For a team that needed to finish 24-13 to reach the 75 wins in 2010, this season's Cubs have few positions up for grabs as they begin spring training early.
There are two spots in the starting rotation open, one of which will be chased by Valparaiso's Jeff Samardzija, and maybe up to three middle-relief jobs -- a more likely repository for "The Shark." No real everyday lineup positions are open with newcomer Carlos Pena filling first base, except mixing-and-matching four outfielders for three jobs.
It's roles that provide the most intriguing storylines in the sunshine of Mesa, Ariz. And none more so than the forever-unfilled leadoff spot, a gaping hole since Alfonso Soriano hurt his legs, in turn his psyche, and could not run anymore in his first Chicago season in 2007. The Cubs have had one prototypical leadoff man since Eric Young left 10 seasons ago -- East Chicago's Kenny Loften, who joined the Cubs with 2 ½ months left in their aborted World Series run.
There's no classic base-burner No. 1 hitter presently on the roster now and none forthcoming. Yet first-year manager Mike Quade sees a logical candidate in the fold to handle the most important of the job's requirements.
"Of all the guys on the roster, if (Kosuke) Fukudome is in the lineup, he makes the most sense," Quade said last week, as he prepared to jet from Florida to Arizona.
With one year to go on his contract, helicopter-swinging Fukudome was supposed to have one foot out the door. Some contender would take his lefty bat and good right field glove off the Cubs' hands in an offseason trade, with GM Jim Hendry shoveling out some cash from Tom Ricketts' well-guarded exchequer to sweeten the deal. Besides, Fukudome can't block needed playing time for the further development of Tyler Colvin in the outfield.
Yet Fukudome is still here, and one can see Quade's logic. Even if Fukudome hits just .260 amid his twirling whiffs, he'd still likely lead the Cubs in walks, see a ton of pitches and boost his on-base percentage to .370 or higher.
"I'm looking for someone to get on base," said Quade, ranking OBP as his primary yardstick, void of the other Lofton-esque leadoff prerequisites. "He can run a bit. He sees a lot of pitches. He finished pretty darn good. When Kosuke's playing, he figures to be a guy very comfortable at leadoff."
Fukudome had a .467 OBP in August. Although he batted just .210 in September, he walked enough to boost his monthly OBP to .355. For all of 2010, his OBP was .371.
And here, you thought the leadoff battle would be confined to the unexciting duo of Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker, the platoon halves of second base. Just as long as Quade is not tempted to move Starlin Castro up one notch in the order. Castro, still just 21, begs to be left alone to develop as a gifted second-place hitter.
A memorable Cubs farewell season at No. 1 by Fukudome would help immensely. So would a semblance of an offensive comeback by Soriano. And most definitely a return to normalcy by Aramis Ramirez.
"If you're successful, you need a big season, either from a veteran coming back or a kid coming out of nowhere," Quade said.
Ramirez can speed his necessary return to clutch-hitting standards by mentally connecting with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. The proud -- some stay overly stubborn -- third baseman emotionally kept his distance from Jaramillo in the latter's first Cubs season in 2010. But Jaramillo now believes they'll close their gap.
"I think he's going to be a new person coming in," Jaramillo 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."
Quade said the lack of connection was not surprising.
"What makes you think you'd warm up to a guy immediately?" he said. "Taking some time doesn't surprise me.
"Of all the things that I look at as important, Rammy is at the top of the list. We don't look like a juggernaut offensively. We really need him to be the guy he was."
But if Fukudome, Soriano and Ramirez all fail again, well, bring on the kids once and for all.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at DGemsNet@aol.com