Spring brings rebirth for Cubs hitters
Club counting on Jaramillo to get talented bats back on track
CHICAGO -- The one person who could have the biggest impact on the Cubs in 2010 never played above the Double-A level.
"I don't know if you understand the magnitude of what he can do with hitters," Marlon Byrd said of Jaramillo. "He's unbelievable."
Jaramillo leaves the Texas Rangers after 15 seasons there, the longest tenure with one team of any Major League hitting coach. His hitters have won 17 Silver Slugger Awards, three home run titles, three RBI championships and a batting title.
"He's a great teacher," said Byrd, who followed Jaramillo to the Cubs from Texas, signing a three-year deal. "He didn't play in the big leagues or have a long career in baseball, but over time, he's become a big league hitting coach, and that's a big thing, being able to teach and see the swing and teach hitters their own swings."
Byrd has benefited from the partnership. Last season, he batted .283 and set career highs in doubles (43), home runs (20), RBIs (98) and slugging percentage (.479). In four seasons with Philadelphia, Byrd batted .271 and hit 13 homers. In three years in Texas with Jaramillo, Byrd hit .295 with 40 homers.
"He can teach you how to hit big league pitching," Byrd said. "A lot of guys can't do that. There are some big league hitting coaches who understood what they did at the plate, but it's understanding every single position player and even the pitchers, trying to help them. Your guys are out there getting four, five at-bats a day, and it's getting those guys right [that's important], and that's what he does best."
The Cubs ranked 12th in batting average in the National League last season, and the team's .255 average was hurt by the absence of key players such as Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano. Ramirez (shoulder) missed 50 games, Soto (strained oblique) 26, Soriano (knee) 29.
"If we can win 83 baseball games with all the problems we had last year and all the injuries on top of it -- we lost 10 to 12 players for more than 30 days, and that's unbelievable," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "If we can win 83 games with all those problems and all those injuries, and we stay relatively healthy this year, we can add another eight, 10 wins this year and get to postseason and win in postseason."
The Cubs are counting on better seasons from the long list of injured players, which is part of the reason they did not make wholesale changes heading into 2010. Besides Byrd, the only other major additions are Xavier Nady, projected to share right field with Kosuke Fukudome, and pitcher Carlos Silva, acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Milton Bradley.
Bradley also worked with Jaramillo in Texas and was the American League leader in on-base percentage in 2008. But he failed to replicate those numbers in Chicago, and his departure was cheered. Bradley told Byrd to "do what I couldn't do."
"We're going to start anew," Piniella said.
Fukudome moves back to right field, where he seems more comfortable, Byrd takes over in center, and the rest of the lineup looks very familiar, even if Piniella had his regulars for only three games in 2009.
This is the last year on Piniella's contract. He's quick to point out that Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa also have one-year deals, so Piniella's status is not a big deal.
"My situation should not be and will not be a focus and will not be a hindrance," Piniella said. "We're going to concentrate on the baseball team and win as many games as possible and let the guys play. That will be enough to keep everybody satisfied this summer."
The Cubs won the National League Central in Piniella's first two seasons, yet have gone 0-6 in the playoffs. They finished second last year despite all the injuries and turmoil. He said his message this spring will be to try to win the division, which will get the Cubs into the postseason and they'll have a chance at the postseason.
"Plain and simple, I don't think nothing else needs to be said," he said.
Which means no reminders that it's 100-plus years since the franchise won the World Series championship. That factoid was not lost on the team's new owners, the Ricketts family, who took over in late October. With so much money locked into long-term contracts of existing players, the Ricketts didn't promise free-spending and a $200 million payroll. General manager Jim Hendry has $140 million to work with, and that should be enough.
The Cubs' lineup is anchored by Derrek Lee at first and Ramirez at third -- and very right-handed, which it was in 2008, when they won 97 games.
"We tried to get left-handed [in '09]," Piniella said, referring to Bradley, a switch-hitter. "We're just getting the best players we can, and that's it."
Byrd, a right-handed hitter, actually did better against right-handed pitchers last season (.300) than he did against lefties (.244). That may even things out.
Soriano also is familiar with Jaramillo, having played for him in Texas in 2004 and '05. Can Jaramillo get the left fielder back on track? Can he help Soto? Jaramillo spent the winter looking at video, called a few of the players and talked to Piniella about some, including second baseman Mike Fontenot, who scuffled to hit .236.
Expect Byrd to be called upon to help sell Jaramillo's message.
"He has a system," Byrd said of Jaramillo. "It's very simple. It's the swing and exactly what it's supposed to be. Walt [Hriniak] had his things that worked, Jim Lefebvre had his things that worked, everybody. Mitchell Page taught 'hands back.' Everyone's different. Every hitting coach is different and every hitter is different at the same time."
Will it work?
"Rudy's a teacher," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "He's the guy who doesn't tell you what you're doing wrong. He says, 'How can we fix it for you?' It's not the same for the next guy or the next guy. It's simple. It's like a teacher in school. They'll teach you what you need to know in order to succeed. I think Rudy is going to help us big time."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.