03/10/09 4:59 PM ET
Piniella pencils in Fukudome at No. 2
Cubs manager reserving lineup spot for center fielder's return
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
Fukudome and Team Japan are in Phoenix to prepare for the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The Cubs will see Fukudome in action on Thursday, when they play host to the Japanese team in an exhibition game at HoHoKam Park. Carlos Zambrano is slated to start for Chicago.
"He looks wonderful," Piniella said of Fukudome. "He's in really good shape. I told him we're holding a spot for him, and we'll put him out in center field and we'll try him in the No. 2 hole in the lineup.
"He said he's been working hard. He's excited about this World Baseball Classic and afterwards, he's looking forward to joining us."
Fukudome got off to a great start for the Cubs last season, his first in the U.S. Major Leagues, hitting .279 in the first half. But he followed that with a .217 average after the All-Star break. The Cubs manager said he anticipates a better season from the outfielder.
"I think he's more acclimated this year," Piniella said. "I know he's worked hard. The Japanese national team, they work hard and have good coaches. He's gotten some good foundation put in. I think you'll see this young man play the way he did the first half of last season all year for us."
As for the two-hole, Piniella said they'll play around with it but that he's leaning toward inserting Fukudome there behind Alfonso Soriano.
"We're going to try it initially with Soriano and Fukudome, one-two, against right-handed pitching and see how that works," he said. "I think that'll work quite well."
Other options for the spot include Ryan Theriot, Aaron Miles, Mike Fontenot and Reed Johnson.
The Cubs played the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, and most of the regulars stayed back at HoHoKam. Piniella told hitting coach Gerald Perry to make sure they got a lot of work in, especially with an off-day on Wednesday.
"I have a pretty good idea of what we're going to do [with the lineup]," Piniella said. "We have a long way to go in Spring Training, and there's no sense in rushing things. If we have to make adjustments, we will."
Corey Koskie, whom the Cubs signed to a Minor League contract, is expected to join the team on Thursday. He had been on Team Canada's roster in the World Baseball Classic, but did not play. Koskie has not played in the Major Leagues since suffering a concussion in 2006.
As for Piniella, his wife has plans for him on the off-day. They will either take a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon and then go for a raft ride on the Snake River, or take a hot-air balloon ride. Piniella was leaning toward the latter.
"As long as they get me down before Juarez [Mexico], it's OK," Piniella said.
His wife, Anita, is handling all the details.
"If I think about it all day, I might chicken out," Piniella said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.