If you've been actively following the transactions of Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry this offseason, chances are you've found yourself sitting at your computer scratching your head, trying to figure out what exactly his goals for the team are. After all, before the Las Vegas meetings, Hendry was quoted as having said, that he thought the "nucleus of the team" was "pretty [darn] good" and that the team itself, which won a National-League-best 97 games last season didn't need much revamping.
While the majority of the big-name players (Zambrano, Dempster, Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, and arguably Marmol, Soto, and Theriot) and the coaching staff remained the same, there were several other areas that were completely altered as well.
For instance, Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood have been replaced with Aaron Miles and Kevin Gregg. Obviously, at this juncture it's too early to tell whether or not the Cubs GM was smart to make such moves.
Should Wood have more injury problems and DeRosa have a bad year, Hendry will look like a smart man. Of course though, in getting rid of two fan-favorites, one necessarily changes the face of a franchise. While Miles and Gregg may perform well, there's simply no getting around the fact that by virtue of the removal of DeRosa and Wood, the 2009 Cubs could be far less similar to the 2008 Cubs than many would have originally anticipated.
Maybe that's a good thing though. After all, the North-Siders have not been at all successful in their postseason appearances under the tenure of Lou Piniella. Correspondingly, Hendry had also stated that if the Cubs were to find success, they would need remodeling in some aspects. They would need a more balanced lineup, more lefty bats. They would also undoubtedly need "a spark" to get the team going in the 2009 postseason.
Enter Milton Bradley. Hendry seemingly didn't have enough good things to say about the 30-year-old former Expo, Indian, Dodger, Athletic, Padre, and Ranger. However, in light of the many stories about Bradley losing his cool both on and off the diamond, as well as the fact that the Cubs are Bradley's seventh team, his signing was received with a natural skepticism among many Cubs fans and throughout the baseball blogosphere. Invariably, however, it's always pointed out that Bradley led the AL in OPS and overall had a very good year with the Rangers in 2008.
Of course, Bradley was the Rangers' DH, and now the Cubs are asking him to play Right Field at Wrigley. Given his history of ACL troubles, Cubs fans would not be unjustified in feeling somewhat worried about this move. One misplay by Bradley near the away bullpen mound area and there's a solid chance his season will end prematurely.
It happened to Fukudome during the 2008 season a few times, and he was lucky enough to come away unscathed. If Fukudome—one of the best defensive outfielders on the Cubs in the past decade—wasn't always able to negotiate the bullpen hazard in right, Bradley will surely have a few missteps as well. Just playing Bradley is in itself a risk. Playing Bradley in Right Field at Wrigley, however, is asking for it.
While Bradley's vulnerability to injury in right field merits some concern, unanswered questions about the rotation remain as perhaps the most pressing issue about the 2009 Cubs hitherto unresolved by Hendry.
In having dealt Jason Marquis to the Rockies, a vacancy for the fifth spot in the Cubs' starting rotation was opened. Although rumors have surfaced about the team potentially signing Randy Wolf or Braden Looper to fill the vacancy, there has also been talk of an in-house candidate filling the fifth rotation slot—namely, Chad Gaudin, Aaron Heilman, Jeff Samardzija, or Sean Marshall.
All four of the above candidates have been mentioned as having the potential to fill the fifth slot in the rotation—particularly Marshall. However, there exists one problematic factor that should necessarily put such a plan under scrutiny: Rich Harden.
Harden is well-known as an exceptionally good, yet injury-prone pitcher. Most estimates throughout the Cubs blogosphere don't put him above starting twenty games throughout the course of the 2009 season.
This requires, then, that the Cubs have a "swing-man"—a pitcher who primarily works out of the bullpen, but who can fill in as a starter to sub for Harden as needed. By all accounts, Marshall did quite well in this role last year, and given the fact that the Cubs' bullpen is already short in lefty arms, this would appear to be the ideal role for him.
It logically follows, then, that Gaudin, Heilman, or Samardzija would become the fifth man in the rotation. Gaudin, however, has had injury problems. Heilman, in spite of having stated that he prefers to start rather than work out of the bullpen, has career numbers as a starting pitcher that are dubious at best. Finally, although Samardzija has a lights-out splitter, he might not as of yet be refined enough to start games in the big leagues.
Ultimately, given Marshall's value to the bullpen, the injury proneness of Harden (and potentially Zambrano as well), and the uncertainty surrounding the in-house candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation, it behooves Hendry to go out and find another starting pitcher. Logically, the next best option after that for Hendry would be to find a left arm for the Cubs bullpen and move Marshall to the rotation.
Bradley's proneness to injury and the health of the starting rotation will be central to the success of the 2009 Cubs. Many other issues such as the ever-present question of where Soriano will hit in the lineup, who will fill the roles of setup man and closer, and what exactly will happen with Fukudome still need to be addressed as well.
While the team is favored to win the N.L. Central for the third straight season, other divison rivals should not be counted out. The Astros, for one, were a hotter team than the Cubs at the end of the 2008 season. LaRussa's Cardinals, too, can seemingly never be excluded from the conversation, regardless of the previous year's shortcomings.
Given the vulnerabilities of the team, one cannot be too careful about having a backup plan. Jim Hendry still has more work to do.