Cubs now a much more balanced team

MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella took a stab at self-improvement this offseason when he picked up motivational books by Tony Dungy and John Wooden. But in the never-ending quest to improve his team, he also sought the kind of balance that can't be found through Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" or Dungy's "Quiet Strength."

It's a balance better achieved by inserting Milton Bradley directly between Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez in the batting order.

Five months after a painful loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, Piniella is brimming with ideas on how to remedy the team's 0-6 postseason record in 2007 and 2008. He's already vowing to rest his regulars more frequently as an antidote to those long, debilitating summers at Wrigley Field.

But it didn't take a trip to Barnes & Noble for Piniella to identify an even bigger problem at the corner of Clark and Addison. The Cubs, in the opinion of their manager, simply had to get more left-handed at the plate.

"Our club won 97 ballgames last year and played awfully well," Piniella said. "But when you get into the playoffs and guys can pitch, they can throw breaking balls when they're behind in the count. They can pitch to the outside part of the plate. They get comfortable. We played the Dodgers last year, and we didn't see one pitch by a lefty. Nothing. That says a lot."

The Cubs' predominantly right-handed tilt has been an issue for a while now. It fueled pursuits of Brian Roberts and the switch-hitting Chone Figgins during the past two years and persisted through the arrival and departure of Jacque Jones, Cliff Floyd, Jim Edmonds and Daryle Ward.

If you find the timing of the team's latest mini-remake perplexing, join the club. The Cubs ranked second in the majors to Texas with 855 runs scored last season. Among National League teams, Chicago ranked second behind St. Louis with a .796 OPS against right-handed pitching and trailed only Florida with 145 home runs against righties.

So why is this suddenly a priority?

Cubs' Projected Lineup For 2009

LF: Alfonso Soriano
SS: Ryan Theriot
1B: Derrek Lee
RF: Milton Bradley
3B: Aramis Ramirez
C: Geovany Soto
CF: Kosuke Fukudome/Reed Johnson
2B: Mike Fontenot/Aaron Miles

The one-word answer: October.

Piniella and the Cubs' front office are convinced the team's lack of balance had become a major impediment in the postseason, when exhaustive scouting reports and preparation tend to magnify weaknesses.

The Cubs hit .240 with one homer in 104 at-bats against the Dodgers while being swept in the Division Series. Although Lee performed well, Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto -- three of the team's main cogs -- managed only five hits in 37 at-bats against Los Angeles pitching.

More telling, Los Angeles manager Joe Torre didn't use a single left-hander in any of the three games. In fact, the Dodgers and Cubs met 10 times last season, and left-handers Clayton Kershaw, Hong-Chih Kuo, Joe Beimel and Eric Stults weren't asked to throw a pitch in 88 1/3 innings. That's 265 outs without a single southpaw sighting.

Combine that with the events of October 2007, when the Cubs hit .194 against Brandon Webb, Livan Hernandez and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series, and Piniella saw an unwelcome trend that couldn't be explained away with the "small sample size" argument.

The Chicago hitters saw it, too. Lee, the Cubs' first baseman and No. 3 hitter, watched a procession of righties take the mound with absolutely no need to make adjustments.

"We've been so right-handed that when a pitcher gets in a groove, he can pitch to one side of the plate and really not have to mix it up," Lee said. "Guys start working the outside corner and throwing that slider off the plate, and they never have to go to a different pitch to get a lefty out. I'm not a pitcher, but I would think it would be a little easier that way."

The question, obviously, was how to subtly remake the offense without adversely affecting the big picture. The challenge fell to general manager Jim Hendry, who made changes to the lineup and bench between trading for Aaron Heilman and Kevin Gregg and fending off those nagging Jake Peavy rumors.

The Cubs declined to re-sign Edmonds, even though he hit 20 homers in 250 at-bats in Chicago. Instead, they decided to shift the disappointing Kosuke Fukudome to center field, where he'll share time with Reed Johnson. And they filled their right-field void with the switch-hitting Bradley, who had a better slugging percentage (.563) than Ryan Braun, Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard last season.

For all the talk about Bradley's histrionics, the big question is whether he can stay on the field. Bradley played only 20 games in the outfield last year in Texas compared to 97 as a designated hitter. But after the Cubs sent trainer Mark O'Neal to California to spend time with Bradley during the winter, they were convinced that Bradley will be more mobile and durable now that he's 18 months removed from knee surgery.

In the most unpopular move of the winter, Hendry traded the multifaceted Mark DeRosa to Cleveland for three minor league pitchers. The move was prompted in part by a desire to shed payroll. But Hendry also knew that Lee, Soriano, Ramirez, Soto and shortstop Ryan Theriot weren't going anywhere, and he had only so many places to make the team more left-handed.

DeRosa's departure leaves second base to switch-hitter Aaron Miles, who has a .316 career average in day games (and a .224 mark in 61 at-bats at Wrigley Field), and lefty bat Mike Fontenot, who's a bundle of offense in a 5-foot-8, 160-pound package.

"I love DeRo," Hendry said. "But we also think the world of Mike Fontenot. The same people who are saying, 'Gee, why did you trade DeRosa?' were also writing that Fontenot should have had more at-bats last season."

If Hendry thinks the initial fallout was bad, the DeRosa trade will be second-guessed ad nauseam if Ramirez goes down for an extended stretch at third base. Fontenot, whose professional experience at third consists of 62 games in the minors, is the current backup at the position.

But in some ways, the Chicago bench is a more functional group today. Catcher Henry Blanco and middle infielder Ronny Cedeno, both right-handed hitters, are gone. Switch-hitter Koyie Hill and lefty bat Paul Bako are competing for the backup job behind Soto, and Miles will give Theriot periodic breathers at short.

The Cubs' fifth outfielder probably will be Joey Gathright, a lefty slap hitter whose strengths are his speed and ability to cover ground in the gaps. Piniella already is talking about playing more of a small-ball lineup when the weather conditions are hostile to offense at Wrigley.

"If the wind is blowing in, let's put speed in the lineup and try to win a ballgame 3-2," he said.

The Cubs will need more production from Fukudome, who was a borderline disaster after signing a four-year, $48 million deal in December 2007. For now, they're content to give him a mulligan.

Beyond all the usual adjustments -- from cultural changes to travel to the more demanding schedule -- Fukudome might have simply worn out as the season progressed. At the team's behest, he spent more time on core training during the winter to get stronger and add stamina.

In April and May, Fukudome let his hands do the work at the plate and used the entire field. But as time wore on, he began rushing to the ball and using too much body. And the fates seemed to conspire against him; Fukudome hit .392 on balls in play in April but .194 in September.

"This is a guy who played well for 10 years in a row and was an elite player in Japan," Hendry said. "It's hard to fathom that he would play that poorly the last two months. I know that he's a proud guy, and he's been working hard all winter."

There's nothing like wounded pride to spur a competitor to come back strong. Piniella and Hendry did some core work of their own during the winter, identifying what they considered a major flaw and taking their best shot at correcting it.

The 2009 Cubs are a more balanced team, for sure. Are they a better team? It might be seven months before we know the answer to that question.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.