The Chicago Cubs won the National League Central Division last season. They've got a manager respected throughout baseball. And they've got a great collection of talent that could only get better in time.
Yes, it's the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubbies brought in Lou Piniella to get them to the playoffs, and he did just that in his first season. He did it with a solid pitching staff and a few star offensive players that made his lineup tough each and every night.
The key for Piniella will be to try and get this club a second consecutive winning season next year, which does not happen very often. But this team is up for sale, and despite being a big-market club there is some uncertainty.
However the nucleus is there for the club to continue to be successful. The pitching will be the key, as the staff that finished second in the National League in ERA will mostly return. Five Cubs pitchers made 155 of the 162 starts, which is practically unheard of in the big leagues. The rotation's ERA was 4.19 (2nd best in the NL) and the bullpen had the third best ERA in the league (3.76).
Carlos Zambrano is all signed up for the long-term so he'll remain in place as the staff ace. Zambrano was 18-13 last season with a 3.95 ERA in 216.1 innings pitched. Ted Lilly was brought in as a free agent last winter and became a perfect number two starter. The lefty was 15-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 207 innings.
Young southpaw Rich Hill continued his track to become an ace one day. He went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 195 innings. Hill is only going to get better, so the Cubs really have a solid trio at the top of the rotation.
Former Brave Jason Marquis was brought in as a fourth starter last winter and filled the role admirably. Marquis was 12-9 wit a 4.60 ERA (still too high) in 191.2 innings. And Sean Marshall was the primary fifth starter and finished with a 7-8 record last season with a 3.92 ERA in 103.1 innings pitched.
The Cubs might use some of that starting pitching depth to improve its lineup, especially if Ryan Dempster moves back to the rotation (as he desires to do). The Cubs have two young arms that might also be options. Sean Gallagher pitched in eight games out of the pen for Chicago but was 10-3 in the minors with a 3.10 ERA in 19 games between AAA and AA. And Kevin Hart was brought up late and saw action on the pen, but he was 12-6 in the minors with a 3.99 ERA in 27 games (25 starts).
And then there's Mark Prior, who made $3.575 million in 2007 and did not pitch an inning. The Cubs have an option on his contract for next season, so we'll see if they bring him back and then if he can stay healthy. Although it seems to be a big ‘if' by now with all his injuries stacking up.
If Dempster does move to the rotation, there will be some options to replace him as Chicago's closer. The Cubs could bring back Kerry Wood, who is a free agent. Wood did well as a reliever coming back late in the season (24 strikeouts in 24.1 innings) and has expressed interest in remaining in that role. But will some team instead be tempted to try Wood as a starter once again?
Would the Braves look at Wood as a potential starting pitcher? There have been whispers in the past that Atlanta liked Wood a lot, but who wouldn't like him if he could stay healthy. Wood looked healthy late in the season, so perhaps the Braves see what it might take to bring another former Cubs' ace to Atlanta.
They could turn to Bobby Howry, who was extremely effective as a setup man in 2007 (3.32 ERA and 22 holds). But the favorite might be young Carlos Marmol, who was dynamite in his 59 games (96 Ks in 69.1 innings). Marmol throws gas, and the Cubs just have to decide if he's ready for the responsibility of being a major league closer.
The Cubs have some other decent relievers, including lefty Scott Eyre (4.13 ERA in 55 games), right-hander Michael Wuertz (3.48 in 73 games with 79 strikeouts in 72.1 innings), Will Ohman (12 holds in 56 games), and they might try lefty Neal Cotts again as well.
The lineup needs help after finishing seventh in batting average (.271), eighth in runs scored (752) in the league, and 11th in home runs (151). Another power hitter to compliment left fielder Alfonso Soriano, first baseman Derrick Lee, and third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
Soriano had a good first season for the Cubs hitting .299 with 33 home runs and 70 RBI in 579 at bats. There is no doubt Soriano is going to be a huge threat in the Cubs' lineup every year, and he's an outstanding talent to build the lineup around. Lee's home runs were down (22) but he still hit .317 and drove in 82 in 567 at bats. And Ramirez batted .310 with 26 homers and 101 RBI last season.
There have been rumors the Cubs might pursue Alex Rodriguez, who played for Piniella in Seattle. Rodriguez would definitely supply the power the lineup needs, but could he still play at shortstop since Ramirez is already at third base? Chicago had a speed guy there last year, as Ryan Theriot led the team with 28 stolen bases. The Cubs might still want to upgrade, but with the ownership situation unsettled A-Rod might be off limits.
Mark DeRosa was perhaps the Cubs' MVP last season. He hit .293 with 10 home runs and 72 RBI in 502 at bats, again proving why the Braves believed he might become a solid regular one day. DeRosa played nine games at first, 93 at second, one game at short, 37 games at third, one game in left, and 22 games in right field. His versatility is what makes him even more special, and he'll be an important part again next year for the Cubs somewhere on the diamond.
Mike Fontenot played 62 games at second and three games at short. He's a decent player to compliment DeRosa and Theriot in the infield.
The Cubs need to make a decision on Felix Pie, who hit only .215 with 2 home runs, 20 RBI, and eight stolen bases in 177 at bats. Pie played mostly in center (80 starts, 36 starts), so the Cubs might have to move Jacque Jones to right field full-time. Jones hit .285 last season but with only 5 home runs and 66 RBI in 453 at bats.
Along with Pie and Jones, Matt Murton will get some playing time somewhere in the outfield. He hit .281 with 8 home runs and 22 RBI in 235 at bats. And the Cubs have a mutual option on Cliff Floyd, who hit .284 playing for his home town team.
Craig Monroe came over from the Tigers during the season, but now he is a free agent. The Braves have had interest in Monroe in the past, so he might be an option if Atlanta looks for another outfielder.
The Cubs could get some more pop behind the plate next season as Geovany Soto is expected to take over as the starting catcher. Soto was the Pacific Coast League's MVP with a .353 batting average, 26 home runs, and 109 RBI. He then hit .389 in Chicago with 3 home runs and 8 RBI in 54 at bats.
Soto will replace Jason Kendall, who might return as the veteran backup. Kendall could be someone the Braves look at to back up Brian McCann, although the fact that he threw out only two of 51 base stealers might not help his cause.
You wonder if the Cubs would have had interest in Edgar Renteria, especially since their GM Jim Hendry did want the shortstop two years ago. But there's really not much else the Cubs and Braves could have matched up on in a trade.
We really need to see what happens with the Cubs' ownership, but there's no doubt that the talent is there for Piniella to lead this team to many more victories in the coming seasons.
Eligible for Free Agency: Jason Kendall, Craig Monroe, Steve Trachsel *, Cliff Floyd *, Kerry Wood, Daryle Ward *, Scott Eyre *, Wade Miller, Tomas Perez
Eligible for Arbitration: Mark Prior, Neal Cotts, Michael Wuertz
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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