With power turned down, Cubs must play a little small ball

Published April 3, 2005

No more Sammy Sosa, no more Moises Alou. The Cubs, with one of the majors' most hitter-friendly ballparks, may be reduced to playing small ball.

Chicago hit a National League-best 235 home runs last season, and smashed the 1998 team record of 212. Alou and Sosa combined for 74 of those dingers, which means the Cubs are going to have to find ways to, as manager Dusty Baker said, "create runs" rather than harvest them in bunches.

That is even more imperative with the question marks that surround the pitching staff. Starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, dealing with rotator cuff and elbow problems, respectively, are not expected to pitch in the opening series with the Diamondbacks, though they are expected to pitch in April.

Of producing runs without the long ball, Baker told reporters at the team's training site in Surprise, Ariz., "We have the personnel to do that. We will miss the sock that we lost, definitely. We're in a better position to create runs. There are going to be times when we need runs to blow out a game or get back into games. As far as one-run decisions go, last year was the worst I've had since I've been managing."

A case can be made that Chicago, 19-30 in one-run games last season and 0-5 in the season-ending 2-7 skid that knocked it out of the playoffs, relied too much on home runs. Third-base coach Chris Speier, a proponent of manufacturing runs, said that mind-set has swept baseball.

"It seem like there has been a tendency over the last five to 10 years where the little game has kind of gone by the wayside," he told the Chicago Tribune. "There are a few teams that do it, but you have to do what your personnel dictates. This team needs to look at the fact that with those losses (Sosa and Alou), we need to implement some different things.

"My job is to make sure our players are conscious about situations and to get them to start anticipating possible hit-and-runs, possible steals, possible bunt scenarios, possible squeezes. You try to put players in situations to be as productive as possible."

Much of that begins with the leadoff hitter, where the Cubs could use a boost.

Corey Patterson hit 24 home runs last season but struck out an unacceptable 168 times, walked just 45 times and had a .320 on-base percentage. The outfielder knows he must be better if the Cubs are to pick away at teams instead of trying to grind them up.

"I run pretty well, and if I'm not really hitting the ball well that particular day, you can lay down a bunt," Patterson told the Tribune. "It brings the infield in, so maybe you can chop one past them or hit it past them. When you get into scoring position, that helps guys drive in runs."

The Cubs likely will need them, with Prior and Wood as uncertainties and reliever Joe Borowski out at least another four weeks with a broken arm.

Carlos Zambrano likely will pitch opening day. Ryan Dempster, Glendon Rusch and Sergio Mitre could fill out the rest of the rotation, depending on the progress of Prior and Wood. Wood is expected to be ready for the season's second series with the Brewers.

The more pressing question: Are the Cubs ready for life without Sosa and Alou?

"The home runs sometimes wash away those errors on the bases," Speier said. "If you're a club that doesn't have that home-run ability, mistakes on the bases become very glaring."

And very costly.