Piniella more at ease in second year
Cubs manager expects big things after NL Central title
MESA, Ariz. -- In Lou Piniella's first season as the Cubs manager in 2007, he guided the team to the National League Central title, a complete turnaround from a last place finish in '06. Piniella seems more at ease this spring and says he's mellowed. We'll see. He sat down with MLB.com to look ahead to the '08 season.
MLB.com: How has your experience with Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle helped you in dealing with Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome?
Piniella: The biggest thing is that Ichiro came over with a lot of fanfare. He was such a good hitter in Japan that we were pretty sure he could play here and do well. I've seen Ichiro do it and [Hideki] Matsui do it with the Yankees, and we're totally confident this young man will come in here and do well. [Fukudome] took No. 1 [for his uniform]. He's just a confident kid.
MLB.com: It's not only Fukudome, but also the Japanese media that you now have to deal with.
Piniella: With the media, I know what to expect. We don't have nearly the amount of media that we had with Ichiro. They were more inquisitive. They wanted to know about every at-bat, every swing, every play. So far here, they ask more generalized questions.
MLB.com: Last season, you played the young players who were called up. Was there something that happened to you as a player or manager that encouraged you to do that, or was it simply relying on the staff's recommendations?
Piniella: I've always enjoyed playing young kids. If you talk to different people, they'll tell you, "This guy is tough on young kids." I'm not tough on young kids. But they have to be ready to play. Now, if they're not intimidated by the situation, I like the enthusiasm they bring, I like the work habits they bring, the fact they want to work better and learn. Remember, I came over from Tampa Bay and all I had were young kids for three years. It gave me more patience, which I think is good. You need a lot of patience with young kids. You have to live with their mistakes. I would ask our general manager and our assistant general manager, "Look, we need a pitcher, we need this," and they make the decisions to bring them up.
MLB.com: They make the decisions, but you didn't hesitate to play them.
Piniella: We play them. Why bring somebody up and not utilize them and let them sit for a week or 10 days and then say, "Hey, we need them now," and they're not ready to play. We find out right away and get their feet wet and find out what they can do or can't do. [Mike] Fontenot was a good example. He cooled off, but he served his purpose real well. The young pitchers like [Carlos] Marmol, they all performed. This year, we'll go with some more young kids. We're talking about being young behind home plate, young in center field. [Ryan] Theriot is young at shortstop -- we'll have a pretty young team up the middle.
MLB.com: You've been asked often about Alfonso Soriano's status as leadoff hitter. Are you considering moving him from that spot in the lineup?
Piniella: We're going to do what's best for us and for Sori. I like him in the leadoff spot. I think that's where he belongs, I think that's where he feels the most comfortable. Now, if we were to acquire [a player], then you have to start looking at this thing a little differently.
MLB.com: Last year, you talked about the need to develop a Cubby swagger. Do you sense that now?
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Piniella: We have it. There's swagger here, there really is. Swagger is confidence. That's all it is. It's a confidence that we're good and we intend on playing good, that's all it is. There's swagger in this camp. They have to back it up on the field, but these kids feel good about themselves and they feel good about what they did last year.
When we got beat last year [in the National League Division Series], I told these kids immediately afterword, "Don't be embarrassed by getting swept here [by Arizona]. Feel good about your accomplishment. We went from last to first, we won a division. There's nothing to be ashamed of here. Go home, and relax, enjoy your winter and your families and come back ready to play because we're going to use that as a stepping stone." That's exactly what I see.
MLB.com: You seem more relaxed in camp this year.
Piniella: I know the talent here, I'm having more fun, I know the guys. I like to kid around with the players a lot and they didn't know, at times, how to take me, probably, but now they do. My job, basically, is to keep these kids loose and play and that's it. The coaches have done everything [this spring]. What a marvelous job they've done here with this camp. The early work, the four fields, the rotations we have, the instruction. [Thursday] was the first day I spent any time at all with Spring Training, and that was looking at our pitching over the first four, five games.
MLB.com: Every manager who comes here thinks he's going to be the one to take the Cubs to the World Series. You've heard a lot already about the 100 years since they last won a world championship.
Piniella: I don't look at it that way. I look at it that I've got a good team here this year. I think it's a team that can win this division, and give ourselves a chance at the postseason. Nothing more, nothing else -- that's it. What I'm looking for is a team that can win 90-plus games, an improvement from 85. That's it. I'm not putting any pressure on myself, and I certainly don't want the players to put any pressure on themselves. What's happened here in the past has happened. Let this team stand on its own merit.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.