The Chicago Cubs and contender.
These are words that haven't gone together that much during the Cubbies' history, although they've had some very good teams. Unfortunately for fans of the North Siders, "next year" hasn't come yet, and the prospects in 2011 aren't overly exciting either for a championship run, although the NL Central could be a wide-open race.
But things aren't as bad as they seem in Wrigleyville. Cubs fans will love watching young Starlin Castro develop into a possible star and there are still some good young players in the Chicago system who can make an impact with the Big Club.
But there are some things the Cubs can do now, and down the line, to make themselves a contender once again in the National League and possibly to finally attain the ultimate prize: winning the World Series. It's just a matter of making some trades and not being afraid to make some acquisitions to make the Cubs competitive once again.
So here are 10 ways the Cubs can be players in the National League again.
Fukudome hasn't been awful during his three seasons in Chicago, but he hasn't been what the Cubs were expecting when they signed him before the 2008 season. So the first step in making the Cubs a contender would have to be getting rid of Fukudome and his contract.
And before you say it can't be done, no one thought the Cubs could unload Milton Bradley last year either until the Mariners came calling and shipped off Carlos Silva for him. Even though Silva wasn't exactly phenomenal, he was still better than Bradley. It will be tricky though, because the Cubs will be hard-pressed to find a taker for his hefty salary.
Part of the reason why Fukudome has gotten so many chances is because he's been used frequently as a leadoff man. He's not the classic Rickey Henderson, danger-on-the-basepaths leadoff man, but he does get on base.
But assuming the Cubs can get rid of him, or if Tyler Colvin just beats him out for the right field job, then the Cubs will have a problem. John Arguello of the Cubs Den blog on ChicagoNow argued that if Fukudome doesn't win the job, then Blake DeWitt gets the lead-off spot. But again, while DeWitt has a nice on-base percentage (.335 for his career), is he really leadoff material?
The Cubs really need a prototypical leadoff hitter.
Jeff Samardzija still has the stuff to be an effective pitcher in the big leagues, but it seems like he has the Brad Lidge syndrome:
It's all in his head. Or at least for some bloggers around the team, that seems to be the case. The Cubs Den wrote that Samardzija once again struggled in the Cubs' preseason opener, and while there's still a lot of time between now and Opening Day, one has to wonder how much longer the Cubs can keep giving Samardzija chances. His ERA has skyrocketed since his rookie season, and he's struggled mightily to boot.
He can still be an effective pitcher. But it's looking like it won't be with the Cubs.
The Cubs have a number of pitchers in the mix for the starting rotation in 2011, including two pretty good prospects in Andrew Cashner and Casey Coleman. Cashner has impressed enough in the organization that Baseball America in their annual breakdown of each team's top 10 prospects projected Cashner as the Cubs No. 1 starter in 2011.
The only problem is that even with the options they have, they're looking at an all-righty rotation. Which isn't a bad thing, but you'd like to have a left-hander in there to create some balance and also keep teams from loading up on left-handers every day against the rotation. Sean Marshall is always an option to be in the rotation, but he's better as a reliever.
It doesn't even have to be a Mark Buehrle or a Francisco Liriano, both of whom have had their names connected to trade rumors this offseason. But a lefty gives the Cubs more options and makes them harder to hit against when teams aren't going lefty-heavy against them.
Alfonso Soriano signed that big contract after the 2006 season, and he's struggled to live up to it ever since. Although you can make the argument that a big part of it was because he was constantly bounced up and down the lineup.
However, the point of the matter is that the Cubs need Soriano to produce offensively as a right-handed power bat or else he's not of much use to them, because he's never been known for his defense. The problem is that there's only Tyler Colvin and perhaps Brett Jackson in the Cubs' pipeline of impact players who could help, and I doubt the Cubs want to rush Brett Jackson up, and Colvin would be out of position in left.
Then again, there's the question of who would even take Soriano at the price tag he's carrying.
So the Cubs might have to take what they can get for Soriano, and even if that's a Mark DeRosa-type of player, than so be it. Although in any trade, the Cubs could desperately use a left-handed bat, so that could be a focus for any deal involving the Cubs.
With Chris Archer now off to Tampa as part of the Matt Garza deal, there are some who feel Cashner now might be one of the most talented pitchers in the organization. Baseball America agreed, they had him as the No. 1 starter in 2014 even in front of Archer, who was the best prospect in the system.
There are some, like the Cubs Now blog, who think Cashner can grab the job in the rotation. Others, like Rotoworld, think Cashner can start the season in triple-A and then get called up later in the season. He'll have a chance this year to make an impact in some way, whether that's in the rotation or in the bullpen, where CubbiesCrib.com wrote he's projected to be.
Either way, he's going to be a part of the club in 2011, which is the best choice.
Michael Young is not the end-all, be-all for the Cubs in the infield. He's not a great defender and he's also getting older.
On the other hand, the Cubs' projected starting second baseman is Blake DeWitt, and nothing against DeWitt, but he hasn't shown the consistency of being an everyday player, especially at the plate. What Young would bring is a veteran influence and a solid bat that can hit for average and for power, and also gives them a solid hitter out of the No. 2 hole.
Of course, there's then the situation of what the Cubs would have to give up. And one would think the Rangers would ask for a Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters or Cashner-like player in return. And after gutting the system for Matt Garza, that's a tall order to ask. But Michael Young would be an upgrade, especially offensively.
This is a big year for Aramis for two reasons. One, it's his contract year, so he needs a strong season to ensure a strong free-agent market for him in the offseason. However, the other reason is out of his control.
That second reason is Cubs' third baseman prospect Josh Vitters, who still has bugs to work out in his game but the raw offense and power is there. If Vitters can get the offense and other portions of his game going, it might make the decision easier for the Cubs to part with Ramirez.
Ramirez is just part of the problem. Really it's more about the Cubs getting out of those bad contracts they handed out (Ramirez, Fukudome, Soriano, etc.) which will go a long way towards helping the team rebuild and become a contender once again. Or at least investing that money a little better.
Matt Garza is not an ace, nor is he likely a No. 1. The way the Cubs sent off some of their best prospects for him, though, you'd be surprised.
Garza will have to be a critical part of the Cubs' rotation down the line. Even though Ryan Dempster is slated to start Opening Day, Garza's probably the closest thing the Cubs have to an ace. So Garza will be very important for the Cubs down the line and be counted on to be a dependable pitcher for the Cubs.
If the Cubs want to be contenders, they have to find that pitcher. The pitcher they can count on to stop losing streaks, win big games and not be afraid to take the ball in big situations. They're hoping Garza can be that, if not, then they have to find that pitcher.
Someone like a Josh Johnson, who despite signing an extension before last season with the Marlins, if the Cubs put the right offer together could make a play for. He's the type of pitcher the Cubs need, a fireballer who can be a dominant starter and match up with Chris Carpenter/Adam Wainwright (when healthy) or Zach Greinke in that division.
The Cubs need an ace. They need a Josh Johnson.
I know it's not until next offseason, but Pujols could very well be one of the biggest free-agents we've ever seen. Very few other players have had the resume that he has as a hitter who bats for both power and average.
The Cubs need a bat like that. Carlos Pena will be a power bat at first this season but he still struggles with his average and can be hit-or-miss. But Pujols would be the type of signing that could send the Cubs' fan base into a frenzy. All of a sudden, he becomes a feared part of that lineup, and pairing him with some young stars like Starlin Castro could do wonders for the Cubs.
If he were to sign (and the Cubs have the financial capacity to do so), then all of a sudden the Cubs become very dangerous in an already wide-open division.