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CNN/SI Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Posted: Monday March 08, 1999 03:12 PM

  Opposing hitters managed just a .196 average against Wood in '98, best in the majors Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

By Ryan Hunt, CNN/SI

Player to Watch: Kerry Wood, P

With Michael Jordan retired, there are just two athletes in Chicago that have the capability to leave the Windy City breathless. One is Sammy Sosa, the other has Cub fans just plain holding their collective breath.

Ever since wunderkind pitcher Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros last May -- a performance that went a long way to helping him earn the 1998 NL Rookie of the Year -- Chicago has been wild over Wood. Even at the tender age of 20, Wood has outdueled some of the league's best pitchers, including Atlanta's Greg Maddux. More importantly, Wood has given the Cubs something they haven't had since Maddux left -- a dominant No. 1 starter.

While Wood's dominance hasn't been questioned, his durability has. He missed the final month of last season with a tired arm and battled illness for the early part of this spring. Wood won 13 games as a rookie, while making 26 starts. If Wood can make 32-35 starts this season -- and win close to 20 games - the Cubs can contend for their second straight wild-card berth, and perhaps make a run at the NL Central crown.

1998 Recap (90-73, 2nd place NL Central)

You can't talk about the Cubs' magical 1998 season without mentioning Sosa. 90 wins? The third playoff berth in the last 14 years? Nah, how 'bout those 66 homers.

In fact, Sosa's season kind of mirrored Chicago's -- started slowly, had a hot streak in June (the Cubs had a 10-game winning streak that ended June 8), ended the regular season with consistent performances and then struggled in the playoffs.

But it was the Sosa and the Cubs' play in Wrigley Field that led them to the postseason, which ended early after a three-game sweep by Atlanta. Chicago was 20 games over .500 at the Friendly Confines, thanks in part to Sosa's 35 home blasts.

1999 Outlook

Cubs general manager Ed Lynch didn't think there were too many holes from last season's team to fill. Chicago didn't make a major acquisition in the offseason, settling for former Pirate right-hander Jon Lieber and journeyman catcher Benito Santiago to complete its roster.

Lieber, acquired in a trade for OF Brant Brown, has only one winning season in his first five major league years, although he did play in Pittsburgh. He will be in the middle of the Cubs' rotation, following Wood, Tapani and possibly Steve Trachsel. The starting rotation, which will be rounded out by either Terry Mulholland, Scott Sanders or the rehabbing Jeremi Gonzalez, must win more than last season's 67 combined victories if Chicago is going to be in the pennant race come September.

Roster roundup
Who's new
C Benito Santiago, P Jon Lieber, P Scott Sanders

Who's gone
P Mark Clark, OF Brant Brown, C Scott Servais, OF Orlando Merced

 

It will be hard to imagine Sosa repeating his MVP season from 1998, although the key number for Sosa will be his batting average. Sosa raised his average 57 points to .308 in '98 and his ability to stay above .300 will be key in determining the Cubs' fortunes.

As with most teams, health will be a major concern for the Cubs, especially with aging players like 3B Gary Gaetti (40 years old), 1B Mark Grace (34), SS Jeff Blauser (33), 2B Mickey Morandini (32) and LF Henry Rodriguez (31).

The Cubs, though, can only hope Blauser's fortunes improve. After signing him to a big free-agent contract last offseason, Blauser laid an egg offensively (.219 average and only four homers) and found himself on the bench in favor of Jose Hernandez or Manny Alexander down the stretch. Blauser will be given another chance to straighten out his woes at the plate this season.

However, the Cubs' success will be largely dependent on the bullpen. Terry Adams, Felix Heredia, Matt Karchner and Co. must get the lead to closer Rod Beck, who also was inconsistent at times last year, more often in '99 for the Cubs to make a return trip to the playoffs.

 
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