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Columnist
Here's what we learned about the Cubs this spring
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Columnist

Chicago Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome of Japan follows through on a ground out in the seventh inning off a pitch from Kansas City Royals' Doug Waechter during a spring training baseball game in Surprise, Ariz., Monday, March 30, 2009. Fukudome had a home run in the 8-8 tie. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

 

Kevin Gregg throws during the third inning of a spring training baseball game in Mesa, Ariz.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 4/4/2009 11:36 PM

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How ridiculously long was spring training?

It was so long that the Cubs' game against Team Japan didn't "count" because it was an "exhibition" game.

Hey, weren't they all "exhibition" games?

The Cubs wound up playing a total of 39 preseason games this spring. That's nearly a quarter of a regular season.

So after the spring training that would never end, one that had an "exhibition" game in the middle of "exhibition" games, several things have become apparent, at least as apparent as spring training can be, because as manager Lou Piniella pointed out, spring training can be a fooler. Even so, the Cubs look to be the odds-on favorites for a three-peat in the National League Central.

In this season of exhibitions, let's present our exhibits to the court:

Exhibit A: Milton Bradley can flat-out rake. In one game this spring, Bradley checked his swing, and the ball still jumped off his bat and into right field for a hit.

The Cubs' big off-season acquisition was slowed a bit early by a sore leg and illness, but he showed why he led the American League last year in on-base percentage last year.

In 16 Cactus League games, Bradley batted .500 (22-for-44) with an OBP of .569 and a slugging percentage of .886 for a ridiculous OPS of 1.455.

A switch hitter, he'll bat left-handed most days. The Cubs have to keep him on the field.

Exhibit B: The rotation looks fine. No. 1 starter Carlos Zambrano had a quiet spring, and that's a good thing for the Cubs. No. 2 starter but de facto staff leader Ryan Dempster showed up in great shape again, just as he did last year when he was battling for a rotation spot in a contract year.

Ted Lilly's shaky start Friday at new Yankee Stadium is mild cause for concern (Lilly started poorly last year but wound up winning 17), and the questions about Rich Harden's right shoulder never will go away.

Lefty Sean Marshall went out and grabbed the No. 5 spot. He may have let down a bit in his final 2 starts after winning the job, but the Cubs have the best and deepest rotation in the National League.

Exhibit C: The bullpen looks questionable.

As Piniella likes to point out, Carlos Marmol is the only reliever on the staff to have opened the 2008 season with the Cubs. Kevin Hart is in the minor leagues. Jon Lieber is out of baseball. Carmen Pignatiello is out of the organization, and veterans Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, Michael Wuertz and Scott Eyre are with other clubs.

Marmol moped for a day after Kevin Gregg got the closer's job, but those two should be fine at the end of games. Aaron Heilman, who lost out for the fifth-starter's spot, struck out 19 in 17 innings.

The Cubs went all the way until Saturday's finale at Yankee Stadium, and it appears they'll go all the way until Sunday before choosing among Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija, Angel Guzman and David Patton for the final two spots. It would be a gutsy move to keep Patton, a Rule 5 draft pick who hasn't pitched above Class A.

Exhibit D: Kosuke Fukudome is on notice. Fukudome looked shaky in center field, both in Arizona and at Yankee Stadium, where dropped another ball Saturday. After coming back from the World Baseball Classic, Fukudome was 4-for-19 (.211) in Arizona.

"We need this young man to hit," Piniella said.

If this young man doesn't hit, Piniella will run out of patience before the ivy blooms at Wrigley Field.

Exhibit E: Their depth will be tested. The Cubs' insistence on carrying 12 pitchers, even in April, and an extra outfielder, could make for some interesting play late in games.

General manager Jim Hendry repeatedly expressed confidence that newcomer Aaron Miles and second baseman Mike Fontenot could handle third base if Aramis Ramirez needs a breather or a couple days to nurse a nagging injury.

Micah Hoffpauir is 29, but he's still a rookie. He hit 6 homers and drove in 26 in the Cactus League, leading the Cubs with 92 at-bats out West. The question now is how he do with limited at-bats backing up Derrek Lee at first base.

Hoffpauir can play both corners in a crowded outfield, where Fukudome and Reed Johnson will share time in center, and Joey Gathright will see spot duty.

With the Cubs being an infielder short, Piniella will have to resist using his backup infielder as a pinch hitter early in games.