Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's on deck for the Cubs?

There are still home runs to be hit, strikes to be thrown, and rings to be won.

Just not at Wrigley Field.

For the Cubs, the sights are now squarely set on 2010. This season reminded many Cubs fans of the Cubs of old, and in fact many of the Cubs are getting old. But it's in with the new as owner Tom Ricketts takes over the controls, though he and Jim Hendry don't have a great deal of wiggle room given the big, backloaded contracts Hendry has passed out like candy corn over the last few years.

So where do the Cubs go from here? First, there are the free agents: Rich Harden, Kevin Gregg, Reed Johnson and John Grabow.

There's no doubt Harden will test the free agent waters. I've said before that he's not worth big money and multiple years, but it's possible he won't find a suitor willing to give him either one. He's worth a mid-level, one-year deal. I think we all know that Hendry took white out to Gregg's name in the media guide right around mid-August. I would definitely welcome back Reed Johnson, who was of course hurt in 2009 but plays hard and is a solid platoon player or starter if need be. And Hendry's already working on a two-year deal for Grabow, who had success in his 30 games with the Cubs this year.

You can already fill out a good deal of the 2010 depth chart in pen:
  • Soto isn't going anywhere, but needs to show up in 2008 shape so he can get back to 2008 form.
  • Lee and Ramirez are set at the corners.
  • Theriot seems a safe bet to be at short.
  • Fukudome figures to be in center or right.
  • Soriano's contract is unmoveable, so you can write his name in the spot marked "LF" (please let his bum knee be the reason he flailed away at the plate like a Little Leaguer and played left field like a Little Leaguer who's only on the team because his dad's the coach).
So second base and right field/center field are on Hendry's to-do list. With little payroll flexibility and what would seem to be an offense bound for a rebound, I still like the idea of Andres Blanco getting a shot at second. He would bat eighth and likely provide little pop, but he's the best defender on the Cubs' 40-man roster and it's always important to have good glove work up the middle. Free agent options include Mark DeRosa, Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez. Again, I'd prefer the Cubs stay in-house at 2B.

Suggesting that there's a question mark in the outfield of course assumes that Hendry is able to pull off an offseason magic trick worthy of a show on the Vegas strip: unloading Milton Bradley and the $21 million remaining on his contract. But even though Hendry is behind the 8 ball and every GM in baseball knows it, he's also handcuffed and has almost no choice but to ship him out.

If Hendry hopes to make an upgrade somewhere, outfield would seem to be the place to do it. The free agent class in center includes Rick Ankiel, Rocco Baldelli and Corey Patterson (kidding). In right, you've got Bobby Abreu, Xavier Nady, Austin Kearns (if his option is not picked up), and others.

If the Cubs choose instead to spend their money on a second baseman and/or bullpen help, there are in-house options in the outfield: Reed Johnson in center and Fukudome in right is one of them. Jake Fox is another option in right, perhaps in a platoon with Fukudome. Will Fox hurt the team with his glove? Most likely. But Bradley was no stud himself, and we all saw Soriano bumble his way around left, so how much of a drop-off would it really be?

With the chatter about Zambrano hitting the trade block cooling down, the rotation would figure to be Z, Lilly, Dempster, Wells and either Marshall, Gorzelanny or Samardzija (my money would
be on Gorzelanny).

And last, but definitely not least, the bullpen. Carlos Marmol will be the closer, having finished the season with 12 consecutive saves. Gorzelanny and Guzman should be the G-Men in the setup role. Aaron Heilman is (unfortunately) likely to be in the mix as well, along with Marshall and Samardzija (or Gorzelanny). Other unprovens will have the opportunity to make the squad, including Justin Berg (12 IP, 1 BB, 0.75 ERA), Esmailin Caridad (19.1 IP, 1.40 ERA), and Jeff Stevens (bad).

As always, the free agent market provides an array of options, including Chad Cordero, Danys Baez, Joe Beimel and Darren Oliver (the last two being lefties). Signing relievers will always and forever be a complete crapshoot (see: Brad Lidge in '08 vs. '09, or B.J. Ryan, or Ryan Franklin coming out of nowhere).

Hendry doesn't have much choice but to bring back a near mirror image of the 2009 team. But it's reasonable to assume it will be one of those goofy, distorted mirror images. Zambrano with just nine wins? Soriano with only 55 RBI? Ramirez missing half the season?

You can accuse me of being overly optimistic, but I think the Cubs have a very good chance of turning things around without turning the roster over. The fact is, there's over $130 million of talent in their dugout, and a whole slew of players fell so far below their career averages in 2009 that, well, their career averages now look nothing like they did heading into the season. In this case, what comes down must go up.

The off-field action will all go down starting in just about a month. Players can declare free agency starting 15 days after the conclusion of the World Series, and Hendry's real work will begin at that time. Hopefully his work will lead to Cubs fans enjoying playoff baseball one year from today instead of looking forward to 2011.


  1. What about Hoffpauir or Fontenot? What will happen with them?

    And what about Z getting shipped off?

    And would you be opposed to bringing DeRosa back? He'd add some flexibility AND stability to the field...

    I would love to see them keep Fox and R. Johnson around.

    My dad says Theriot might be better suited to second base. Just sayin'...

  2. Hoffpauir is too young to be a free agent, and with the season Lee had, Hoffpauir has no chance to start. He's likely to be on the bench, however, if he earns it in spring training.

    The Cubs could plug Fontenot in at 2B again, but he had a terrible .236 average last year. With so many big names struggling, Fontenot managed to fly under the radar. I'm not sure he's the answer.

    I've said before that I wouldn't mind if the Cubs shopped Zambrano, but that story lasted about three seconds.

    I wouldn't be opposed to bringing DeRosa back, but be forewarned: he will be overpaid given that he'll be 35 when next season starts. He batted .250 this year.

    Theriot hasn't played much 2B with the Cubs, but he can play there, having played 86 games there in 2005 in the minors. I'll tell you this: his arm is not at all suited for SS. He might just have the worst arm among shortstops in the majors. Some free agent SS include Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, and Marco Scutaro.