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Turning around Cubs will be tall order for Piniella

Posted: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:08PM; Updated: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:20PM
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Lou Piniella's hitting expertise is sorely needed by the Cubs.
Lou Piniella's hitting expertise is sorely needed by the Cubs.
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Does anybody else find it curious that the Philadelphia Phillies had chances to hire Jim Leyland and Lou Piniella and each time decided that Charlie Manuel was the better choice?

Of course, unlike when former Philly GM Ed Wade passed on Leyland to hire Manuel, the job wasn't officially open this time. But GM Pat Gillick, knowing that Piniella was in play this offseason and would be managing somewhere next year, opted to keep Manuel and instead saddle him with former managers Art Howe, Jimy Williams and Davey Lopes as coaches, which is sort of like buying too much life insurance.

For Piniella, the Phillies' job would have been better than the one he took with the Cubs. It would have kept him closer to his Tampa home, especially with spring training down the road in Clearwater rather than in Arizona, but more importantly, Philadelphia is miles closer to winning than Chicago. Piniella, at 63, sees Hall of Fame possibilities to his managerial career and needs more wins and another postseason run to undo his wasted years with Tampa Bay. Besides, Piniella is a very unhappy man if he is not winning.

The Cubs came within five outs of the World Series in 2003 largely on the arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, but the inability of their aces to remain healthy has hamstrung the organization. Their health and contract status will continue to attract a disproportionate amount of attention this winter.

Piniella's greatest challenge, however, is not crossing his fingers on Prior and Wood, but reversing what has been the franchise's systematic disregard for on-base percentage. Last season Chicago ranked 30th among all clubs in walks, 29th in OBP, 28th in runs -- all the while dropping more sacrifice bunts than any team except Colorado and Houston. Let's put it another way: They actually employed Neifi Perez and Tony Womack in the same season, while breaking in Perez-wannabe Ronny Cedeno.

The Cubs' lineup construction was awful, giving far too many plate appearances to poor hitters by putting them at or near the top of the order. The Cubs ranked 25th in OBP by the leadoff position and 30th for the No. 2 spot. This disregard for a smart, patient approach has to change. Is Piniella the right man to do it?

He fits the job well for Chicago because he is thick-skinned, good humored and can throw all-star tantrums, traits that play well with the Cubs. And oh, yes, he will make the Cubs a better hitting team. As a player, Piniella would work on his swing in between pitches while playing the outfield. He eats, sleeps and breathes hitting. He has one of the smartest hitting minds in the game. It's like hiring Bill Belichick as your head coach and knowing your defense will improve by bringing him on board.

This is Piniella's fifth managerial job. In the previous four, his teams improved their on-base percentage from the previous season every time -- not by huge margins, but by an average of .010. Give the Cubs that kind of improvement in 2006 and they jump from 16th in the league to 13th. It's not earth shattering, but it's a start.

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