Cubs spring training preview: Outfield

A major question mark remains unanswered for the Chicago Cubs going into spring training: Which outfielders will stand up and contribute to the Cubs’ pursuit of better run production in 2011.

Center fielder Marlon Byrd, the team’s lone All-Star in 2010, had four outstanding months for the Cubs before injuries and wear and tear brought his season average and defensive range way down in August and September. Byrd scored a team high 84 runs. He was the only Cubs to touch the plate more than 67 times in 2010. A little help from his friends might make Byrd a more productive player this season.

Left fielder Alfonso Soriano led the outfield with 24 homers and 79 RBIs in 2010. Unfortunately, Soriano, like Byrd, crashed and burned in the season’s final months. He hit just six homers and drove in 24 runs combined in August and September. The good news for Soriano is that his 147 games played were the most appearances he has made in his four years with the team. How often the 35-year-old sits will be manager Mike Quade’s decision.

Quade will have a tough decision when picking his everyday right fielder. Tyler Colvin, coming off a 20-homer rookie campaign, would be the logical choice to get most of the playing time. However, there’s the case of veteran Kosuke Fukudome, who is entering the final year of his four-year, $48-million contract. He may be Quade’s choice to lead off against right-handed pitching. During the 2010 season, Fukudome hit .344 in April and a blistering .365 in September. The outfielder’s .371 on-base percentage is something Quade will consider when writing out his lineup. Here’s something else Quade has to look at: Fukudome’s a .335 lifetime hitter in April and a .198 hitter in September. The team must get RBIs and run scoring ability from the outfield this year.

The fifth spot will be decided between veteran Reed Johnson and speedy Fernando Perez, who was acquired from Tampa in the Matt Garza deal. Johnson brings experience and the ability to play all three outfield positions. He’s also considered a top-flight clubhouse presence. Perez is a solid outfielder with a good arm. He could give the Cubs a much-needed boost in the team speed department. The North Siders stole only 55 bases last season, tied with San Francisco for the fewest in baseball.

One minor leaguer to watch is center fielder Bret Jackson. The lefty had 12 homers and 66 RBIs as well as 30 stolen bases in stops at Single- and Double-A last year. Team officials might be looking at Jackson in the 2011 season much like they did with Starlin Castro last year. The plan may be for Jackson to start at Double-A then move to Triple-A and be ready for a call to the big leagues by late spring or early summer.

Defensively, the Cubs hope for improvement from an outfield that was negligent in range and overall ability in 2010. Byrd was outstanding early in the year, but injuries took away his range late in the year. Fukudome, once considered a top right fielder, appeared to lose some arm strength last season. Colvin improved throughout the 2010 season, showing more confidence and strong arm by the end of the campaign. Colvin, who was married in the offseason, has been working out in Mesa since January, like many of his teammates. Colvin says he’s back to being 100 percent after a broken bat impaled his chest in late September. The Cubs were a woeful 10th in the National League in runs scored last year.

The outfield must step up this season if hitters like Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena are going to carry the Cubs into the playoffs.