Accentuating the positive

CHICAGO -- If the winter's early demise is foretold by Punxsutawney Phil ignoring his shadow, what does Pat Hughes noticing Ronnie Woo Woo at the Cubs Convention in a Cubs-brand Santa hat and a Michael Jackson glitter glove portend? Another year of failure?

For that matter, what does it say about a fan base that boos team president Crane Kenney and general manager Jim Hendry, while it cheers everyone else, even Pepsi, the convention sponsor? (Though to be fair, I think Hendry got booed just because he followed Kenney.) Does that mean Cubs fans are tired of high-priced mediocrity?

So many questions, and it's only January.

If you're into keeping track (1908! 1908!), this is the 25th Cubs Convention, a trailblazer summit of true-blue fans, cockeyed optimists, socially bewildered "collectors" and dudes who just look too damn sharp in a tucked-in Greg Maddux jersey.

Sure, it's easy to harp on the "other 15 percent,"
the kind of fans who wait for hours upon hours in the Hilton lobby for a chance to meet Micah Hoffpauir and John Grabow, but there is something to be said about optimism during a typical Chicago winter.

For a Cubs team that struggled with basic fundamentals, health and a lingering maladroit presence in its tiny clubhouse, this weekend marks a fresh start. After a stressful season, the collective Cubs looked and felt lighter.

With a stacked bar and a spread of food, the Cubs mingled with media, coaches and team officials for more than an hour Friday. I thought the confluence of veterans, youngsters, old players and new ones presented the chance to catch up with a few different guys, three of whom will play big roles this season and one in the future.

A Serious Man

Last year, catcher Geovany Soto overslept and missed his flight from Puerto Rico to the convention. At the time, it annoyed the Cubs but wasn't seen as a huge deal. After all, he was the National League Rookie of the Year. Little did anyone know it would be the harbinger for a wasted, miserable year for both Soto and the Cubs.

Now he looks like a whole new man and maybe that bodes well for the Cubs. Reporters and Cubs officials barely recognized the now-svelte catcher, though the carefully sculpted eyebrows kind of give him away.

Soto said he lost almost 40 pounds, and probably weighs around 205 to 210 pounds.

"I feel really good," he said. "I feel energized, like I'm 12 years old."

Soto, never a lithe athlete, gained significant weight during the World Baseball Classic, while barely playing for Puerto Rico.
And we found out later that he failed a drug test for marijuana when they tested him at the WBC.

Soto didn't just fail to recapture his rookie form, he looked like a Triple-A player, at best. When he was healthy enough to play, he hit a whopping .218 with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs. Needless to say, the Cubs weren't happy with him. And for a player who isn't arbitration eligible until 2011, this is a make-or-break season.

"They didn't even have to say anything," he said.
"I knew before anybody said anything to me. I knew I needed to do something. I needed to shock somebody. I need to make them believe I'm here to play ball. I love this game, I respect this game. I want to play for a long time. "

While many athletes would project their unhappiness outward, chewing out reporters and such, Soto was eating himself up all season. Now, he said he's committed to being a clubhouse leader.

"Mentally I wasn't there," he said. "I was destroyed. I was down. I really negative. This year, I want to keep it positive and just play ball."

Hendry likes how Soto has apparently reacted to last season and hopes it spreads to the rest of the team.

"I hadn't seen Geo since the season, and the first thing I said to him was 'You're in great shape,'" Hendry said. "And he said, 'We're not having this not-winning again. It wasn't how good he looked or how hard he worked or 'I'm going to hit 25 home runs.' His first comment was he's ticked off we didn't win. I think that's going to be the general attitude."

While Soto looked slim and trim, one Cub who looked decidedly out of shape was newly acquired Carlos Silva, who bombed in a handful of appearances in the Venezuelan winter league after another disappointing season in Seattle. To put it frankly, he looks like he ate Eddie Guardado.

That's the Zituation

While "The Situation" of "Jersey Shore" fame had to cancel his appearance at a local club Friday, "The Zituation" was happy to be at another Nerdapalooza … I mean, Cubs Convention.

Carlos Zambrano looked positively dapper when he walked in the third-floor conference room Friday afternoon, wearing a camel coat and a stylish suit, topped off with a jaunty scarf.

"I'm happy," he said. "New year. New expectations. Ready to go."

Zambrano spent the offseason in Chicago, he said, because his daughters are in school. He also went to Guatemala to do charity work, and started a foundation in Chicago to go along with the one he's had in Venezuela for five years.

How has he handled the infamous Chicago winter?

"I have a bear's skin," he said, meaning the animal, not the Urlacher -- though I did spot him at a Bears game. "I doubled it up. I had a surgery to get it done, like ..." He then mouthed the words "Sammy Sosa," causing fits of laughter from a few reporters present. Ah, that Z.

In all seriousness, Zambrano was one of the major disappointments in 2009 that turned a first-place team into an average one. He battled injuries and failed to carry himself like an ace. He looks slimmer now, the product of an offseason training regimen that included some boxing. No word if Michael Barrett felt phantom pains.

"I would like to put up those [good] numbers and have a good season," he said. "First of all, I want to stay healthy. Last year, I had two injuries. This year I want to build my body and my arm. If I do that, I know I can pitch."

California Dreamin'

"Brett Jackson is here?" I asked Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' director of player development. "What does he look like?"

"Very California," he said of the 6-foot-2, blond outfielder.

Instead of crossing the room, Fleita called Jackson on his cell phone and told him to walk to the back of the room.

"We were told not to talk on our phones in here,"
Jackson said. "But when I saw his name, I figured I'd better answer it."

Jackson, last year's first-round pick, hit .318 in
53 games over three stops, going from rookie league to low-A. Jackson, just 21 years old, had a .927 OPS in 26 games with Peoria, but struck out 32 times. He went to instructional camps in Arizona and the Dominican Republic. He worked out near Alfonso Soriano in the Dominican, where the high-priced outfielder is rehabbing this offseason.

"He's ripped," Jackson said admiringly.

Jackson, drafted out of Cal-Berkeley, is now working out near his home in Orinda, Calif., with Chase Utley, with whom he shares a trainer.

"It's been as good as you could imagine," he said.
"To be able to pick his brain and see how he works has been great."

Jackson is one of the Cubs' brightest prospects, and one of two position players, along with shortstop Starlin Castro (who is at MLB's rookie career development seminar in Washington), who is expected to compete for a starting spot in 2011. Jackson should be back in September.

"People keep asking me if I'm prepared for my first full season," he said. "I don't think there's any way to prepare. You just have to experience it. I'm already itching to play."

Byrd's the word

After three seasons of "blockbuster" moves, Marlon Byrd was the Cubs' only significant addition so far, though Hendry said he's looking to add a few more pieces before spring training, which could include bringing back popular outfielder Reed Johnson.

Byrd, another former Texas Ranger who signed a three-year deal, is a close friend of Milton Bradley, who had, quite possibly, the worst Cubs experience in some time. But that didn't dampen Byrd's enthusiasm.

"This was automatically my top option," he said. "This is where I want to be. With Rudy [Jaramillo, the new hitting coach] coming here and being able to play center field every single day, and the history of the team, and the team they've put in place, they're ready to win."

When Byrd smiles, it looks authentic. He is happy to be in Chicago and you can't blame him. It's only January.