01/31/2003 12:19 pm ET
Cubs Spring Training preview
Baker looking to change attitudes of players, fans
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
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CHICAGO -- Dusty Baker is a jazz aficionado, but the theme song for this year's Chicago Cubs Spring Training camp is something more perky than cool: Oscar Hammerstein's "Getting to Know You."
Baker heads into Mesa, Ariz., knowing the names on the roster but unsure about what the Cubs players can do.
He inherits a potentially terrific starting rotation in Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. He will have two players who tied for underachiever award in 2002 -- Moises Alou and Antonio Alfonseca -- both of whom have made efforts this off-season to avoid a repeat performance.
There will be plenty of new faces -- including Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres, Mark Guthrie, Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Troy O'Leary, Damian Miller, Paul Bako and Ramon Martinez -- but the projected regular lineup is basically the same as it was last year. That doesn't bode well.
Chicago ranked next to last in the National League with a .246 team average. Baker and new hitting coach Gary Matthews -- a.k.a. Sarge to fans of the 1984 Cubs -- need to get the offense in gear.
"There are a lot of areas that we have to fix -- not fix, improve," Baker said. "I like to say 'improve.' "
OK, we'll try to improve. The Cubs lost 90 games for the fourth time in six years in 2002, finishing 67-95. There's room for improvement.
As of mid-January, the new manager admitted he had not started scribbling lineups. Everyone assumes Sammy Sosa will bat third -- or will he? Baker shifted Barry Bonds from third to fourth last season with the San Francisco Giants.
"No. 1, I'd have to talk to Sammy. You don't just drop a guy," Baker said.
Who leads off leads to several choices. Hyperactive Bobby Hill or Corey Patterson are candidates, but Patterson's .284 on-base percentage needs to improve (there's that word again). The 23-year-old may be better suited to sixth or seventh.
Who bats second? Baker said he wants that vacancy filled by the most unselfish player on the team -- remember Ryne Sandberg? -- but that guy has yet to be determined.
Then there's Sosa, who is one swing away from joining the 500-homer club. The solid superstar, who paced the National League with 49 home runs, now has clubbed 292 dingers over the last five seasons, batting .306 in that stretch with a .649 slugging percentage.
Sosa has the second highest home run total in Cubs history (470) behind Ernie Banks' 512, a mark the right fielder should reach in 2003. Forty-two homers is almost a given for Sosa, the first player in big league history to hit 60 in three seasons.
He could use some help. The Cubs have quietly monitored Alou's off-season progress, eager to have the left fielder report in better shape than he did in 2002. The team knows Alou doesn't want to embarrass himself again after batting .275 with 15 homers in 2002.
Hee Seop Choi's status also is a huge question mark. The young Korean has power, hitting 26 homers at Triple-A Iowa last season, but needs to show he can handle Major League pitching if he wants to be the regular first baseman. The Cubs feel it's time.
Matthews' other projects include shortstop Alex Gonzalez and third baseman Mark Bellhorn, who both topped 100 strikeouts. So did Patterson. So did Sosa.
"We're not crazy. We see the strikeouts," Baker said.
Opponents did, too. The Cubs pitchers led the Majors in strikeouts with Wood, 25, and Clement, 28, ranking 3-4 in the National League. Both totaled 200 plus whiffs. Clement had a 3.60 ERA in 32 starts; Wood 3.66 in 33. Both totaled 200-plus innings. But both also finished 12-11.
Prior, 22, the Cubs' 2001 No. 1 draft pick, made the jump from Double-A to the big leagues in less than eight weeks -- and made it look easy. Zambrano, 21, was 2-2 with a 1.93 ERA in five starts in the final month and needs to work on his control.
Battling for the fifth spot are left-hander Shawn Estes, who scuffled with the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds to a 5-12 record, and Juan Cruz, who has much better stuff than his 3-11 record would indicate.
The bullpen has been revamped with the addition of veterans Remlinger, Veres and Guthrie. Alfonseca, who was successful on just 19-of-28 save attempts, has lost 30 pounds and will be more than a year removed from back surgery. Joe Borowski (2.73 ERA in 73 games) hopes for a repeat performance; Kyle Farnsworth (7.33 ERA in 45 games) had better revamp.
Baker will have six weeks to find the right mix.
"This is one of the biggest challenges of my life," he said.
Cue the music.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.