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NL CENTRAL: Chicago Cubs
Mark McClusky
March 23, 1998
WE REALLY MEANT IT THIS TIME
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March 23, 1998

Nl Central: Chicago Cubs

WE REALLY MEANT IT THIS TIME

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By the Numbers

1997 Team Statistics (NL rank)

BATTING AVERAGE

.263 (5)

RUNS SCORED

687 (12)

HOME RUNS

127 (13)

1997 record: 68-94 (fifth in NL Central)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.266 (10)

ERA

4.44 (11)

FIELDING PCT.

.981 (5)

Discussions of the Cubs' chances of winning their division tend to resemble the Kipling poem in their shared reliance on the word if. The 1998 version of this spring tradition comes courtesy of Chicago manager Jim Riggleman: "If we're hitting on all cylinders, we're a contender in the National League Central."

Of course, this is basically the same opinion that was expressed a year ago, just before the Cubs opened the season with a National League-record 14 consecutive losses, putting them well on the way to a 68-94 finish. For such an awful team, however, it drew quite well—more than 2.1 million, down only a little more than 100,000 from its average over the last 10 non-strike-shortened seasons.

Chicago's irrepressible fan support is the basis for the most persistent criticism of the franchise since the Tribune Company bought it in 1981: The Cubs do well financially even when the team on the field is lousy, but it hasn't spent nearly enough—or wisely enough—to create a winner.

Not surprisingly, Cubs CEO Andy MacPhail disagrees. "The Tribune Company has been a terrific owner," he says. "We've tried to put in place what we feel we needed, and they've given us the time to do that."

The primary focus of MacPhail, Riggleman and general manager Ed Lynch since they arrived in the fall of 1994 has been to rebuild a farm system that wasn't producing quality major leaguers—a plan that has yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, they have relied on an aging core of players in an effort to remain competitive. "We knew that a downturn was probably going to come," says Lynch, but no one in the organization could have imagined that it would be as bad as it was in '97.

The horrors of last year prompted a shift in focus. "This year," says Riggleman, "we just looked the situation in the eye and said, 'The hell with it, we've got to go outside our organization to get some help.' "

In an attempt to win the most uniformly mediocre division in the majors, the Cubs added a handful of proven veterans. This off-season they acquired four players, three of them in their 30s, who have been All-Stars at least once during the past three years. The most important of those newcomers is 30-year-old leftfielder Henry Rodriguez, who arrived in a trade with the Expos. Leftfield has been a black hole on the North Side; it's been 11 years since a player held the job on two consecutive Opening Days. But Rodriguez, who hit 36 home runs in 1996 and 26 last year, may finally bring some stability and production to the position.

The Cubs desperately need that offense. Last year they were 12th in the league in runs scored, and too much of the burden fell on rightfielder Sammy Sosa. "In the past, once you got by Sammy in our lineup, there really wasn't a situation where one swing of the bat was going to get us back in a game," says Riggleman. "Henry brings us the lefthanded power hitter we needed."

The other newcomers include a pair of free-agent signees—32-year-old shortstop Jeff Blauser, who is coming off a career year, and 29-year-old closer Rod Beck, who had 105 saves over the past three seasons—plus second baseman Mickey Morandini, 31, who came in a trade from the Phillies. After suffering with a bad team in Philadelphia, Morandini (.295 at the plate, only six errors in 610 chances in the field) is excited by his spot on the newly revamped Cubs roster. "The key is, we all feel that we have a chance to win this division," he says. "We stack up position-by-position with anyone in the Central."

Chicago's acquisitions have bumped its payroll to $48 million, up 14% from last year. And the Tribune Co. has made it clear that there will be plenty of cash available for another acquisition during the season—if the Cubs stay in the race.

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