Manager: Lou Piniella
Arrivals: RP Jose Ascanio, SS Alex Cintron, OF Kosuke Fukudome, SP Jon Lieber
Departures: OF Cliff Floyd, OF Jacque Jones, C Jason Kendall, SP Wade Miller, OF Craig Monroe, RP Will Ohman, OF Angel Pagan, SP Mark Prior, SP Steve Trachsel
Offseason grade: B+
If the Cubs aim to break their 100-year World Series drought, it is going to begin with their starting rotation. Carlos Zambrano should be the ace of the staff is his second-half troubles don't carry over into 2008–remember, Zambrano's ERA peaked at 4.35 on Sept. 3 and was as high as 4.20 (somewhere, Snoop Dogg is appreciating the irony of that statment) as late as Sept. 18. However, Zambrano should be fine and ready to pitch like a Cy Young candidate again in 2008.
Behind Zambrano are two solid lefties in Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Lilly and Rich Hill. Lilly–no, seriously, his actual full name is Theodore Roosevelt Lilly–is a roughriding lefty who consistently gets outs from his bully pulpit. And, by "roughriding" I mean "crafty" and by "bully pulpit" I mean "mound." But if you've ever seen Lilly bat, you'd know he doesn't carry a big stick.
Hill doesn't have quite the famous namesake as Lilly, but gets similar, solid results. Hill has a sneaky low-90's fastball and an above-average curveball that led to him striking out 183 batters in 2007. Hill, who will turn 28 in March, should improve off his very good 2007 into 2008, giving the Cubs an excellent trio at the top of their rotation.
The final two rotation spots will be occupied by either Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber, Sean Marshall, or Ryan Dempster. With a gun to my head, I'd probably say the final two would be Lieber and Dempster, but really, who threatens to kill somebody if they can't give you their guess as to who the last two starters in the Cubs' rotation will be? I'm partial to Marshall (that's sort of a rhyme, ha), who fits into the Lilly mold of "crafty lefty" nicely.
Marquis has proven to be either inconsistent or consistently bad over the course of his career and really doesn't deserve a rotation spot when competing against the likes of Lieber and Marshall.
Notice that I left Dempster out of that last statement. I'm still not sure why the Cubs agreed to let him try to start seeing as 1) he's been halfway decent coming out of the Cubs' bullpen the last three years, 2) he hasn't started a game since 2005, 3) he hasn't been a regular starter since 2003, and 4) he hasn't been a good starter since 2001.
Overall, the Cubs have a very good rotation that will be the key to getting the north siders back into the playoffs in 2008.
The Cubs have a three-way competition going for the closer's role that was vacated when Dempster was given the opportunity to make the starting rotation. Competing for the job are Bob Howry, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Marmol, all of whom had success out of the Cubs' bullpen last year.
Personally, I don't think Howry's best suited to close. He's a very good 8th inning reliever, but he just doesn't have that electric stuff that blows you away that teams typically look for in closers.
Wood may be the best option for a team that wants to win this year, but Balsa Wood's durability is always a question. Honestly, if Wood showed up to a game at Wrigely Field one day with his right arm broken because he was involved in a hit-and-run accident with a rickshaw, it wouldn't surprise me. So, while Wood may be the best man suited for the closer's role, it's unlikely that he won't go all season without getting trenchfoot or something of that nature.
That leaves Marmol, who's developed a pretty strong following of Cubs fans clamoring for him to be the closer. Marmol, a wirey 26-year-old from the Dominican Republic, has stuff so electric it could power Chicago's "L" for a week. His fastball/slider combo goes right along the lines of typical dominant closer–a role he will occupy in the near future. This year, though? I think the Cubs should leave him as a late-inning setup man and have him come in and close when Wood inevitably gets attacked by a shark in freshwater Lake Michigan. Let him pitch in a few more pressure situations before handing the closer reigns over to him, because if he's not ready and loses confidence in the 9th, the Cubs could lose a potentially dominant closer.
Behind Howry, Wood, and Marmol, the Cubs have a few good arms in Scott Eyre, Michael Wuertz, and Jose Ascanio. Ascanio could be knocked out of the bullpen by someone who didn't make the rotation–most likely Marquis, who has an insane $21 million contract.
The only concern with the Cubs bullpen is that they only have one lefty–that being Eyre. But Lou Piniella's old school, and he doesn't try to play the percentages and overmanage games/wear sunglasses at night like Tony La Russa. The Cubs should have no reason to worry about this bullpen, but then again, they are the Cubs, so anything can happen (sorry for the caveat).
Bullpen grade: A-
Even if Jim Hendry fails to land Brian Roberts, the Cubs still have a very good lineup. The Cubs have one of the best group of corner infielders/outfielders in baseball, sporting Derrek Lee at 1B, Aramis Ramirez at 3B, Alfonso Soriano in LF, and Kosuke ****dome in RF. Lee, Ramirez, and Soriano are perennial All-Stars, ****dome may be on his way to being one.
By the way, as a Sox fan, I'm incredibly pissed that the Cubs were able to land Fukudome and not the Sox. I've liked Fukudome ever since he hit this home run in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He's got a real sweet swing and would fit nicely anyhere in the Cubs lineup. Oh, and if you watch that video, listen to the announcer. He's the Japanese version of Gus Johnson. And also, I have no clue why the uploader of the Fukudome home run put the word "sex" into the video title. There is no sex in that video. Sorry to disappoint you if you were looking for it.
Anyways, back to baseball. The Cubs have some very good talent up the middle in catcher Geovany Soto, seocnd baseman Mike Fontenot/Mark DeRosa, shortstop Ryan Theriot/DeRosa, and centerfielder Felix Pie. How that talent plays out over the course of a season will be interesting, as Soto and Pie will get all the opportunities to showcase their ability or fall flat on their faces.
DeRosa is a very good player up the middle, as he can play either second or short and swing a pretty good bat, too.
Theriot seems to get overlooked within the Cubs organization despite being a pretty solid contact hitter and slick defender. Fontenot, who was acquired from Baltimore in the Sammy Sosa trade, reminds me a lot of David Eckstein from the left side. Both make a lot of contact, have little power, and are pretty damn short.
Lineup grade: A- (will be bumped up to A or even A+ if Roberts is acquired)
The Cubs' recent signing of Alex Cintron proves that a team cannot have too many reserve infielders, I guess. Cintron will join fellow infielders Ronny Cedeno, Mark Derosa and/or Fontenot or Theriot in giving the Cubs the strongest reserve infield in all the world.
Matt Murton is an excellent bat to have off the bench and is more than capable to fill in either right or left field as a starter if needed.
Daryle Ward provides an excellent left-handed bat off the bench in addition to being able to fill in at first base in case Lee gets injured.
Bench grade: A
The Cubs have no excuse for not winning the NL Central in 2008. None. As for winning the World Series, we'll see...I mean, they are the Cubs...but the team that Hendry put together for 2008 has all the opportunity in the world to finally end the World Series drought on the North Side.
Of course, the South Side will always have 2005.
Sorry, I couldn't resist. You know, it's pretty tough as a Sox fan to write [what I think was a] fair review of the Cubs when you're pretty damn sure they're going to have a better season. So I had to remind myself that the Sox got the trophy first and not even another terrible season in 2008 will take away from how awesome 2005 was.
But I digress. This is about the Cubs, not the jealous whinings of a Sox fan. The Cubs have a very good team this year. Maybe, just maybe, they'll win the World Series. Hey, it's gotta happen at least once every century, right?