Piniella: Time to set winning tone
Cubs manager calls for better play, momentum to start season
MESA, Ariz. -- Lou Piniella hates to lose, as much as anybody does, much more than most.
He doesn't like losing even here in Spring Training, in the midst of the exhibition schedule, before the pitchers have made the transition from getting their work in to getting serious, before the regulars have played anything like regularly. He understands the circumstances as well as anyone, but that doesn't help him digest the defeats.
Managing the Chicago Cubs has not historically been a ticket to avoiding the distress of defeat. But last season, Piniella, in his first year at the Cubs' helm, took them from a 66-96 record, the National League's worst in 2006, to 85-77; not a gaudy campaign but good enough to win the NL Central. Piniella's demanding approach was widely credited with getting the North Siders' clubhouse culture into reasonable shape.
Now, encore time approaches, but the Cubs lost 10 of their first 15 Cactus League games. HoHoKam Park was littered with mitigating circumstances, but still, Piniella was far from content.
"We haven't really talked about how to pitch to hitters, we haven't put people in roles, we haven't really played our lineup all that much," Piniella said on Thursday. "So Spring Training is not really all that important early. But I'll tell you this: I've been trying to say it as cautiously as I can, but we can't wait until the last week of Spring Training to turn this thing on. We've got to start playing better and winning some games and getting in the habit of winning.
"I remember when I played with New York and Mr. Steinbrenner always used to caution that. I'd laugh a little bit and say: 'Boy, he's over-reacting.' Well, it was hard getting out of the gate sometimes. You've got to get used to playing well and winning some games, and hopefully that's exactly what'll happen here."
What are the Cubs' chances of winning often enough to keep their highly competitive manager at least semi-happy? They are at least as good as anybody else in their division. They should be favored to repeat. In addition to the considerable returning talent, they made a solid acquisition in right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, yet another fundamentally sound Japanese player.
But the Cubs aspire to more now. As much as winning the NL Central represented a stunning turnaround, being swept out of the postseason's first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks represented one more case of expectations being raised only to be shattered.
For the Cubs to get from good to elite, a major overhaul is no longer required. But some tinkering might be in order. They actually appear to have more rotation candidates than rotation openings, which is an unusual, but pleasant enough situation.
"Everybody's throwing the ball real well -- it's a good problem for the Cubs," said Jason Marquis, who did not hurt his own cause with four shutout innings against the San Diego Padres on Thursday.
The Cubs have also not yet settled on a closer, which is not particularly reassuring, but they have three plausible candidates for the job, so this is another situation with more potential for interest than panic.
On the offensive side of the equation, the Cubs were in mid-tinker on Thursday against the Padres, going with a new, although not necessarily permanent lineup. Leadoff incumbent Alfonso Soriano had been dropped to the second spot, shortstop Ryan Theriot was leading off, and Fukudome was the No. 5 hitter.
The idea, Piniella said, was to protect Soriano's legs against unnecessary risk and injury. Soriano had missed time in 2007 with a strained left hamstring and a strained right quad. After stealing 41 bases in 2006, he stole 19 last year.
Beyond that, as exciting and explosive as Soriano can be, his .327 career on-base percentage is not necessarily leadoff material. On the other hand, Soriano creates an indisputable impact.
"How many home runs did he hit last year -- 33?" Piniella said. "Is that good enough for a leadoff man? I think it's good enough for any spot in the lineup, right? He had a lot of success in the leadoff spot, played on winning teams in the leadoff spot, including last year's team.
"Is he your prototype leadoff hitter? No. But depending on how your lineup is put together, I think Alfonso fits into any spot in the top five or six spots, and you've got no complaints one way or another."
As it turns out, Soriano probably isn't your standard No. 2 hitter, either. In the first inning on Thursday, Theriot did exactly what was asked of him as a leadoff hitter, singling up the middle off Greg Maddux and then stealing second. Soriano came up and grounded to third, thus unable to advance the runner in a situation that demands the runner be advanced.
But it's early. Soriano must hit somewhere. It may be that the Cubs are still discovering his optimum batting order usage. "We're going to stay with this configuration for a bit," Piniella said.
The world looked a little brighter for the manager after a 3-2 victory over the Padres, in which the Cubs had strong pitching and some solid defense, including exceptional catches by Fukudome in right and Sam Fuld in center. But there was no danger that complacency would take hold.
"We need to start swinging the bats a little better," Piniella said.
This needs to be, Piniella suggested as the Cubs' day came to a close, both a time for work and winning.
"You can say that it's only Spring Training, and it's true, it is only Spring Training," he said. "You're using this time to work on things, whether it's working on a particular pitch if you're a pitcher, or taking pitches as a hitter, or going to the opposite field, whatever you're working on, those are important elements of Spring Training.
"But at the same time, you don't want to get too flat here. You want to start building a little intensity, winning a few games to get into the habit of winning. It's not the easiest thing in the world to pick it up from ground zero. Let's try the sixth or seventh floor and pick it up from there."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.