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NEW YORK -- Contrary to what some folks might think, legendary manager Lou Piniella isn't about to bust a blood vessel or throw a base over his high-priced, slumping Cubs. Not yet, anyway.
Word was getting around in baseball circles that Piniella is "very down'' about his team, which is now 5-9 and has dropped four straight games. But he still has incredible energy at age 66, and he seems to be focusing on the hope of the long season ahead. On Tuesday at least, Piniella wasn't doing too badly.
"What are you going to do?" Piniella said. "It's not easy when you're losing. But I'm holding up fine.''
Frankly, the Cubs have too many problems right now for being the highest-priced team in the National League. Their payroll is estimated to be $146 million; they have the league's best-paid left fielder (Alfonso Soriano, $18 million), its second-best-paid starter (Carlos Zambrano, $18 million) its best-paid castoff (Milton Bradley, now with Seattle, $10 million) and even its highest-paid hitting coach (Rudy Jaramillo, $800,000). Piniella is one of the best-paid managers, too at about $3.7 million annually. But he can't be happy unless they're playing better.
"I've never been a good loser,'' Piniella said. "We've lost a lot of tough games from the seventh inning on."
Indeed, the bullpen has been easily the Cubs' biggest bugaboo. Their relievers are 1-6 with a 6.00 ERA, better than only the Diamondbacks and Royals. As Piniella succinctly put it, "It's been a problem.''
Going in to the season, Cubs people were afraid that would be the case, and their worst fears have come to fruition. Piniella said, "We tried to trade all winter for a (relief) pitcher. Then (setup man Angel) Guzman goes down. And on top of that, (hard-throwing youngster Esmailin) Caridad (is hurt). We have a young bullpen. It's not the easiest thing in the world.''
Piniella and his Cubs bosses are starting to bat around possible solutions.
Top left-handed starting pitcher Ted Lilly is scheduled to make his season debut Saturday, which will improve the Cubs' already strong rotation. But what Lilly could do most is improve the bullpen by allowing the Cubs to move one of their fine starters, who have nine quality starts in the first 14 games, to a relief role.
Piniella isn't ready to say publicly what the Cubs will do, but indications are strong that left-hander Tom Gorzelanny will stay in the rotation when Lilly returns, and one of the right-handers -- Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Carlos Silva -- will move to the pen for now.
It's hard to imagine it being Zambrano, who has a $91-million contract. And it's even harder to fathom it being Silva, who's showing signs of resuscitating his career as a Cub after a disastrous two seasons in Seattle. Wells has settled into a nice routine as a starter, too. If it's anyone, Dempster -- who makes almost $13 million a year as a starter but has been a semi-successful closer in the past -- might be the most logical of the four.
Piniella hopes the new reliever -- whoever he is -- will transform the pen, at least temporarily. With the exception of talented closer Carlos Marmol, the entire relief corps is trouble right now, but the eighth inning is the most immediate issue. "We've just to find better ways to get to [Marmol],'' Piniella said. "We've got to try to fortify the bullpen.'' Veteran lefty John Grabow, who is being counted on to be the setup man in Guzman's absence, failed again in eighth inning on Tuesday night when he allowed a two-run home run to the Mets' Fernando Tatis that all but ensured Chicago's 4-0 loss. Grabow, who was given a $7.5-million, two-year deal before the market for mediocre relievers sank, is now 0-2 with a 9.53 ERA.
The pen may be problem No. 1 but the offense is an issue, too. People high up in the Cubs' organization are dismayed about how free-swinging their hitters have been. The team as a whole has a .317 on-base percentage, which ranks 22nd in the majors, and star third baseman Aramis Ramirez has been so uncharacteristically strikeout prone that Piniella was considering resting him against a left-hander in the next day or two. Someone wondered Tuesday night whether Ramirez could be "pressing,'' and Piniella said with a smile, "It becomes a long season if you start pressing in April.''
"It's early,'' Soriano said, agreeing. "We can turn it around. We have a good offensive team and a good starting rotation. We can change it. We're supposed to be better than this. But people don't realize, everyone struggles. Everyone needs to relax, and we'll do a better job.''
Piniella, though, would just like to see a little more versatility. "When we hit home runs, we do better,'' he said. "We're not really good at manufacturing runs.''
As expected, the Cubs hit well when the wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field. But when it shifted and started blowing in, they lost two straight one-run games. They also haven't hit very well on the road, where they have a .207 average thus far. Piniella's tried a few different things, but now seems to like Marlon Byrd leading of against left-handers. With Soriano batting sixth where he belongs, there are no experienced leadoff men, so it's been a bit of trial and error.
"We're struggling basically with the alignment,'' Piniella said. "But if we have to make changes down the road, we will.''
Their roster is jammed with usable outfielders, and Piniella badly wants to get promising youngster Tyler Colvin more at-bats. The Cubs also have a superb prospect in shortstop Starlin Castro, but it's not immediately clear how they'd be able to use him if they called him up.
In the meantime, the best Piniella can hope for is improved play from the high-priced stars they have. Ramirez is hitting .145. Soriano has only three RBIs out of the No. 6 hole, and what's more, he's drawing renewed criticism for the same old issues. He's hitting reasonably well but tends to watch his long hits rather than immediately running, his defense has been atrocious, and he compounds his poor defense by sometimes doing his patented hop while catching flyballs, an unnecessary risk.
"I love the guy to death. But put it this way, he's not going to win a Gold Glove,'' Piniella said. "He's been working hard with the hitting coach. We need for him to drive in some more runs. He's conscientious about it.''
Piniella talked to Soriano about watching a long flyball Monday that became a double but should have been a triple. Soriano acknowledged their conversation. "He told me to run a little bit more because [that day] he thought I could get a triple.''
"I have a good rapport with him,'' Piniella said. "He aims to please. But he gets in his old habits. He told me no more hop, and I thought to myself, 10,000 Little League coaches can breathe a sigh of relief. (Monday) night, he had half a hop.''
In the meantime, there still appears to be a hop in Piniella's step. His friends still say "losing eats at him.'' But if it does, he's hiding it.
"I don't like losing,'' Piniella said. "But I'm fine. We're working. We're tying to do the best we can. And we're going to get better.''
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