Chicago Cubs: Turning It All Around, Part I (Corner Infield)

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Chicago Cubs: Turning It All Around, Part I (Corner Infield)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Cubs are 9.5 games out of first place in the National League Central as of Tuesday morning. That's good for fourth place in the division behind the Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers.

One of the more concerning things about that picture is that the Brewers, who are considered by many to be out of contention altogether at this point, have inched their way past the Cubs. Yes, the difference between the two teams is only one game, but it's simply one more sign that this season needs to turn around fast if the Cubs are going to have a shot at making the playoffs.

I'm not waving the white flag on this team right now, but it's probably time to start focusing more on the organization's long-term future than it's playoff aspirations.

That's not to say that moves can't be made to help the Cubs' 2010 iteration, but anything done needs to be at least as helpful, if not more, for the next few seasons as it is for the here and now.

Fortunately, the Cubs may have a bright future lurking. They just need to figure out how to get from where they are now to where they could be.

 

First Things First

The Cubs organization has four first basemen with major league experience: Derrek Lee, Xavier Nady, Micah Hoffpauir, and Bryan LaHair.

Lee's lower-than-usual production has been well-covered; Nady has had a few good stretches, but hasn't been setting the world on fire; Hoffpauir has been drawing his walks and hitting for some power in Triple-A Iowa, but is dragging a bit with a .239 batting average; and LaHair has maintained some power with a decent walk rate and batting average as Hoffpauir's teammate.

LaHair is the youngest of the bunch at 27, Hoffpauir is 30, Nady is 31, and Lee is 34. Lee and Nady have expiring contracts, Hoffpauir will be out of options, and LaHair will most likely have a minor league contract if he returns.

Although someone currently playing another position may end up at first a few years down the road, there are no sure-fire major leaguers developing in the minor leagues.

Free agents might be an option with guys like Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena, Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman, Lyle Overbay, and Mike Lowell potentially hitting the market. Guys like Michael Cuddyer and Brad Hawpe might even be able to switch over full-time.

 

Derrek's Future

Whatever the case, if Derrek Lee isn't going to be coming back next season, it might very well be in the club's best interest to trade the aging first baseman.

He has secured Type B status for the upcoming offseason and may be on the verge of reaching Type A status, both of which would land the Cubs compensation in next year's draft if he were to be offered and refuse arbitration, but there is absolutely no guarantee that he wouldn't accept it.

If he did, the Cubs would be stuck with Lee and whichever one-year contract (the Cubs' offer or Lee's) an arbitrator deemed acceptable.

If the risk that lies in offering him arbitration outweighs the potential reward, then it would be better for the organization to get something via a trade before the deadline than to get nothing by letting him walk into free agency without any strings.

 

Fallout

That would immediately make Nady the starting first baseman this year and open up a roster spot for either Brad Snyder, who is boasting a .293/.374/.527 slash line in Triple-A Iowa this season, or Sam Fuld, who's getting on base at a decent rate despite not hitting for much in the way of average or power, in the outfield.

Although either player would likely see minimal playing time on the big league squad, they are old enough (both are 28) that development is less of a concern than their potential impact right now.

And both players could have a positive impact on this team: Snyder as a bat off the bench and decent defender or Fuld as a defensive replacement and speed threat.

Since Nady probably won't demand too much money as a free agent this offseason, he might be an option to keep around as the starting first baseman for the next few years.

Assuming that his arm is back to normal by next year, if LaHair or Hoffpauir emerge as a legitimate starter at first base, Nady could still move back to the outfield.

 

Another Option

On the other hand, Aramis Ramirez isn't the same defensive third baseman he used to be and he will almost certainly exercise his 2011 option. He could move over to first base, allowing Mike Fontenot and/or Jeff Baker to get more playing time over at third.

If that path seems likely and the Cubs are securely out of contention before the trading deadline, then the they could afford to also part ways with Nady and let either LaHair or Hoffpauir finish out the season.

Josh Vitters, who has been at Double-A Tennessee since May 7, would then be able to step in when he's ready (whether that be late 2011, 2012, or beyond) with Ramirez's transition already taken care of and a starting spot readily available.

Otherwise, should Vitters be ready in late 2011, he would most likely be hung up in Triple-A or be forcing a veteran to the bench—an unenviable position for a young player, to say the least.

Barring a breakout season from Vitters next year, that scenario is unlikely to happen. After all, the Cubs' third-best prospect this year according to Baseball America will only be 21 years old.

But in the event that it does happen, it would be better to not be handcuffed.

 

Of course, shoring up two positions doesn't create a winning ballclub.

Fortunately, the Cubs farm system has been replenished with talent in recent years and, despite the criticisms of many, this roster will have the flexibility to make things happen before too long.

It might take some creativity due to unforeseen circumstances and complications that have popped up since the signing of some of the organization's cornerstones, but it is completely possible.

To read part two, which covers the outfield, follow this link.

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