And They're Off
The Chicago Cubs limped through the 2006 season, finishing with the worst record in the National League. An offseason overhaul, however, has the North Side abuzz about the possibilities for 2007.
The Cubs take those heightened expectations to Cincinnati, where they open the season with a three-game series against the Reds starting Monday.
After a 66-96 finish last season, the Cubs committed more than $300 million to building a contender this winter, including an eight-year, $136 million deal with outfielder Alfonso Soriano, the largest contract in franchise history and the fifth-largest in baseball history.
Oddsmakers have made Chicago -1.5 point spread favorites (MLB Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at 9un
Soriano hit 46 home runs and stole 41 stolen bases with Washington in 2006, becoming one of only four players to break 40 in both categories in a season. His presence at the top of the lineup should do wonders for a Cubs team that ranked 15th out of 16 NL teams in runs scored.
What should also help is the return of 2005 NL batting champion Derrek Lee. The first baseman played in only 50 games last year, missing most of the season with a broken right wrist. Having a healthy Lee, who hit .335 with 46 homers and 107 RBIs in 2005, in a lineup with Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez has the potential to make the Cubs one of the most explosive offensive teams in baseball.
Chicago added more free agents in left-hander Ted Lilly, second baseman Mark DeRosa, right-hander Jason Marquis and outfielder Cliff Floyd, while agreeing to deals with holdovers Ramirez (five years, $75 million) and ace Carlos Zambrano (one year, $12.4 million).
Perhaps their biggest move, however, was the signing of Lou Piniella, a manager with 19 years of experience, two manager of the year awards and most importantly, a World Series ring - which he won with Cincinnati in 1990.
"Lou, he's a winner, too. He won a World Series," Soriano said. "He wants to pull everybody together to make this team a winner. That's the most important part of this team, having a manager like Lou. He's kind of like (Joe) Torre. He lets them play, the guys."
Piniella's goal is to turn around a team that has suffered through back-to-back losing seasons and three straight years without a playoff appearance.
"I could have gone other places, but this is where basically I'm happy and I ended up here," Piniella said. "All I am interested in is to get this team to play good baseball and win its share. And wherever that takes us, it takes us."
The Cubs' overhaul allows them to not have to count on contributions from 2003 star pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who led the team to within one game of the World Series that year. In the ensuing three seasons with injuries of all kinds forcing them to the sidelines, they've combined to win 30 games.
The pair has totaled 18 trips to the disabled list entering this season. Prior will start the season in the minor leagues, and Wood is headed back to the DL - but for the first time since '03, the Cubs feel they have a strong enough rotation to compete for the playoffs without having to depend on either pitcher.
"It's a club that's really built to win now,'' Piniella said. "Yes, we got the ballclub here that can certainly treat the people in Chicago to some really good baseball and a really nice pennant race in August and September.''
Cincinnati's offseason wasn't as eventful as Chicago's, but the Reds expect to build on their best season in six years.
Cincinnati went 80-82 last year, a seven-game improvement from its 2005 record, and managed to finish within 3 1/2 games of division winner St. Louis.
Much of the reason for Cincinnati's success was its unheralded pitching staff, which included one of the most effective 1-2 punches in the NL in right-handers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo.
Harang tied for the league lead with 16 wins and topped the NL in strikeouts (216) and complete games (six). Arroyo matched a career high with 14 victories and posted a 3.29 ERA, his best in a full season.
"I think our staff's probably going to surprise some people,'' said Kyle Lohse, who joined the Reds' rotation in a midseason trade with Minnesota last year.
Cincinnati is hoping that its strong rotation can help the team end an 11-year playoff drought and a six-year streak of sub-.500 seasons. The Reds have been to the postseason only once since winning the World Series in 1990.
Also crucial for the Reds this season is the health of oft-injured Ken Griffey Jr. The slugger has moved to right field from center - where he has won 10 Gold Gloves in his 18-year career - in an attempt to keep him from suffering more leg injuries.
Griffey has been on the disabled list eight times since joining his hometown Reds before the 2000 season. According to the team's official Web site, he is expected to play Monday after missing most of spring training with a broken left hand, suffered while wrestling with his children in December.
For the second straight season, Zambrano and Harang will square off in the season opener. Last year, the Cubs beat the Reds 16-7 as both aces were chased within five innings. Lee, a career .348 hitter against Harang, went 1-for-2 with two RBIs, three walks and two runs in that game.
Despite finishing 14 games ahead of Chicago in the NL Central standings, the Reds went 9-10 against the Cubs last year. The teams split 10 games in Cincinnati.
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