Better fundamentals should boost Cubs

 
 
Published: 2/21/2008 12:10 AM

MESA, Ariz. -- It didn't rank up there with Casey Stengel asking, "Can't anybody here play this game," when he managed the expansion Mets.

But Lou Piniella made a similar point early last season when he told the media that he could see why the Cubs had lost a lot of games before he got here.

Bad baserunning and poor fundamentals combined to put the Cubs behind early in the National League Central last year before personnel changes led to better play.

Piniella said Wednesday he believes things will be better, fundamentally speaking, this spring.

"We should be further along, a lot further along," Piniella said. "We've tried to improve our defense. It helps our pitching. At the same time, we have a much better idea of where we can possibly improve the player. Once they start getting in a little better shape, you'll start seeing some specific drills to that effect."

Gold Glove first baseman Derrek Lee, a critic of how the Cubs played the game during losing seasons, also seemed encouraged.

"I think so; I think we're a better fundamentally sound team, a better defensive team," he said. "I thought we played good, fundamental baseball (later) last season."

It's alive: Pitchers proved the old adage of being way ahead of the hitters during the first session of live batting practice.

Soft-tossing righty Shingo Takatsu broke a bat as did lefty Neal Cotts, who splintered the bat of Tyler Colvin. After making contact on one pitch, Derrek Lee was left shaking his hand.

"They're always ahead of us this time of year," Lee said. "This is probably the least fun day for us, that first day facing pitching live. We'll catch up."

Right-hander Sean Gallagher, on the fringe of the rotation, looked good with his fastball even as pitching coach Larry Rothschild reminded him to pick up his tempo.

"It's pitchers' batting practice," Gallagher said. "We just go out there trying to get the feeling of a batter in there and throwing strikes. I was taking a lot of time out there. I didn't know how much time we had. I was focusing on every pitch. When I noticed Kevin (Hart) was done on the other field, I was like, 'Oop, I'm a little late.' "

Watch this guy: Right-handed prospect Jose Ceda had everybody watching him during live batting practice. Among others, he faced Kosuke Fukudome.

"He throws hard," Fukudome said.

The Cubs brought the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Ceda to camp as a nonroster man after Ceda lit it up at Class A Peoria last year, holding hitters hitless over his last 23½ innings of relief work.

"There's good possibilities down the road; I don't know how long that road is," Lou Piniella said. "We'll see. We're going to give him a chance here. (His lack of experience) doesn't mean he can come up here and not make a good impression and win himself a job."

The Cubs obtained Ceda in a July 2006 trade with San Diego for Todd Walker. If Ceda doesn't make it, he could see time in the minors this year as both a starter and as a reliever.