The Chicago Cubs took the first concrete steps toward crystallizing their team in 2010 today, trading right-handed pitcher Aaron Heilman and re-signing would-be free agent John Grabow.
Those steps were preliminary, though, and general manager Jim Hendry knows that in order to make more drastic and necessary changes, he must first resolve the single most dauntingly enigmatic question that faces Chicago during this offseason: To whom will Hendry send outfielder Milton Bradley?
Tampa, led by supremely confident manager Joe Maddon, fits for multiple reasons. Firstly, they offer a relatively low-pressure environment, in which Bradley can rest assured he won't be turned upon at the first sign of failure.
Second, Bradley fits the team's philosophy, which focuses on batters getting on base and staying patient. Even during his ostensibly awful 2009, he managed 66 walks and a .378 on-base percentage in 473 plate appearances.
Thirdly, Tampa has a bad contract to exchange with Chicago. Pat Burrell, the erstwhile Phillies slugger who in 2009 fell short of 20 home runs (he had 14) for the first time since his rookie season in 2000, has played left field almost exclusively during his 10-year career.
However, Burrell (who is owed $9 million for 2010, the same figure as Bradley, though his contract expires thereafter while Bradley's goes for another season at $12 million) has the kind of hitting profile Hendry has said he wants as protection for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Burrell and Bradley would be about a dead-even exchange, with the Cubs likely paying the Rays most of Bradley's 2011 salary.
Other options exist: Tampa may not have the money to vie for free-agent closers but need a relief ace to shore up a bullpen that went from among the best in the league in 2008 to among the worst in 2009. Chicago could try to package Bradley with incumbent closer Carlos Marmol in order to acquire Carl Crawford (owed $10.5 million in 2010) as a leadoff hitter and center fielder.
In all likelihood, though, a trade to the Rays would have to involve Burrell. That can be good or bad for Chicago; it would, or will, depend upon what else Hendry does. Slotting Burrell into right field and keeping Kosuke Fukudome in center is not an option; it's defensively untenable. Someone would have to slide somewhere else on the diamond.
Burrell is the best candidate. He played 58 games at first base in his rookie year, though he has so far not returned. Chicago could look to trade first baseman Lee, who is owed $13 million for next season and whom they would then have to convince to waive his no-trade clause.
Lee, however, has sky-high market value this winter, especially to a team like the New York Mets, who need a first baseman but won't find a satisfactory one in the free agent pool.
If that second move went off, the Cubs could afford to shop the free agent and trade markets for a center fielder who could hit anywhere from first to fifth in the lineup, opening up Detroit's Curtis Granderson and free agents Mike Cameron and Chone Figgins as options.
Most importantly, though, if the Cubs can get rid of Bradley with as little of Bradley's 2010 salary on their books, Hendry will have succeeded in getting the offseason going in the right direction for the North Siders.
If it hasn't happened by then, keep an eye on this story around the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis Dec. 7-10.