jason Marquis, who led the National League with 35 gopher balls. It will be comforting to the Chicago staff if some of those airborne balls eventually land inside a glove.
At least the Chicago outfielders are acting like nice, harmonious Cubbies. Soriano, who credits Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Luis Sojo and Roger Clemens for making him feel comfortable as a young player in New York, is taking the same avuncular approach with Pie. The two Dominicans, nine years apart, get closer by the day over dinner and ball talk.
"He's my boy," Pie said.
Floyd, similarly, vows to accept management's decisions with professionalism and the requisite emotional detachment. He's simply not wired to be a clubhouse distraction.
"If Lou wants to rotate guys in and out, I'm not going to [gripe] and moan," Floyd said. "Come out to the park and be ready to play. That's what I told Matty [Murton]. I don't have the attitude of, 'I'm the man and you're the kids and I'm taking over.' I'm here to help these guys."
Piniella, known as a manager who wants results yesterday, is actually counseling patience. From experience, he knows that a lot can happen between now and the season opener.
Maybe Floyd is spry enough and Pie looks so impressive in camp that the Cubs feel comfortable enough to trade Jones after all. Maybe Floyd's injury problems reoccur to the extent that he's the biggest outfield concern. Piniella also plans to look at Angel Pagan and Ryan Theriot in Mesa. They could work their way into the outfield mix.
"I'll have better answers as we get going," Piniella said. "I wish I could tell you exactly who's going to do what and where they're going to hit. It would be a lot easier on me and my coaching staff. But that's what spring training is for."
The rules say the Cubs need three outfielders in the lineup every day, so they'll oblige. As far as who plays where, Piniella will make the call eventually. Better yet, his players will make it for him.
The Cubs' outfield situation is Lou Piniella's biggest spring challenge, and it all starts with Alfonso Soriano's transition to center.