Mike Quade grew up in the Chicago area, followed the team as a kid, and went to games at Wrigley Field with family and friends. After guiding the team to a 24-13 record in the final six weeks of the 2010 season, he was named the Cubs' 51st manager in November.
When asked at an assembly at his high school in Mt. Prospect, Ill., last month about what's been the highlight of his career, Quade didn't hesitate.
"You're looking at it right now," he said, smiling.
But he's just getting started. The Cubs open their first Spring Training under the hard-working "Q" on Feb. 13, when pitchers and catchers report to Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz. Expect him to hit the ground running.
Quade took over for Lou Piniella last Aug. 23, got immediate results, and won the respect of the players.
"I don't think it's a secret that a lot of the players went out and, not lobbied, but we were pulling for him," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "We feel like 'Q' is one of us."
This spring, besides sorting through the myriad of pitching options, Quade will try to settle on a lineup. Who will lead off? Where will new first baseman Carlos Pena hit? Having to adjust on the fly isn't new for Quade. He spent 17 seasons managing in the Minor Leagues. Rosters change daily in the Minors. You go to spring camp not knowing who will be on your team and need to watch the players to formulate opinions.
Quade does study matchups. The projected lineup posted here is one of many options. The Cubs may finish 2011 with 162 different combinations.
"Those will be issues daily for me," Quade said of the lineup.
After having the highest payroll in the National League in 2010, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had to tighten his budget and be creative. He did sign free agent Pena, but the first baseman will receive half of his $10 million salary in January 2012. Kerry Wood helped Hendry when he gave the team a hometown discount to return. Hendry dipped into the farm system to acquire Matt Garza, 27, who is under team control for three more years. He then restocked the Minor Leagues and trimmed payroll when he dealt Tom Gorzelanny to the Nationals.
How much better will shortstop Starlin Castro be in his sophomore season? Can Kosuke Fukudome, who is entering the last year of his contract, be more consistent? Derrek Lee was the No. 3 hitter the last seven years. Who fills that spot? Pena? Marlon Byrd?
Those issues could keep some managers awake at night. Quade spent his offseason fishing his favorite spots off Florida's Gulf Coast rather than scribbling combinations. He knows all about the Cubs' lack of a World Series championship since 1908. Don't bother to ask him about curses.
"I'm aware of everything -- I can count to 102," he said.
1. Can Carlos Pena rebound from a .196 season?
The Cubs preferred Pena over the other free-agent first basemen available because he has averaged 36 homers the last four seasons and is solid defensively. A Gold Glove winner in 2008, he will help solidify a young infield. But the Cubs don't want to see 150-plus strikeouts or a sub .200 average. Pena called Rudy Jaramillo the day he signed and got a head start on his comeback bid by spending a week in Dallas with the hitting coach. From early video work, Jaramillo said he saw a problem with Pena's lower half in his swing.
Pena was bothered last year by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, but will not use the injury as an excuse. He is definitely motivated, and says the struggles he went through in 2010 have made him a better person. He wore No. 23 with the Rays because Psalm 23 is his favorite. The Cubs have retired that number in honor of Ryne Sandberg, so Pena will switch to No. 22, which was worn by his best friend, who passed away a few years ago. Something to think about: Despite his weak average, Pena would've led the Cubs in home runs and RBIs in 2010.
2. Which five will survive in the rotation?
There are at least 10 candidates for the rotation, which should create some lively competition this spring. Matt Garza, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster appear set, with the only decision being who gets the Opening Day assignment. That leaves Carlos Silva, Randy Wells, Jeff Samardzija, Casey Coleman, Braden Looper, Andrew Cashner and James Russell among the pitchers battling for the final two openings.
Cashner and Russell, who each appeared in 50-plus games out of the bullpen last season, will be stretched out this spring. Samardzija is out of options, which makes this an interesting year. Coleman got better with each outing last season. Who knows what to expect from Silva? Looper was 14-7 with a 5.22 ERA in 34 starts with the Brewers in 2009 but sat out 2010. Wells went from being a 12-game winner in '09 to tallying 14 losses in 2010, and needs to show more consistency.
3. How do you fit four outfielders in three spots?
Quade is faced with the same problem Piniella had: four players for three spots. Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Tyler Colvin all want to play, but they'll have to share. It'll be up to Quade to keep them happy.
Soriano, 35, has accepted being moved down in the order, but will he be OK with getting more time off? Byrd, 33, batted .317 in the first half, which helped him get to his first All-Star Game. But a .261 second half and some leg injuries resulted in a weak finish. Colvin also sputtered in the second half, including a .215 August, and saw his strikeout totals rise. Not a good trend. Fukudome is in the last year of his contract. He hit everywhere in the order last season; it'll be up to Quade to find the right spot for the right fielder.