In the lab: Piniella runs tests on lineup
Theriot leads off, with Soriano at No. 2, Fukudome at No. 5
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs' lineup experiment has begun.
On Thursday, Ryan Theriot batted first, Alfonso Soriano was dropped from the leadoff spot to second and Kosuke Fukudome was inserted in the fifth spot.
"We might as well get started with it today and see what it looks like," manager Lou Piniella said before Thursday's game against the San Diego Padres, which the Cubs won, 3-2.
Soriano has not batted second in a big league game since May 16, 2001, and has done so in a total of 11 games in his career. He's 5-for-31 (.161) when he hits second. When leading off, Soriano has a .295 career average. The rationale for the switch is that Soriano won't feel pressured to run and risk injuring his legs. Last season, he missed time in April because of a strained left hamstring, and was on the disabled list in August because of a strained right quad.
"In the leadoff hole, you've got to be able to run," Piniella said. "He's about 80, 85 percent and coming along fine. We don't have to rush him."
The second point to the switch is that moving Fukudome into the No. 5 spot breaks up the Cubs' overload of right-handed hitters.
"We need someone there who knows how to hit, who can drive in runs with men in scoring position, that's a professional hitter, and that's exactly what this man is," Piniella said of the Japanese outfielder, who has hit third and second this spring.
The change isn't permanent, just a test. Soriano was given an eight-year, $136 million contract from the Cubs in November 2006, after a sensational season as the Washington Nationals leadoff man when he hit 46 homers, 41 doubles and stole 41 bases.
"You look at him and he hits for power and steals bases," Piniella said. "Usually that's more associated with the three-hole. You have exceptions."
The list of exceptional leadoff men includes Bobby Bonds and Rickey Henderson, who could both run and show power. With the concerns about Soriano's legs, the question remains: Will he ever steal 40 bases again?
"I don't know," Piniella said. "He's bigger and stronger than he was a few years ago. Hopefully, he will. For us, we need him in the lineup, and stealing 40 bases is not a necessity. We need his bat and his presence in the lineup because he gives us energy, he gives us power, he gives us a player who makes us a much better team to win baseball games. By asking him to run, by asking him to push it too soon, we might get into a situation where he's on the [disabled list], and we don't want that at all."
Theriot took over the leadoff spot last August, when Soriano was injured, and hit .300 in 34 games. On Thursday, he singled to lead off and stole second, but was stranded as Soriano and Derrek Lee each grounded out, and Aramis Ramirez flew out.
Theriot picked up another single in the seventh, while Soriano was 1-for-3, with a single in the third when there were two outs and a runner at second.
"I have to make a small adjustment hitting with somebody on base," Soriano said. "I want to be the same guy. Batting second is more hitting, and not really running so much."
He should get more RBI opportunities.
"I think batting second I can help the club more," he said.
Theriot, who has been a leadoff hitter most of his career, just shrugged at the change.
"I really don't care," he said. "My approach stays the same. To be able to get on base for 'Sori,' who's liable to hit the ball out of the park at any time or can hit the ball in the gap and possibly score on that is always good for the team."
The main criticism directed at Soriano as a leadoff man is that his on-base percentage isn't as good as other No. 1 hitters.
"How many home runs did he hit last year? Thirty-three?" Piniella said. "Is that good enough for a leadoff man? I think that's good enough for any spot in the lineup.
"He's had a lot of success in the leadoff spot, he's played on winning teams in the leadoff spot," Piniella said. "Is he your prototype leadoff hitter? No. But depending on how your lineup is put together, I think Alfonso fits into any spot in the lineup in the top five or six spots, and you've got no complaints one way or another."
All this talk about the lineup is not a big deal, Piniella said.
"It's the 13th of the month, and we still have 2 1/2 weeks to play and we'll take a look at this," he said.
Piniella does want to finalize the lineup. He'd like to avoid tinkering. But Spring Training is different. There's no risk involved.
"Let's sort it out and see what works well for us," he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.