MESA, Ariz. -- In the latest installment of the Cubs as Lucy yanking the football away from the Wrigley Field denizens' Charlie Brown, it would take many hours over several dozen cheezborgers down at the Billy Goat Tavern to explain away the latest grease fire.
But enough about Milton Bradley and 2009.
Exasperated Cubs fans laid out flat on their backs (again) can take comfort in the knowledge that center fielder Marlon Byrd is here to exterminate the odor that was Bradley.
But there are three keys to 2010, and none of them involves a Byrd in hand:
"We all had bad years last year and [even at that] if we win 10 more games, we would have been in the playoffs," Soriano says, correctly. "And we don't even have a good year."
Those three stay on the field and produce in 2010, Ron Santo will be beside himself upstairs in the radio booth as the Cubs again race down the stretch in contention.
Those three -- or, even, two of those three -- repeat their '09 whiff-at-the-football fiasco, even Ernie Banks won't wanna play two. Or one.
"Huge," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry agrees. "We won 97 games two years ago, and one of the largest differences last year was that a lot of guys who have been hitting their whole lives just didn't have good years.
"At the same time we had a few injuries and, of course, Rammy's injury was significant. But Soto, Soriano even [Mike] Fontenot had a great year in '08 and had a poor year last year.
"We just need those people to come back."
More from Cubs camp
THINGS TO KNOW
|Miller: Hoping Jaramillo is a hit|
One of the Cubs' biggest additions will not step into the batter's box. Nor will he throw a pitch. More
|Cubs schedules & predictions|
Thread: Cubs' expectations!
When Hendry, manager Lou Piniella and respected new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo -- another key, look around this spring, they like what they see.
Ramirez's shoulder is healed. Soriano is bouncing around on his left knee, which underwent arthroscopic surgery last September. And Soto! The guy lost 40 pounds over the winter -- from 242 to 202 -- so much that the Cubs this spring actually asked him to tack a few back on.
"They didn't want me to be so low because they were worried I'd be weak as the season went on," explains Soto, who says he feels much more agile behind the plate now.
Yes, the Cubs are looking for strength down the stretch in all sorts of avenues.
"The good thing about what I saw in the offseason, the guys who didn't have as good a year as normal, even [ace Carlos] Zambrano, they went home and looked at themselves," Hendry says. "They went home and took responsibility, made themselves accountable and did something about it.
"That doesn't always turn into .300 averages and 20-win seasons, but they went home and, basically, by the way they showed up, you're saying that they knew that they could do better and they're planning on doing that."
The 97-win Cubs of '08 melted into the 83-win, second-place Cubs of '09. And, back to Soriano's point about had they won 10 more games ... the Cardinals won the division at 91-71. And this was a Cubs team that, because of all those injuries, used its opening day lineup just three -- count 'em -- times all season.
Ramirez, 31, dislocated his left shoulder on May 8 in Milwaukee and missed nearly two months. After averaging 141 games played during his first five full seasons with the Cubs, Ramirez appeared in only 82 in '09. His RBI total went from 111 to 65.
"Big RBI guy, loves the action, likes to hit late in the game, so when he misses almost 100 games you're not going to recover from that," Hendry says. "He looks great. He's in great shape. You never worry about him if he's out there. If he's out there, he's going to be hitting."
Sleeper ... Xavier Nady: Nady underwent Tommy John surgery in July -- but hitters typically bounce back quickly from the procedure -- which means the Cubs stand to get a big return for their investment. Nady will have to settle for a platoon role with Kosuke Fukudome to begin the year, but he figures to take over when Fukudome suffers his usual midseason slump, assuming Alfonso Soriano doesn't hurt himself first. When that day comes, he'll matter again in mixed leagues.
Bust ... Alfonso Soriano: His terrible plate discipline always puts him at risk for a low batting average, and at age 34, he's no longer a threat to steal 20 bases. He might still have the potential to hit 30 homers, but considering his poor contact rate and propensity for injury, it's a long shot. Drafting him as more than a fourth outfielder in a mixed league is a gamble.
Breakout ... Geovany Soto: Soto looked like he broke out when he won Rookie of the Year in 2008, but since he regressed so completely last year, apparently not. His performance disappointed nobody more than himself, though, which is why he committed to losing a whopping 40 pounds in the offseason. He improved his selectivity last year, so if he can bounce back with the same power he had when he hit 23 homers as a rookie, he should have his best season yet.
-- Scott White
Top Cubs Prospects (2010 destination)
1. Starlin Castro, SS, Double-A
2. Brett Jackson, OF, Double-A
3. Josh Vitters, 3B, Class A
4. Andrew Cashner, SP, Double-A
5. Jay Jackson, SP, Triple-A
|Cubs outlook | 2010 Draft Prep Guide|
Soriano, 34, turned in a career-worst .241 batting average and career-low 55 RBI. He played much of the season on a sore left knee after he banged it into the Wrigley Field wall in late April, was finally shut down for good on Sept. 3 and subsequently underwent arthroscopic surgery. After averaging 152 games played during his previous seven seasons, he made the lineup for only 117 last year.
"It was more mental than anything," Soriano says of the sore knee conspiring to drive down his numbers. "Anytime I tried to swing, I said, 'Man, when I put my left foot down [the knee] is going to hurt.' It affected my concentration, just thinking about how bad my knee is. Thank God this year it's OK.'"
Soto, 27, arrived in spring training overweight after winning the '08 NL Rookie of the Year award and never did get going. After hitting .285 with 23 homers and 86 RBI in his rookie season, he fell off the cliff to .218/11/47 in '09.
He also played in only 102 games -- as opposed to 141 the year before -- because he missed a month with an oblique strain.
"It was disappointing, especially for my teammates -- I felt like I let them down," Soto says. "It was disappointing for me, too. I want to bounce back. It was a really good learning experience."
Adding insult to injury -- literally -- Soto was further embarrassed when it was revealed that he had tested positive for marijuana during the spring's World Baseball Classic.
"It was bad," Soto says. "Something you just want to leave in the past.
"It didn't help, put it that way."
The Cubs, more than any team in the majors, are about the past. And for 100 years, it usually hasn't been pretty.
How can it change in 2010?
If Ramirez is back strong and plays in 140 or 150 games. ...
"That's what I'm shooting for," he says. "Play as many games as I can."
If Soto gained enough wisdom during his miserable '09 to readjust his direction. ...
"From every negative," he says, "you want to learn a positive."
If Soriano can regain his stroke now that he's back on two good legs. ...
"Rudy's helped me stay back, with the [loading] power in my right leg," Soriano says of Jaramillo, his hitting coach in Texas in 2004 and '05, during which time he averaged 32 homers and 98 RBI a season. "By staying back, I can see the ball better. I have more time to react to the ball."
It all makes sense. For now.