NL Central Preview: Cubs
Next game: Wednesday, April 8th at San Francisco
2008: 97-64, first place.
Manager: Lou Piniella (third season).
He's Here: OF Milton Bradley, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Aaron Heilman, RHP Luiz Vizcaino, INF Aaron Miles, OF Joey Gathright.
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Projected Lineup: LF Alfonso Soriano (.280, 29 HRs, 75 RBIs, 19 SB in 109 games), CF Kosuke Fukudome (.257, 10, 58), 1B Derrek Lee (.291, 20, 90, 27 GIDP), RF Milton Bradley (.321, 22, 77, .436 OBP with Texas), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.289, 27, 111), 2B Mike Fontenot (.305, 9, 40), C Geovany Soto (.285, 23, 86), SS Ryan Theriot (.307, 1, 38, 22 SBs).
Key Relievers: RH Kevin Gregg (7-8, 3.41, 29/38 saves for Florida), RH Carlos Marmol (2-4, 2.68, 7 saves, 114 Ks in 87 1-3 IP, .135 opponents batting average), RH Aaron Heilman (3-8, 5.21 for Mets), LH Neal Cotts (0-2, 4.29), RH Jeff Samardzija (1-0, 2.28 in 26 games), RH Luis Vizcaino (1-2, 5.28 with Colorado).
Hot Spots: Outfield, second base and closer. The Cubs think they solved their right field situation by signing Bradley, who has a history of injuries and volatile behavior. But will Fukudome, who struggled mightily in the second half last season, be able to handle center? Reed Johnson is an option there. Fontenot got the second base job over Miles, who will be a backup at shortstop, second and third. Marshall won the fifth starter's spot and Gregg beat out Marmol for the closer role. Marmol said he was disappointed, but he returns to he setup role in which he excelled last season.
Stat Sheet: Lee put up solid numbers last season but struggled in the second half. He hit .266 after the All-Star break with just five homers and 34 RBIs. Fukudome made the All-Star team but also dropped off big-time after the break, batting only .217. It's the playoffs that give Chicago's sluggers the most trouble, however. Ramirez is 2-for-23 in first-round sweeps the past two seasons and Soriano is 3-for-28.
Bottom Line: The Cubs won't have to hear about it being 100 years since their last World Series winner anymore. Now, it's going on 101. They won an NL-best 97 games last season, only to flame out against the Dodgers -- the Cubs have been swept in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Assuming everyone stays healthy, a deep rotation makes Chicago the division favorite again. The Cubs must replace DeRosa's versatility and Wood's ninth-inning success. They also need Bradley to remain poised and healthy. More power from Lee and a healthy Soriano are also keys. If Fukudome struggles again, look for Johnson to move in as the everyday center fielder. Piniella lost patience with Fukudome near the end of the season and in the playoffs a year ago. The Cubs should also have another big change at some point this season when the team's sale to the Ricketts family from Tribune Co. is finally completed.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)