Injury-cursed righthanders Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who combined for 11 trips to the disabled list and only 30 wins in the last three seasons, have come to symbolize the Cubs' misery in the post-Bartman era. After unraveling in the 2003 League Championship Series, the team slid further down the division standings each season until it hit the cellar in '06. Over the last two years the Pirates and the Rockies are the only NL teams with more losses than Chicago's 179. "There's always been a belief that our hopes kind of rested on their shoulders," catcher Michael Barrett says of Prior, 26, and Wood, 29, "but this spring, you just didn't get that feeling."
Indeed, the buzz in camp was, for a change, about new faces in the clubhouse. The organization's $300 million off-season spending spree has galvanized the team. "This is the year," first baseman Derrek Lee mass-texted teammates in early January. But will the expensive makeover be enough to turn the team into a contender, even in a division where 83 wins was good enough for first place last year?
Though the $136 million signing of outfielder Alfonso Soriano made the biggest splash, just as important to the Cubs' chances are the free-agent additions to the starting rotation: Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million) and Jason Marquis (three years, $21 million). Though both have career ERAs north of 4.50, Chicago is counting on them to fill in behind ace Carlos Zambrano. The last two spots will be filled by Rich Hill and someone from a crowd that includes Prior. Wood is expected to come out of the bullpen and be a late-inning bridge to closer Ryan Dempster. While the slimmed-down Wood has looked very strong this spring, Prior has struggled to get his fastball out of the mid-80s.
Lilly, who gave up a career-high 28 homers with the Blue Jays last year, should benefit from not having to face the mighty AL East lineups any longer. But the Cubs can't rely too heavily on a fly ball pitcher -- his 1.12 fly ball to ground ball ratio was fourth highest among AL starters -- to be their No. 2 starter at homer-friendly Wrigley Field. Marquis, a low-strikeout pitcher who won 42 games for the Cardinals over the last three seasons, is coming off a year in which he ranked last among full-time NL starters in ERA (6.02) and opponents' slugging percentage (.509). New manager Lou Piniella is counting on pitching coach Larry Rothschild to fix the mechanical problems they believe contributed to the righthander's unsightly numbers. "If you take away three or four starts, that ERA comes down to pretty much the league average," says Piniella. "He's pitched [a lot of] innings. He's healthy. He's won in our division. You'll see a big improvement."
If Lilly and Marquis are effective and the lineup -- punchless last season, ranking 15th in the NL in runs and last in on-base percentage -- is as productive as expected, the Cubs should start climbing back up the standings. In addition to the boost provided by Soriano, Chicago hopes to get a full season out of Lee, who fractured his right wrist in a collision at first base with the Dodgers' Rafael Furcal in April, and played only 50 games. "I pushed the team into letting me play," says the '05 NL batting champ, who briefly returned in late August, "but I hurt the team more than I helped."
G.M. Jim Hendry also re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez and imported free agents Mark DeRosa and Cliff Floyd to add more thunder to the lineup. (The Cubs would've done better to subtract a free swinger or two and make room for 25-year-old fan favorite Matt Murton, who had a .365 on-base percentage, and led the team in pitches per plate appearance, 3.72). Says Piniella, "We've got the players to turn things around real quick."
In this division he might be right. -- Albert Chen
Issue date: March 26, 2007