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New faces try to end old problems
The expanded bleachers aren't the only thing new at Wrigley Field this year. The Cubs will start the season with eight new players on the roster, ranging from vital cogs such as Juan Pierre to little-known reserves such as Angel Pagan.
Whether they will be the same old Cubs at the end of the year remains to be seen, but general manager Jim Hendry is betting his new acquisitions and call-ups will improve the defense, the bullpen and the baserunning--three glaring sore spots in 2005. Here's a look at the new Cubs, how they fared in Arizona this spring and what the club expects from them in 2006:
The key to the Cubs' revamped lineup as the new leadoff hitter, Pierre struggled in Cactus League play, hitting .212 with only three walks in 22 games. Teams were prepared for Pierre's bunts and he seldom reached on any of his attempts to bunt for a hit. The Cubs need Pierre to revert to his 2004 form, when he batted .326 for Florida and led the National League with 221 hits. Fifty or more steals also would be a bonus, along with 20 or more doubles and 10 or more triples.
Perhaps the team's most controversial off-season signing, simply because he was given a three-year deal, Jones had a strong spring average-wise but lacked power. He hit .333 in 21 games in Arizona but didn't hit a home run until Thursday and finished with only four RBIs. The Cubs will be more than satisfied if Jones can hit above .300, as he did in 2002 and '03 in Minnesota, with 20 or more homers and 75-plus RBIs. The last two seasons he has hit .254 and .249, respectively, averaging 23 home runs and 76 RBIs.
The Cubs targeted Howry at the end of '05 and reeled him in early with a three-year deal. He started out well in spring training, hit the wall in the middle and ended up strong, finishing with a 2.77 earned-run average with eight strikeouts and only two walks in 12 innings. The Cubs can live with an ERA below 3.00 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 3-to-1. Unlike ex-Cubs reliever LaTroy Hawkins, Howry has the ability to shake off a bad outing.
He was nearly untouchable in the Cactus League, throwing 11 scoreless innings, allowing only five hits and striking out 11 with only one walk. The Cubs haven't had a dependable left-handed setup man in years, and the Mike Remlinger era still stings. If Eyre can keep his arm from falling off after a league-leading 86 appearances last year, he could be their most important acquisition.
The 23-year-old left-hander was spotless in Arizona, throwing 101/3 scoreless innings to grab the No. 4 starter's spot in the final week of exhibitions. He made his second start Friday in Las Vegas, allowing six runs on seven hits in 42/3 inningsincluding three home runs and three doubles. The Cubs may have put undue pressure on Marshall by throwing him into the fire with only 10 starts at the Double-A level, but at least they are willing to gamble on an unknown with great potential rather than stick with inconsistent right-hander Jerome Williams. If Marshall can help get them through the first two months while Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Wade Miller mend, the Cubs will be ecstatic.
Slowed early on by back pains, Mabry rebounded to hit .361 in 36 at-bats heading into the weekend. The Cubs lacked a decent left-handed bat off the bench last year, and Mabry is capable of playing either corner outfield position as well as first or third base.
The Cubs acquired the A's utilityman Friday and can play him at any outfield position, as well as short, second and third. Bynum will be an asset off the bench because he can pinch-run and is a left-handed hitter, two qualities lacking on last year's bench.
The switch-hitting outfielder started hitting the first week of camp and never stopped. He wound up with a .410 average in Arizona, tied Aramis Ramirez for the team lead with five home runs and tied Jerry Hairston for the most stolen bases with four. How this will translate into the season is the big question, since Pagan's eight home runs at Triple-A Norfolk last year marked a career high and his career average in six minor-league seasons is .282. The Cubs can't expect Pagan to be an overnight sensation, but the New York Mets' castoff should be a vast improvement over last year's reserve outfieldersJason Dubois, Jose Macias and Ben Grieve.