Pie could start Opening Day in center

Pie could start Opening Day in center field

CHICAGO -- Felix Pie may not be leading the Winter League in batting, but he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do, and could be the starting center fielder for the big-league team on Opening Day.

In 38 games with Licey in the Dominican Republic, Pie was batting .216 (27-for-125) with four doubles, one home run, 16 RBIs, seven walks and five stolen bases. He's also struck out 25 times.

The numbers aren't dazzling, and Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita called Von Joshua, one of the Cubs Minor League hitting coaches who is on Licey's staff, on Thursday to find out what was up.

"His defense has been great," Fleita said about Pie. "Other than that, he might be going through one of the tougher things he's gone through, hitting-wise. When you hit ninth in the lineup and play down there at that level, by the time you face the starter, you're probably facing a left-hander. Any time from the fifth inning on, they play matchups."

Pie, 21, is a left-handed hitter, and Joshua told Fleita that the outfielder is seeing more lefties than ever before. And they're throwing hard. Pie is batting low in the order by design, Fleita said.

"We want him to do one thing and that's play defense," Fleita said.

The Cubs have a vacancy in center field following the departure of Juan Pierre, and Pie could fill that job with a good spring. When asked about the hot prospect, new Cubs manager Lou Piniella said he'd heard that the team's brass was divided on whether Pie was ready. Piniella will find out in February when he sees the slender outfielder firsthand.

In 2006, Pie batted .283 in 141 games for Triple-A Iowa, with 15 homers, 33 doubles, eight triples and 57 RBIs. He finished second in the Pacific Coast League in hits with 158. Other highlights: Pie drove in five runs on April 10 against Nashville; he hit two homers May 11 against Colorado Springs; and hit safely in 13 of 15 games from Aug. 12-26, batting .359.

Last season was Pie's first full campaign after an ankle injury in 2005 limited him to 59 games. There have been no problems with his ankle in the Dominican this winter, Fleita said.

Former Cub Bobby Dernier has had some extended base-running tutoring sessions with Pie as well. The outfielder swiped 32 bases in 2004 for Class A Daytona.

He does strike out a lot, and Joshua is trying to get Pie to go deeper in counts. Look at Detroit center fielder Curtis Granderson -- he struck out 174 times and batted .260, and got to the World Series.

Pie (pronounced pee-AY) hasn't played much this week, and could be experiencing some fatigue with his arm, Fleita said. The outfielder has been in all but five of Licey's games this season. Only one other player, Jose Bautista, has played in more on Licey's roster.

"We've talked about maybe at the end of the month that he might not be playing any more," Fleita said. "It's hard because he belongs to that team. If you don't meet criteria for fatigue, then we can't step in and say, 'You can't play any more.'"

Licey is a good club for Pie to be with. They are the New York Yankees of the Dominican, Fleita said, and the team to beat.

"It'll be a great experience for him," Fleita said. "He's with good people. Von Joshua has been there every step of the way. [Pie] will look back at this and realize how fortunate he is to sign with the franchise."

But what about 2007? Could Pie be the Cubs' Opening Day center fielder?

"There's a lot of stuff flying around," Fleita said of the rumors regarding the lineup. "I think that's why you have Spring Training. If he earns it, God bless him. I know he can play center field."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.