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Cubs begin journey with pieces in place

Cubs begin journey with optimism

MESA, Ariz. -- There is little doubt that on paper the 2007 Chicago Cubs could be considered the single most improved team in Major League Baseball. Then again, when you lose 96 games, there is ample room for improvement.

As Spring Training 2007 draws to a close, regular-season reality beckons. Going in, the Cubs -- in a division without an overpowering team, but also without a truly bad team -- can fairly be considered contenders. You couldn't make that statement last spring, at least without snickering.

Can they get from here to there? One of the new Cubs components this season, in addition to more power and improved pitching depth, is a more demanding manager, Lou Piniella.

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Piniella has liked what he has seen of his new club since mid-February. And that means something, because in the past, Piniella has always been willing to candidly point out whatever shortcomings his team might have had. On Sunday at HoHoKam Park, Piniella voiced satisfaction about his club's work habits this spring and optimism about its prospects for this summer.

"I feel good about our team," Piniella said. "From a health standpoint, we're about ready to go. Our starting pitchers are in the final phase, this time through the rotation, they'll all be stretched out to where they're ready to go six innings or so at the start of the season. Our bullpen, we're going through the back-to-back phase in games.

"There are not too many decisions to be made, very few actually. We're ready to go. These guys have worked hard this spring and one thing we've done OK is rest our players. We've been picking and choosing, and getting everybody playing time, trying to keep everybody as fresh as we can. It's a long season."

There are areas where questions might be asked. The outfield defense would be one. Alfonso Soriano is obviously athletic, but is new to center. Neither of the platoon left fielders, Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton, is a particularly accomplished defender. Jacque Jones in right did not have the best defensive year of his career in his first Cubs season, although it must be reported that he made a fine leaping grab at the wall on a drive hit by Garret Anderson of the Angels on Sunday.

Piniella is not among those who are concerned about the outfield defense. "I think it's shaping up fine," he said. "I've been pleased with Soriano. Jonesy has done a real nice job in right field. Murton's improved. And Cliff is coming along, he hasn't been out there all that much.

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"We're going to be fine. There's no gloom and doom out there, believe me. We'll get the job done. I think we'll make the routine, regular plays. I've been really pleased with our cutoffs and relays; we've been doing a real nice job. I don't know the outfields in the National League all that well, but our outfield will get the job done. We'll make the plays we need to make."

It is a mark of the Cubs' newfound depth that the job of making the final roster cuts, never easy for a manager, will be even harder this spring. Piniella says that these Cubs have more than enough qualified players, so he will be forced to cut players who deserve a spot on a Major League roster.

"Probably the hardest thing for me personally will be the cuts that are coming here in the next few days," Piniella says. "I don't enjoy those, but it's part of my job.

"It's not easy. We're going to have to cut our roster, and truthfully, some of these cuts that we have to make, players have done more than enough to be here. It's easier sending a player out when they really haven't had a particularly good spring and so forth. But boy, these kids here have done a pretty nice job, and everybody's worked hard. It's not going to be easy for me. I was thinking about it last night, and I didn't like the prospect.

"One thing about our situation here is that everybody has gotten an opportunity to play and to pitch. These kids come here and they work hard to make this Major League team, and it's a disappointment. I've been on the other side of it, too, as a player, so I can understand. And it hurts. But what are you going to do? You do what you have to do.

"There's no question that the harder it is for a Major League team to cut down, from a depth standpoint you're further along. But it doesn't make it any easier on the individual player."

What issues are yet to be resolved before the Cubs depart the Valley of the Sun for the more trying climes of the National League Central? The Cubs have not publicly named a fifth starter, but to all appearances Wade Miller has pitched too well to be denied that spot. That would mean no room in the rotation, at least initially, for Mark Prior. It will be interesting to see how the Cubs handle this one. But the very fact that the Cubs enter the season with alternatives to Prior represents progress in itself.

Apart from the usual lofty aspirations and rosy optimism of Spring Training, there seems to be a solid, realistic tone being set here. Left-hander Ted Lilly worked six shutout innings against the Angels on Sunday. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him, in his postgame comments, to simply take credit and walk away. Instead, he focused on what he perceived to be the shortcomings in his performance and helpfully noted that Mark DeRosa had taken two doubles away from the Angels with superb, diving stops.

This is the kind of thing that you like to see; players focusing not on what they have accomplished but on what they need to accomplish in order to improve. The Cubs of recent seasons have had their share of drawbacks in the intangible, as well as tangible, categories. It is one thing to improve the hitting and pitching, but it is another to find a more useful mindset. Maybe that is happening here, as well.

It's a long way from March in Mesa to the finish line in Cincinnati on the last day of September. But the 2007 Chicago Cubs start on this long journey with reasons for optimism that seem legitimate enough.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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