Is This the Year? (No, but ...) (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 9:49AM; Updated: Saturday February 24, 2007 11:45PM
In taking over for the laid-back Dusty Baker, Piniella might be the most important piece of an extreme makeover that has transformed everything from the clubhouse, where there are 17 new faces, to the iconic Wrigley Field outfield walls, which will feature advertisements among the ivy for the first time, to help pay for Chicago's projected $115 million payroll. The team's lavish off-season spending might not even have been possible without the addition of Piniella, who signed a three-year, $10 million pact. "We didn't know how interested [free agents] would be in coming here, especially coming off a few losing seasons," says Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. "But after Lou came on board, I think guys looked at us and thought, 'They're serious about winning now.'"
That was certainly the case with Soriano, the most coveted position player from the '06 free-agent class. In late November, Piniella and Hendry met secretly with Soriano for three hours in a Ritz Carlton hotel suite in Naples, Fla. The Dominican-born Soriano and Piniella, who speaks fluent Spanish, instantly connected. "I could tell from our visit that he's a good young man," says Piniella. "A humble kid. He came here early and got a head start. He wants to be ready -- and it sends a great message to the team." Says Soriano, "I saw his passion [during the meeting in Florida]. He's real, and he'll tell you exactly what he thinks, and I like that."
Though Soriano is coming off a career year (a remarkable 46 homers while playing half his games in cavernous RFK Stadium), he is yet another free swinger in a lineup full of them. Chicago ranked last in the National League in on-base percentage in 2006 and, not surprisingly, second-to-last in runs. Soriano's career on-base percentage is a mere .325 and his strikeout-to-walk rate remains alarmingly high, yet the Cubs are committed to batting him leadoff. Then there is the issue of where he plays in the field. Last week Piniella revealed that he wants Soriano in centerfield. Not only has the 31-year-old never played the position, but the swirling winds of Wrigley make it one of the most perilous centerfields in baseball. A second baseman for much of his big league career, Soriano initially balked at moving to the outfield for the Nationals last spring. He eventually relented and played a full season in left, where he displayed an adequate arm and good range, though he committed 11 errors. He says he's game for another switch, but not without some trepidation. "I'm an outfielder now," he says, "but I'm not a good outfielder yet. I have a lot to learn."
Only three teams (the 1991 Atlanta Braves, the '99 Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2003 Cubs) have made the postseason after losing more than 95 games the previous season, but Piniella, who never won more than 70 games in his last managerial job (with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from '03 through '05), says he wouldn't have taken the gig if he didn't think he could do what Jim Leyland did for the Detroit Tigers last season. "We can turn this around quick because we have the makings of a real good pitching staff if we can stay healthy," he says, contemplating a rotation anchored by ace Carlos Zambrano and bolstered by free-agent lefthander Ted Lilly.
As for his sunnier demeanor, Piniella, who worked last year in the Fox broadcast booth, insists that a year away from managing has softened his edge. "It gave me a different perspective -- helped me lighten up," he says. "You step back and see that sometimes you take things a bit too seriously."
Says Hendry, "He's invigorated. He's hungry for one last shot to win. When he went to Tampa, financially the team wasn't able to move forward, and that wore him down a little. When we met [in Florida in November], he asked me one question: 'What's your payroll going to be?' I told him at least $100 million. He said, 'That's good enough for me.'"