Felix Pie has taken a big lead over Sam Fuld in the battle to be the Chicago Cubs’ center fielder, but whether he’ll be the man on Opening Day remains to be seen.
Manager Lou Piniella buried Pie on the bench after his recall last August, and the rookie was only 8-for-38 (.211) during the final two months while playing mostly as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Even if Pie wins the starting job, the Cubs are still interested in acquiring a right-handed-hitting center fielder to at least platoon, as both Pie and Fuld swing left-handed. Pie has heard names like Coco Crisp and Marlon Byrd but knows the job is his to lose.
“I just want to do my job every day and change the manager’s mind,” Pie said. “It’s (Piniella’s) decision, so all I can do is play.”
Pie went 3-for-4 in Sunday’s 13-1 victory over Kansas City and is hitting .321 with two home runs. Has Pie opened some space over Fuld?
“It looks like it,” Piniella said. “Fuld ... he’s struggled. He’s been pressing a little bit. Felix has opened up ground on Sammy. But remember, this is Sammy’s first major-league camp, and Pie has been here — what, three or four years now? It’s a big difference. There’s a big, big separation in experience, and it’s showing.”
Piniella said before Sunday’s game he wanted to see Pie raise his on-base percentage, cut down on his strikeouts and “hit the ball to left field occasionally.” Pie responded with a double to left in his first at-bat.
“I’m working on taking more pitches,” Pie said. “It’s already helped me a lot. I feel better out there.”
The Cubs may have some options before the end of spring, though Texas general manager Jon Daniels told the Dallas Morning News Byrd is involved in no current trade talks. Cubs GM Jim Hendry tried to acquire Byrd in the off-season for Matt Murton. And Crisp may be available from Boston, but he’s out with a groin injury and has missed the last week.
Still, with Curt Schilling out, Josh Beckett experiencing back spasms and Clay Buchholz struggling, the Cubs could try to push Jason Marquis on Boston, with Crisp coming in return. Right now, Boston appears willing to roll the dice on rehabbing Bartolo Colon as its fifth starter.
Several center fielders were on the free-agent market last winter. But the Cubs weren’t interested in overpaying for Torii Hunter or Andruw Jones, and though they liked Aaron Rowand and told his agent they’d be interested if they couldn’t sign Kosuke Fukudome, they eventually landed their No. 1 target.
Ultimately, the Cubs felt Pie deserved a chance to win the job in spring training, and they believed they could pick up a complementary player who could start against left-handers. Aside from Byrd and Crisp, other outfielders who can play center and may be available include Baltimore’s Jay Payton, Cincinnati’s Ryan Freel and the Los Angeles Angels’ Reggie Willits.
Payton, 35, has been rumored to be part of any Brian Roberts trade. But Payton has missed most of the Grapefruit League games with bronchitis and made only his second appearance Sunday.
The Cubs like Freel, but it’s doubtful the Reds would trade him to a division rival. And Freel is having a poor spring, hitting only .222. Willits, a 26-year-old switch-hitter who hit .293 with 27 steals last year, would be a good fit, but the Angels have reportedly told clubs they’re holding on to him for now.