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Sorry Lou, but Cubs need a change

The Cubs, 5 1/2 games out in the National League Central, are just one hot streak away from jumping into serious contention.

It could happen. I'm guessing it actually will happen.

But if it doesn't happen, the Cubs should seriously consider changing managers.

That's right, they should consider dumping Lou Piniella and replacing him with his polar opposite, the team's mild-mannered bench coach, Alan Trammell.

It pains me to write this. I'm a Piniella fan. And there is no question Piniella is blameless for much of what ails the Cubs.

Managers, though, rarely are fired for a specific litany of sins. They're fired, more often than not, when teams need a new energy, a new start.

Hello, Cubs.

New Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, who is said to be enamored with Piniella's star power, might not want to hear such talk.

General manager Jim Hendry, whose own job security is in question, might not feel comfortable recommending the firing of Piniella, who has managed 3,461 major-league games.

But if the Cubs fail to snap out of it, what exactly will they have to lose?

The team's $146.6 million payroll is the third highest in the sport. Piniella, who turns 67 on Aug. 28, is in the final year of his contract.

He is not going to quit, not when the Cubs owe him the rest of his $3 million-plus salary. But at this point, firing him would be almost an act of mercy.

Before Sunday's game, Piniella's frustration was again evident when he launched into a classic Lou soliloquy when asked about rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin's playing time.

"We talk about everything but winning baseball games," Piniella told reporters. ". . . That's what the hell I want to talk about, is winning baseball games. Period. I think that's what's really important. OK?"

He's right, of course. And he's trying.

Wacky as it was for the Cubs to move right-hander Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, Piniella only wanted to win. Risky as it is to promote shortstop Starlin Castro at age 20, same idea.

It's not Piniella's fault two of the team's biggest offensive threats, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Derrek Lee, are under-performing.

It's not his fault Hendry provided him with an inadequate bullpen.

It's certainly not his fault the vibe around the Cubs is forever gloom and doom, which happens when you go more than a century without winning the World Series.

Still, Piniella played a role in many of the Cubs' major roster decisions -- he always wants what he doesn't has, worrying little about future consequences.

To his players, he remains a demanding, glowering presence, if less outwardly emotional than in the past.

The Cubs, much as they appear to need a collective kick in the rear, might benefit more from a little stress relief.

They could stand to relax.

Heaven help me, none of this can be quantified. And yes, I am well aware that statistical analysts often dismiss the significance of changing managers, citing player performance as far more important to a team's success.

That point, for the most part, is inarguable. But the environment around a club can affect player performance. And while Piniella seemed just the man to end the Cubs' century of misery when he led the team to division titles in 2007 and '08, he now seems worn out.

Trammell, mind you, isn't necessarily the answer; he was a failed manager with the Tigers from '03 to '05, albeit under trying circumstances. But Trammell would be sort of an anti-Lou -- positive, reassuring, upbeat. Different, that's for sure.

Whatever the Cubs decide, they figure to look for a manager at the end of the season, anyway.

Many consider Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, manager of the Cubs' Triple- A affiliate, to be Piniella's eventual successor. Well, Sandberg has never even served as a coach at the major-league level. Making him manager with such little experience would be setting him up to fail. Let him coach first.

The next manager need not be a high-profile type in the $3 million to $4 million salary range -- the Cubs went that route with Dusty Baker and Piniella. What the Cubs need is to find the next Joe Maddon or Joe Girardi, an up-and-comer who is intelligent and savvy enough to handle all of the market's unique challenges. Even the right kind of retread (Eric Wedge?) could work.

Short-term, the best outcome for the Cubs would be for their $146 million men to do just what Piniella talked about Sunday -- play more consistently, start winning games.

Too often this season, they've played like a team trying to get its manager fired.