There are those of us hung up on the Julian calendar waiting for March 21st to roll around so we can break out the shorts and send Old Man Winter off with a size 11 wingtip lodged in his keister. Then there are those of us who know that today is the first true day of Spring as pitchers and catchers report to spring training at camps throughout Florida and Arizona.
I went to bed last night happy, secure in the knowledge that the Cubs finally agreed to terms with Greg Maddux and making an imposing starting rotation even stronger. With Juan Cruz primed to finally have a breakout year it is not a far-fetched possibility of the boys in blue fielding a six-man starting rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Maddux, Matt Clement, Carlos Zambrano, and Cruz. It is a dream and probably unlikely, but if Cruz does pitch well enough to warrant spot starts, the wear and tear saved on the big fours' arms will be tremendous. Last year Prior, Wood, Zambrano, and Clement each logged over 210 innings pitched, mostly on power pitches. As a result, their arms gave out on them as the playoffs progressed.
Maddux, the epitome of the control pitcher, can teach them the benefits of painting the corner and changing speeds. In his prime, Maddux's signature outing was the 80-pitch complete game. His four Cy Young awards command respect. You better believe that the rotation will listen.
The other benefit of the Maddux signing is that catcher Michael Barrett gets to learn to call a baseball game from one of the greatest pitchers ever. Barrett is one of the wild cards for the Cubs this season; he was signed for cheap amid cries from Cubs fans and Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times to spend money on Pudge Rodriguez, the NLCS MVP. However, Rodriguez and his agent, the detestable Scott Boras (who's also Maddux's agent) typically set the asking price too high. Rodriguez eventually signed with the Detroit Tigers, where he'll be more of a teacher than a playoff contender.
The other major factors for the Cubs this season are the recovery of Corey Patterson from knee surgery and the mind-set of Sammy Sosa. Fans should know about Patterson's condition in short order. With a steroid scandal unfolding a legion of media attention will be focused on Sosa, who has more home runs since 1998 than any other hitter in the major leagues.
Sosa's been relatively injury-free since 1997. He hasn't had the chronic knee and back injuries that plagued Mark McGwire in his final playing days and Barry Bonds today, injuries also symptomatic of excessive steriod abuse. But short of volunteering to give weekly urine samples to an independent lab, the rumors of steroid abuse will hound Sosa and might take his head out of the game quicker that a high-and-tight fastball.
Which brings me to my next question about Sosa: now that he's had a whole winter to reflect, does he have the mentality to dig in the batter's box and not give up the inside of the plate to pitchers who watched how hesitant Sosa was at every heater that was above the letters and inside last season. Sosa's at his best when he's dug in and spraying the ball to all fields- of all the sluggers in the game his ratio of pull homers to opposite-field home runs is nearly equal- and taking the first pitch. After hitting two moonshots in the first two games of the NLCS, a Josh Beckett brushback pitch in Game 5 effectively took Sosa's bat out of the series.
The Cubs need the warrior that Sosa claims to be to fulfill the championship predictions of the experts this season. I'd start by having Wood throw at his head in Spring training to see where his mind is.