Is There A Rabbit In Hendry's Hat?

I hesitate to evaluate the Cubs' free agent activity (or lack thereof) for two reasons. One, there are several weeks – and free agents – left. Second, Jim Hendry has a penchant for pulling off last second magic, so it would be premature to critique his performance before the first spring training pitch is thrown. That said, as the number of free agents dwindle and opportunities to move the disgruntled Sammy Sosa narrow, Hendry's hands become tied when it comes to improving the club.

Ironically, up until the trade bringing Mark Mulder to the Cardinals, one could argue that the Cubs chances for winning the division improved. Not because the Cubs are stronger, but because their primary two competitors are weaker.

The Astros will most likely lose Carlos Beltran. Wade Miller is not returning, and Jeff Kent has moved west. These are major losses that have not been recouped by recently anointed General Manager Tim Purpura.

At the same time, the Cardinals lost sparkplug Tony Womack, starter Woody Williams, shortstop Edgar Renteria, reliever Steve Kline and catcher Mike Matheny. While the Mulder acquisition will improve the starting rotation, this team heads into 2005 missing the top of their lineup.

As I see it, the Cubs entered the off-season with two major needs: a closer and a leadoff hitter. To date, neither post has been filled, and that should be of concern.

The infield is now secure with the re-signings of Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Walker, but the outfield remains in flux with the departure of Moises Alou, the potential departure of Sosa, and the pursuit of Carlos Beltran.

Several names have floated around as closer options. It is unfortunate that the Cubs could not work out a deal with Milwaukee for Danny Kolb, the perfect groundball pitcher for Wrigley Fieldr. The other big closer names on the market, Armando Benitez and Jose Mesa, have also came and went.

With the free agency pool dwindling, and given the fact it will be hard for the Cubs to match any offer to Beltran made by the Yankees, one must assume that Hendry is taking a hard look at viable trade options. One trading partner that keeps popping up is the Baltimore Orioles.

Trading Sosa to the Orioles for Jay Gibbons and Jorge Julio makes a great deal of sense for both teams. While I'm not sold that Julio has matured enough to be a reliable closer (4.57 ERA in 2004), he is one of the few affordable options left for the Cubs at this point.

The fact is that Ryan Dempster may end up being an effective closer, but he may crash and burn, and that's precisely the point: we just don't know what will happen, and I don't think Hendry, Dusty Baker, or any Cub fan wants to enter the season with an enormous question mark at such a vital position.

With Gibbons, the Cubs receive a young talent suffering from a crowded Orioles outfield who should provide some left-handed pop to a Cub lineup currently overloaded with right-handed hitters.

For the Orioles, owner Peter Angelos frets that the new Washington Nationals franchise will draw D.C. residents away from Camden Yards. Bringing in a big name draw like Sosa could mitigate the fan exodus, and Angelos could use some of the undeserved Nationals payoff money from Major League Baseball to absorb a chunk of Sosa's salary.

Another variation of the trade replaces Gibbons with Jerry Hairston Jr., a young speedster who is expendable because the Orioles appear to favor Brian Roberts. Hairston would fit nicely into the leadoff role, and though he is not a natural outfielder per se, he likely would not be much of a step down, defensively, from Sosa.

My philosophy is to trust someone until they give me a reason not to. So far, Hendry has earned that true trust, so until the first pitch is thrown, we should continue to afford him the benefit of the doubt. He's earned it.

Brian Lustig has been with the staff of ITI for nearly two years. Agree or disagree with Brian? E-mail him by clicking here.

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