Piniella, 63, says he's refreshed after a year off doing television work. The Cubs are his fifth, and last, team. In 19 years at the helm, he has compiled a .517 winning percentage (1,519-1,420) and won the World Series in 1990 with the Cincinnati Reds. He also has championship rings from his playing days with the New York Yankees. He brings experience, fire, and an eagerness to finish his career as a winner.
There are pools already as to when Piniella has his first base-throwing temper tantrum. Someone mentioned they had three weeks into the season as the winning ticket.
"It depends on how cold it is," Piniella said.
"I don't know him on a personal level," new Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly said of Piniella, "but he has that Vince Lombardi attitude, and he's very passionate about his team and his players and about winning. You get a chance to play for a guy like that, you're pretty privileged. It's something you'll remember for the rest of your life."
Winning hasn't been easy for the Cubs, who are coming off a 96-loss season and the worst record in the National League. That kind of performance will get you a high draft pick in June, but it won't satisfy the 3 million plus who march through the Wrigley Field turnstyles.
That's why interim team president John McDonough and general manager Jim Hendry decided to change their approach and spend more. The Cubs were still interested in quality, and targeted the best player available on the free agent market, Alfonso Soriano. All it took was a $136 million commitment.
Piniella needs more than money to fix the Cubs. The team scrambled to find starting pitchers in 2006. Sometimes it worked, like it did Aug. 16 when coaches knocked on the door of Double-A lefty Ryan O'Malley in Round Rock, Texas, early in the morning and told him, "There's a limo waiting to take you to Houston. You're starting today for the Cubs."
O'Malley responded with eight shutout innings and a win in his Major League debut.
There were far more times when the kids did not succeed, which is why Hendry made sure Piniella had a surplus of starters heading into Spring Training. Carlos Zambrano will start Opening Day and be followed in the rotation by free agent acquisitions Lilly and Jason Marquis. Lefty Rich Hill is expected to make the cut, and the rest of the rotation will be decided among Mark Prior, Wade Miller, Sean Marshall and Angel Guzman.
It's strange that the Cubs aren't counting on Prior and Kerry Wood as they have in years past. If both can pitch as they did before, it's a bonus. Wood isn't even in the mix as a starter, but will make his comeback from a partial tear in his right rotator cuff in the 'pen. Could he be a closer? It all depends on whether Kid K is healthy and durable. There's no question he has the intestinal fortitude to do the job.
The 'pen is deep, with veterans Scott Eyre and Bob Howry backing up closer Ryan Dempster. Newly acquired lefty Neal Cotts joins Will Ohman, Roberto Novoa and Michael Wuertz. One of the rookies from last season, Carlos Marmol or Juan Mateo, also could make the final cut.
Piniella will get 2005 batting champ Derrek Lee back, plus Aramis Ramirez has a new $75 million contract, Michael Barrett is an offensive threat, and Jacque Jones can provide 20-plus homers easy. Throw Soriano in the mix, and it's a pretty good lineup.
There are some issues to be addressed. The Cubs ranked 15th in the NL in runs scored, and had the fewest walks (395) and worst on-base percentage (.319). The team did rank fifth in average at .268. Guys simply weren't doing the little things to drive in runs.
"Believe me, you'll have a very sound club here in Chicago," Piniella said.
New hitting coach Gerald Perry has a lot of work to do. Perry, 46, helped the Oakland Athletics rebound from a first-half .243 team batting average last season to post a .279 average in the second half, fifth-best in baseball. He was looking forward to being reunited with Piniella.
"Lou's a proven winner and a competitor," Perry said. "We had a real good relationship in Seattle the three years I was there. We won, and we averaged 100 wins a year. He's a great manager and a great person."
He's also tough. During a Q&A session at the Cubs Convention in January, Piniella was asked about how he will hold players accountable if they don't execute, such as running hard to first.
"You'll see a ballclub that will hustle on the field," Piniella snapped.
The standing-room-only crowd in the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Chicago cheered.
"All good teams have a swagger, so we have to get that Cubs swagger going," Piniella said.
And then he gave that look.