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Cubs expect minor tweaks at Meetings

Cubs expect minor tweaks at Meetings

CHICAGO -- The Cubs may have lost in their bid to sign free agent Kaz Matsui, but Lou Piniella heads to Nashville, Tenn., for the Winter Meetings with a better feel for his team and says it needs just a few tweaks before Opening Day.

Piniella tried to recruit Matsui a few days ago, talking to him through the Japanese infielder's interpreter. The Cubs wanted the switch-hitter to play second base, and would then rotate versatile Mark DeRosa at other spots, as well as second. Matsui has reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with the Houston Astros.

"We have a good second baseman in DeRosa, so I'm not concerned," Piniella said Friday. "If we got Matsui, then DeRosa could've moved to one of the outfield spots, or we could've used him -- and I'm not talking about a utility role -- but we could've used him to rest some people. That was the intention when he was signed a year ago."

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Piniella and the Cubs' front office head to Nashville for the Winter Meetings in search of a left-handed hitter who can play right field, and who has the potential to hit fourth or fifth in the lineup. One player who fits that mold is Kosuke Fukudome, who could play both center and right. However, as of Friday, the outfielder's agent has yet to inform the Cubs as to whether Fukudome will play in the U.S. next year. The team had hoped to get some kind of indication this week.

If they can't sign Fukudome, then the Cubs will take a different approach and try to make a deal.

"I would think to get the left-hand bat we want, it's going to have to be a trade," Piniella said. "I don't see anybody in the free-agent market."

Piniella, in town for a promotional event before heading to Nashville on Sunday, addressed some other Cubs topics:

• The closer will be determined this spring as Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry compete for the job.

"Kerry's got the stuff," Piniella said of the right-hander, who signed a one-year, $4.2 million deal on Monday to return. "He's got the desire. He's got the attitude. Can he be durable enough? That's something we have to find out. I'm not going to ask him to do something that will set him back."

As a closer, Wood, who appears to have rebounded from shoulder problems, may be asked to pitch three days in a row. Howry pitched well at the end of the season -- he had a 1.85 ERA after the All-Star break -- but Piniella would like to see the right-hander get off to a better start.

"One of the things I like from myself and my staff being here for a year now, is we know exactly what we have to do with these players to help them a little bit in different areas," Piniella said. "I'm looking forward to a real nice season. We don't need to do nearly as many things as we did last year. Last year was a step in the right direction, and now we need to take it further."

• Piniella has been tinkering with possible lineup combinations, but one constant will be Alfonso Soriano in the leadoff spot.

"It's a question I get asked all the time," Piniella said about possibly moving Soriano down in the order. "To me, that's his best position. Can he hit elsewhere? Yes. If we add a couple speed players to the mix, it could change things. I like the idea of Alfonso leading off. What we need to do with him is keep his legs healthy so he could run. If he would've run more and stolen 47 bases, we wouldn't be talking about this."

Soriano, who also was in town to distribute gifts at a local hospital, should benefit from the new playing surface at Wrigley Field. Piniella also plans on trying to give the left fielder a day off now and then to keep his legs fresh.

"I know he doesn't want to hear that," Piniella said. "Every time I try to rest him, he's in my office."

• Felix Pie has the edge as the starting center fielder. Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry has been to the Dominican Republic at least once, if not twice, to work with the young outfielder.

"We've tried to impress on him, 'Let's get a little more compact with your swing, let's be more patient, a little more selective at home plate, let's bunt a little more, let's hit the ball to left field and stay on the ball longer, let's get your on-base percentage up,'" Piniella said. "This kid is going to be ready to take over in center field and I'm not talking about as a carrier but a good contributor."

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry was in the Dominican this week to watch Pie play for Licey.

• One thing the Cubs aren't looking for is a catcher. Geovany Soto heads into the '08 season as the Cubs' No. 1 catcher. Piniella said he liked having Henry Blanco as a backup to mentor Soto, called up Sept. 1 after a stellar season at Triple-A Iowa. Soto caught two of the National League Division Series games. The Cubs also have added some Minor League free agents, such as Koyie Hill, as backup.

• Ryan Dempster will be given a chance to start. Piniella didn't talk to the right-hander at the end of the season, but is aware Dempster would like to make the switch.

"If he wants to start, we'll give him a chance to start this spring," Piniella said of the right-hander, who was the Cubs' closer and finished with 28 saves.

The 2008 season will be Piniella's second in Chicago, and he admits the first year was a "revelation." John McDonough, who recently stepped down as team president to take over the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, had cautioned Piniella about how passionate Cubs fans are, and how different Wrigley Field is, but he had to experience it firsthand.

"I'm more acclimated," Piniella said. "I know what to expect. I really enjoyed my year here -- the city was wonderful, the ballpark is really special, and the fans. It was a good first year. Now we have to go forward."

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

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