Piniella believes patience will pay off
Skipper foresees offseason moves coming to improve club
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Lou Piniella may have to wait until Christmas to see what type of team he will have in Spring Training.
"Our club right now is incomplete," Piniella said Wednesday at the Winter Meetings. "We have to fill in a few of the blanks, and we will."
As Piniella talked, the Cubs were still without that left-handed hitting outfielder they need, and waiting for word as to whether Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome was going to play in the Major Leagues.
The Cubs also have approached other teams about possible trades, but those teams have other priorities to address. If anyone can find the right pieces, Piniella said, it's general manager Jim Hendry.
"[Hendry] promised me that by Christmas I'll be very happy," Piniella said. "Things take time to materialize. We have a fairly good game plan. At the same time, things we would be interested in doing now, other teams want us to wait. I like our game plan -- just have some patience and it will come to fruition."
The Cubs head into the 2008 season as the defending National League Central champs, and Piniella expects a tough fight. Chicago could definitely help itself by getting off to a good start. The Cubs were 10-14 in April, and dropped to 8 1/2 games back on June 23. It was an uphill climb.
"Last year, we had to step on the pedal full-bore for a long, long time," Piniella said. "The Yankees were another team that had to do the same thing. Both teams exited very quickly in the postseason.
"I like our chances in the division, I like our talent level," he said. "I know some of the things we want to do, and if we can just do three-quarters of them, I'd be really, really pleased. I look forward to my second year in Chicago and the challenge."
The players the Cubs have been targeting are not going to be called upon to hit three-run homers every at-bat. Hendry is looking for players who can improve the team's on-base percentage, manufacture runs and are more athletic. Fukudome fits into the Cubs' scheme. Piniella has had success with Japanese players, including Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle.
"The Japanese players are very disciplined, they have talent, and they enjoy playing baseball," Piniella said. "They have a really good work ethic and they compete very well. I've enjoyed having them."
Piniella spoke Spanish with Ichiro. Did he pick up a few Japanese phrases?
"I pick up a little sake every once in a while," he said, laughing.
Piniella addressed some other topics:
Rich Hill was 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues, and Piniella said he sees a young pitcher with plenty of upside.
"He needs to learn to pitch a little better with men in scoring position where he doesn't lose concentration from the hitter, and still be able to hold runners better than he has," Piniella said of the left-hander. "At the same time, I see a kid who fights himself trying to strive for perfection. It's not a perfect game. Those are the two areas I think he needs to improve on the most. Young starting pitchers, it takes longer for them to develop and for everything to come together. I like Rich a lot."
The Cubs did win the Central without several players having career years. For example, Derrek Lee's power numbers were off, and Aramis Ramirez battled physical problems. Alfonso Soriano did hit 31 home runs, but the Cubs would like to see more speed in the leadoff spot. Carlos Zambrano did win a career-high 18 games, but the right-hander also lost 13.
"They all played well -- I think they're capable of doing more than they did," Piniella said.
The Cubs head into Spring Training with eight potential starters, including Zambrano, Hill, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Sean Marshall, Kevin Hart, Sean Gallagher and Ryan Dempster. The Cubs aren't looking for another starter, Piniella said.
"You can always use pitching, there's no question," he said. "I think the immediate needs, though, we need a good bat. We could use a little speed in the lineup, too. Once we do those things, I'm not sure we'll be in the market for pitching. I think the pitching we have is certainly good enough."
Whether Dempster can make the switch to the rotation will be determined this spring.
"I talked to Dempster a couple times and even toward the end of the year, he wanted to give this a go," Piniella said.
Ryan Theriot is the starting shortstop.
"He earned it," Piniella said of the young infielder, who won the job in 2007. "He played really well. I'm not sure if he'll hit second or eighth in the lineup."
The projected backup, who can take the place of the short-tenured Cub Omar Infante, is Ronny Cedeno.
The Cubs should know by the end of Spring Training whether Kerry Wood can handle the closer duties.
The biggest test for the right-hander will be his durability.
"I think he can get better," Piniella said of Wood, who converted to a full-time reliever last season. "He should be stronger. At the end of the year, he really felt good, and strong, and his arm was well."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.