Monday, April 02, 2007

Hope Springs Eternal: A Blog About Opening Day

As a child I always thought it was a bit ironic that baseball's Opening Day fell on (or around) April Fool's Day. It makes sense as a Cubs fan, who believes that every year is the year--and for the last 98 years we have been fooled that this year would be different. As we head into the 99th year of this being "the year," Cub fans find themselves in a familiar predicament--thinking that this year is the year.

But this year could be different. I know it's said every year, but Cub fans have reason to be optimistic. This off-season, they spend a boatload of money on free-agents, upwards of $300 million. They re-signed their own guys: 3B Aramis Ramirez, C Henry Blanco and P's Kerry Wood and Wade Miller to start the off-season. Next, they made the biggest splash of them all by signing the best offensive player on the market, Alfonso Soriano who is coming off of a 40 HR 40 SB year as a LF for the Washington Nationals. Soriano will play CF for the Cubs.

Along the way, the Cubs made several other moves to improve a team that finished with the worst record in the National League. They signed SP's Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to improve depth in their starting rotation. They acquired White Sox lefty reliever Neal Cotts for David Aardsma, Cotts will most likely be a swingman (a guy who can start and pitch out of the bullpen.) They signed Mark DeRosa to be their everyday 2B. DeRosa brings versatility by being able to play several infield positions as well as the corner outfield spots. As the off-season came to an end, the Cubs added two left-handed bats in Daryle Ward and Cliff Floyd. Floyd, a Chicago native and favorite of Cubs GM Jim Hendry, will be battling starting LF Matt Murton for playing time.

They brought in manager Lou Piniella to replace Dusty Baker, who followed up two winning seasons with two sub-.500 seasons and failed to get the Cubs to the promised land. The job is now Piniella's, whose fiery attitude and track record with the Yankees, Reds and Mariners is something Cub fans have wanted out of their manager for years. Forget about his years with the Devil Rays, it'd take a miracle and a half to cure what ails them. Piniella also brings a changing of the guard on the coaching staff, full of new members except pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who served the same position in 1990 under Piniella when he managed the Reds.

So what's going to make this year different. It all starts at the top with new Cubs President John McDonough. The former marketing genius has set lofty goals for this ballclub and ok'd the budget increase that brought in the aforementioned newcomers. Piniella brings new blood and a clean slate, in addition to "Cubbie Swagger"....whatever that means.

New blood means turnover. Turnover can be good. Think about it, the only guys left from the 2003 NL Central Champion team are Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Wood is slated to start the year on the DL (again), while Prior starts the year in Triple-A Iowa attempting to find what he lost on October 14 2003. It's time for a new tradition at Wrigley.

As for the guys who are on the field, the Cubs have vastly improved one of the worst offenses in baseball last year. As much as Soriano will help at the top of the order, a healthy Derrek Lee is the stabilizing force in the middle of the Cubs line-up. Michael Barrett is one of the best hitting catchers in the game today, he's in a contract year---which usually means career years out of players looking for long term contacts. Barrett has stated that he wants to be a Cub for a long time.

The pitching staff is improved only because of the added depth. Big Z anchors the staff, making his third consecutive Opening Day start. Rich Hill is coming off of a monster second half where he posted a 2.93 ERA and piled on a whole bunch of strikeouts. Hill is a player that Cub fans and baseball pundits believe will have a big year.

The bullpen is relatively strong and if everything goes well they could be one of the best bullpens in the NL. The 'pen is anchored by set-up men Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre, who were two of the Cubs best relievers last year. Cotts and Angel Guzman will serve as long relievers, while Michael Wuertz and Will Ohman are middle relievers. Ohman is more of a left handed specialist who racks up more than a K/IP. Ryan Dempster returns as closer with a new slate under Piniella. If he struggles, Wuertz or Howry could be in line to take his job. Maybe even Wood if he ever finds his way off the DL.

In the end, the NL Central isn't that strong. 83-games won that division last year, and the team who did that eventually won the World Series. Some baseball people think that number could do the trick again. The Cubs will have some stiff competition from the Cardinals and Astros, not to mention the Brewers who are the sleeper team of countless baseball "experts." Unlike the others though, the Cubs have the money lying around to add on to the payroll when (or if) necessary.

I have faith in this team. Yes, I say it every year, but this year I mean it. I meant it in 2003 and look where they took me. I meant in in 2004--another winning record but it just wasn't good enough. The talent is there, the support is there. The faith of Cubdom is there.

This is the year that Cubdom strikes back.

Today's Starting Lineups
Cubs Reds
Soriano, cfFreel, cf
Murton, lfDunn, lf
Lee, 1bPhillips, 2b
Ramirez, 3bGriffey, rf
Jones, rfEncarnacion, 3b
Barrett, cHatteberg, 1b
DeRosa, 2bGonzalez, ss
Izturis, ssRoss, c
Zambrano, pHarang, p

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