Blusty's Blog: Ninety-Seven More Years of Winter?

The off-season soap opera also known as the Cubs is enough to send Punxsutawney Phil scurrying back into his hole, and maybe enough to send the franchise back to the all-to-familiar frigid outlook that preceded 2003.

After all, banishing a future hall of famer and nearly a third of the team's home run production is not exactly a recipe that screams division winner. But as we all know, this off-season was more focused on throwing away dirty laundry rather than buying an expensive new wardrobe.

Given the Cubs' record-breaking power numbers in 2004, it is a wonder that the entire lineup wasn't implicated for steroid use in Jose Canseco's new tell-all "why don't I just flush the rest of baseball's credibility down the toilet along with my syringe needles?" book. As fans learned in painful fashion, division winners aren't chosen based on which team maxes out their tape measure first.

A few days after last season's painful nosedive, I compiled a mental checklist of areas where the Cubs needed to improve. This process took a matter of seconds, as the problems were so glaring – especially during the woeful final week – that it was crystal clear what needed to be done.

First and foremost was correcting the feast or famine offense by injecting one or more table-setters/contact hitters/speedsters into the lineup. However, as the winter wore on, the available table-setters like Kenny Lofton and Tony Womack found new homes, none of them bearing the Addison address.

Second, the absence of a reliable closer proved devastating. How long into 2005 will it be when Dusty Baker walks out to the mound and places a finger on his arm before fans boo the man coming out of the bullpen? Losing games in the late innings had a disproportionate effect on team psyche, which is why closers are always at a premium. A handful were available via free-agency or trade this winter, yet Jim Hendry did not pull the trigger on the likes of Danny Kolb, Armando Benitez, Troy Percival or Matt Mantei.

Free agent prize Carlos Beltran was the shiny apple of many teams' eyes this off-season, but with a nine-figure asking price, things can turn rotten very quickly. Hendry was wise to pass on Beltran, of course, but it was starting to look as if the off-season would go by without addressing the critical need for a leadoff hitter and closer.

Then, finally, Hendry sprung into action. He traded Sammy Sosa for a man (Jerry Hairston, Jr.) without a position, then replaced Sosa with a player (Jeromy Burnitz) whose best year is on par with Sosa's worst, and finally decided not to acquire one (Jay Gibbons) whose numbers may be on par with Burnitz and wouldn't have cost anywhere near $5 million.

The Cubs lineup takes on a slightly different look this year with the addition of lefties Burnitz and Todd Walker (full-time). With these two players, and Corey Patterson, the Cubs are better balanced from both sides of the plate, which should make it more difficult for opposing teams to engineer pitching changes that took advantage of last season's heavy right-handed offense.

The consensus is that Burnitz, removed from the homer-friendly air in Denver, will see his power and average numbers tumble this season. They will shrink, but not as much as many expect. Though he thrived at Coors last season while proving to be mediocre everywhere else, there is reason to believe Burnitz will produce at home again in 2005. In 47 career games at Wrigley, Burnitz hit .256 with 14 home runs and 38 runs batted in, which projects to some lofty power numbers over 81 home games.

While it might seem as if Hendry chose Burnitz because he was the last free agent standing, the Cubs GM actually coveted the lefty slugger in 2003 and has kept an eye on him ever since. Hendry believes his offensive makeup is conducive to Wrigley Field's dimensions, and career statistics bear that out.

The addition of Hairston can be validated if he plays 150-plus games, otherwise this trade will go down as a future hall-of-famer and a wad of cash for an injury-prone utility man.

With all of the culprits from last year's daily melodrama removed, so will arguments over which announcer said what, who relieved themselves on whose hands, or who should pony up to replace a boom box that equates to about three seconds worth of Sosa's salary. The media and pundits will create new scapegoats, of course, but they will find it harder for fans to swallow than an Old Style at room temperature.

On paper, the 2005 Cubs are lightweights compared to last season. However, the team's biggest gains will come from winning the war of attrition against their two main division rivals.

Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros were gutted of major talent this winter, and what had been the strongest National League division in 2004 could very well be the weakest in 2005. While all three of these horses are hobbled, each is healthy and talented enough to make another playoff run.

Don't throw out your winning ticket just yet; we could be in for another photo finish.

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