Cockcroft: Chicago Cubs preview

The Dusty Baker era in Chicago sure didn't progress as nicely as the one in San Francisco, did it? Good ol' Dusty, who steered the Giants to one National League championship, two division titles and six second-place finishes in 10 seasons, led the Cubs to within five outs of the World Series in his first season at the helm in 2003, and then saw his team decline in the standings in each season since. That culminated in a 66-win, last-place finish in 2006, and ultimately resulted in Baker's firing. In his place, the Cubs brought in another big-name manager, Lou Piniella, who led the 1990 Reds to a World Series title.

Of course, Piniella's plight might not be much better than Baker's, not if his team suffers the kind of misfortune in the health department that it did a year ago. Franchise cornerstones Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, former fantasy phenoms, made a combined 13 starts, while No. 3 hitter Derrek Lee, who placed third in the 2005 National League MVP voting, was limited to 50 games due to wrist problems. Health is something Piniella largely might not be able to control, though there's enough talent to get this team back into the playoff hunt.

That's because the Cubs spent more than $280 million total to re-sign team home run and RBI leader Aramis Ramirez and sign free agents Alfonso Soriano, the fourth 40/40 man in baseball history; Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, who provide rotation depth; Mark DeRosa, a former utility man coming off a career year; and Cliff Floyd, a 34-homer, 98-RBI man two years ago. Maybe none of the latter four players will be fantasy standouts, but with Soriano, Ramirez and a healthy Lee in 2007, the Cubs should surely be one of the better power-hitting offenses, and better than their 28th-overall ranking a year ago (4.42 runs per game).