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COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY: Chicago Cubs

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Meet the Cubs
Projected lineup:
2b Delino DeShields
3B Bill Mueller
RF Sammy Sosa
1B Fred McGriff
LF Moises Alou
C Todd Hundley
SS Alex Gonzalez
CF Corey Patterson
Projected rotation:
1. Jon Lieber, RHP (expected to return in May)
2. Kerry Wood, RHP
3. Jason Bere, RHP
4. Juan Cruz, RHP
5. Julian Tavarez, RHP
Bullpen:
LH: Jeff Fassero, Jesus Sanchez
RH: Julian Tavarez, Scott Chiasson
Closer: Kyle Farnsworth

2002 Chicago Cubs

Last Year's Record: 88-74, 3rd place in NL Central (5 games back) Last Year's Headline: SOSA ... AND THEN SO-SO The Cubs remained in the playoff hunt well past their usual June swoon, threatening the Astros and Cardinals for a Wild Card spot before finally dropping from contention in mid-August. The reason? Everybody's MVP candidate, of course ... RF Sammy Sosa. Once again, Sosa led the team in nearly every category, even raising his game thanks to a transformation into a more consistent and discerning hitter rather than just another whiz-bang slugger. That's not to say Sammy didn't put a few balls onto Waveland Ave. — he hit 64 home runs to go along with his .328 batting average, 146 runs and a major league-high 160 RBI. More importantly, he recovered from a melancholy second half of the 2000 season, when his name was floated in trade rumors to the Yankees, and strongly re-established himself as the identity of the Chicago Cubs. The rest of the team, however, wasn't so hot. A trade-deadline deal (on the second attempt) for Fred McGriff designed to propel the Cubs into the postseason didn't quite work out that way as McGriff's numbers dipped from the first half. The team struggled to find other players to knock in runs — SS Ricky Gutierrez was their No. 2 RBI man. Catcher Todd Hundley's homecoming was anything but sweet as he turned in his worst campaign ever. Only the top half of the rotation, anchored by 20-game winner Jon Lieber and supported by a resurgent Kerry Wood, was a bright spot. This Year's Question: Just how scary will the Sosa-McGriff-Alou trio be? Taking note of the Cubs' lack of punch in the lineup, GM Andy MacPhail went out and put together a blockbuster free agent signing in former Astros OF Moises Alou. Together with a reliable Sosa and a McGriff who should finally be settling into a Wrigley groove, the 35-year-old Alou will help comprise the most formidable heart of any order in baseball. Some may claim Alou is over the hill, but check his numbers — he hit .331 with 27 HRs and 198 RBI. Aside from Cub pitchers, of course, who will be most grateful for the new 3-4-5 combo? The aforementioned Hundley, who in hitting in the No. 6 spot will have all the pressure to create runs lifted off his shoulders. Why This Team Could Be a Contender: Smart moves. With an owner in the Tribune Co. infamous for its unwillingness to spend or even improve the ball club (the old "why-should-we-since-we-sell-out-Wrigley-every-summer-anyway mentality?"), the past season-and-a-half should come as a wonderful surprise for Cubs faithful. The team did what it needed to do to keep pace with a tough Houston club and rapidly improving St. Louis. Things like: Trading for McGriff, and then re-signing him to an expensive one-year option ... Signing a premiere free agent in Alou ... Finding a diamond in the rough like a Bill Mueller or even Delino DeShields, discarded by so many other teams and then reshaped into a capable starting 2B ... Admitting mistakes by cutting losses in disappointments such as Eric Young and Matt Stairs ... Dealing for an rising star in SS Alex Gonzalez (and getting him in exchange for pricey, dead weight Felix Heredia, no less). Why This Team Could Be Contracted: Just forget the Red Sox and their damn 1918. And don't even give us your not-since-1948 sob stories, Tribe fans. We're talking 1908. That's right — the anniversary of the last Cubs World Championship gets another year closer to the century mark this season. And we're also talking not having participated in a World Series since 1945. Hey, at least crosstown rival White Sox had one in '59. Note this as well: The Cubbies haven't put together back-to-back winning seasons since the Leo Durocher years — in other words, don't expect more than 81 wins in 2002. With a history like that, what's the point of even going on? Hello My Name Is ... Kyle Farnsworth. If the Cubs finally do cobble together back-to-back winning seasons, it will be due in large part to my performance out of the pen. With Tom Gordon out for perhaps the entire season, I'm planning to step into the position of Cubs closer, a often dubious role that can either bring great glory (see Bruce Sutter, Mitch Williams or Lee Smith) or serious shame (Oscar Zamora, Bob Hendley and, again, Lee Smith). It's a bold move by the team to throw a setup man who's only 3-for-9 in carreer save opportunities into the Wrigley fire rather than dealing for an established reliever or using veteran Jeff Fassero, but I know I will improve upon Gordon's ho-hum 27-save performance. And I'll do it on the back of my signature pitch, a blazing fastball that helped me rack up an eye-popping 107 strikeouts in 82 innings last season. A Moment of Silence For ... Sidewalks. Particularly the scenic walkways encircling the back of the Wrigley Field bleachers on Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. When the Cubs unveiled their plans for bleacher improvements late last year, the construction blueprints contained a controversial plan to add overhanging balcony areas where bleacher creatures could congregate and presumably spill beer onto pedestrians outside the park ... and such balconies would be supported by large, unsightly El-track-like beams that would render the sidewalks virtually unnavigable. Amid complaints from neighbors, the Cubs dramatically scaled back those plans last month and even added some welcome features, such as ivy on the exterior outfield walls. Those icky support posts, however, remain. Add It to Your Palm Pilot ... May 6-8, St. Louis Cardinals at Cubs. It's always a great rivalry, but the matchup takes on added significance any time expectations are especially high in both cities. The Cardinals, coming off an NLDS appearance and still glowing from the offseason additions of Tino Martinez and Jason Isringhausen, will bring a playoff-type intensity to Wrigley. But don't forget the White Sox' annual visit to the North Side June 14-16, when the battle for Chicago supremacy will be played out once again. Hey, these guys gotta play for something.
Tagged: Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, Athletics, Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Marlins, Rays, Jason Isringhausen, Matt Stairs, Kerry Wood, Kyle Farnsworth, Corey Patterson, Alex Gonzalez

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