If you think Andrew Cashner making the starting rotation, John Grabow's comeback to round out a very good back of the bullpen or the never-ending quest to find a leadoff man are the main Cubs storylines of spring training, you haven't tuned into the wavelength broadcasting from new manager Mike Quade.
"Of all the things that I look at as important, Rammy (Aramis Ramirez) is at the top of the list," Quade said the other day, just before he jetted from Florida to Arizona. "We don't look like a juggernaut offensively. We really need him to be the guy he was."
And for Ramirez, who suffered through his worst campaign in 7 1/2 seasons as a Cub in 2010, the telltale sign he is mentally prepared for a comeback is the body English he displays in Mesa in close proximity to hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. For too long last season, Ramirez seemed to have the same regard for Jaramillo, in his first season in Chicago, as Superman did with kryptonite.
Be it pride, stubbornness or just plain arrogance, Ramirez simply did not connect with Jaramillo when he began swinging like he wielded a rolled-up Sunday newspaper in the first half last year. DItto with Derrek Lee. The endless slumps of both ol' reliables were the main culprits in wrecking the Cubs' season.
Watching the relationship, or lack of the same, between Ramirez and Jaramillo from his vantage point as a coach prior to his August promotion to manager, Quade reasoned there's no automatic chemistry from the get-go of veteran to newcomer coach.
"What makes you think you’d warm up to a guy immediately?" he said. "Taking some time doesn’t surprise me."
But both Quade and Jaramillo saw signs of a thaw by season's end. Now, Jaramillo believes he'll have a fresh start with Ramirez.
"I think he’s going to be a new person coming in," he said. "I think I made some strides with him, winning his trust. It’s not about me. It’s being there for him. It’s trying to win that man over."
Another key in spring training is with a hitter who possesses all the rapport in the world in Jaramillo. Alfonso Soriano has to show the Cubs can still get some value from his $18 million a year payout, after an injury-shortened 2009 and a 2010 season best described by a favorite word from fan polls at our SB Nation Cubs blog Bleed Cubbie Blue: "meh."
Maybe it's too much to hope, but Ramirez and Soriano at a decent semblance of their old slugging selves could push the Cubs back toward contention, given the Big Three of the rotation and the top four relievers perform up to expectations. In Soriano's case, a strong spring could set the tone for a season worthy of a contract now otherwise regarded as the biggest albatross in Cubs Universe.
"Sori's always been a guy who shows up in decent shape," said Quade. "His coming back with some kind of year like the first year when we signed him would help. If you're successful, you need a big season, whether from a veteran coming back or a kid coming from nowhere."
No matter what, Quade intends to give Soriano liberal rest, mindful any tweaks or twinges in his body easily plays on the left fielder's mind. "Sori will need down time," he said.
The rest will be opportune, since Quade has four starting-caliber outfielders to shoehorn into three spots with no obvious platooning system at hand. If Tyler Colvin is the real thing based on his first half of 2010 and Kosuke Fukudome can't simply rot on the bench, then Quade will need to "mix and match," in his own words, with Soriano and center fielder Marlin Byrd, whose hustle gets him banged up as the season progresses.
Further crowding the outfield picture will be the battle for a final backup spot between Reed Johnson, a fan and clubhouse favorite from 2008-09, and speedy Fernando Perez, who came over with Matt Garza from Tampa Bay. That's a classic battle between chemistry and athleticism.
Others may not see it that way. But spring training puts the Cubs in an enviable position. Nobody's picking them to go anywhere but the nether regions of the National League Central with the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers most others' fashionable picks. Cubs teams that have contended in the past usually had no pre-season buildup, as in 1991 and 2004, seasons that ended badly.
And Quade has a chance to put his imprint firmly on the organization after a successful 37-game trial last season. You get the feeling a firmer, more engaged hand will be at the Cubs' helm after four years of the high-profile, yet more detached reign of Lou Piniella. Even if the Cubs don't go anywhere in 2011, this spring could be the first step in pointing the team in the right direction, imprinting the right way of doing things, for the long run.