04/25/10 4:01 PM ET
Piniella proving to think outside the box
Veteran skipper doing what he can to help Cubs adjust, win
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
Moving Carlos Zambrano from Opening Day starter to setup man is one example. Backing an unproven youngster such as Ryan Theriot as the starting shortstop in 2007 is another. Having pitcher Sean Marshall play in the outfield in a double-switch to keep the lefty in the game is another.
"I think you better think out of the box here at times," Piniella said.
Sure, he can be conventional and will play a right-handed heavy lineup against lefty starters. But Piniella isn't afraid to experiment.
"I think [thinking] out of the box is a good thing," Piniella said. "Look, things change. Sometimes you leave Spring Training one way, and all of a sudden something happens and you have to adjust to it, whether it's pitching, whether it's position players, whether it's the bench.
"Things change, and they never stay the same for 162 games," he said. "Unless you're awfully good and awfully deep, you better think outside the box sometimes. If you don't, you'll get beat up."
Still, the idea of switching Zambrano from starting, which he has done since June 2002, and making him the setup man is a little radical.
"What are we supposed to do? Put the burden every day on four young kids?" Piniella said of relievers James Russell, Justin Berg, Jeff Gray, and Jeff Samardzija, who was optioned to Triple-A Iowa on Saturday. "Is it fair to them? Is it fair to us?
"I'm trying to win baseball games here," he said. "The new owner wants to win baseball games here. You've seen what happens here the first two weeks of the season, and that wasn't going to change overnight."
What happened the first two weeks is the Cubs struggled to score runs and the young pitchers found themselves entering games without any margin for error. Nine of the first 12 games were decided by two runs or fewer. This season, the Cubs have been outscored, 20-12, in the eighth inning.
The Cubs also had to make adjustments when they lost Angel Guzman this spring because of a shoulder injury. Rookie Esmailin Caridad, expected to be the main setup man, is on the disabled list with a strained right forearm. Samardzija will stay in the bullpen in the Minor Leagues because the Cubs have enough starters.
"You have to bring young pitchers along the right way," Piniella said. "You throw them into the fire and they don't respond the right way, you'll get more adversity than success. I like these kids who are here -- I've said that coming out of Spring Training. But not in a 2-2 ballgame in the eighth inning or a 2-1 ballgame in the eighth inning. It's not going to work.
"It could work six weeks from now if they're brought along the right way," he said. "Right now, it's expecting too much. It's like bringing a kid up from the Minor Leagues and having him hit fourth and bringing up another kid and having him hit fifth. You're not going to get the consistency that those positions demand."
If you take personalities and salaries out of the picture, Zambrano makes sense to move from the rotation among the other starters. The Cubs had an excess when Ted Lilly returned from the disabled list.
"I'm trying to win baseball games; that's all I'm trying to do," Piniella said. "My job description is to win baseball games, as many as I can, and at the same time to do what's best for the baseball team. That's all I'm doing and that's all I'm trying to do. You better be able to think outside of the box."
Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano are the two highest-paid players on the Cubs' payroll. But Piniella isn't making decisions based on their salaries.
"They're high-paid players who have had a lot of success, and I recognize that," Piniella said. "But the payroll of the team doesn't change one way or another if you use them one way or another. The payroll stays the same. They should pay the manager more for doing these things."
Was Piniella asking for a raise?
"Yeah, I want a raise," he said, laughing. "I said that jokingly, obviously."
The Cubs' new owners can relax. He was kidding.
"I don't pay too much attention to what other managers do or don't do," Piniella said. "I want my players to do well, I want the team to win baseball games. With this situation with Carlos, I didn't force it. I talked to him, and it was a very amicable talk. That's all I can do. ... Let's go forward and do the best we can and that's all I can do."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.