"Here's the hard part: Remaining patient as Kosuke Fukudome transitions to the majors."
It's very easy," said Lou Piniella, the Cubs' second-year manager, who paused and grinned before dispensing a little baseball wisdom. "But if you don't see it, you might have a problem." He wasn't talking about hitting a knuckleball or fielding a comebacker but pronouncing the labyrinthine name of his starting rightfielder. "KOH-skay foo-koo-DOUGH-may," Piniella carefully enunciated, delighting the crush of Japanese media that had descended upon Mesa, Ariz., this spring to chronicle the every move of 30-year-old outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. "Is that hard?"
Here's the hard part: 1) figuring out where to bat Fukudome in the lineup; he has hit second, third and fifth this spring; and 2) remaining patient (never the hallmark of Piniella) as Fukudome makes the transition to the majors. His defense appears to be as good as advertised: His laserlike throws from rightfield had the Cactus League buzzing, and his range makes him a fill-in candidate in center -- which, along with second base, are the team's two biggest weak spots. But he looked timid at the plate in exhibition games, nothing like the fleet on-base machine with good gap power that drew comparisons with Bobby Abreu when Fukudome played for the Chunichi Dragons. Nonetheless, says lefthander Ted Lilly, "he does a lot of things well, though he may not do any one thing the best on the team."
One thing that Fukudome may do best is work a count (he had a .437 OBP over the last three seasons), and his lefthanded bat is a welcome addition to a lineup in which lefties had a .667 OPS last season, a staggering 131 points lower than the righthanders. Though the Cubs sank nearly a quarter-billion dollars into new contracts for every-day players last season, the hitting was middle of the road.
Instead, a deep and balanced pitching staff carried the team most of last season, leading the league in strikeouts and finishing second in ERA -- and there should be more of the same in 2008. Two power lefties, Lilly and Rich Hill, complement righthanded ace Carlos Zambrano, who still won 18 games and had a 3.95 ERA in his worst full season. (Big Z will need to cut down on his 101 walks.) Though he gave up 28 homers last year, Lilly improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio by more than 50% and won 15 games. And with his downhill, low-90s fastball and a late-breaking curve that reliever Kerry Wood describes as "unhittable," Hill has arguably the most upside of any of the starters.
Piniella took nearly the entire spring to mull Ryan Dempster's replacement as closer before settling on Wood, who had a good spring and still hits the mid-90s. But his injury history, which included a recent bout with back spasms, can't be ignored. Piniella has other, capable replacements in Bob Howry, who has the most experience in the closer's role (65 career saves, including 28 with the 1999 White Sox) and Carlos Marmol (1.43 ERA, 96 strikeouts in 691/3 innings last year), who has the most potential. "He's got the arm strength, the breaking ball, and I think he has the mentality to [be the closer]," says Boston scout Keith Champion of Marmol. "He can be the guy down the road, but I think you have to give it to the veteran first."
Despite several lingering concerns -- the franchise's impending sale, a lineup that's still a little too righthanded and free-swinging, and two voids up the middle (at second base and in centerfield) -- the Cubs remain the class of the division. -- Pablo S. Torre
Issue date: March 31, 2008